When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we often have in our minds the story that Matthew and Luke tell about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep on the hillside while he searches for the one that has wandered off, and coming back rejoicing with the lost sheep on his shoulders.
Here in the Gospel of John, Jesus is not telling a story about a hypothetical shepherd but making a statement about his own identity: I am the Good Shepherd. It is one the great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel that give us insights into who Jesus is. The central point of this saying is that Jesus lays down his life for his people, and that he does this because of the love that flows from the Father into him and through him into the lives of his friends.
The first Letter of John urges us to think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children, because that is what we are. We haven’t done anything to deserve this: it is the result of God’s unconditional love for us.
In some ways the unconditional love of God is completely beyond our understanding, but it also has its echoes in our own hearts. We all know what it is like to feel that we would do anything, even give our life, for someone we love. That is what married couples promise each other in their wedding vows. It is the feeling parents have for their children, especially when they are very young or vulnerable. Deep friendships formed by long experience or shared dangers can produce the same commitment.
The difference between the love we feel for each other and the love that God lavishes on us is that, whilst we may not always manage to follow through our commitment in every moment of each day, God’s love really is unconditional, not limited by any of the conditions or temptations that can creep into our relationships. The proof of it is that Jesus really did lay down his life for us, but the love that led him to do that is not an action but a fact. Unconditional love is not something we do but something we are. It is the deepest truth about us, even if we don’t live up to it all the time.