A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter
Year A – 11 May 2014
John Edward Miller, Rector
It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:19-25
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:1-10
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter, the focus of our worship is Christ the Good Shepherd. We take on the role of his sheep and express our gratitude for his pastoral care in music, Scripture, prayers, and sermon. This metaphor, which depicts the relationship of God to his people (of Christ to his Church), remains lively and meaningful to us. Indeed, our Episcopal Church celebrates the ancient concept in the ministry of the bishop, who is the chief pastor and overseer of the diocesan flock. When the bishop makes a parish visit, he or she enters the church carrying a crosier, the symbol of the bishop’s authority. Episcopal crosiers may be ornate, but the simple ones are unmistakably pastoral. They are replicas of the shepherd’s staff, reminding us that the bishop our pastor, and we are the sheep of the pasture he tends. That is the bishop’s ministry to us on behalf of Christ Jesus.
The convergence of Good Shepherd Sunday with the celebration of Mother’s Day is a happy coincidence – especially for those of us who are keenly aware of the deep commitment, the nurture and guidance, and the abiding mercy that our mother lavished upon us. Each of us is the product of those blessings, and the awareness of them is not only heartening, but it is vital to our healthy self-esteem and sense of wholeness. In my own case, this is a precious memory now, but it is a living legacy that I cherish. Among the multitude of amazing things that my mother gave me was her empowering example of faithfulness. She believed in, and completely trusted, the power of love. That explained her courage to carry on when my father was totally disabled at age 27, her unwavering devotion to him, her steadfast care for me and my brother, and her depth of faith in God. Love gave her confidence in life, and she taught us how to live it abundantly, despite hardship and disappointment. Mom, like many other exemplary mothers that we recall today, was a true shepherd. And I am grateful that she was the one who taught me the 23rd Psalm. Little did I know then, at a tender age, how great a lifesaver that little gem of Scripture would be for me. I have a feeling that she knew, and her entrusting it to me is an enduring grace.
The pastoral relationship – the bond between the shepherd and the sheep – is the setting that promotes life. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want,” the opening verse of the psalm, makes that explicit claim. Everything that follows develops that inspiring idea. As we recite the psalm, we are invited to feel the support and encouragement of our own relationship to God, made evident through the shepherds of our experience. By the closing verse, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” the peace of God embraces our being – if we let that be so. And we, the Good Shepherd’s beloved sheep, may safely graze on green pasture, and drink deeply of the waters of comfort.
That soothing thought gives a regular boost to many of us. However, the life-giving power of the shepherding bond is neither self-evident nor automatic; it took much on God’s part to achieve it. A colleague recently reminded me that it is really no compliment to be thought of as sheep. Even though they are peaceful and lovely to behold as they graze, sheep can be contrary, stubborn, wayward, inattentive creatures that always need to be looked after. That’s why the shepherd’s role is essential to the health of a flock. The shepherd has to be their guide, their protector, their goad, and their nurturer, because they cannot take care of themselves. And it is understandable that the psalm says, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s tools are essential, providing strength and shield for us vulnerable sheep. This is especially true of the shepherd’s staff, which has a crook at one end to retrieve us when we stray and to pull us along when we dig in our heels. The other end is useful too. It has a point to prompt and prod us onward when our mind is wandering, or when we are indecisive.
The truth is that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.” That is a hard and humbling thing for us to admit. And yet, that is what we do at the outset of virtually every worship service. We confess our sins so that we may receive and accept God’s infinite goodness and mercy. In the words of the General Confession, this is what we say:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
That’s a sweeping admission of sin and guilt. Nevertheless we do so in the liturgy, not as an exercise in futility, but as a reality check, and as act of contrition that lowers our defenses and opens up our whole self to receive the transforming gift of forgiveness.
Christ our Shepherd showed us the way. He leads us in the path of righteousness for his Name’s sake. The Apostle Peter described the transformed life in his epistle to the newly formed Christian community. He said:
When [Christ Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
As flawed as Peter had once been, something magnificent had changed his life. Because Jesus had forgiven Peter’s denials and breech in loyalty to him, the apostle began the process of living in the power of the resurrection. That new being enabled him to walk the way of the cross, and to fulfill Christ’s command to feed and tend his sheep.
That’s why Peter could assure them that they were “free from sins.” Paul too, believed that. He said to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The yoke that he was referring to was legalism – living based on keeping the letter of the law. Paul knew well that that way is self-defeating, because everyone falls short of the mark. So, how is it that both apostles were so confident in life? What truth were they trusting that propelled them through and beyond the valley of the shadow of death? It was that each man had witnessed personally that “the LORD is my shepherd.”
At Easter the door opened. The barrier to life was rolled away. In the power of God Jesus was the first to walk through that portal. He is alive, and he beckons us to follow him into the life abundant. In his own words, he is the “gate of the sheep.” He said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Our Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is the one in whom freedom abides, the one in whom God has shown us the end – the omega point – toward which He is drawing us, namely the kingdom of love. Christ the Good Shepherd leads the exodus from bondage to sin and death to the promised land of freedom. However, it is not a freedom to do as we please. This freedom is costly; it was purchased at a high price. It is freedom to be Christ’s risen body in the world. It is liberty to love, to worship, and to serve.
There is a text from Isaiah that is often read at Prayer Book burials. The prophet’s words reflect the hope realized by the exiles of Israel who had languished in bondage in Babylon:
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach god tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound . . . that they might be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
That is our hope, at Easter and always. In Christ’s resurrection from the dead, God opened the door of the prison. Easter is the Bastille Day for all humanity. Our opportunity, our challenge is to follow our risen shepherd who calls us by name, and walk out into the freedom that is awaiting us.
But he doesn’t just stand there, tapping his sandaled foot, as he beckons and waits for us to come hither. Jesus, who is grace incarnate, always comes back to get us. Whether his patience is strained with our self-absorption or not, he continues to act on our behalf. Like the persistent widow who keeps on rapping on the door of a judge who neither reverence for God nor a care for what people thought of him, Jesus’ relentless love never gives up on us. He is not willing to let us go.
In the Name of God our Father, and Christ the Good Shepherd, and the Spirit of their Love for us, let us accept their invitation, and live a life that is worthy of this calling – a life that is wholesome, and eternal. Amen.
 Isaiah 53:6.
The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 41.
 Hebrews 12:2.
 This concept originated in the writings of Pierre Teillard de Chardin, the 20th century Jesuit paleontologist and theologian.
 Isaiah 61:1-3.
 Luke 18:1-8.