Some of you know that my father has been in declining health on several fronts. A couple weeks ago I had to make an emergency trip down to Nashville, and I spent four days sitting in his hospital room, waiting for him to be well enough to get discharged to a nursing home short-term. As I sat there, the prayers that initially arose were those instinctive, self-focused pleas that you could sum up in the single word “Help.” Please let Dad be OK. Let them get his blood pressure back up. Please make the social worker answer the phone. Please help me sleep tonight.
We’ve all prayed things like that, which is perfectly appropriate and normal. All human beings have times when we dislike the way things are, and those of us who pray inevitably find ourselves asking God, over and over, to give us what we want instead of what we have. I’m grateful to know that the God who became incarnate in Jesus is a God who listens in love, even when what we say to him is expressing mostly our own desire for control.
But I’m also grateful, over years and years of praying the Psalms in the Daily Office, to have been gently schooled in another way of addressing God in times of pain and powerlessness. And this more Biblical kind of prayer is what I eventually found anchoring me, orienting me, by the hospital bed, rather than those instinctual prayers focused on trying to get my way.
You know, the Psalms give us a model prayer vocabulary; with repeated use, they soak us in the truth that God is there with us when we address him, that all of life can be lived in an open dialogue with God, and that there is a larger horizon and a deeper steadfastness out there in which to trust, even when life has sent us suffering. Today’s Psalm, 130, is a perfect example of that kind of prayer. I’d like you to take a look at it in your bulletin.
It starts: Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. The Psalmist begins from this point of view, just like anybody: I’m in the depths, hear me, consider my point of view! Listen to me, God. That’s an authentic and normal way to pray. But the text doesn’t stay there.
Let’s read verses 2 and 3. If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. Now that’s interesting. As soon as he mentions his own weakness and his own dilemma, the Psalmist is reminded of everyone’s weakness and everyone’s dilemma. The Psalmist remembers that it’s not just him – so much is amiss, and yet God is undaunted by that. With God is forgiveness, with God is the answer for everything that has gone amiss. The Psalmist’s problem, my problem, your problem, is at its root one instance of a bigger problem, the problem of a world in which alienation from God has infected everything and broken people and systems and creation in all kinds of ways.
Any problem we have, any injustice we see, any pain we face, is an example of the world being fallen. If you understand the world the way Scripture does, this is deeply comforting. You’re not alone. The universe is not ganging up on you personally. This is all part of the big picture caused by humanity’s refusal of God, and answered by God’s determination to forgive us and heal us.
So even as the Psalmist bewails the dilemma he and all people are in, we already see this movement of his eyes rising up to a wider horizon. And let’s watch it happen even more. Verses 4-5. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning. This is the moment the Psalm turns from complaint to hope. From help me/ help us to: My soul waits for the Lord. The gaze moves from me and my problem, to us and our problem, all the way up to God himself, and that changes the game completely.
Psalm 130 is what is called a Lament Psalm, and nearly all lament psalms have that kind of turn in them. There is nearly always a moment where even in the midst of suffering, the reality of God reorients and regrounds the Psalmist. Jerome Creach, an OT scholar at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes, “Lament… allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer…. Because lament is offered to [the God with whom we’re] in covenant relationship, however, lament also is praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss.”
The God with whom we’re in covenant relationship. As the Psalmist looks at God, he remembers a reality bigger than whatever he’s facing, and he reaffirms his attachment to God and his trust in God. So his world is no longer defined by the circumstances he’s lamenting; it’s defined by the God who is so much bigger than our circumstances.
And that’s how it works. If we belong to God, we know who God is. We know what he wants for us and for the world. We know he knows better than us what is needed. So in the hospital, if I can get my eyes off me and onto the God of the universe, I’m no longer waiting to get my way about the social worker or the blood pressure monitor. I’m waiting on the Lord. My hope is no longer in being able to get my control back. My hope is in the Lord.
And beautifully, the last section of the psalm finds the writer so grounded and strengthened by the steady presence and love of the God in whom he hopes, that he has the energy to turn outward and exhort others to receive the assurance and grounding he has received. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Mercy is not getting your way. Redemption is not regaining control. Mercy and redemption are located outside us, in the God to whom we belong and with whom we are in a covenant that will never end. God is not a butler, not a wellness coach, not an EMT to be contacted in our time of need, and then ignored the rest of the time. God is God.
