Easter 4 April 25, 2010

Acts 9:36-43                                                                        

Revelation 7:9-17                                                                             

John 10:22-30

Sheep metaphors aren’t what immediately come to my own mind when I think about my life, but mulling over this passage from John’s gospel, I realize that a lost sheep is exactly what I feel like a lot of the time as a priest in the Church today. And what Jesus in the gospel has to say to me is welcome comfort. So maybe it is for you too.

We live in a hard time to be committed Christians, faithful Church members. The climate of the culture is against us. We have dozens of other claims on our time. In coming to church on Sunday, most of you are choosing not to do something else – particularly if you bring your kids, because sports and dance and sleepovers pay no attention to Sunday being church time. You may also very well be leaving your spouse or children at home, because in many families not everyone is a church-goer.

 

You’re also battered by constant media attention to the failings and faults of the Church and its ministers – pedophile priests, the crazy rants or off-the-charts remarks of famous evangelists, financial scandals, church closings. And then there’s the media coverage of the fights between science and religion, presented as irreconcilable opposites, each with extremist advocates talking in terms that are hard to understand. All this to say nothing about our exposure to all the varieties of world religions, to say nothing of all the varieties of our own Christianity.

And even if we end up in church on a Sunday, even if we’re lodged at least for the moment in this particular corner of Christianity called the Episcopal Church, there are still plenty of stresses and strains. Do you like organ music or guitar, traditional or contemporary? Do you support the blessing of same-sex marriage or not? Gay bishops or not? Communion without baptism or not? Sticking strictly with the Book of

Common Prayer or incorporating material from other Anglican sources? Chairs facing the Altar or chairs in the round? So many options, so much confusion. As I said, the lost sheep metaphor seems to fit pretty well – or at least a dazed, confused, beset-by-conflicts-and-differences-of-opinion sheep.

But St. John wrote his gospel for people in very much the same situation, in a time of conflict and confusion very much like ours. John’s is the last of the four gospels to have been written, about the end of the first century after Christ. John would have been a very old man by that time, the last survivor of the original disciples and the only one not to die a martyr’s death. It was John’s vocation, given him by Jesus, to “wait” – to hang in there faithfully committed through all those years of stress and strain, “waiting on” his Lord, the Good Shepherd.

At the time John wrote his gospel, the Jewish synagogues were closing ranks against the followers of Jesus, expelling them as heretics no longer welcome in Judaism. John was having to give courage and comfort to these lost sheep, to give them a new foundation for their faith, a new basis for commitment. In doing that, he drew upon his own long life of prayer and meditation on the significance of Jesus.

It’s significant that John sets these remarks about Jesus as the Good Shepherd and his sheep hearing his voice “at the time of the festival of the Dedication” of the temple in Jerusalem. By the time John wrote, the temple had been pulled down and destroyed by the Romans for some 30 years. So this traditional anchor of Jewish faith was actually long gone. What John seems to be saying is that Jesus is the new anchor, the new temple.

We heard only the very end of what Jesus says about the sheep and their Shepherd in chapter 10 of John’s gospel. It’s worth it, when you get home, to read the whole chapter. Jesus warns that false shepherds, hirelings, will try to come and mislead the sheep. He warns of wolves. He also speaks of having “other sheep, not of this fold” who will in time be brought into the sheepfold so that eventually there will be “one Shepherd, one fold” – all this despite the factionalism and divisions of the faithful at the time in which John was writing.

But the heart of what St. John is telling us is that in the midst of all the confusion, all the conflicted voices, all the reasons for discouragement and defeat – there remains the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calling us each by name. We are to listen to him and to follow him. He will not let the enemy snatch us from his hand. He will give us eternal life and we will never perish, for he and the Father are one.

So that is what comes to me in my prayer time each day, what I am left with from my reading in Holy Scripture. That is where I return again and again as I minister with you in your confusion, in your search for a temple on which to found your faith in these difficult times. It is where we start with our littlest children, in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus loves us, each one of us. Jesus will never let us go. Listen to his voice and do not be distracted by all the other voices around you. Gather at his Table. Feed on his green pasture. Be led by him. Wait faithfully on the Lord.

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