Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my Easter Sunday sermon, I shared with you my conviction that “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Throughout the season of Easter, I have been presenting a series of meditations based on the changes that do occur. We have reflected on the resurrection’s elimination of fear and doubt, and its word of forgiveness. And now on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we shall ponder the resurrection’s promise of protection and security
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Sunday where around the world pastors and priests preach really baaaaaad sermons. Ah, the Good Shepherd. Just think of those Tiffany stained-glass windows of the innocent, pure white sheep being carried by a gentle, brawny shepherd, or the romantic paintings of the mighty shepherd guiding his flock through a darkened landscape seeking the lost lamb caught in a thicket. The shepherd is a wonderfully, captivating and heroic image fitting your favorite parish pastor, unfortunately, for the members of the flock, being likened to sheep isn’t quite so complimentary.
Truthfully, I haven’t seen many sheep grazing along the shores of Lake of the Isles, nor have I seen them being led along paths of Kenwood Parkway. We simply don’t deal with sheep on a day to day basis. Sheep, as much as I know are a lot like small children. They need constant care, direction, food, and safety. Someone said if parents knew what they were getting into they would never have children and would begin directly with grandchildren. We view sheep in the same way. We would prefer to work with the wool than with the real live animal. So it isn’t surprising that the audience in the Temple in this morning’s gospel bristled at Jesus’ words.
St. John the Evangelist records several stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the days after he was raised from the dead, but the setting for this morning’s gospel is earlier in his ministry. We read that it was winter time, and that the people were celebrating Hanukkah, or the Festival of the Dedication. Jesus himself was walking into the Temple, in the portico of Solomon, which was the place where the Jewish kings of old rendered their judgments. On that day, Jesus was asked by the crowd, “How long will you keep us in suspense. Are you the messiah?” His answer angered the crowd. “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
For Jesus, there was little point in more conversation. Those who were a part of his’ flock would recognize and follow his voice, while those who were not would simply choose not to believe. All of which raises the theological question: Is any of this fair? It almost sounds like God has determined this all ahead of time. Either you are a part of God’s flock or you’re not. Some people are destined to believe while others won’t be given much slack.
Personally, I believe that there is a more practical, almost organic answer to the question of firmness. What Jesus is actually saying is that in order to believe in the shepherd, to believe in him, you must belong to him first. Far more often, you and I struggle to believe because we refuse to belong. In other words, the Christian faith doesn’t come first. It can’t. Belonging to Jesus always comes first- and that happens by following him.
As a pastor, I can try to encourage men and women to be faithful through my preaching, and the choir and organist are here to inspire you through their music, and the architect who drew the plans for this building, created a space to surround you all with beauty. Truthfully my friends, whatever belief you arrive at in this life will most assuredly not come a well crafter sermon. No most assuredly it will come from your daily business of belonging to Jesus’ flock and walking in his footsteps. As I often jest, never once in scripture do we read of Jesus handing out business cards with the invitation, “Let me be your personal Savior.” No, everywhere in scripture we read Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.” Why is following so important? Professor David Lose writes, “It’s really, really hard to be an armchair Christian.” It’s only by getting out of our pews and actually living the Christian life that we come to deeper faith and commitment. It is only when we understand that difference between believing and belonging that Jesus words make sense. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If you are not following the shepherd, how can you grow to trust and believe in him?
Now you may be wondering, so what does this have to do with the Easter promise of protection and security? Well, when you get to my age, somewhere in your late 40’s or early 50’s, one of the things that you hope for in your faith is that it will help you cope with the challenges that will most assuredly come your way. Somewhere at some point in your life you discover that no matter how nice a person you are, troubles come knocking at your door, and you are not going to live forever. It’s not the idea that you are going to die that scares you. Far more often it is disease and sickness that will trouble you.
The British writer Chesterton once wrote a wonderful line. He said, “There are people who pray for eternal life and don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday.” It’s true. I know very few people who want to live forever. What we fear is not mortality, not death. We want to live on this earth just long enough to have made a difference to the world and for our families
The Good Shepherd promises those who follow him that they will have his protection to reach that goal, and that they need not fear that they will travel the valleys of death and depression and despair alone. He offers them instead the assurance that no one will snatch them away from God’s tender care. No one. What a perspective that gives to life and death.
My friends, the resurrection truly offers protection and safety. Of course, from death’s grip. But the resurrection also offers you safety from a grief that could overwhelm hope; and an anguish that could crush your spirit. The resurrection offers protection from a loneliness that might isolate your soul. With whom do you feel truly safe? Safe enough to share the truth, of who you are, and who you want to be? With whom do you feel truly secure? Secure enough to share your concerns and griefs and sorrows? And just as importantly, with whom do you celebrate your joys and dreams. Christ’s resurrection offers you the assurance of God’s abiding protection and safety. All, because the shepherd knows the needs of his sheep intimately. And no one will snatch them out of his hand.
That is the good news of the resurrection. Jesus has risen from the dead to walk with you and to lead you. The one could who could not be separated from his Father even in death, is there to you lead you from death into life. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” It is in his promise that you will discover your own ultimate security and protection. This same Lord Jesus promises to walk with you and lead you with his abiding protection and safety to his banqueting hall. And at that great table, he has prepared a place for you. Yes, he has prepared a table for all of us: a table overflowing with cups and abundant blessings. And at the last hour, he promises to lead you to the place where you dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And no one can snatch you from his care. “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.