Jesus lays out, in our Gospel today, the great theme of the Easter season: that is, life overcoming death. The theme of life triumphant is repeated over and over again, in the course of the season: in the empty tomb, in the resurrection appearances, and in Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. These events don’t just illustrate the theme of new life; the theme itself is founded on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That’s what we’re celebrating on Good Shepherd Sunday, here at the Church of the Good Shepherd, as we move further into the Easter season, and further into reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.
Again: “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jo. 10:18). Here, in Jesus’ words to the disciples, we find the two-fold aspect of Easter that Christians call the “paschal mystery”: that is, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, which means new life for us. The “power to lay it down,” the power to lay down his life, is Christ’s sacrificial death, freely undertaken for the sake of the flock. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jo. 10:11), as Jesus says in our Gospel today. The word “for” reminds us of the vocation of the shepherd, who’s the defender of the flock, inserting himself between the sheep and the wolf who preys upon them. Overcoming death is a costly business, but it’s a price borne by the shepherd himself.
The “power to take it up again” is the second part of the paschal mystery, where life is triumphant. The Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep, brought again from the dead (Heb.13:20). He overcomes death in that he suffers its entire tragedy, yet God raises him to new life. Death could not hold him, St. Peter says, in his sermon in the second chapter of Acts (Acts. 2:24). Jesus is the strong shepherd who finally cannot be bound, wrapped up by the power of death. Death cannot hold him. The flock that follows the Good Shepherd is not safe simply for a season, but forever, because Jesus is alive. He has the power to lay down his life, and to take it again.
That’s the paschal mystery: the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising again that we celebrate at Easter, and every Sunday of the year. But don’t be fooled by the word “mystery,” because the paschal mystery is not something kept locked away or hidden from us, like the mystery in a mystery story. Instead, the paschal mystery becomes a part of who we are, the secret or “mystery” of our own existence. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, we too will live a new life, and share his resurrection.
Consider our psalm this morning. “The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want… Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me… Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps. 23:1,4,6). Whatever evil befalls us, whatever laying down of our lives we endure, whatever dying to self we do, Christ can raise us up. He has power to lay down his life, and power to take it up again, and us along with it. Because he lives, we too will live, as Jesus says elsewhere in John’s Gospel (Jo. 14:19).
Another word for “mystery” is “sacrament;” as we say in the Eucharist, “in these holy mysteries” we receive Christ’s body and blood, the signs of his life laid down for us, and taken up again. In Baptism we die with Christ, and rise to new life with him, as it says in the sixth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. If we are looking for ways to enter into the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, we need look no further than our participation in the sacraments. The mystery is not hidden from us, kept locked away somewhere, but becomes the secret of who we are, as we share in the sacraments of the church.
As we reaffirm our baptismal vows today, and as baptized members of the church receive the laying on of hands in confirmation, we recall the paschal mystery that has united us to Christ the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. The practice of the Christian faith is a life and death business (quite literally), that demands the whole of who we are. Grace is given today, the power and presence of God in our lives, as we celebrate the sacraments of the church. We cannot live this life on our own, but by God’s grace we can die to self and rise again to new life. That’s the promise of the Good Shepherd: that we shall fear no evil, and will dwell in his house forever.