The Lord is my Shepherd (Revisited)
“What is it that I really want?” That is the question we begin to ask when we reach a certain age. And then, when (or if) we attain maturity, we begin to ask, “what is it that is really worth wanting?”
Well, in short, we want the good life. In looking at the 23rd Psalm last time, we contrasted two views of the good life. We said that for most of the history of mankind, people have understood the good life to consist in health, wealth, fertility and long life. We may put it like this: We want to live long and healthy lives surrounded by our loved ones, and we want our money to last as we long do. This is the first view. The second view does not hold these values in contempt. On the contrary, it sees them as blessings for which we ought to be grateful to God if he gives them to us. But it does contest the idea that they are sufficient for the good life. They are basic, but to these the second view adds freedom from fear, especially of evil and death, God’s own presence, and an expectation of a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. According to the second view, these things are indispensable to the truly good life.
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day affords us the occasion to prolong our gaze at these things. Let us recall that last Sunday was dedicated to the theme of the good shepherd. We said that our good shepherd goes with us on our journey through life. He is always there beside us, to encourage and to comfort us and to calm our fears. He is always there in front of us, leading and guiding us. But he is also far ahead us. Since he’s the gate for the sheep, he stands at the end of our journey, waiting for us. Put otherwise, he stands at the threshold of the door into God’s house, to welcome us home.
All these truths are there in our lesson today. And how they show up will be the focus of our meditation, to which we will devote these next several minutes.
We find Jesus in the upper room with his disciples. He shares intimate conversation with them. He brings them into his confidence. He reveals to them mysteries of which he’s given only an intimation to the crowds.
Parenthetically, what is happening here makes us pause and reflect on the nature of relationships. When we first meet someone, it’s inappropriate for us to disclose our inmost self to him. If we do, we risk embarrassing ourselves. TMI, he will say: “Too much information.” Only as our relationship grows, only as our friendship deepens, do we begin to share the more intimate parts of our selves—parts that we keep concealed from strangers and casual acquaintances. In this regard, the old saying applies: a best friend is someone to whom you can tell everything.
Friendship is a reality for Jesus. It’s no different with him than it is with us. He lived out his humanity as we do. This is what is entailed in the claim that the Word became flesh and made his home among us (1:14). With his disciples Jesus formed genuine friendship. “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing, but I call you friends,” as he will confide to them in the following chapter (15:15). “No greater love is there than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” as he declares in the same chapter (15:13).
Since they are his friends, whom he loves, he does not want them to be troubled. But why are they troubled? Jesus has told them that one of them would betray him (13:21). And all of them no doubt perceive that something awful is about to happen. It’s an awful moment in the upper room, pregnant with the possibility of evil and death. The fact is that Jesus is about to face arrest, trial and crucifixion at the hands of evil men. He is about to face a violent death.
We learned last time that even in the shadow of death, the Psalmist feared no evil, for the Lord was with him. The Lord was with the disciples in an eminent sense. Here is the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God. But how can their Lord continue to be with them if death snatches him away from them? Perhaps what we dread most about death, whether the death of our loved ones or our own death, is the finality of separation.
The great Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx described death in these terms: “[Death], at least as it appears to me, is the end of my world, of a living relatedness…of all that I share in my humanity and being with loved ones, as well as with all others, from whom I must depart, whether I want to or not.”
But Jesus insists that separation is temporary. That is why he can tell them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” “If I go, I go only to prepare a place for you. Then I will come back and take you by the hand and bring you there, so that where I am, you may be also.”
Where is he going? Of course, whenever Jesus spoke of where he was going, he occasioned misunderstanding and confusion. To his antagonists he once said: “You will look for me, but you will not find me. Where I am going, you cannot come.” And they replied: “Where will he go and we will not find him. Will he go where our people are dispersed among the Greeks and teach the Greeks” (7:35)? But whenever Jesus uses this language, he means his Father.
Jesus is about to go to the Father–to be more precise, his Father’s house, in which there are many rooms. Recall that the Psalmist had the expectation of a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. Jesus goes to prepare a room in this house for his disciples. He thereby fulfills this expectation of the Psalmist. The Psalmist’s expectation corresponds to the desire of God. God wants us to be where he is. And that is good news worth sharing.
Many people ask about the afterlife. The question becomes all the more pressing the closer the departure from this life comes. For the afterlife Jesus uses here the image of a mansion with many rooms. However we are to understand this image, we should see that the afterlife is less about place than about presence. The word used here for “rooms” is related to the verb “abide.” This verb appears in the discourse about Jesus as the true vine. “Abide in me,” Jesus tells his disciples in John 15. In other words, stay close to me, and I will stay close to you. If we begin to open ourselves to receive God’s presence into our lives now, then we can expect to experience it in the world to come. Only there we will know it fully, even as we will be fully known.
But some people, regardless of their age, think it’s pointless to ask about an afterlife. Life is for the living. This life is the only life there is. Life is short, etc., etc. They say to reject this perspective in the hope of an afterlife is a form of escapism. It’s a perspective that people everywhere around us hold today.
But life is goal-directed. To reject this fact is also a form of escapism. And each step we take today brings us either closer to or farther from our goal. The sheep do not wander in the desert aimlessly. There is a goal; there is a destination. The shepherd’s intent is to bring them safely to the sheep pen. And they trust that the shepherd knows the way.
Thomas asks Jesus about the way. He’s still confused. He correctly deduces that since he doesn’t know where Jesus is going, he cannot know the way.
Jesus reassures Thomas that he is the way. In fact, he declares “I am the way, the truth and the life,” (14:6). Ironically, this claim, if we accept it, serves to shift our focus from the future to the present. The claim assures that our future is Jesus’ responsibility, not our own. For this we reason we do not need to concern ourselves with anything else except obeying him in the present. After all, sheep are not expected to find the sheep pen on their own; they are expected only to listen to the shepherd’s voice.
Philip asks Jesus about the destination. If I am going to be welcomed into a home, then I at least want to know who the host is. What follows here is central to John’s gospel. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (1:18). Jesus is the self-revelation of the Father. He is the mirror in which we see the face of the Father reflected. He is the living portrait of the Father, to borrow John Calvin’s arresting phrase. Again, there is no need to be concerned. If we have known the grace, love, kindness and strength of Jesus our good shepherd, then we can expect the same in the Father, for they reflect his own attributes. Indeed, they are his attributes. For the Father is in the Son just as the Son is in the Father.
We detect a change of mood. If the lesson began with distress, it concludes with confidence. We know that when we are troubled and upset, we aren’t really able to do much of anything. Anxiety can paralyze us. That’s why it seems strange that Jesus can talk about the great things that the one who has faith in him will do (14:12)! He goes so far as to say that they will do even greater things because he is going to the Father.
But is it really all that strange after what we have learned about him? Finding our security in our shepherd gives us freedom to move, to take initiative, and above all find out what brings glory to the Father. And once we do discover it, we can accept the startling invitation Jesus extends to us to ask him to do anything in his name, and he will do it. For it is the Son’s desire to bring glory to the Father.
Our Eastertide lessons afford us the occasion to meditate on the mysteries of Jesus’ person. As we do, let us always remember that we stand on this side of his resurrection. That which Jesus sought to impress on the disciples about his going to the Father has happened. Jesus has gone to the Father. And he is the way to the Father. And until he comes for us to take us to be where he is, he remains for us here and now to comfort and to guide, to encourage and to calm. How our world needs to hear this message today, amid all the fear and uncertainty. Amen.