Sermon delivered on Easter 4A, Sunday, May 3, 2020 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 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; St. John 10.1-10.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Sunday traditionally celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday. In these dark days of virus, social isolation, death, and fear it seems especially appropriate to talk about why we need Christ as our Shepherd and this is what I want us to do this morning.
In our gospel lesson, our Lord tells us that he is our Good Shepherd, who both leads and guides his followers, and it is critical for us to remember in these dark times, especially you self-loathers, that it is the shepherd who seeks his flock, not the other way around. As our psalm lesson reminds us, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the Shepherd who can and will lead us to peace, the kind of peace our first human ancestors enjoyed with God before their rebellion in paradise. Ps 23 is a beloved psalm, especially the KJV, and it is traditionally used at funerals. But if nothing else, this cursed pandemic has shown us in no uncertain terms that all of mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death, not just when we die. I suspect prior to the onset of the pandemic many of us would have said, “Medical science and technology are my shepherds, I shall not want” instead of saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” because we can cure (or slow down) all kinds of diseases, and this has made us very adept at putting off and denying death in our culture. With our facelifts and tummy tucks, we deny the aging process that is part and parcel of this mortal life. We send off our old folks to “retire” and die in nursing homes and hospitals. Doing so helps us manage our fear of death and keeps us from having to deal with the reality of living in the dark valley of death, a reality caused by human sin and God’s just judgment on it. Don’t misunderstand. There are times when hospitalization and nursing homes are critically necessary and I would not want to live in a society where pre-modern medicine is practiced. God be praised that his image-bearers have used their minds and imagination to help increase our quality of life. My point is that our faith in medical miracles and technology can prevent us from seeing that all mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death, which in turn helps us keep Christ and his demands on us at arm’s length.
But our delusions have been thoroughly exposed by this virus that is both insidious and evil. If we are honest with ourselves, many, if not most, of us are stunned that we even have to deal with a pandemic like our ancestors and most other parts of the world did and do. We are stunned because we foolishly believed our medical and scientific communities could protect us from evils like this. We were wrong. We now find ourselves living in social isolation and fear, terrified that we will be stricken with the virus and die. We have clearly forgotten that we have a Good Shepherd who leads us and guides us, even during our transition from this mortal life to the eternal life of new creation. But rather than wring our hands in fear and despair over the current state of things, I want us to remember we are people of real power, God’s power. We are resurrection and new creation people by virtue of God’s grace and great love for us made known fully in Jesus Christ, and we are promised that as Christians we are united to our crucified and risen Lord in and through our baptism and faith that he is who he claims he is and has done for us what the NT claims he has done for us.
So what does it mean for us to have Christ, the Great Shepherd, walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death? It means first and foremost that we are not to be afraid of the precariousness or fickleness of life. While none of us is guaranteed immunity from being afflicted by the virus (or a thousand other diseases)—nor are we immune to the heartaches, disappointments, failures, or hurts that come with living in a sin-sick and evil-corrupted world—we nevertheless live in the presence and power of the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we might live. When we follow Jesus Christ, we live out our belief that condemnation and death is not our final destiny and that means we have the power to overcome our natural tendency to be afraid because we know that on the cross, God has dealt with all that could cause him to condemn us and lead to our permanent death. And when God raised Jesus from the dead, he gave us a preview of the day when our greatest enemy, Death itself, would be destroyed. Medical advancements and technology, wonderful as they are, cannot keep us from dying. When a vaccine is developed to help us overcome the virus, we will be protected but we will still die. Only the power of God who creates things out of nothing and raises the dead can give us eternal life and that is exactly what the resurrection of our Lord Jesus proclaims God intends to do! St. Paul put our situation in stark terms when he wrote to the Ephesians that, “You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Eph 2.12-13). Living in a world without God and hope is an awful thing. It makes us afraid and it slowly kills us. All of us instinctively know that living without hope is not sustainable. Imagine, e.g., what would happen if we found out that a cure or prevention of this virus was never going to come; it would be catastrophic to us and our society. Sadly, however, many choose to find hope in things that do not and cannot give hope and life; it is a symptom of our deep-seated hostility toward God that causes us to rebel against him. Nothing in this life, not power, money, fame, political identity, technology, medicine, or science, to name just a few, can overcome the valley of the shadow of death and putting our ultimate hope in these things is idolatry at its finest, which will result in God’s condemnation and our death. Only our crucified and risen Shepherd can help us overcome our fear of death because only in him are our sins forgiven and we are reconciled to God. Only Christ is the resurrection and the life who promises that those who follow him will live forever, even though our mortal bodies must die (Jn 11.25-26). So let us resolve in this time of pandemic to put our whole hope and trust in the only One who can and will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. When we do, we have nothing to fear because we know our greatest enemy, Death, has been defeated and will one day be destroyed forever when God’s new creation comes in full with Christ’s return. Living without fear of death is partly what it means to live as resurrection people. In Christ our ultimate death is abolished. Why should we be afraid?