And this is such good news. With the God to whom we have access through Jesus, we no longer have to hope in our own control. Even in the bad times, we can let God lead us into a larger, more spacious, more secure reality, assured that whatever happens, it will be OK. It will be OK, because this infinite, merciful, hope-worthy God is our God. Will you take out your bulletin and read the whole Psalm with me again, please?
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
About five seconds into preparing for this week’s sermon, I immediately started thinking and couldn’t stop thinking about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that’s not because of the movie’s theological precision or amazingly realistic special effects but because (spoiler alert!) when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant they all end up melted or zapped by the overwhelming (and fairly creepy) brilliance and splendor of God’s glory. Of his holiness.
When we close our eyes and listen to our OT lesson this morning, as we watch Isaiah look around the heavenly throne room, that same sense of ominous power arises. Smoke billows around us. The hem of God’s robe sparkles in the flicker of candlelight. And the seraphim — these fiery, flying angelic beings — sing with so much conviction that their voices shake the foundations of the temple — and we can’t help but be shaken, too.
We cover our eyes instinctually and take a step back. We know to our core that we aren’t supposed to be there. We’ve wandered into something too big for us, something dangerous, something otherworldly and beyond our understanding. And when Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I have seen the King, the LORD of hosts,” a part of us feels the same way.
But why? Why does he say that? Why does Isaiah, upon seeing the beauty and splendor of God cry out in fear for his life? And why do we feel the same? How can we be so uncomfortable, so afraid in the presence of God, when we know that he has made us and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him?
Isaiah knew that to see God revealed in his might is a death sentence — because that which is sinful cannot survive that which is perfectly holy. The stain of our sin, the selfishness of our hearts, separates us from encountering God, enjoying God as he is. And so, like a blade of grass that scorches under the bright light of the sun, we wither before the holiness of God. “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
Can we face God and live? No. God’s holiness must and will consume us. And yet such is his grace.
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”
God’s holiness is a consuming fire; but just as fire kills, it also makes way for new life.
When Nicodemus encounters the presence of God in the face of Jesus, he, too, learns that those who would enter God’s kingdom must die. Jesus says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The life you live now, Jesus tells him, must die and must be born anew for you to come into the kingdom. And Nicodemus doesn’t understand — who would? “How can these things be?” he asks. And Jesus responds, “This is the way: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The light of the glory of God, the living coal of his mercy and judgment, has entered the world; and he will show us our sin, show us what God’s holiness cannot abide. But God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, to call it guilty and leave it at that. He sent his Son into the world so that all might be saved through him. That all who hear the Spirit’s call might be baptized not only into Christ’s death, but into Christ’s life.
When we enter the waters of baptism, we encounter God’s judgment, his fiery love that will settle for nothing less than a renewed relationship between him and us. But we also encounter his mercy, we encounter the holiness that undoes and then renews, that kills and then revitalizes. When the name of the Triune God is spoken over us at the fount, we are washed, dressed in white, and brought into the very presence and fellowship of God, where we can join with one voice in the angelic chorus: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” AMEN.
Pentecost is one of the great Baptismal days in the Episcopal Church, and in fact it’s one of the great days, period.
The story from Acts of how God poured out his Spirit upon the Blessed Virgin and the disciples is so colorful and exciting. Tongues as of fire! A violent wind! Men and women bursting into the streets with the joy of the Lord! The sudden change of what had looked like a local Jewish renewal movement into a multiethnic, multilingual, multisensory, multieverything, movement with a message for the whole universe. It’s such a gripping moment.
But if we want to understand what that gripping moment has to do with Baptism, and why Episcopalians try to schedule Baptisms on Pentecost, it might be helpful to turn to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John today. In this section of John, Jesus is giving his farewell teaching to the disciples before he is arrested, and one of the things he wants to bring home to them is the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate as Jesus calls him here.
Though it’s in the past for us, when Jesus spoke those words he was telling the disciples about something still in the future for them, and he put it different ways: The Spirit will be in them, the Father will send the Spirit, the Spirit will come. However you phrase it, it was a promise of something that had not happened yet, a mode of connection with God that before Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension was not yet available, but that God was planning to make available on Pentecost.
