How (Not) to Lay Down One’s Life: A short sermon on John 10:11-18

(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.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 3 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

Over the last two days I’ve shared two stories that come to mind when I think about John the Baptist’s words, he must increase, but I must decrease. Here’s a third story.

When I was in my early twenties, a friend of mine, another young woman my same age, was invited to give a series of talks at the young adults’ fellowship group that I was a part of. I was on the group’s leadership team when our pastor suggested the idea, and I wholeheartedly supported it. I had known this friend since our freshman year of college, and I knew that she was smart, funny, insightful, sincere, and a gifted teacher. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say and learning from her.

But then, as the Thursday night fellowship meeting came, and my friend spoke to our group, I was surprised to find that I had a bit of an attitude problem. I found myself feeling like I already knew a lot of the things she had to say. I found myself not being very open to learning from her. I found myself remembering some of the less flattering (and more human) moments we had shared over the years. I found myself sitting in judgment.

Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude had nothing at all to do with my friend―with her teaching ability, or her character, or how much she knew, or anything like that. Instead, it had everything to do with my own jealousy.

I realized that I usually had no problem being happy for the successes of people who have gifts very different from my own. Visual art, for example―I have zero talent for it, but I love seeing things that other people have created. It’s beautiful, and amazing. I don’t really feel jealous, because it’s not something I have tried to do. I can just appreciate their gifts without feeling competitive. It doesn’t feel like their successes take anything away from me.

But with people who have gifts more similar to mine, it’s harder. My friend who spoke at our young adults’ fellowship has these kinds of gifts―things like music, teaching, writing. As she was being recognized for these gifts, it was hard for me not to feel a little jealous.

More so than the last two stories, this one has some similarities to what I imagine John the Baptist might have experienced leading up to his statement, he must increase, I must decrease.

John the Baptist and Jesus had, in some ways, similar gifts and similar senses of calling. They were doing some of the same things. They preached, they taught, they called people to repent, they baptized people.

And now, Jesus is becoming more “successful” than John. So John’s disciples come to him and say, wtf? You baptized him, and now he’s more popular than you…and you’re just letting it happen? Aren’t you jealous? Why is everyone so into him, anyway?

It turns out that John, unlike me, is completely lacking in envy. John keeps his focus on the goal―offering everyone the opportunity to repent and be baptized―and does not let his own ego get in the way. He is happy to do a bunch of baptizing himself; he is also just as happy to hear that Jesus is doing a bunch of baptizing.

John, of course, was a particular human located in a particular place at a very particular time. It is not every day that the son of God has just started his ministry on earth, and you are the special prophet who’s supposed to point to him and prepare the way for him. John was a unique person with a unique mission. Not everyone is the best man of the bridegroom Jesus in the same way John was.

In John’s story, when John said he must increase, I must decrease, he really was turning something over, acknowledging a shift in power dynamics, speaking to the reality that it was time for Jesus’ ministry to start and to gain more attention than his own. In my story, my friend’s opportunity to use her gifts, even though it might have brought up insecurities for me, did not actually mean that I could or would not have the opportunity to use my own gifts.

Sometimes it feels like in order for one person to increase, another must decrease. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My friend’s gifts can be (and are) amazing and beautiful without taking anything at all away from mine. There is―or at least there could be―plenty of space for everyone to use their gifts toward shared goals like healing and building up people, churches, and communities. (God knows there’s plenty of healing and building up to be done!)

So this is what I come away with when I reflect on John’s statement and its implications for us: it’s not at all straightforward, but it is worth asking ourselves some questions.

In this situation, must I decrease? What is my social location, and, given that, what does love and justice look like?

What does it look like for each person to be valued, each voice to be heard, each gift to be offered toward the wellbeing of individuals and the community? Are these goals best served by me taking the lead, following someone else, speaking up, stepping back, etc.?

Where is my ego in all of this? Do I feel threatened by someone else’s successes, and if so, what’s that about? What would it look like to act and interact in ways that acknowledge that, because God sees me, it’s okay if I increase and it’s okay if I decrease?

Where can I rejoice with others in their successes?

Where can I make more room for the perspectives and gifts of someone who has been underestimated or marginalized and does not need to decrease any more?

How can we, as individuals and communities, let go of our petty jealousies like John did, while also refusing to perpetuate cycles of injustice and unhealthy power dynamics by pretending everyone starts from the same place when it comes to increasing or decreasing?

May we wrestle with John’s statement he must increase, I must decrease and allow it to raise questions like these.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 2 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

In yesterday’s post, I shared the first of three stories that come to mind when I think about John’s statement, he must increase, but I must decrease. That story was about a situation in which I do not think it was actually right or appropriate for me to seek to “decrease.”

Here’s the second story.

About two years ago, I spent a snowy January weekend in Denver at the annual conference of Q Christian Fellowship (formerly called the Gay Christian Network), along with a handful of college students from the LGBTQ+ affirming Christian ministry where I was volunteering. I went to the conference because I thought it would be encouraging for these students to be able to meet and spend time with a bunch of fellow LGBTQ+ Christians from all over the country.

For my part, I was one of not terribly many straight people at the conference. It was really great. I learned a lot and felt really privileged and grateful to see and (briefly) be a part of an amazing, resilient, beautiful family of LGBTQ+ people of faith.

The weekend left me more deeply aware of the broader church’s impoverishment as a result of its exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. I was also inspired by seeing some of what the church can be when LGBTQ+ people are really free to use their gifts to serve, speak, sing, minister, and otherwise lead. (Would highly recommend the conference, both for LGTBQ+ Christians looking for an accepting community and for anyone willing to sit in and learn.)

