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Monthly Archives: April 2018

Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Our gospel reading this morning gives us insight into the compassion of Jesus Christ and we learn that he cares for us. That’s one of those truths near the heart of the gospel that is easy to lose sight of because maybe we think first of the various duties that come with being a Christian: praying, tithing my income, feeding the hungry, and so on. Or maybe we think that because we are just one person the Lord is busy caring for others. So it is worth remembering: Jesus Christ cares for you.

This week I was visiting with someone in hospital and a short verse from the first epistle of Saint Peter came to mind. It says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” (5:7). Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who cares for each one of his sheep. How does he care for them? He lays down his life to guard them and to gather them. This is what defines the good shepherd.

As we heard, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand. What do we learn about the hired hand? Basically, that he has no skin in the game. These sheep are not his sheep. So then, when trouble threatens, when the wolf approaches, the hired hand cuts his losses, turns tail, and is out of there. The hired hand abandons the sheep in the face of danger and leaves them vulnerable to the wolf who snatches them and scatters them.

As an aside here it is worth asking who Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the wolf that comes to wreak havoc on the flock. He does not explicitly say. It could be that he has in mind the Pharisees and religious leaders that are spiritually blind and lack compassion for the people of Israel (Jn 9:40). It could be that he has in mind false teachers that distort the gospel for their own ends (Mt 7:15).

After all, it matters greatly what the Church teaches. For example, in the book of Acts Paul is headed to Rome and he calls the leaders of the church in Ephesus together to say good-bye and to exhort them: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them,” (Acts 20:28-30). Here, wolves are those teachers that shamelessly distort the One Faith [point upwards at St. John’s] that shepherds are tasked with guarding and passing on.

Being a good pastor is about learning the importance of both of these things: genuine compassion for God’s people and uncompromising fidelity to the Apostolic Faith.

Nevertheless, Jesus is not overly concerned with the wolf here. Rather, he wants us to know what the good shepherd is like. As we heard, when the going gets tough and the hired hand gets going but not the good shepherd. While the hired hand takes flight the good shepherd stays and fights. And what does the good shepherd do in order to protect the sheep? He lays down his life. Four times in this short passage we hear this. This is the central characteristic of the good shepherd: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The good shepherd guards the sheep even at his own peril. Jesus does not flee at the first sign of danger. He himself does not avoid the cross but faces it head on and by his resurrection is victorious over sin and death. Jesus Christ knows what it is to suffer. He knows your suffering and he is very near to you. He has taken hold of you, do not break from his grasp. As Christ says only a few verses later: “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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand,” (John 10:27-29).

The good shepherd is willing to suffer for the sake of the sheep because they are exceedingly valuable to him. They belong to him therefore he is personally invested in them. If those sheep are in danger you better believe the good shepherd will put himself in harms way, even putting his own life on the line. This should tell you something about the value of the sheep in the eyes of the good shepherd. How valuable are they to him? Infinitely valuable! Of more value even than his own life!

There is a psychological phenomenon that might help us understand this, what behavioral scientists call the “sunk costs fallacy.” Basically, the sunk costs fallacy says that people are more likely to make irrational decisions on account of “sunk costs,” money already spent that you are not getting back either way.

For example, say you have a pair of Leafs’ play-off tickets valued at $200 each. The night of the game rolls around and there is a big snow storm. I know that is a terribly unlikely scenario because it is April but humour me. Studies show that you will be more likely to risk traveling through perilous conditions if you paid the $400 for the tickets yourself. On the contrary, had you received the tickets for free you would be much more likely to stay in and watch re-runs on Netflix. Objectively the value of the tickets remains the same but their worth to you personally changes. Why? Because of the cost. In the one scenario the tickets cost you nothing. In the other scenario the tickets cost you personally, perhaps greatly. Therefore you are willing to incur other costs.

Likewise, we can say that because the good shepherd owns the sheep he is willing to incur the cost of their safe-keeping. When the sheep are in danger the good shepherd goes to meet it and takes upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall them. Even laying down his life. Because, “our salvation is dearer to the Son than his own life.”[1]

So, the good shepherd guards the sheep but he also gathers the sheep: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Historically this refers to the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant that God had established with Israel. And of course, from the very beginning the Church included both Jew and Gentile together, one flock with one shepherd.