And what will this Spirit do? Apparently he’s going to prove the world wrong about all sorts of important things – maybe we can talk about those the next time this lectionary Sunday comes up – but what concerns us today is that the Spirit’s also going to point, inexorably, to Jesus Christ. Three quotes from the passage:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” says Jesus. Without the activity of the Holy Spirit, we cannot bear all the truth God has revealed in Christ; the full Christian revelation is too splendid for our finite intellects. Once we receive the Spirit, we have an inner companion who can unfold Jesus to us.
“The Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,” says Jesus. The Spirit is not a solo actor, but the intimate conduit, the faithful transmission, of the Gospel and the Biblical message and the experienced power of God to us. He relays with absolute fidelity what the God who became incarnate in Jesus is doing and saying.
“The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” says Jesus. The Spirit will take all the glories and insights, all the justice and holiness, all the mercy, all the beauty, all the brilliance that belong to Jesus and pass them on to us. In fact, it’s true for the whole Trinity. The Spirit opens onto the life of the Trinity, the Spirit is the one who sweeps us up into that eternal exchange of Love, the one who makes it all real to us. If, by the way, the Christian proclamation of God doesn’t feel real to you, or the doctrine doesn’t seem to apply, or you just don’t get it, pray for the Holy Spirit to work in you. That’s his job.
So I said this all had to do with Baptism and I haven’t mentioned Baptism, so let me mention it. We had two readings: The discourse we heard in John is a teaching about what the Spirit will do, when he comes on Pentecost, in and for people following Jesus. The story that we heard in Acts, the exciting one with the fire and the street scene, is the narrative of that coming on Pentecost, the first time in history the Spirit came in the way Jesus had promised. And it just so happens that the same people in that John reading were also present historically in Jerusalem at Pentecost, the first time in history the Spirit came. Jesus promised it in John, and 50-so days later it happened to them in Acts.
But that doesn’t do us much good. We weren’t there for the discourse in John, we weren’t there that first day the Spirit was given in Acts. How do we get in on this promise? Well, we get in on it by Baptism. From God’s point of view, the moment we are baptized, every single thing that Jesus has for us and did for us, every single thing that the Spirit is deputized to unfold to us, is ours. The door to intimacy with the Trinity is thrown open. We are claimed and marked as Christ’s own forever, sealed with the Holy Spirit.
In a few minutes, after the washing of water and the action of the Spirit, I will mark the Cross of Christ on Pepper Crofts’ forehead, and that Cross will never come off. It’s indelible. From this moment forth, the Spirit will be taking what is Jesus’ and declaring it to her. The Spirit will be bringing her in to the benefits of the Cross and Resurrection. The Spirit will be saying to her all the many things Jesus wants her to know, but she cannot bear yet.
And if you are baptized the same is true for you: It’s indelible. And the Spirit is trying to take what is Jesus’ and declare it to you. The Spirit is trying to bring you in to the benefits of the Cross and Resurrection. The Spirit is trying to teach you all the many things Jesus wants you to know, but you cannot bear yet. And I’ll tell you this: Whether today is the day of your Baptism, or your Baptism was 8 or 18 or 80 years ago, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit there’s always more. There’s always more.
Today is the seventh and final Sunday of Easter. This past Thursday we celebrated Ascension with a glorious sung evening prayer and next week will be Pentecost. Like the original disciples we now are in a period of waiting, waiting for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit as we say good-bye to the most beautiful Eastertide. Good-byes and waiting are necessary parts of life, though not always our favorite things to do.
This morning’s gospel comes at the end of Jesus’ long good-bye to his closest companions, which actually covers several chapters of John. These recall the conversation that took place on the night before Jesus’ arrest and death.
Throughout these chapters Jesus has reminded his disciples what he had done during his time on earth with them and he explains what it has meant. He tells them what is ahead of him and of them. He tries to prepare them for the future, even though they do not seem to understand. He then explains what he expects from them as they will be the ones to carry on his ministry on earth. And he reassures them that they will not be left alone to carry out this work.
It is a lot to take in and yet very important for them to hear and later to reflect about. Jesus then ends this long good-bye to those whom he loved the most, with a prayer. And this is today’s gospel passage.
