Romans 5:1-11; John 10:11-18

I’m both comforted and challenged by Romans 5, and by the next few chapters after that. The whole thing is based on the logic of sin/condemnation/death as opposed to righteousness/grace. We maintain that God is bigger than this kind of retribution and guilt, so what good is this chapter? Well, the religious logic of Paul’s world is not so different from ours, even with our objections. We often demand that people prove their goodness before we’ll accept them. The assumption is that we have to earn our place in the world.

That’s why I find deep comfort in this chapter, especially in verse 8 (“God has shown us how much he loves us – it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us!”). The default religious and social world of the Euro-American world is based on sin and restitution, so most of us are (whatever else we are) at fault and in debt. Besides, however you make sense of it, how can the language of ‘sin’ not ring true on some level? Just as we look around, we’ve made a world very unlike God must have wanted it to be. So this passage is not there to inspire guilt – it proclaims a love greater than guilt. However guilty you may be or feel, God’s love in Christ came even to your guilt. In Christ, God loves even the parts of you that can’t be loved. So if you hear nothing else in this meditation, hear that: God’s love claims us regardless of who or how we may be at any given time.

But isn’t that still offensive? The God we imagine may not punish, but we often want him to anyway. We insist that people should get what they “deserve,” whatever exactly that means. We at least want to require appropriate penitence before we forgive. “We’ll waive the rule, but you must acknowledge first that you’re not getting what you deserve.” Of course, life is all too fair. People’s actions have real consequences – bad loans get foreclosed upon, drugs and alcohol ruin lives, nuclear reactors on fault lines go into crisis. But it’s all too unfair at the same time. As we remembered again this week, brutality can be absolutely random. So can poverty and educational opportunities. Paul says that God enters the world just as “unfairly,” giving free grace to all. God doesn’t wait for us to get it right, because God doesn’t depend on our violent understandings of “justice.”

In a fair world, the sheep would just wander off to be eaten by the wolves. Sheep are domesticated because they’re not bright enough to fend for themselves. But we don’t leave them to fend for themselves, nor do we do that with pets, children, or vulnerable adults (granted, this concern for others is all a recent social innovation). We give sheep shepherds, someone who knows how to keep them safe in the world – and we get indignant when the caretakers neglect their job. We grant vulnerable creatures social support because we know they need it.

Don’t we all need some extra support? Couldn’t we all use a shepherd? Ultimately we’re all sheep, aren’t we? We focus mostly our particular square foot of grass. Different people do it in different ways, but we’re all usually too self-absorbed to live beyond ourselves. In Paul’s words, we’re helpless to do more than worry about ourselves. Call it sin (a la Paul) or call it human frailty: we’re more like the hired hands Jesus critiques than like shepherds. We all tend to look out for “number one.”

Jesus wasn’t like that. “I Am the good shepherd,” he said, and he lived that out. The Good Shepherd transcends himself in ways we’re not often able to do. He gives up his life for the sake of others. In Paul’s (and Jesus’) religious world, he gives his life to free us from condemnation. Or he does it to fight off the wolves that circle around us – the powers of hatred, fear, sickness, and death – so we don’t have to face them alone anymore. Jesus doesn’t protect the sheep because we deserve it by our actions, but because God loves us regardless of our actions. We’re simply God’s people. So Jesus gives everything for us, beyond what we instinctively know how to give.

Except that we do know how. We instinctively worry for ourselves, but others’ needs can trump our self-concern – just ask parents, emergency workers, and many others. Jesus gives his life for us, but not just because he’s fully God. He does it because he’s fully human, and self-giving is what true humanity looks like. Living beyond ourselves and caring for others is what we’re here to do. And we’re able to do it because Christ already lived, died, and lives again for us. May we discover this life within us and follow Christ into new life.