Yet the point remains true today. The risen Jesus continues to bring many sons and daughters into God’s family, making it bigger and richer than ever. Those who once did not know his voice now know his voice. How does Jesus accomplish this? Again, by his cross and resurrection. Saint Peter interprets this mystery for us as we heard in Acts. The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone that holds the whole building together. The name that was wiped out from the earth has become the name by which we are saved! He was struck down yet in rising again he brings many with him.

“I must bring them also,” says Jesus. I must. Do we share Christ’s sense of urgency? Do we share his conviction that right now there are people out there who he knows and loves and wants to bring into the fellowship of his church?

You here this morning are witnesses of these things. You are here because Jesus Christ the good shepherd has brought you here. You may have been here your whole life or you may have been here but a few weeks. Regardless, the truth remains: Christ has drawn you in by the beauty of his love and mercy, by the beauty of his cross and resurrection, and he cares for you. And in the pasture of the Church he nourishes you and feeds you with his very life and love in the proclamation of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread.

I believe that Jesus is still doing this. In fact, my prayer is that he would continue to gather people into this very church community. I pray that this time next year there are people in our midst that are not here right now. I pray that this time next year we will have baptized more men and women into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Because that’s what the good shepherd is about. Therefore it had better be what we are about.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus Christ is the good shepherd. You are his. He cares for you. He lays down his life for you. He guards you and he gathers you into friendship with the living God. Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of the cross! Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of his resurrection! Let us therefore contemplate his great love for us and for those he is still gathering into the flock.

“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

Endnotes

[1] John Calvin.

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Feast Day: Easter Day
Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Dawn has broken! Awake! Christ is risen! The entire Christian faith stands or falls on the veracity of these words. Last Easter the English newspaper The Guardian published a piece by New Testament scholar Dr. Simon Gathercole that posed the question: Is there historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died? The conclusion was yes, in fact, there is a good deal from Jewish, Christian, and Roman sources.

Our reading from the Gospel According to Saint John this morning picks up where it left off on Good Friday. After Jesus had died Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus went to Pilate to ask if they could take the corpse away in order that they might give it a proper burial. Pilate conceded so they took the lifeless body of their old teacher and they wrapped it with various spices in linen cloths, according to Jewish burial custom (19:40). Then they found a garden with a tomb in it, a new tomb that had never been used, and they laid the body of Jesus there.

We cannot overstate the point that for the disciples of Jesus Christ his death and burial was absolutely undeniable. They were there at the cross and we were there with them on Good Friday. They witnessed his last breath, his final words, his pierced side. They held his limp flesh in their arms and laid it in the tomb themselves. Those first disciples had more than enough “historical evidence” that Jesus Christ lived and died.

Yet Dr. Gathercole ends his piece in The Guardian with what he considers to be a more interesting question: not whether Jesus lived and died but whether Jesus died and lived. This is the crucial point—whether Jesus merely was or whether he also is.[1] Everything hinges on this. The Christian faith is only as alive as Jesus Christ. If he has not been raised then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14-15).

It was, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” and Mary Magdalene has come to the grave of her friend and teacher. For the Jewish people the seventh and final day of the week is Saturday, the Sabbath. The day on which God rested from his work of Creation. On Friday Jesus Christ is killed and his body laid in a new tomb. On Saturday, the Sabbath day, his body rests. On Sunday morning, the first day of the week, Mary shows up while it is still dark.

As the light of this new day begins to dawn on Mary and the disciples the truth of what has happened to their Lord will dawn on them and illuminate their hearts and minds with faith, hope, and love and birth in them a brand new courage and faithfulness that is inexplicable apart from the event that is about to unfold. This is the first day alright. The first day of God’s new creation.[2]

As Mary arrives at the tomb she notices that the stone had been removed from the entrance so she runs back to tell Peter and John: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” As if the death of Jesus was not crushing enough now the knife is twisted one last time—the body is gone and we do not know where it is. Grief upon grief.

Peter and John take off running to the tomb to see for themselves. Soon enough they both end up in the tomb and there they discover a peculiar sight. The body is gone, indeed, but the grave clothes are still there. The linen cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was even folded up neatly. If someone had taken the body would they have gone to the trouble of such decorum?

