Fourth Sunday of Easter
22 April 2018
1 John 3:16-24
Last fall, when Jackie and I traveled to Germany, we also visited my father’s widow. Katharina is a lovely woman who lives right across from the small cemetery where my father is buried. I am not sure if this was something on their minds when they bought the house, but it may have been, just as Jackie and I think that we’d like to stay in our house ‘until they have to carry us out.’
When my father died in 1999 he had not been to church much, though the pastor had brought him and all of us communion in the week before my he died. I think, that the fact he hadn’t been to church much had a number of reasons, some of them the ones we all know and have practised from time to time, but there was another reason as well. As my father had come to faith in Jesus in a very conservative church, he was convinced that being divorced and remarried barred him from the communion table. He took Paul’s word about eating unworthily to exclude him, since he had left his wife and married Katharina. A child is rarely a parent’s pastor, and so my attempts to convince him that Paul was speaking of something entirely different (namely the divisions in the church made evident by a lack of sharing), and that celebrating the Eucharist was not about focusing on us but on Jesus, and besides, the disciples all ate and drank with Jesus, and they surely had failed the test but Jesus invited them anyways, all this failed to convince and my father’s own sense of moral failure kept him away from that table which is not for the righteous who have no need of a physician, but for sinners.
My father’s illness was brief. He visited with us for eight days in October of 1998. He felt pretty tired during this time. He attributed it to jet lag, as did we. In March he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and at the end of October he died. He died reconciled and in faith, and his gravestone bears the inscription, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
That perhaps is the place where we locate the 23rd Psalm and Jesus’ word about being the Good Shepherd: In times of personal crisis, when we worry and know that the future does not depend on us but on God. Jesus as our Good Shepherd is an image of comfort to the faithful in distress. It is also a very personalized image of the Shepherd and I, though there are others in the image of sheep and shepherd, in the church, and apparently even from outside this fold, whatever that may mean.
And if this was all the Good Shepherd was about, we could finish here.
The reason that we cannot finish here is that Jesus tells us that the mark of a good shepherd is to give his or her life for the sheep. The giving of one’s life for the sheep is a reference to Jesus’ own death on the cross. We who hear and read these words have only just remembered the death of Jesus and continue to celebrate his resurrection. It is a new life that Jesus has made possible through his death and resurrection, and while this life entails the comfort of the Shepherd who cares for his sheep, it also entails the sharing in the life of Jesus. In the sacrament of the altar we receive our living Lord and remember that it in him we have life. Someone has said that one cannot unconditionally love someone but you can become unconditional love.1 And so Jesus’ word about knowing us as the Father knows him extends to us: Jesus is known by the Father and shares one being with the Father. We are known by Jesus and participate in his life. And so we learn that the Good Shepherd is as much about being loved the Good Shepherd is about loving.
The refrain of our first communion hymn summarizes this well: Shepherd me, o God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
In the Book of Acts Peter and John are asked about the healing of the lame beggar, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
They are asked by what authority because the authority by which they spoke and acted was not the authority of the empire, nor was it the authority of the temple, and it was very clear that neither temple nor empire appreciated any change to the status quo.
Similarly, prior to Jesus speaking about being the Good Shepherd, he had healed the man born blind and the authorities were enraged.
And so it may be good for us to remember that Shepherd is an old biblical metaphor. God is the shepherd of Israel and if Jesus was the Good Shepherd, then Jesus was God and what Jesus said and did was reflective of God who challenged the status quo and was not content to be confined to the temple but sought the stranger, the outcast, the gentile, the ritually unclean, and all people whether we like them or not.
Sharing in the life of Jesus as Jesus shares in the life of God means comfort and assurance but it also means transformation, sacrificial living, and a reaching out into the world, not only into the church. It makes possible a life that can imagine God’s Kingdom not only in heaven but also on earth as we pray for it to come.
My father found great comfort in the Lord as his shepherd, and so did we, through my father’s faith. But the faith of those who trust in the Good Shepherd does not exhaust itself in religious comfort, it is not a spiritual painkiller that we pop when we need it, but trusting the shepherd means to trust where the shepherd will lead, even if we do no wish to go there.
And so I am glad that we do not have a large stained glass window of the Good Shepherd in our church. I think that not having such a pastoral scene before our eyes helps us keep our imaginations free from too much sentimentality and open to God’s surprises and the challenges that come with sharing in the life of God.
1See John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, 2005 Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, page 126-127