By Bill Carroll
There’s a beautiful line from the Exsultet, the ancient hymn we sing toward the beginning of the Easter Vigil, that always strikes me: How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son. These powerful words proclaim the very heart of our faith. Christianity is all about God’s love for sinners. It’s about Jesus laying down his life for us all. Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Romans, when he says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…
I know that some people struggle with the way the saving death of Jesus is sometimes presented in the culture that surrounds us, especially in the Bible-belt. I struggle with it too. Often, we remake God in our own image—as a violent God who needs to punish. We imagine a God who needs to be appeased by our suffering—whereas the truth is, in fact, the opposite. WE are the ones who make each other suffer. We are the ones who need to be appeased.
Our God, by contrast, is pure love without remainder. In God, there is no darkness at all. God is perfect love who casts out our fear. As Pope Francis once said, “God has no enemies, only children.” And so, Jesus loves his enemies all the way to the cross, living and dying for us all—inviting strangers into community, and showing enemies how to live as friends. How wonderful indeed, and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.
In the gospel, with its shepherds and sheep—and wolves and hired hands. Jesus is speaking to people who know how dangerous it is to keep sheep. He is speaking to the People of Israel, who often refer to their kings as shepherds. In the Scriptures, the prophets condemn rulers who divide and kill the sheep, rather than uniting and protecting them. Jeremiah in a time of war and national disaster wrote;
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture…Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the world’s true king. He keeps the promises God makes to us through the prophets. Jesus is the king after God’s own heart, who lays down his life for the sheep.
That’s why we hear about the Good Shepherd in Easter season and at many, many funerals. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who joins us here in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He is the one who rescues us when we’re in danger – whenever we stray or fall. He is the one who joins us in our flesh and triumphs there. By his death on the cross (and by his glorious resurrection), he casts out every power that divides and oppresses us – everything that wounds us or makes us afraid. He breaks the power of sin and death in our lives. And he invites us to follow HIM in all the ways of love.
By calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus provides us with an image of strength, as well as love and tenderness. By his teaching and example, Jesus redefines the very nature of power. Real power is far stronger than the things we think are strong. Real power is the power of LOVE.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that “This is what the love of God is like: it is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.” Imagine how our world would change if we understood this and put it into practice. It would put an end to our greed and self-centered behavior. It would put an end to all our violence, division, and fear.
Last summer, I helped with the Episcopal Youth Event in Oklahoma City. The theme, both because of the bombing of the Federal Building there, and all of the shootings and other forms of violence around the world, was Path to Peace. At that event, I heard our Presiding Bishop say something that’s stuck with me ever since. Speaking to several hundred youth, he said “If you want to change the world, follow Jesus.”
And then, as these same youth gathered by candlelight to pray and remember at the National Memorial, Bishop Edward J. Konieczny, the bishop of Oklahoma, told them the same thing. “You have the power; you have the power to follow JESUS, transform your COMMUNITIES, and change our WORLD.”
We can change our world, beginning where we live, work, and play. We can change our world. But we can’t do it alone. We can do it only in the strength of Jesus. We can do it only in his Spirit of love. He has given us the power, working together, to help God change our world. Too often, as our Presiding Bishop keeps reminding us, the world is the nightmare we have made it, rather than the dream God has in mind.
We can put our trust in such a God. We can trust our lives to Jesus who lays down his life for us. In him, we are set free to love each other – free to risk everything for the neighbors he gives us. Though we may tempted to shrink back when the wolves begin to prowl, Jesus is not afraid.
For his love is utterly, totally free. It is therefore all-powerful and completely vulnerable.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.