At this point none of the earliest witnesses know what has happened. All they can say for sure is that the body that was there is there no longer. They do not yet understand the Resurrection and yet the seed of faith that had been planted in them by the word of Christ now seems to be germinating. At any rate, the disciples returned to their home in a state of uncertainty.

But not Mary. Mary stayed. She remained there, abiding, and she wept. Israel’s grief, the world’s grief, your grief, concentrated in Mary’s grief.[3] And peering into the tomb she saw two angels who asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” comes her reply. The opening lines of George Herbert’s poem The Dawning come to mind:

Awake, sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth;
Unfold thy forehead, gathered into frowns;
Thy Saviour comes, and with him mirth.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary turned around and saw the risen Jesus standing there but did not know that it was him. In fact, she thought it was the gardener. In one sense she is correct. Here is Jesus, the new Adam, the gardener, whose task it is to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with blossoms and harvests.[4]

Nevertheless, Mary recognizes him not. Why? Because she has no frame of reference for what she is experiencing. Like us, Mary and the first witnesses knew that dead people do not rise again. And yet there he stands. Like Mary and the first witnesses we who gather on this first day of the week 2,000+ years later cannot assume that we know what “rising from the dead” means.

We can say what it does not mean. It does not mean that Jesus was simply resuscitated, like Lazarus who after dying was revived and came back to life as he previously knew it only to definitively die at some later point. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was not a return to the same old. He is the same, but he is different. He is alive, but he has not simply come back from death into the same condition he was in before. Rather he has entered upon a qualitatively different life, a new life in and with and through God himself.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an entirely new thing altogether that far exceeded the limits of Mary’s knowledge and experience. Jesus’ body was laid in a brand new tomb, Mary shows up on a brand new day, in a brand new week, and what she is made witness to is, say it with me, brand new.

This begs the question, how then did Mary and the disciples come to be witnesses to the Resurrection? They come to know and understand, as we do, only by encountering the reality itself. Easter faith is born of an encounter with the risen and living Jesus Christ: “Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them by name and his sheep know his voice (10:3-4). This one word, Mary’s own name, spoken by the risen Christ changed her whole life. One second before this there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of death. One second after and there is a woman in the deepest possible human joy.[5]

For Mary and the disciples, this event was unfathomable and yet it was so overwhelmingly real that they could not ignore it. It is truly he. He is alive; he has spoken to us; he has allowed us to touch him. And this reality confronted them so powerfully that every doubt was dispelled and they stepped forth into the world with a new courage to bear witness: Christ is truly risen.[6]

The risen and living Jesus Christ knows your name as well. He knows every single thing about you, he knows your fear and your pain, he knows the sin that you conceal, he knows you better even than you know yourself. And this morning on the first day of the week he is right there in front of you, calling you by name. Because he wants to raise Mary and Peter and John and you and I up to new life with him.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, you see, is a universal event that effects everyone. The risen Christ is the first fruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20). As in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive in Christ. The new dimension of life that Christ has entered he has entered to prepare for us. And we come to experience this new found union with God, this new communion with one another, even now. For in the Eucharist Christ gives himself to us as food and makes us to share in his life, in life itself. Herbert’s poem, which I quoted earlier continues:

Arise, sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.

Jesus Christ has taken hold of you in his Resurrection and is indeed raising you up with him. Do not break from the hand that raiseth thee!

Finally, Mary having encountered the risen Christ is sent off bearing a message. “Go,” Jesus says. Here is Mary, the apostle to the apostles. And indeed she does go and what does she say? “I have seen the Lord.” Because when you meet the risen and living Jesus Christ you are given a mission. Or rather, you are incorporated into Christ’s mission. “I have seen the Lord. I know it sounds crazy, but I have seen him and he has spoken my name and allowed me to touch him. I have seen him!” Herbert ends his poem The Dawning with the words,

Arise, Arise;
And with His burial linen drie thine eyes.
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears or blood, not want a handkerchief.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! And we have seen him! And he has spoken to us! And we have touched him! And he has made himself food to nourish us! Awake, sad heart! Dry thine eyes! His Resurrection is yours as well! To him be the glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 242.
[2] Frederick Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1140.
[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament for Everyone: John, 146.
[4] Bruner, 1152.
[5] BXVI, 248.
[6] BXVI, 274.