Sermon delivered on Easter 4C, Sunday, May 12, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 9.36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-17; John 10.22-30.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, which always falls on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Accordingly, this is what I want us to look at this morning. Is your notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd big enough to truly honor him and get you through the dark valleys of life?
What do you conjure up when you think of the term shepherd? For most of us living in a post-agricultural society, I suspect when we think of shepherds we think of some quaint fellow leading his sheep to pasture. In other words, if we think about it at all, we think of shepherds as being pretty irrelevant to our lives. But shepherds meant something very different to the Old and NT writers. When they spoke of shepherds they had in mind a king who would not only lead his people but also protect them. And the best way for a king to lead and protect God’s people Israel was to encourage them to be faithful to their covenant with the Lord. Doing so would ensure that they would receive his blessing and protection as Moses made clear to God’s people Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. When the Bible speaks of shepherds, it has something quite different in mind than we do. Life, happiness, blessing, and safety are not possible without a Good Shepherd.
And this ought to make sense to us because we live in a world that has been invaded by evil and hostile powers, powers that were unleashed on God’s good world by human sin and folly. These dark powers are death-dealing. They hate us and want to destroy us. Combined with our proclivity to elevate and worship self over God, the dark powers often have an easy time finding human agents to assist in dealing out death to us. Think of the rash of bombings and mass murders that have occurred over the past month. Hundreds of Christians were blown up in Sri Lanka as they celebrated Easter. Another synagogue was attacked in CA. Then of course we have yet another school shooting. We see the devastating results of those who allow themselves to be used by the dark powers to bring death and sorrow and anger whenever they can. Christians seem to be especially targeted by the dark powers and their agents. While not prevalent in this country—at least not yet—did you know that in 2017 there were some 215,000,000 Christians who reported being persecuted for their faith, and that today 4 out of 5 people being persecuted for their faith are Christian? Never have Christians been more widely persecuted. Just this past week, Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman who had been sentenced to death for preaching blasphemy and who was finally exonerated, was allowed to leave for asylum in Canada. Yet even there she is not safe as Islamic extremists have vowed to hunt her down and kill her. She has become one of their favorite targets to hate. Our Lord surely knew what he was talking about when he warned his disciples that they would be hated because the world hated him first (John 15.18-23).
As we think about these things, we dare not develop an “us vs. them” mentality. Without the help from an outside power stronger than the powers of Evil and Sin (God), we are all capable of collaborating with the forces of Death. As our culture becomes increasing less Christian, our innate desire to elevate ourselves over God will only increase and so will the darkness that ensues. The Vatican apparently recognizes this trend as well as it recently opened up its exorcism summit for the first time to those outside the Catholic Church because of the unsettling rise of satanic worship and demonic incidents throughout the world. It seems that ever since Eden, we humans seek to worship and follow anything but God, the only Source of Life.
Given this reality, we instinctively know that we need a shepherd in the true biblical sense who can guide and protect us from the forces of Evil and Death that hate us and want to destroy us. We wall ourselves up in gated communities, we refuse to get involved with issues of justice or deal with people who are “not like us,” we seek all kinds of power to insulate us from the darkness of this world, we stockpile our wealth and other material goods, hoping that they will protect us from all the darkness that life can bring. But this is just delusional thinking. All the money in the world, all the fame, all the power, all the gated communities cannot protect us from sickness or madness or growing old or loneliness or alienation or death. Nothing in this world is capable of doing that. Nothing. Even if we are faithful Christians, if we do not have a grown up conception of who our Good Shepherd is and a resurrection hope that is lively and robust, we are most to be pitied because we are play acting and whistling through the graveyard, hoping all our futile self-help efforts will suddenly and magically work. They won’t. As we have just observed, self-help is of this world and nothing of this world in its current configuration has the power to give life. Nothing.