Just as he has throughout his life with his disciples, on this last night, Jesus continues his teaching and his modeling for them. His prayer on behalf of his followers then and now, is a demonstration of how to pray for others, how to do intercessory prayer. This quiet, trusting prayer shows the level of deep intimacy between Jesus and his father. And we modern day disciples are drawn into that closeness and into that relationship and assured that our trust is well-placed, even thousands of years later,
As I reflect on this lesson I have thought about how our intercessory prayers match with Jesus’ prayer this morning.
In her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Naomi Remen tells of a patient of hers who is told by his oncologist that there was nothing more that could be done for him. The physician then said, “I think you’d better start praying.”
Are our intercessory prayers a kind of last resort, something to do when there are no more effective treatments available? Is God a final referral, and prayer the last ditch effort to get what we want to happen? Do we wait as long as possible before we ask for God’s help?
Remen counteracts this idea by talking about prayer in this way. “When we pray, we stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life. It is an opportunity to experience humility and recognize grace.” We stop trying to control life when we pray. Our prayers express that God is in charge and that what we ask for ourselves and for others is that God assist us in carrying out His will.
Thanks to a faithful group of daily office readers and those in the St. Luke’s guild, even during this time of the pandemic Emmanuel has continued to pray regularly for those on the parish prayer list. This list includes the names of those for whom we pray in a corporate way. Most often, only a very few here know what the person needs or perhaps even who the person is, but God knows and that is what is important. We say the person’s name to assist in lifting them into God’s presence.
Of course in our private prayers we may be more specific in our requests, asking for healing or a resolution to a loved one’s problems. Or sometimes, rather than using words, we may visualize the person being held by Jesus for a moment or two.
Remember Jesus’ example as he prayed on behalf of his followers as he tells them goodbye. Jesus asks God to protect those he loves, the people that God gave to him to be close to while he was on earth. He asks God to guard them and protect them from the evil one.
He asks that God sanctify his followers; that they be made holy, set apart for God’s purpose in the world. Jesus prays that his disciples find unity with each other, that they form a community, and are made one, just as he and his father are one. And Jesus prays that through this unity that his disciples find joy.
Protection, discernment, unity, joy, these are all things that Jesus prayed for his disciples both then and now.
And when you think about it, this is what others ask us to pray for them. And what we ask others to pray for us. Protection, “Hold us close God; keep us safe”. Discernment, “How can I know that what I do is in accordance with God’s will; Show me your way, Lord.” Unity, “Help us to love each other, God, as we each love you. Keep us together, and help us to forgive to make that unity possible.” Joy, “May we see your hand at work in the world around us, Lord. Help us to know and to be grateful for all you have given us.”
Jesus’ good-bye prayer in this morning’s gospel is the teaching example of intercessory prayer. When we pray to God on behalf of others may we do it not as a last resort, but regularly and often. And may we follow Jesus’ example in asking for God’s protection, discernment, unity and joy for those for whom we pray. We do not tell God what to do; rather we ask for his assistance and loving presence as we seek to carry out his will.
This prayer in today’s gospel is an example for us, but even more it is a source of comfort for us even today. While Jesus prayed these words long ago it is his prayer for us now. In his last night on earth Jesus prayed for protection for all who would carry out his work in the future. That includes us. In these last few days of Easter tide may our alleluias be great. While we, like those disciples, wait to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out Jesus’ work, may we use the time to renew our prayers on behalf of others, following Jesus’ example.
“Jesus prayed for his disciples; Jesus prays for us.”
Take a microphone to the streets of Champaign-Urbana and ask people to tell you what God is like. You can bet that "love" or “loving” will be mentioned more than any other word. And Love is all over the Bible, too, as we see in this week’s readings. Last week, 1 John even told us that God is love. Now that sounds like a simple statement, but it isn’t. Ask people to explain it, and you’ll discover that they don’t agree.
So I want to talk this week about what our own community, followers of Jesus, means by God’s love, and point out three misunderstandings about it. Now of course if you orient your life around something else than Jesus, they could be perfectly reasonable ideas. All of these are misunderstandings from the Christian point of view, which is of course what we’re all here to situate ourselves in.
One common misunderstanding, if I may put it this way, is in essence the assumption that the Bible’s statement “God is Love” can be reversed. That when we talk about God being love, we basically mean more or less the same thing as “Love is God.” Love is the highest reality. And you hear this implied when people say things like "I think in the end, all religions boil down to loving your neighbor."
