Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sermon: Good Shepherd Sunday (4 Easter/3 May 2009))

Sermon: 4 Pascha – Good Shepherd Sunday – (3 May 2009)
(Acts 4:5-12/Psalm 23/1 John 3:16-24/John 10:11-18)
Feed My Sheep

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos Anesti!

We are now near the midpoint of Pascha: a bit more than half way to Ascension, a bit less than half way to Pentecost – a between time that calls us to reflect on what has happened and what is yet to come. The church has contemplated these events for two millennia – in prayer and hymn, in sacred art and architecture, in liturgy and theology – and still they are no less mystery than in those first forty days between resurrection and ascension. Often after teaching the crowds in parables Jesus would draw the Twelve aside and ask, “Have you understood all these things?” This is such a moment when Jesus calls the church aside from the headlong, joyous rush of Pascha to ask, “Have you understood all these things, and do you know what I have done for you?” Like the Twelve we say, “Yes, Lord.” Like a master teacher who truly knows his students, Jesus explains anyway.

“I am the good shepherd,” he says, invoking a central image in Hebrew experience and scripture: God as shepherd of Israel. The patriarchs understood. As Jacob prepared to be gathered to his fathers, he blessed his grandsons in the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who had been shepherd to him.

“May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
the Angel who has delivered me from all harm –
may he bless these boys” (Gen 48:15-16a, NIV).

The poet Asaph understood as he sang to the Lord a psalm, a plea for deliverance.

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock,
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved (Ps 80:1-3, BCP).

The prophets understood, Isaiah chief among them as he looked forward to the end of exile and the advent of the Messiah.

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
and his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (Is 40:10-11, NRSV).

And David understood – perhaps David understood best of all – for

[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them (Ps 78:70-72, NIV).

David, the shepherd of the people of God, understood God to be his Shepherd. And so, David’s great shepherd’s psalm rings with a beauty and truth and authenticity that speak across the millennia.

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;

For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Ps 23, NKJV).

God as shepherd: no other image so deeply and indelibly formed Israel’s understanding of the Lord – the Lord who led Abram from his father’s house in Ur to become the father of nations; the Lord who delivered Abraham’s children from bondage in Egypt and led that flock forty years in the wilderness, bringing them at last to a land flowing with milk and honey; the Lord who raised up the shepherd David to shepherd the flock of God; the Lord who gathered his scattered flock from among the nations and brought them home from exile.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Moses and David; the God of Isaiah and all the prophets. I am that good shepherd,” is what he meant. And as startling as that claim surely was, what he does to the image of the Shepherd of Israel is more startling still. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NKJV). None that have gone before – neither Abraham nor Moses, neither David nor Isaiah – could possibly have understood this, could possibly have understood the death of their Shepherd and their Lord. It is only from our position near the midpoint of Pascha that such a radical change to the image of shepherd begins to make sense. Jesus, the good shepherd, did indeed lead us into the valley of the shadow of death, as David foresaw. And there, he laid down his life for the sheep. The rod and staff that comforted us were none other than the beams of the cross upon which the good shepherd died. And in his death, through his death, he prepared a table for us – a table laden with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – a table spread in the presence of our ancient and now defeated enemies: Satan and sin and death and hell. He anointed us there with the oil of gladness, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely with goodness and mercy he prepared a place for us, a place where we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And he sent us on along paths of righteousness to green pastures and still waters, places that restore the soul. He sent on us while he remained behind in that valley, in that shadow of death.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.” And here Jesus resurrects the image of the fallen shepherd and brings it forth in glory. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again,” (John 10:11, 18, NKJV). The images twist and turn and transform one into another: the good shepherd becomes the Lamb of God who gives his life as a ransom for many and then takes it up again to become the Lamb upon the Throne and to receive the praise of all creation:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:12, NRSV).

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said, and now, at this between time near the midpoint of Pascha, we begin to see what he meant. The sheep – all the fallen, image-bearers of God, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, Jew and gentile alike – were scattered. In the wisdom and mystery and grace of God, the Good Shepherd came among them, led them through the valley of the shadow of death, and laid down his own life for them. In taking up his life again, he called all the scattered flocks to himself that there might be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16), that all might return to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls (1 Pe 2:25).

Why did he do this? Love. It is the only answer given and the only answer that makes any sense of this mystery. “By this we know love,” John writes, “because He laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16a, NKJV). And this same love that binds us as one flock to the one shepherd binds us also to one another, so that John continues, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16b, NRSV). Don’t make this commandment – and, yes, it is a commandment – bigger than it is. It is a commandment kept mainly in the small things, in the hidden martyrdoms of life, as John makes clear. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help” (John 3:17 (NRSV)? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the prisoners: this is what John means, this is how we lay down our lives for one another – in a thousand small ways, in a thousand hidden martyrdoms. I wonder where John got such an idea?

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me' (Mt 25:32-40, NIV).

What a twist on the ancient image, that now the sheep are to becomes shepherds for one another: leading one another to green pastures and still waters – to places that restore the soul; walking together through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil because God is present, not least in the love and fellowship of a brother or sister; preparing a table, breaking bread, and pouring wine; showing goodness and mercy – all done for the least of the sheep by the least of the sheep, all done for the Good Shepherd.

Once Peter stood where we now stand, at the midpoint of Pascha, though he had no idea that Ascension and Pentecost were to come. He still had one foot in his past so he decided to do what he knew best; he got his boat and nets and went fishing. If he hoped the distraction would ease his mind and help sort things out, he was mistaken; it was a miserable, long night with no fish to show for his effort. John takes up the story.

4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered.
6He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught."
11Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep” (John 21:4-17, NIV).

Jesus pulls out all the stops here, reminding Peter of their shared experiences: the miraculous catch of fish, the feeding of the 5000, the institution of the Eucharist – and all this to restore Peter to his role as shepherd. “Feed my sheep,” is Jesus’ command to Peter, first among the Apostles, rock upon which the church is built. “Feed my sheep,” is Jesus’ command to us. “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

And now,

20May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21, NIV).

No comments: