Sermon delivered on Easter 4B, Good Shepherd Sunday, April 25, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Acts 4.1-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; St. John 10.11-18.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Eastertide and we are at day 22, almost midway through the 50 days of Easter (how are your new creation celebrations going, BTW? Are you causing anyone to wonder why you are partying so much?). In the Anglican Tradition, we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday, where our readings point to Christ as our Good Shepherd. But what does that mean for us as Christians living in an increasingly chaotic 21st century world? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
So who needs Christ as their Good Shepherd? Well, all of us, frankly, because we live in a world of instant communication that allows us to see with increasing intensity the dark and chaotic world in which we live. Toots and I can barely watch the news anymore and we increasingly stay away from social media because of the ever-growing toxic strand of stories that stream from these various sources. In short, we avoid the news for the sake of our mental health and spiritual, and we’re not alone. As the Christian faith and those who profess and live it come under increasing attack, not to mention the very foundations and traditions of our nation, if we are not careful we can quickly and easily fall into despair. Then of course there are the personal failures, setbacks, losses, anxieties, and other difficulties we all face. Many of us who try to live up to the high calling of the Christian life are all too painfully aware that we miss the mark, sometimes as much as we hit it. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us. Perhaps a better question might be, where is our Good Shepherd, rather than do we need one! Then there’s the quaint and seemingly outdated term, shepherd, itself. Most of us don’t come from a rural background and even if we do, shepherding seems to be a thing of the past. Why would we need a good shepherd when we live in the 21st century?
But we mustn’t let the historical context of Scripture lull us into false and misleading conclusions. We must remember that it is to the glory of God that he indeed works and is active in the context of human history, meaning that Jesus lived at a particular time and in a particular culture where his listeners would have quickly related to his use of the term shepherd. No, as Scripture consistently proclaims, our God is not some absentee god who is disinterested in this world and our lives. Nor is he a god who focuses exclusively on things “spiritual” as any self-respecting gnostic, past and present, would have us believe. Instead, Scripture proclaims consistently that God our Father is the God of history and our Creator. And as the resurrection of Christ proclaims boldly to us and to the world, creation matters to God and God intends to make all things right again. The risen Christ is our living preview of coming attractions so to speak, testifying to this truth, thanks be to God!
If we keep all this in mind, we are ready to answer the question as to why we need Christ the Good Shepherd. A shepherd is one who looks after those who follow him, in this case human image-bearers, not mindless sheep. This image therefore reminds us that the notion of shepherding by definition applies not to individuals, but to groups (think Christ’s body, the Church). Of course, Jesus leads us and is available to us as individuals. Anybody who knows the risen Lord knows that. But Christ does not call us to live our lives in isolation. He calls us to live together as a family of believers. We are all in this together because we are all subject to the same dark powers and forces of chaos, which at its root is the very nature of sin. Show me sin of any kind and I will show you chaos. Given that we are subject to powers and forces far stronger than we are, forces that have enslaved us and stripped and robbed us of our original human dignity as God’s image-bearing creatures whom God created to rule his good creation on his behalf, we are in constant danger of being undone. Simply put, we are not able on our own to free ourselves from our slavery to that alien and hostile power we call Sin, and if we are unable to free ourselves from its slavery, we all face Death, not only our mortal death, but also the Death that results from being disconnected from God, our very Source of life. This means that we are already dead people walking without God’s help. Take the patient off his life-support systems without a cure and the patient dies. Try to live life in the face of the dark powers and the chaos they impose on our lives and world without the help of someone or something stronger, and we become people who live without hope. And without hope, we all die.