But actually there is a great difference between claiming God is love, or claiming Love is God. Peter Kreeft explains it this way. "When we say A is B, we begin with a subject our hearer already knows," and add some new knowledge about it. "Mother is sick means: you know mother, well, let me tell you something new about her: she's sick. God is love means let me tell you something new about the God you know"...this infinite, majestic Lord of the universe, who is all powerful, all knowing, all holy.... let me tell you something more about that God – his deepest nature is Love.
"But Love is God means: let me tell you something about the human love you already know; [whatever that word love stands for in your mind,] that is the ultimate reality. That is as far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God [than the idea of love you already have]." The Biblical teaching that "God is love" is radical and intellectually profound. The cultural teaching that "love is God" is a platitude and for Christians, a complete non-starter.
Another misunderstanding is that divine love is a sort of generic benevolence. Again, from the Christian point of view, God’s love is anything but. The love of God that Christians talk about is specific and personal and has a definite shape about which he has told us a great deal. Jesus says today for example, that abiding in his love includes keeping his commandments.
For us, what God’s love is like is revealed in Jesus. We see that character as Jesus eats with outcasts and as he denounces false teaching about God. We see it as he heals people as a sign of the complete restoration God will one day bring, and as he confronts sin and exploitation as a sign of the same thing. We see it as he humbly washes the disciples’ feet, and as he holds them to a higher standard of behavior than the Old Testament did. The love God reveals to us in Christ says no to some things and says yes to others. That love both challenges and pursues us.
Which leads me to an additional comment on the "generic" misunderstanding. God's love is also not generic in terms of how it is given. God does not love humanity in bulk, as an undifferentiated mass. He loves you as you. He loves the secret beauties about you that no one else knows. There is nothing generic about this. It is specificity to the end and if we want to know what the specifics are, we look at Jesus.
The third common misunderstanding is that when we say God is loving, that somehow cancels out his justice and his holiness. People in cultures like ours that have a residue of Christianity but where very few people actually know the teachings of Christianity often think this. They've picked up that God is loving and forgiving, and they assume that’s all he is.
There’s this naïve storybook image that you know, somebody will reach the gates of heaven, and God will sort of ineffectually beam at them and say, "Well, you made a lot of mistakes, and you don’t really deserve it, but aw, heck, come on in anyway." (If you push someone on this, they will often say it doesn't happen for so-called really bad people -- Hitler is the most common example -- but that surely God will turn a blind eye for all the nice folks like us.)
Behind this image is a confused view of love that says, "If you love me, you’ll accept anything I do." Sure, love accepts people, but it does not accept actions that hurt people. Love cares about right and wrong. How loving would a God be who didn't care whether or not a parent abused their child, or didn’t care whether or not a shooter took the lives of innocent people? The idea that God ought to ignore evil asks God to contradict his own nature. To deny his own holiness and justice. Even more, it makes light of God’s own self-sacrifice on the Cross; God chose to put himself through that agony because his love says such a strong No to evil, that that No ends up as a Yes to redemption. It’s because God’s love says No to evil that it says Yes to coming in person to heal the damage evil has done, to set the world to rights.
God’s love is holy love. His love is married to his holiness. His mercy is married to his justice. It’s this seamless reality. And through Jesus he offers you and me, and the entire created universe, a way to satisfy both, which has got to be the most loving thing anybody has ever done for anybody.
We could say so much more about God's love, but that's enough for one day. I just want you to hear this call from the Gospel again: Abide in my love, says Jesus. Abide in my love. This is a love that doesn't peter out at what we already know, but that builds on our understanding of the God who spent the entire Old Testament getting across his holiness and his justice so we could understand the radical claim that this God, this God is love. This is a love that is specific and personal and deliberate, not vague and generic. This is a love that is both holy and just, and merciful and kind. It’s a love that loves you.
There’s a lot of stereotypes about twins out there, but one of the most common and perhaps the most accurate is that there is always a time when the twins will butt heads. For me and my sister, that was our senior year of high school. It was a rough season for several reasons, but the one thing that really got to me, the one thing that I couldn’t let go was that my twin always, always, always slept through her alarms, which would mean that we would be late to school. It infuriated me; but rather than mapping out a quicker way to school or helping my sister figure out how to wake up in the morning, I would actually drive to school more slowly and then park in the back of the very last parking lot just to spite her. Because why not. After school, we’d get home, still mad about the morning, and we would inevitably hear, “Why can’t you just get along?” And my answer, being the mature 18-year-old I was, was always some variation on, “I don’t know. Why does she have to be so frustrating?”
