This sermon was preach at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood.
A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Sunday, April 21st, 2013
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand,” (10.27-28).
I speak to you in the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As most of you surely know a few weeks ago we began our journey through the scriptures together as a church. We’ve committed to the task of daily reading the Bible and then coming together on Thursday evenings to prayerfully discuss what we have read that week. These evenings have already been quite fruitful! We have begun by reading through the gospels with a keen eye on the question, “Who is Jesus?” Indeed, in addition to reading the gospels we are watching parts of a DVD series that deals with the different ways in which Jesus is and has been presented and understood.
In our gospel reading today this same sort of question is up in the air: “Who is Jesus?” Is he the Messiah? If so, why does he not just make it plain. Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic: I have told you and you have seen the works that I have done which testify to who I am, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. It is as if Jesus says, “My teaching is easily understood in itself, and it is you who are to blame, because you malignantly resist God,” (Calvin). Immediately prior to our gospel reading we see that the Jews are divided over Jesus (yet again), over his words and his works. Some say that he is possessed by a demon, either that or out of his mind! Others respond to Jesus differently: He is not demon possessed. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind (Jesus had just healed a blind man)?
Can you discern the voice of the shepherd? How might you do so? “My sheep hear my voice.” Jesus’ use of the word is in the plural: “My sheep”, that is my flock, “hear my voice”. It is important that we gather together like this, because when Jesus, the Good Shepherd, speaks he speaks to his people. The gospel is personal, it confronts each and every one of us; but it is never private, it confronts each and every one of us. As the Church we exist because of what God has done in Jesus, and what God has done in Jesus we exist to proclaim. We gather, week in and week out, to hear this proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Yet, it is not adherence to the Church that this proclamation demands but adherence to the living Jesus himself as known and confessed and proclaimed by the Church, the whole Church today and throughout time. See, this is the nature of Christian faith. It is apostolic, that is to say, it is passed on. We receive it as a gift and we likewise pass it on to others. And this is done according to the scriptures. This is to say that we can’t simply figure any of this out on our own. Left to our own devices we may have any number of answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” But we’re not left to our own devices. The Good Shepherd enters into the sheepfold and gathers his sheep together when he calls them by name. This community of sheep, that’s us, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and receive the faith that has been passed on from the apostles as apparent in the scriptures.
This Jesus whom we know and confess and proclaim, we know and confess and proclaim because he knows us: “I know them,” says Jesus (10.27). “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,” (10.14b-15a). Indeed, that we may know God, we must first be known by Him,” (Calvin). To be sure, no one is entirely unknown by God, but to be known in this way is to become part of his family. Therefore, when Christ says, “I know mine,” he means, “I will receive them and give them a permanent mystical relationship with myself,” (Cyril of Alexandria). It might be said that inasmuch as he has become man, Jesus has made all human beings his relatives, since all are members of the same race. We are all united to Christ in a mystical relationship because of his incarnation (Cyril). As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “For the one lamb that you took up is the entire human race, which you raised on your shoulders.” By virtue of Christ’s taking on human flesh, our entire humanity, every last bit of it, is taken up into and represented by Christ’s own humanity. This is not simply a proclamation of something done to us, as if we were inactive and possibly unwilling participants. It is a proclamation of something that God wants to do in us and as such it beckons a response from us upon hearing his voice.
What then should our response to such a confrontation be? Submission to and faith in the one whose proclamation it is, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. An openness to the voice that proclaims repentance and forgiveness of sins. As we open ourselves first and foremost to be confronted by the living Jesus through the words of scripture may we learn from the scriptures and from our brothers and sisters in Christ, how we might think and speak and act as those who are indeed confronted by Him. That is to say, we are gathered together to be confronted by Jesus in the scriptures, so that, looking back into the scriptures with the risen Jesus in view we learn from these scriptures and from submission to one another how to be the sort of folks who, when confronted by Jesus, can hear his voice and obediently follow him. Simply put, this means that we just do not know how to read or hear the scriptures by ourselves, let alone how to follow this Jesus. We learn these things as we submit to one another and together submit to the proclamation of the gospel that has been entrusted to the church. This is why as we read the scriptures for ourselves, as part of our parish wide bible study, we come together in order that we might discern the risen and living Jesus in the scriptures and in our midst. We need one another to discern and hear the voice of the Shepherd.
The passage of John prior to our gospel reading today deals more specifically with the character and nature of this Good Shepherd, though these themes are drawn out in our passage as well. I have already mentioned the fact that the shepherd enters the sheepfold and gathers together his sheep by his voice, by speaking their name. John says this of the Good Shepherd: “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,” (10.3b-4). Upon gathering his sheep together the Good Shepherd, that is Jesus, leads them on out of the sheepfold and they follow him. This is by no means a safe journey, but the Good Shepherd leads us: “In this world [Christ’s flock] are, so to speak, in the middle of a forest among innumerable robbers; and what is more, are not only unarmed and exposed as prey, but know that the cause of death lies within themselves, so that they can only walk safely when relying on the protection of God. In short, our salvation is certain because it is in the hand of God. Our faith is weak, and we are given to wavering; but God has taken us in His hand and is powerful enough to scatter with a breath all the efforts of our enemies,” (Calvin).
Where does he lead his sheep? Hear the words of the 23rd Psalm which we sang together this morning: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul…I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” That is to say, in an exodus of sorts, he leads his sheep from death to life: “And who has gone before the sheep to the place where they are to follow him but he who rising from the dead, dies no more,” (Augustine). The Good Shepherd who leads his sheep himself appears as a sheep, namely, as the Lamb robed in white, the Lamb upon the throne, the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb in whose blood we are most thoroughly washed and made new. And he won’t simply rest with delivering the present sheep from danger, he is going to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (Gentiles, presumably most of us are included in that bunch). God’s call to Israel is for the sake of the whole world. The “other sheep” are that great company, from every nation under heaven, that God intends to save and to save through Jesus (Rev 7.9ff). And to his sheep the Shepherd gives life, his very own life, the life which he shares with the Father, thereby showing that he is life. What is this life? S. Augustine calls it, “faith that works by love.” The life which Jesus Christ the Living God, the Good Shepherd, gives to his sheep is a life of love for others that is propelled by faith because it is the very life of Jesus, who lovingly and willingly lays down his life for his sheep (10.11) because they are his own (10.14).
And these sheep will never perish: “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” (10.28b). I remember when Charlotte was first learning to walk. Unbalanced and clumsy as she was, she gripped on to my hand as tightly as she could and would not let go. Little did she know, that while she thought she was gripping onto me, I was the whole time holding on to her. Her grasp was contained within my grasp of her. In a similar fashion, whatever sort of faith we have in Christ Jesus, whatever sort of grasp we have on him as desperate or as imperfect or as anxiety riddled as it may be, as we hear his voice and follow him we are most assuredly within his hand, and because Jesus and the Father are one, that is, united in divine love, the power of the living God sustains us and keeps us.
Let us pray along with Gregory of Nyssa: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, “Show me then the place of pasture, make known to me the waters of rest, lead me out to the good grass, call me by name that I, your sheep, may listen to your voice and may your call be the gift of eternal life.” Amen.