But thanks be to God that we do have someone who is stronger than the forces who hate us and want to destroy us. We have Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and raised from the dead, available to us. Christ is our Beautiful Shepherd (a more accurate description for the Greek word, kalos, than the term “good”), who loves us enough to give up his equality with God to become human and to die for us to break Sin’s power over us, and to bear God’s righteous and just punishment for our sins. This self-giving love for us reflects the heart and glory of God the Father who does not give up on us, irrespective of how badly we manage to screw things up. None of us know all that transpired on Calvary that Good Friday because none of us has the mind of God. Yet we believe that our sins are forgiven and that we have new life starting right now because Christ’s death reconnected us to God our lifeline and promises one day to raise our mortal bodies from the dead to live with him forever. How do I know this? How can I be sure, especially with so many unanswered questions and in the face of so much dysfunction and suffering and alienation and chaos (sin)? Because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead as he tells us he would be in our gospel lesson today. As St. Paul proclaimed in his letter to the Romans, at just the right time, Christ died for us, even while we were still God’s enemies (Romans 5.6-20) so that we could have life once again and be the image-bearing creatures God created us to be as human beings. This is what real shepherding looks like, the only kind that matters, and this is why we have only one real Shepherd because only in Christ do we find forgiveness of sins and salvation. And here we need to spend some time unpacking this extraordinary statement found in our NT lesson. Isn’t it incredibly exclusionary? Well, no it isn’t.
Why? Because what Ss. Peter and John were proclaiming, along with the early Church, is that only Jesus is God become human and only his saving death can break our slavery to Sin and restore us to our rightful place as God’s image-bearers. In other words, Christianity has a truth that other religions simply do not because only Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Neither is God’s love closed to anyone. All are invited to put their faith in Jesus Christ and no one is shut out expect through their own stubborn refusal to see and believe the truth that is in Christ. Now of course the history of Christianity is littered with all kinds of folly that has accompanied our proclaimed faith in Christ and all kinds of wickedness that has sadly accompanied real Christian wisdom. But human wickedness and folly do not negate the truth of the claim itself! Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, proving he is who he claimed to be, not to mention the testimony of hundreds of millions of people over time and culture, our little parish being a blessed microcosm of that collective witness! Christ himself tells us this today in rather stark terms, you’ll never know me or that my claims are true if you don’t know the One who sent me, i.e., God. Why? Because the Father and I are one and that kind of deep intimate relationship characterizes the relationship my followers have with me. Confess me as your Lord and live like you believe it, and you will know that my claim to be the only way to the Father is true (John 14.6). As both the psalmist and St. John in his epistle remind us, Christ our Beautiful Shepherd is the basis for our reconciliation with God and our confident trust that he is with us, even at the moment of our mortal death. What more protection and promise do we need, my beloved? That is why only Christ can be our Good Shepherd, because only in Christ do we find forgiveness of sins and the promise of resurrection. No other shepherds will do because no one but Christ can give us life. Pinheads like me who claim the title of pastor (shepherd) by virtue of our office cannot give you life; we can only point you to the One who can and does, and encourage and exhort you to believe the power and the promise, especially in today’s world where it is increasingly viewed with disdain and hostility. Even so, we do not fear nor will we let ourselves be kowtowed into silence if we really do believe that there is no other Name than Christ’s by which we are saved! That is why Christians, and by that I mean those who have a real and lively faith with Christ, have never feared persecution and have actually rejoiced when suffering for Christ’s sake. As Jesus himself reminded us, we shouldn’t fear those who can kill our body but are then powerless to do anything else to us. We should instead fear God who has the power to end our life forever (Matthew 10.28).
I can hear some of you grumbling right now. You have questions. Why does he sweat so much when he preaches and leads worship (A: I am a born sweat hog)? If Christ really is the Good Shepherd, why is my life so blown up right now? C’mon dude. Get real. Well, my skeptical interlocutory friend, here’s the deal. I don’t know why God allows what God allows to go on in his world. Nobody does and if you hear someone claim otherwise, run like crazy from that person! What I can tell you is this. Life is not a grand experimental design. It does not consist of experimental and control groups where we can manipulate variables to determine causation and/or correlation. It just doesn’t work that way. We aren’t God and we aren’t omniscient. We aren’t privy to all to which God is privy. That’s why, for example, I can’t prove in any kind of strict empirical sense that God answers prayer or that God is moving mightily within our parish family by bringing new families in and opening up your generous hearts to enable us to occupy our new premises. I can’t “prove” any of this, but I know it’s true because I know the power of God in Jesus Christ raised from the dead, in my life, in the lives of many of you, and in the life of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, broken and dysfunctional as she is. It’s called FAITH. And because I know the power of the risen Lord and his presence in and among his people, I don’t feel the need to try to “prove” anything to skeptics with their sneering questions. I’m not copping an attitude here. I simply don’t feel compelled to play by the enemy’s rules or by the rules of scoffers. I know the reality and so, I pray, do you.
