(11) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd places his life on behalf of the sheep. (12) The wage-worker, even, who is not the shepherd, of whom the sheep are not (his) own, beholds the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees – and the wolf seizes them and scatters (them) – (13) because he is a wage-worker and it is not a care to him concerning the sheep.
(14) I am the good shepherd and I know the ones that are mine and the ones that are mine know me, (15) just as the father knows me and I know the father, and I place my life on behalf of the sheep. (16) Also, however, I have sheep which are not from this court; those, it is necessary (for) me to bring, and they will hear my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd.
(17) On this account the father loves me, because I place my life, in order that again I might receive it. (18) No one takes it away from me, but I place it from myself. I have power to place it, and I have power again to receive it; I received this command from my father.” -Jesus, John 10:11-18 (my translation)
As I reflect on this passage I’m intrigued by how much Jesus talks about laying down his life. He manages to talk about laying down his life a full five times in these eight verses.
I used to think I knew a lot about what it means to lay down one’s life.
I thought it meant a whole of host of things having to do with putting other people’s needs above my own―and, in the process, often ignoring my own desires and gifts and needs, pretending they weren’t there, or thinking they weren’t important.
I thought laying down my life meant things like not weighing in on group decisions, even simple ones like where to go out to eat, because my preferences didn’t matter. Or, washing more than my fair share of dishes, and then feeling resentful that my roommates didn’t do more. Or, not complaining about things that felt wrong to me. Or, lacking boundaries, and not standing up for myself.
Of course, this was all some funky mash-up of what I thought it meant to lay down my life like Jesus, and what the world often expects from women, and what Christian leaders tended to preach about in the contexts I was in, and my own personality and tendencies.
But I share this because I think sometimes we get some ideas about what it means to follow Jesus that aren’t actually in scripture. In our passage this morning there are some things that complicate some of the notions we might have about what it means to lay down our lives.
Just before this passage, in John 10:10, Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
There are a lot of different ways we might identify with the different characters in the shepherd-and-sheep metaphor in our passage. While it’s not as straightforward as simply saying we are the sheep in this metaphor and that’s it, I do think that identifying with the sheep is one angle we can take. And when we do so, we find that we receive this promise from Jesus: Jesus wants us to have life. Jesus wants us to have life to the full.
If our ways of trying to follow Jesus are making us feel resentful, burned out, or bitter, like someone is stealing from us or destroying some important part of us, that’s not Jesus. If we’re laying down our lives in ways that don’t also bring fullness of life in return—not that it’s easy or problem-free, but that there’s joy and a sense of being true to who we are and what God made us for—if it’s not these things, maybe we’re missing Jesus.
The word Jesus uses when he speaks of “laying down” his life is actually not necessarily about sacrificing, abandoning, or rejecting. It’s a very simple verb that’s translated in a lot of ways, including “put,” “place,” or “lay.” It can involve putting something in a particular location, or placing something before someone, or appointing or assigning something, or establishing something.
This range of meanings helps me see how Jesus is making this conscious choice, throughout his life, to place his life on behalf of the sheep—to arrange his life on behalf of the vulnerable people, the ones he loves, the ones who belong to him. That’s where he puts his life: with them, in awareness of and solidarity with their needs and concerns. That’s where he assigns his energies, how he establishes his direction in life.
The word translated as “life” here can mean life as in living and dying, but it can also mean something more like the soul, the whole self, the center of inner human life and emotion and personhood. You get the sense that Jesus moves from his very center, from his soul, from his core, to intentionally direct his words and actions toward love, toward justice, toward whatever makes for the wellbeing of the flock.
This is where Jesus wants to place his life: on behalf of the sheep. And he doesn’t leave. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t run away, like the hired hand, when things get hard. Jesus places his life consistently in solidarity with the sheep.
Just as, toward the end of his life, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, throughout his whole life he set his whole being toward people who were on the margins, oppressed by empire, taken advantage of by corrupt religious leaders.
Jesus arranges his life in this way, and then, in turn, he then receives it again. He says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (v. 17-18). He, too, ends up having life, and having it to the full.
Jesus is very clear that it is his choice, his determination, his own agency that he exercises in laying down his life. It is his choice alone. He says, “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (v. 18).
This is a powerful thing. Our world is full of people trying to tell other people when, why, where, and how to lay down their lives.
We see white people trying to tell people of color the proper ways to protest the violence being done to their bodies and communities. We see men trying to tell women that women’s equal rights aren’t worth focusing on or being divisive about, and straight people telling queer people the same about their rights. We see people who have never lost anyone to gun violence trying to tell those who have that the lives lost are a reasonable price to pay for our unrestricted access to guns.
These kinds of things are not peace. They are violence—violence against the dignity and humanity of people of color, and women, and queer people, and people who are most vulnerable to being victims of gun violence, and people who grieve lives lost.
No one gets to tell someone else how to lay their life down—especially not people with more power to those with less.
As we follow Jesus together, the people with less power in the structures of our society find themselves strengthened to stand up for themselves, and their dignity, and the health of their communities. They find themselves powerful to choose the directions they will orient their lives and energies and talents, to choose the causes they would, or wouldn’t, risk their lives for.
And the people with more power find themselves realizing that God’s vision is that there be one flock, one shepherd. They learn to stand in solidarity with those with less power. They learn to be part of a community that lays down lives for one another, in relationship, as equals.
Ultimately, of course, the result of Jesus placing his whole life, all his teachings and healings and words and actions, on behalf of others, is that he does end up laying down his life, as in, dying. He ends up accepting the penalty enacted on him by the state and the religious authorities that resulted from living the kind of life he lived, as he messed with all their systems and oriented himself toward justice at every turn.
Nobody made him do it. The cross wasn’t a vengeful, violent God taking out his wrath on Jesus instead of us. It was God in Jesus choosing to show the extent of his love, choosing to bear the consequences of a life placed on behalf of the ones who are his own.
The beloved community comes about not through some people setting aside their own needs, dignity, gifts, uniqueness, and full personhood to help others flourish, but through all of us learning how to direct our attention, energy, and power toward the good of one another, toward the good of the whole. And we find joy and life in this process, which doesn’t deplete us, but renews us, energizes us, and gives us back life in return.