At one point during the weekend, I went out for dinner with a group of people from the LGBTQ+ Christian community of the greater LA area. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us.

As we sat around a long table at Yard House, there was a moment in the conversation when one person shared an observation he had made about tendencies in gay relationships. Other people laughed and agreed.

I, however, was not at all convinced that his observation was unique to gay relationships. I felt like it applied to a lot of straight couples I knew as well.

So, I said something along those lines…and then instantly regretted it. I saw immediately from people’s faces that the comment was not appreciated.

Reflecting on this moment, I don’t think my comment was necessarily wrong or bad, but it was out of place. In that moment I was a straight person surrounded by LGBTQ+ people who had worked so hard and given so deeply of themselves to create, in this community, one of just a very few truly safe spaces―anywhere, really, and especially in the Christian world―to be openly gay. One of just a few truly safe spaces to reflect on and laugh about some of the things that might characterize gay relationships.

The people sitting at that table with me had graciously welcomed me to join them in this space. But when I, as a straight person, spoke up with something contradictory to say―and something that was about straight people rather than gay people―I was trampling on a sacred moment. 
I can talk about straight relationships anywhere. I see straight relationships modeled everywhere, all the time, from TV shows and movies, to friends and mentors, to church. I can reflect on straight relationships and make observations about them however and whenever I want.

But this was a space where gay experiences and relationships were actually, for once, centered and considered important. And when I brought my own straight-person judgment into it, I was turning the attention away from their experiences and back to my own.

In that moment, I really didn’t need to speak up. In that moment, I needed to decrease, making room for other people to be able to share perspectives that often get trampled on, or just aren’t safe to share in the first place. Or, if I had spoken up, it could have been to ask questions and learn something, not to judge and contradict.

I don’t mean to make too much of a brief moment that passed quickly, or beat myself up over a well-intended but (understandably) poorly-received comment. I just share this story as an example of a moment when I needed to decrease. I needed to step back and let others shape the conversation.

I also share this story as a counterexample to yesterday’s story. Taken together, I think the two situations illustrate just a little bit of how complex things can get when we think about John’s statement that he must increase, but I must decrease, and what it might mean in our lives and contexts.

Tomorrow’s story will offer one more angle on all of this.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)

Finally moving on from Matthew 3!

Here’s a story about John the Baptist from the book written by another dude whose name was also John:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

I’m going to sit on this passage for a minute―and by a minute, I mean this post and the next two as well. I particularly want to stew on the last sentence. John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, says, he must increase, but I must decrease.

I could probably spend a while waxing poetic…or just preachy…on the virtues of humility, of decreasing our own power and need for control so that Jesus might increase, of laying down our own rights and needs and very lives so that the gospel might go forward and flourish.

I could say these things, and I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

But I also think it’s very complicated. And so, over the next three days, I want to share three personal stories that relate to John’s statement and (I hope) might help draw out some of the complexities that come up as we think about it.

Here is story number one:

I used to lead the college ministry at the church that I was a part of for a long time in the Bay area.

At this church, there is a pastor―whom I like, respect, and look up to a lot―who sometimes makes self-deprecating comments and jokes, in staff meetings or otherwise. I appreciate his quick wit and his humility, and I think others do too.

This pastor is also male, about ten years older than me, and much more well-established in the structures of institutional power at the church. Given all this―his social location, if you will―I think his self-deprecating humor helps people feel comfortable around him rather than intimidated. It helps people see that he is relatable and human.

At some point, I realized that sometimes I would make similar kinds of comments and jokes―but for me, they weren’t really working in my favor.

I was young, female, and not at all well-established in the church’s leadership structures. And I had to deal with things my male, well-established pastor colleague didn’t have to deal with.

For example, I would be surprised if my colleague has ever had a conversation with a male stranger in the church parking lot that went like this:

Male stranger (seeing me getting food out of my car, about to head toward the college breakfast meeting): “Hey, could you tell me, who’s leading the college ministry these days?”

Me (with a friendly smile): “I am!”

Male stranger: “No, no. Who’s leading the group?”

Me (the smile starting to fade a bit): “Right, that would be me.”

Male stranger: “No, I mean, who’s the college pastor?”

Me: “Oh, well, Scott is the pastor who supervises me, but I’m the one responsible for leading the college group. Did you have a question about the group or anything?”

Male stranger: “Ah, okay, it’s Scott. Great. Thanks!”

My unfortunate reality was that, no matter how much I might have wanted to make self-deprecating jokes, and how appropriate they might have been for my colleague, it wasn’t the same for me. When I said self-deprecating things, people would take them at face value. I knew that I was more capable than I was speaking about, but that wasn’t always obvious to others. 

As a young woman, fairly new to my job, with a lot of responsibilities but without the title of pastor―and all this in a church that did not fully approve of women in leadership―I was in a situation where I didn’t really need to “decrease” any more. I didn’t really need to be any lower than I was already.
I needed to step forward and step up, bringing the best of my talents and passions into a challenging role. I needed to confidently embrace my own belonging and appropriateness in that role. I did not need to try to “decrease” myself by downplaying my gifts or abilities. Doing so―through self-deprecating humor or otherwise―only hindered my ability to do my job, using my gifts fully and freely to lead the college ministry.

I think this is a common tension, and an important one. John the Baptist’s words about decreasing and increasing don’t always apply in our lives and communities in straightforward ways. In fact, the ways in which they do or don’t apply has a great deal to do with social location and power. And, on top of that, the amount of power and kinds of power each of us has can be very different in different contexts and situations.

Tomorrow I’ll share a second story that keeps exploring these kinds of thoughts, from another angle.