April 25, 2021 at St. Peter the Apostle & St. William Parish in Naples, FL
Acts 4, 8-12 + Psalm 118 + 1 John 3, 1-2 + John 10, 11-18
As we near the end of this Easter Season, there is no longer time nor any excuse for facing the dark reality that gave us this joyful season. It’s time to think about, reflect upon, and hear about death, which is challenge when these verses are turned into romantic ideas about a sweet and gentle shepherd. This is a shepherd who talks about laying down his life. In plain language. He’s talking about death.
This is something many will go to any extent to avoid. I can’t begin to count or recall how many times in my more than fifty years as a priest I have come to comfort survivors only to realize that they had never thought about death, never accepted the inevitable, and never put together a plan for how to approach this experience. In some ways, I have decided that this is the consequence of some bad thinking about death as though it was an end rather than a beginning or a transition to a different way of living in eternity. As I have aged and get closer to my own death, I occurs to me that giving some thought and actual planning for death is a kind of ultimate act of faith. Emphasis upon the word, Act. There are lots of words of faith. The Creed is an example of lots of words. At Baptisms and Confirmations, and at Easter after each article of the Creed, we say: “I Do.” I think it might be important to ask: “I Do What?” Sometimes it means doing something over and above meaning, “I Do Believe.” If we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, it means that we no longer see death as an end, and so, we might prepare for it just like we prepare for a vacation.
In this Gospel today, John proposes for us through the words of Jesus how it is we might prepare for life everlasting. There is clue when Jesus speaks of laying down his life insisting that he does this freely, voluntarily for his sheep. With that, we get one more grand revelation about the very nature of God. For the God Jesus reveals is a God who freely and willingly gives up his only son in order to embrace us all as God’s children. It’s all about renunciation. It’s all about a willingness to let go, to lay down anything and everything for the sake of this divine love.
Too often I have stood over a sick and dying child and heard a parent in desperate love saying they wished to trade places if they could keep that love alive, willing to die for their child. In that moment, through that experience, what Jesus reveals about the Father becomes real. Love is no longer an idea, a wish, or a dream. It takes flesh and becomes something we can understand and believe. It also become something we can do.
It’s all about renunciation, or call it sacrifice, if you wish. It is about the ultimate act of love. What is it we do? We renounce, we lay down, we cease to live for ourselves. It is how we prepare and how we can practice for death, by dying to self.
Our tradition is filled with stories of holy men and women who practiced and prepared for death by renunciation. Francis of Assisi renounced everything and so when it was time to pass over into new life, he could slip through that proverbial eye of a needle. Yet I have found that this model of Francis leaves us to think that it is material things we have laydown or renounce. With that thinking we are in trouble.
There are more things intangible that we lug around this life weightier and more cumbersome than clothes, shoes, jewelry, homes, cars, and all the stuff that fills our garages and storage facilities. Practice for death, preparation for that inevitable moment might be better served by renouncing our racism, our grudges, our prejudices, haughty attitudes and privileges. There is where it can begin, so that without these obstacles to love, we might enter more profoundly in the mystery of God’s love and ready ourselves for that moment when we shall become more like God living eternal life.
All of this is seen and revealed for those who stand in faith before the cross. There is radical frugality and simplicity in the modern world of consumerism and secular materialism. What can there be in all of us except a wave a deep gratitude. That sacrifice or renunciation is the royal path for all of us who want to know this love. It is the way we can recreate ourselves in the image and likeness of God. It cannot be done all at once nor is it a one-time deal; it is a daily decision, motivated by love as a response to Love’s invitation. St Francis new a secret: whatever he laid down willingly, the Father would honor and bless abundantly. During the remaining days of this Easter season, let’s set our hearts to discover that secret as well.