None of this means that we are immune to hurts, heartaches, failures, and brokenness as a parish. We know this all too well. Wendy just lost her dad to congestive heart failure. Chris recently lost his brother to the wicked disease of cancer. Doug is still not fully healed, to name just three examples. You all can add your own heartbreaking stories. But mysterious as this all is, it does not negate the reality of Christ’s promise to be our Beautiful Shepherd in life and in death because he is risen from the dead and because we don’t live a life that is built like a cosmic experimental design. There’s much more than meets our senses and Scripture affirms that there is an unseen reality out there of which we are unaware. Think, for example, of Elisha and his young assistant who found themselves seemingly trapped by the Aramean army. The young man fell into despair as a result, thinking that they were about to be utterly undone. But then Elisha prayed for God to open the young man’s eyes and he beheld the unseen forces of God ready to intervene on their behalf to rescue them (2 Ki 6.8-23)! St. John essentially tells us the same thing in our epistle lesson when he reminds us that when we are Christ’s we have the invisible Presence of the Holy Spirit working in us to remind us of God’s great love for us despite the fact that we were at one time God’s enemies. God’s love reminds us that we no longer need to languish over a guilty conscience. Rather we are to repent of that which caused that guilty conscience and ask God’s forgiveness. And because we know the crucified and risen Lord, we know that God gladly answers our prayers. Do you believe this? If you do, let Christ’s shepherding strengthen and encourage you in the dark valleys of your life. And by all means, let us encourage and strengthen each other with this reality when we become aware of of those dark valleys.
All this reminds us why we need Christ our Beautiful Shepherd and what it leads to: changed lives and the power to be a living embodiment of Christ’s love for us and for his world. If we really believe that there is no salvation other than in the Name of Christ, and if we really believe God does truly love us despite our warts, sometimes quite sizable, then we must live and proclaim our faith to others because having Christ as our Good Shepherd really is a matter of life and death. It means, in other words, we put our faith into action, starting with our families and our extended parish family. When we see others in need we act on their behalf, having generous hearts that imitate our Savior. It means we give our time, talents, and money to help our families and those around us who desperately need to both survive and to hear and see the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed and lived out faithfully. It means we are to embody the self-giving love Christ has for us to others in the context of our daily lives and communities. And here I want to offer counsel to you because many, if not most, Christians misunderstand what self-giving love looks like. To embody the self-giving love of Christ doesn’t mean we become punching bags of all sorts to others. Jesus Christ did not love us and die for us to enable us to continue in our (self-)destructive behavior. He died for us so that we might learn to live and love like he loves us and the Father loves him. He died for us so that we might be truly healed and find wholeness and peace. Remember this as you attempt to love others. Becoming their verbal, emotional, or physical punching bag or enabling their destructive behaviors is not loving them. It is actually participating in their sin and this is never the loving thing to do. We sometimes are confronted with difficult choices when dealing with others. That is when we go to Scripture and pray to the Lord for guidance and wisdom. And we learn to trust each other enough to seek and receive their godly guidance. We can do so with confidence, a confidence not rooted in ourselves or others, but because we know the One who is our Beautiful Shepherd and who promises to be with us, individually and together, in any and every circumstance because of his great love for us. This is Jesus Christ, crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven to rule until he returns again to finish his saving work on our behalf. This is the Shepherd we desperately need and the One on whom we can count and to whom we can give our wholehearted love, loyalty, trust, and obedience because only in him is forgiveness and life. 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.