Second and related to the first point, when we are convinced our Great Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, we are able to die well. Hear me carefully here. Nobody should want to die. Death is our greatest enemy. But we are mortal and despite our denial about this fact, we will all die. Dying without fear, dying a peaceful death when our time comes, are marks of a vibrant and lively resurrection faith rooted in our Great Shepherd. One of the most wicked things about this virus is that it has forced many to die alone without human presence and touch. That in itself should be enough to convince us that it comes from the devil himself. But when our Great Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, we can go without that human touch because he is there with us and we know we are not dying alone. Human senses may not perceive his presence any more than we know when our Lord speaks to babies in the womb at their conception, but that does not make his presence and peace any less real. Again, please do not misunderstand. I deeply lament the fact that some have to die alone. This is not how God intends it. But those who have a lively resurrection faith in Christ have his assurance that they are never alone, not even in death, and that he will welcome them into his loving presence, so that they no longer have to be afraid. How well we die is as important as how well we live, and without a real and lively relationship with Christ, it is impossible to die well, human denial and fantasies about death notwithstanding. Are you prepared to die well in the faith and peace and love of Christ who gave himself for you because he loves you, even in all your unloveliness, so that you can live forever? During this time of pandemic, we as God’s people in Christ have the holy opportunity to proclaim our faith in our Savior by preparing to die a good death whenever it comes.
But as we have seen, the whole of mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death. So how do we cultivate our Lord’s risen presence in the living of our days? To that we turn to our NT lesson for some helpful insights because as all our readings make clear, being people of our Great Shepherd is a collective, not individual, thing. As St. Luke makes abundantly clear in Acts, our life in Christ is to be lived out together as a family. If we ever hope to develop the deep and abiding faith in Christ needed to allow us to live as people without fear who are prepared to live and die well in his risen presence, people who know his great love for them and who stake their very lives on this knowledge, we have to participate in the four marks of the Church: We have to appropriate the apostolic teaching contained in the NT, enjoy a common life together (fellowship), break bread together, and pray together. The history of the Church is littered with various examples of the wreckage of those who failed to participate in these four marks of the Church and if we at St. Augustine’s fail to participate in them fully, we can expect to be part of that wreckage. I appeal to you, my beloved, let us not do that to ourselves!
First, we are to learn the apostolic teaching in the NT because we believe that they were eyewitnesses of our Lord’s life and death who received Christ’s teachings and example directly, and are therefore in a position to pass on to us what we must do/think/say to be his followers. For example, last week we learned how the first Christians became resurrection peeps who believed in the power of Christ’s bodily resurrection that announced the new creation and the resurrection of the dead, filling them with joy and new hope. In our epistle lesson today, we learn from St. Peter that followers of Christ are not to retaliate against their enemies and those who afflict them with suffering. We are to do this because this is what Christ did for us. He did not condemn us for our sins but took them on himself so that we would not suffer God’s just condemnation. As we study the Scriptures together, we learn how to live out hard teachings like this and to identify markers of what real love looks like, the love of God that heals and sustains, not human love that often seeks its own distorted pleasures and goals. As fallen human beings, we are prone to misinterpreting the word of God, so we need the family corrective to help us get it right and keep it right. And as our NT lesson also attests, we can learn from apostolic teaching how we can know Christ’s presence in and among us in the power of the Spirit. St. Luke tells us the Church did the four things at which we are looking and God blessed and grew their numbers because they did, filling them with joy and power.
