Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter High Mass Sunday 17 April 2016
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Acts 9.36-end; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-end; John
Today is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”: a name inspired by the reading on this Sunday in each of the three years in the Lectionary of part of Chapter 10 of St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus says of himself: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
It is a day associated with prayer for vocations to the priesthood, the pastoral ministry of the Church.
The chapter begins with Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, but this morning’s passage takes place at the Festival of Dedication or Hannukah two months later. This feast commemorates the re-hallowing of the Temple by the Maccabees after its desecration by the Greek king of Syria who had installed in it an altar to his own gods. It was a time when Israel remembered its martyrs; those who had refused to renounce their faith.
Because the term “shepherd” or “pastor” has become so associated for us with the ministry of the Church, it is worth recalling that in the Old Testament, the title of “shepherd” was one applied to kings rather than to priests.
Now, when Israel was again under foreign domination, that of Rome, this was bound to be a time when national feelings ran high; one in which questions about the hoped-for Messiah who would deliver Israel from captivity were bound to be in the air. That tension is the background to the questioning Jesus faces as he teaches in the portico of Solomon, in the Temple. “Come on now, tell us plainly: Are you the Messiah are not?”
Jesus has resisted all attempts to get him to do this. Nowhere among the great “I Am” saying in John’s Gospel, do we find, “I am the Messiah.” This is not just as a matter of political expediency – avoiding a politically loaded and dangerous question. – one which would probably have led to his arrest and imprisonment if not death. Much more importantly, while he is the anointed one of God, the one who has the Spirit, while he and the Father are one – as his works – not just his signs but all his life and teaching – testify, he will not allow himself to be defined by their understanding of the Messiah as leader of a national struggle for liberation. He is the one who will define what the word means. It will take its meaning from how he lives and dies.
The Shepherd and sheep theme is picked up again as he speaks of their refusal to believe him: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Jesus gives his hearers the clue, the key thing they and we must do, if they and we are to understand that he is God’s anointed one. We have to become members of his flock, become his disciples, join his flock. We can only stand outside and look in for so long: and looking from outside will never get us in. Disciples, those who belong to his flock, cannot be detached observers. It is not we who evaluate and judge Jesus as worthy of our vote as if he was standing for election as Mayor of London. It is he who summons us.
Jesus, it has been said, always gives just enough of himself to make faith possible, and yet always hides just enough of himself to make faith necessary. It is only through faith that we can enter into relationship with him.
So, in today’s passage Jesus speaks not so much of himself as the Good Shepherd, but of us as his sheep. So perhaps this is a day on which we should reflect not just on vocation to the ministerial priesthood of the church but on our common vocation to the royal priesthood of all the faithful.
The two are not unconnected. Vocations to the former, for which we pray, will spring from a deepening sense of the latter. A Christian community aware of its priestly nature will raise up priests – not as functionaries to administer sacraments or managers of an institution but to build it in holiness
Jesus’ sheep are those who, first and most fundamentally, listen to his voice. Jesus says that the sheep of his fold “hear his voice” and “follow him,” (27). It is this unity of hearing and doing which binds the sheep of Jesus’ fold to him. To listen to Jesus is not to hear an interesting lecture but to hear a life-transforming call. In that unity, the disciples’ relationship with Jesus is similar to his with the Father.
We are those who listen to his voice and follow him. This place is our Solomon’s portico; the temple in which he teaches us. He is the one who feeds us in green pasture, who leads us by still waters to refresh our souls, who spreads a table before us, who anoints our heads with oil and gives us the cup which overflows. He does this in the Church’s preaching of the Gospel, its teaching of the faith, and in its sacramental and communal life.
“I know them.” He does not just know information about us. He enters deeply into relationship with us. But, again, we have to let this happen. It will not if we stand on the edge with our arms folded; guarding our own space. It is, let’s be honest, possible for even those of us who are in name members of Christ’s flock, regular church-goers, clergy even, to keep our defences up against Jesus, to refuse to hear and follow, because we fear that life as we are used to it will never be the same again if we do.
In almost 40 years of ministry, I have read Psalm 23 and those words from the Gospel: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand…no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand” to those who were walking through the valley of the shadow of death, the sick and dying to whom I had been called. I read them as I anointed them with holy oil and gave them Holy Communion, to assure them of Christ’s loving care for them; that his rod and staff were there to hold them up; that his loving kindness was with them even in the valley of the shadow, and would bring them home to the house of the Lord; to remind them of his promise of eternal life, that no one can snatch them from his hand or the hand of the Father with whom he is one.
This promise is echoed in different ways in our other readings. Tabitha or Dorcas, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” is one of those people in the early Church who “hear” Jesus and who “follow” him. She puts into action Christ’s message of loving and selfless service; and to such a degree that those who encountered it in her found their own lives transformed and enriched by it. For Tabitha, we could read “Christine” or “Yvonne” or “Lily.” Will others be able to read our names there too? You don’t have to be a woman!
If the life of Dorcas has a very practical, hands-on, down-to-earth, feel to it, the scene in our passage from the Book of Revelation seems quite the opposite. In John’s vision, we see the worship of heaven and those “from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” The churches of Asia Minor to which the Book of Revelation was addressed faced the possibility, even the reality, of persecution.
Their congregations were small. They had no impressive buildings or institutions, or status in the eyes of their neighbours. They were politically suspect. They needed a vision of the Church to which they belonged which could sustain them through hard times.
John never portrays the actual martyrdom of Christians. The preceding scene pictures the sealing of faithful Christians in advance of the great ordeal; the Church militant on earth before its coming struggle. Now the scene shifts from earth to heaven, where we see the countless host of peoples from every nation and language exulting in the worship of God. They are identified as the people who have been through the great ordeal, the Church after the battle, triumphant in heaven. Those who have conquered are dressed in the white robes of victors. The imagery is strange and paradoxical: the robes of the martyrs are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Their own death is not an accomplishment of which they can boast. It is Christ’s death, not their own courage and determination, which has given them the victors’ garment. Their death becomes one with the Lamb’s. The Lamb who gives his life’s blood for others is also the Shepherd who rules from the midst of the throne.
The Book of Revelation has been abused perhaps more than any other in the Bible. It has been brandished as a weapon against enemies real or perceived; even against fellow-Christians who have not been seen as up to the mark. But in a time when persecution is a reality for so many of our brothers and sisters, in Mosul or Lahore, who walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we need to recover its message of hope.
It reminds us that we are not alone; that we are part both of a great family of the tribes and peoples and languages of the world. Those links of prayer and fellowship and support are ones which are far more important to suffering people than we often realize.
It reminds us, too, that we are also part of a community, the Communion of Saints, which lives across time; that we are one with Peter and Tabitha, and with all those who worship robed in white before the throne of the Lamb, as we worship before it, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” today.