FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16-24
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as God knows me and I know God.
When I first read this passage from today’s gospel text, I remembered the long summer afternoons at our neighborhood pool, when our children were young. Most of the parents would be lounging around the pool, talking or reading, and occasionally taking a little dip in the water to cool off. The children were all in the pool swimming and playing with one another, making quite a racket. Every so often, someone’s daughter or son would yell “Mom!” or “Dad!” from the water. There’s nothing unusual about this. But what struck me one afternoon was that each parent recognized the unique voice of his or her own child, amid the cacophony of dozens of children laughing, yelling, and sometimes crying. We know our own.
Another time, later in life, I was sitting in a darkened black-box theater waiting for my daughter to perform in the play that was her senior project in drama school. I remember recognizing the distinctive sound of her nose sniffing, invisible behind the black curtains. We know our own.
I’m sure we all could cite other examples of how we almost instinctively recognize those who are near and dear to us. This knowing one another is not a conscious cognitive process. It’s not like knowing the transitive property of equality, or a recipe for pie crust. It’s not knowledge we have acquired by reading or by being instructed or by thinking through a series of logical steps. This knowing is deeper. It is subconscious. As my mentor in the ways of psychotherapy used to say, It is concrete, specific, and personally relevant. It is what the philosophers call apodictic–it is self-evident, self-validating. It is almost as though this knowledge derives from our being imprinted by one another, the way a newly-hatched gosling is imprinted by the sight of its mother and, subsequently, follows the mother wherever she goes.
This experience is echoed in the Greek word that the author of John’s gospel uses here for “know”: ginosko. Ginosko means to know personally, intimately, experientially. It is the source of our words gnosis and gnostic. This word is used to describe how Jesus and his followers–his own–know one another. It is, likewise, how Jesus and his God, his Abba, know one another. This knowing is, indeed, intimate; it is mutual. I will go so far as to say that there is an identity here, one with another.
It is this identity that undergirds the immediate next, challenging sentence in Jesus’s speech: …I lay down my life for the sheep…. This image of laying down one’s life is repeated in slightly different form in our text from the first letter of John. The author says: We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. There is a slight shift here between these texts: a shift from knowing in John’s gospel to loving in his letter. I want to shine some light on this distinction by taking a brief detour through Asia.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there is a saying: know emptiness, feel compassion. This word emptiness–shunyata in Sanskrit–is a big one in Buddhism, and one which tends to flumox many of us Westerners. At around the same time as Jesus, Buddhist thinkers in northern India were working out the intricacies of the idea of emptiness, employing logical arguments that have even impressed Western philosophers. I’m not going to put you to sleep with these arguments. I’ll just say that they boil down to conclusions that have deep affinities with many conclusions that come out of our Christian contemplative tradition. In a nutshell, when we Buddhists use the term “emptiness,” we mean that all the things we experience are empty of any separate substance. What seems solid and separate, what seems to be substantially different, is just an appearance. It is a misperception of the ultimate nature of things. Put in our Christian parlance, it is the delusion created by our finite, human thinking, instead of seeing things through the eyes of God. From another Christian angle, it is failing to see that all things are one in Christ.
To know emptiness is of special importance with respect to ourselves and one another. We Homo sapiens are particularly good at distinguishing and separating ourselves from one another. This contemplative, Buddhist-Christian insight is that all the labels we employ, that we often desparately cling to, to define ourselves as separate–Christian, Muslim, male, female, immigrant, native, Benedictine, Dominican…even that deeply rooted sense that I, David McKee, am set apart as a separate, unique self–all these ways we define ourselves are without enduring substance. We are not truly, not ultimately, separate. Paul has his own take on this in his letter to the Colossians, where he says …you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…. Or in his letter to the Galatians, where he says …I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me…. The separate self you think you are does not really exist.
Now, just when you thought you may have disappeared, take heart. There is good news. The good news is that to know this emptiness, to experience deep knowledge of our non-separation, opens us to one another and to the world…know emptiness, feel compassion. The American Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, summarizes this understanding of compassion as:
“…the feeling of love based on the deep recognition that what we call ‘self’ and what we call ‘others’ are designations, concepts, habits of mind, not realities of the world.
And he goes on:
“Real altruism isn’t self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, a…sense that we should be good, we should be nice, we should be kind. It is the profound recognition that self and other are not fundamentally different, only apparently different.”
I’m reminded here of the second great commandment here: Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t say “Love your neighbor the way you want to be loved.” He says Love your neighbor as yourself.” No separation.
The love that John describes in his first letter is grounded in this recognition. Seen in this way, we could read …lay down your lives for one another… as “set aside your lives as you understand them and open yourselves to one another.” That is, love one another…the refrain that runs through John’s letters and his gospel. This is the sort of surrendering, the sort of sacrifice, that we are called to make in every moment of our everyday lives; sometimes it’s dramatic, but most of the time it is just ordinary kindness. It is opening to, leaning into, our own joy and pain and to the joy and pain of others, rather than barricading and protecting an illusory separate self. This is the everyday reality of wisdom and compassion. Each of us is a shepherd and each of us is a sheep. No separation. When we awaken to this truth, we know each other as we are known by God. What else can we do but do our best to love one another as God loves us?