Even if we have a healthy understanding of the nature of Christ as our Good Shepherd and an accompanying resurrection hope that is lively and relevant to us, it doesn’t make us immune from the dark valleys of life. But God never promised us this. We note that the beloved 23rd psalm doesn’t tell us that the Good Shepherd keeps us out of the dark valley. No, the Good Shepherd promises to be with us to strengthen and comfort us when we are confronted by the darkness of this world and our sins and ultimately the darkness of death. We aren’t told why a good and loving God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, allows Evil to operate in his good world to corrupt it. No one has that answer, not even our Lord Jesus when he walked this earth. What Christ gave us was much better. He gave us himself. He gave his life to free us from the power of Sin so that our destiny is life, not death—after all, only Christ is the resurrection and the life—and here is where we have to be crystal clear in our thinking about our resurrection hope because it is the key to us living life with a tenacious and dogged hope, even when confronted with the reality of death.
As St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians, Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. This is how the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death are defeated. Christ died for our sins so that we can be spared God’s good and right judgment on our sins. And in raising Christ from the dead, God showed us that even the universal power of death is destroyed. Not completely yet, of course, but it’s coming and Christ’s resurrection is historical proof that God’s promise to destroy death one day is true (apparently God’s word isn’t good enough for us; we need historical proof as well, another reminder of why the cross is so necessary for us to be reconciled to God, but I digress). The dark powers did their worst to Christ. They had him arrested, tortured, humiliated, reviled, and killed in the worst and most degrading manner ever devised by human depravity. The result? Christ is risen! Death is overcome by life! God showed us decisively his intentions for us: life, not death, thanks be to God! Amen?
And when the New Creation is ushered in fully, we see two things happen. First, we see the abolition of death on a universal basis, at least for the followers of Christ. Death is destroyed forever. Second, we see the implementation of God’s perfect justice. Human justice, no matter how just and right it can be, is never complete. Murder victims, for example, are still dead. Lives are destroyed, the loss is still real. Not so in God’s new world. Evildoers are vanquished forever, the dead are restored to life, all brokenness and imperfection is healed, along with our memories, and we shall live directly in God’s presence with his attendant protection and healing forever. Let me give you a personal example. In 2008 my mother had a massive stroke and lingered for three days. She died a hard death and it was painful to watch. She died when Dondra and I were out for supper. When I returned to her room I saw her corpse lying there. It was ugly and unnatural. It showed the recent signs of her physical suffering. My mother was a good woman and a faithful Christian. You’ll find no better mother around. She didn’t deserve to die in this way, a death that was made more painful by our decision, made out of ignorance, not to hydrate her. This awful vignette encapsulates the entire history of human sin and folly. Sin results in death, in this case my beloved mother’s. Human folly was involved, in this case my ignorance of the importance of keeping her hydrated which only increased her suffering and my guilt when I found out what I had inadvertently done to her. There was grief over the loss of a dearly loved one and its permanent alteration of my life. She was my last surviving parent and even at aged 55, I felt like an orphan for the first time in my life. Nothing in this world can change any of that. I could run after false gods, choose to dampen my pain in a variety of ways, tell everyone what a great person my mom was, seek to increase my bank accounts, or try to increase my status, but none of it will bring her back to life. That’s not how this world works.
But now let’s shift our attention to our epistle lesson to see what I am talking about in terms of having a resurrection hope. In it, St. John shares his glimpse of the heavenly throne room. It isn’t a vision of the future; it is a vision of the present heavenly reality. And what did he see? A huge and countless throng of people from every tribe, language, and nation. They are wearing white robes and waving palm branches. They are in the direct presence of God and his Lamb, Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Savior. St. John is asked the question we want to ask. Who are these people? An elder tells him that they have come out of the great ordeal (they have survived being persecuted and suffering, even unto death). They lack nothing because they are living in God’s direct presence and are now under his eternal protection, and God himself has wiped the tears of sorrow and suffering from their very eyes. Think about that! Think about God wiping your tears from your eyes and how wonderful and restorative that must feel! The Good News is that you’ll get to find out one day.