Second, we are to enjoy sweet fellowship together because as we have already seen, we all need the human touch. We also need sweet fellowship to help us not be afraid. Think about it. When are we most vulnerable to fear and despair? When we are isolated and feel all alone. We need each other to weep with and celebrate with. When we enjoy the kind of intimate family relationships St. Luke reports in our NT lesson today, we can be real with each other. We will be there for each other and we can be charitable in our agreements and disagreements. We may not always see eye to eye on lesser things in life, but that will not prevent us from being part of the same flock our Great Shepherd leads, and together he helps us help each other in our weaknesses to grow in our relationship with him as well as with each other. As St. Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit lives in us individually and collectively (1 Cor 6.19), and Christ is made known to us in and through the Spirit’s presence. Families are the glue of a coherent society and God’s family in Christ is no exception!
When we break bread together, especially at the eucharist, we remind each other that we have died and been raised with Christ to new life. We feast on our Lord’s body and blood, literally consuming him, and we are sustained and nurtured by him in the power of the Spirit. If you have ever wondered where Christ is in the midst of darkness, look no further than his Word contained in Scripture and in the sacrament of Holy Communion. There you will find a healed and redeemed people, people who are far from perfect but who have caught a glimpse of what risen life in Christ is like and are refreshed and made whole over time. We will have to wait for God’s new creation to come in full to enjoy perfect healing and health, but we still enjoy the imperfect healing and wholeness made known to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. This is why in the midst of a plague-ravaged world, Christ’s resurrection with its announcement of new creation can be such a healing and stabilizing factor to help us navigate during these desperate times. When we do not participate in the eucharist on a regular basis, we are in clear danger of failing to make Christ’s death and resurrection the center of everything we say and do and believe, and we will suffer badly as a result.
And of course we are to pray together because we are heaven and earth people. We pray for ourselves and for others who are in desperate need because we desire to bring God’s power to bear in our lives and the lives of others so that his kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. It is what loving people do. In prayer we can draw close to Christ himself, who sits at God’s right hand (rules) and intercedes for us out of his great love for us. We can pour out our hopes and fears in prayer, asking for Christ’s guidance, confident that he will guide us—often through his people—because he has promised to be our Great Shepherd. Prayer helps keep us rooted in the reality of God’s Kingdom and reminds us we do not worship an absent or uncaring God.
This is what St. Luke is describing for us. It is the family of God at work (and play) together. It isn’t a version of primitive communism as some have argued. It is a winsome and wholesome description of the first followers of Christ living together as a true family and it is a far more compelling notion of church than those who see doing church as coming to worship once a week and then going their own way to do their own thing. And I am here to tell you, St. Augustine’s, that we fit this description of church pretty well. Not perfectly, of course, because we are a bunch of ragamuffins. But we have the marks of a vibrant family and so there is no reason for any of us to be afraid or not have a lively resurrection faith. And if you are still skeptical, I would invite you to read or reread Bethany’s testimony of how she came to believe in the resurrection of the body. It wasn’t just apostolic teaching. It was fellowship and breaking bread and prayer as well. She realized you aren’t the total losers she originally thought you were and God used you to help bring her to a healthy faith, thanks be to God! This is how Christ nurtures us and helps us not to be afraid. This is worth celebrating, my beloved, even in the midst of pandemic. I pray we will all do what is necessary to become people of power, resurrection people who know they have the Great Shepherd to walk with them wherever they go, even in the valley of the shadow of death. 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.