We notice several things from this poignant vision. First, we note that the palm branches the throng waves are symbols of their victory over the dark powers and Death. The Christian dead have this victory because the blood of the Lamb has taken away their sins and made them pure and able to stand in God’s holy and life-giving presence, without which we are all walking dead. Their white robes symbolize their Christ-endowed and life-giving purity. Notice carefully that St. John doesn’t tell us that the people standing in God’s heavenly throne room are the ones who did the most good or went most regularly to church or are a superior race or ethnic group. No, everyone is there because of the love of Christ for them, not because of who they are or what they’ve done. Likewise with us.
We notice too that we see the risen Christ with his transformed body in heaven. Does it surprise you that human bodies can exist in heaven? I know it surprised me when I first was taught it. The vast throng are not yet risen. They are not yet fully alive as Jesus is, but they are alive because they are with the Source of Life and their destiny will be like their risen Savior’s because they belong to him, just like we do. Even in their pre-resurrected state, the Christian dead find life and they suffer no more. Whatever injustices they had to endure are made right and their memories are healed. We know this because they are worshiping God and the Lamb for redeeming them from the darkness of Evil and Death, just like we do when we give thanks for the Resurrection in our Eastertide liturgy. Did you notice that? And because they are in the presence of God and his Lamb, they are protected from evil of any kind because no evil can survive in God’s holy presence. Returning to the story of my mother’s death, this is the only satisfactory hope I could have to sustain me in my grief and loss. I know when I see her next, the memories of that hospital room and her dead body will be erased forever, in part, because when I see her next she will be alive! And when the new creation comes in full, she will have an indescribably beautiful body that will also be indestructible. The injustice of her death will be made right. Her death will have been swallowed up in life. Works for me. Worked for Dorcas in our NT lesson, short-term and for eternity. How about you?
Clearly, St. John intends this vision to encourage us in our suffering as well as give us an indomitable hope because we realize our present and future are secure if we are the Lamb’s, and we can be sure we are his because we hear his voice and obey, not perfectly, but we hear his voice nevertheless and seek to obey him. And he assures us that we will remain his. Nothing can snatch us away from him because nothing is stronger than the love and power of God. He tells us this in our gospel lesson. But what if the worst you have suffered for your faith is having to endure long sermons by your preachers, especially when Fathers Sang, Bowser, and Madanu preach? Then what? How can this lesson encourage you? My only response is that suffering of one sort or another will come before your mortal life ends and you had better be ready with the power of the risen Christ when it does or you will be left without hope. The encouragement found in this story will help you develop that needed power. But what if you have suffered for reasons other than your faith that are beyond your control? Then what? Well, consider this. What if our present suffering is a result of those dark powers working against us and not God punishing us, especially if we cannot directly attribute our suffering to the consequences of our sin, stupidity, or folly? What if God uses our afflictions as opportunities to test us and to draw us closer in our suffering to our Lord Jesus who suffered and died for us? St. John’s vision testifies that Christ will use our suffering to draw us closer to him if we have a resurrection hope that allows us to see that nothing is beyond the redemptive power of God, not even death itself. So be ready. Your hour will come. Draw then on Christ’s power.
Of course, our hope must remain just that until it is realized in the new creation. We will still grieve our dead and have to deal with all the hurt and sorrow and brokenness in this sin-corrupted and God-cursed world. But there is no one or nowhere else to which we can turn. Only in Christ is there hope and life because only Christ has been raised from the dead to break the power of Sin and Death. Only the resurrection offers a real future with full justice and restoration and healing. It is too breathtaking for us to fully contemplate because it comes from God, but contemplate it we must; otherwise we die of hopelessness, wallowing in our sin. And if you are not a fan of delayed gratification, think of the alternative: Hopelessness and no future at all in the face of darkness and the finality of death. So let us persevere and rejoice in Christ, our living hope. Let us resolve to stop seeking life in the world of the dead. Instead, let us embrace fully our Good Shepherd who takes away the sin of the world. Let us live joyfully in the power of the Holy Spirit who makes our risen Savior available to us, even in the face of suffering and death, so that by God’s grace we can show the world and each other what a true and lively Easter hope looks like, and thus encourage each other. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.