Human relationships are hard — and that’s not just because we get annoyed by different things or that we come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. It’s because there is something wrong with our hearts.
In our epistle lesson today, St. John urges us to love one another. “Beloved, let us love one another,” he says, because 1) love is from God and 2) God is love and 3) if we love each other, God abides in us.
The repetition can at first strike us as tiresome. We got the message the first time. You want us to love one another. There’s nothing that special or that hard about it. But when we stop and think about our own high school tantrums or more recent experiences at holiday dinners or on our favorite social media platform, I think we would all agree that love and everything about it is much easier said than done.
Why is it so hard to love other people? Why do we constantly fail to love one another?
The answer to those questions lies back at the beginning. When God created humankind, things looked pretty great. Man looked at woman and woman looked at man, and there was recognition of mutual humanity, of worth and value, of beauty. There was, in short, love, the giving of oneself for another’s sake with no designs on what you might get in return. But the effortless goodness of those first moments ended quickly, and what was left was afterwards has forever haunted us.
The world changed in an instant and try as we might to get back to paradise, we could never find the way. Not that we didn’t try. History is littered with attempts at fixing what we broke; but none of them ever worked because we were always too tired, too angry, too concerned with our own survival to realize that we were the problem. On that day in the garden, our mother and father chose themselves over God, and every single human heart since then has followed their lead.
Except for one.
His story is the greatest love story ever told: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us,” writes St. John. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Before time began, when there was nothing but God, he knew that his creation would fall, knew that we would think we were gods, we would decide to do as we pleased with the world and each other. And God knew that we would hate our creator because of it. He knew this, and still decided we were worth saving.
In this is love, not that we loved God — because our self-obsessed hearts never could — but that he loved us and sent his Son to bring us back home.
I think this year more than any time in our lives, we have a much more accurate understanding of how limited we are. We feel how hard it is to love other people when we’re anxious about catching a deadly disease, when we’re exhausted from keeping the kids quiet during Zoom meetings, when we’re angry over another mindless shooting rampage.
We may be good people. We may have the best intentions, but we still need to be reminded, encouraged, exhorted to love one another — because we forget or we’re too tired or we decide that those people don’t deserve it anyway. In short, because we’re human and we need God’s grace if there is to be any light in our world.
Love is from God, and our capacity to love comes from him. Our world may be fractured, we may at times feel nothing like tenderness or compassion toward it, but that doesn’t mean that love is in short supply. It is in fact a never-ending fountain because God is love. In him is no failing, no exhaustion, no spite, no deceit. He alone can heal our hearts so that we may truly love one another. AMEN.
“Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Both the gospel and the psalm use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd. It is not a leap to know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we humans are the sheep. In the time scripture was written, these metaphors would have been readily understood as a way to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Other Biblical leaders, Abraham, David, and Amos were shepherds or traveled with herds of sheep. It was natural to call God’s people, a flock. These metaphors, when originally written, brought actual meaning to the hearers.
However, for most living here and now, the image of a shepherd is not part of our day to day experience. I can honestly say I have never met someone whose job was to watch over sheep. And yet I can understand a good shepherd because of what I have heard in these passages.
Also, most probably our first-hand knowledge of sheep is limited. We enjoy the products the animals provide—beautiful wool and good tasting meat but that’s about it. We take others words about sheep—they are animals without much intelligence, followers who are quickly lost without a good leader. The actual metaphor loses some of its power without experience of the reference.
As I said, I do not know any real-life shepherds. However, I have had an encounter with a group of sheep that for me provides a picture of what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel.
Some years ago I visited Iona, a small island in the Hebrides. Iona was the spot that Columba used as a base to bring Celtic Christianity to Scotland in 563. The island, just a little over 3 square miles, has become a place of religious pilgrimage and spiritual retreats. It is the burial place for approximately 60 kings, including MacBeth and Duncan! There are fewer than 200 people who live on the island year round and many of those raise sheep as their main source of income. The sheep wander the island freely.
I was there near the summer solstice when the days have about 20 hours of sun. Late one night I walked alone to the west shore to see a gorgeous sunset. On the way I encountered a large group of sheep. They were as interested in me as I was in them so I paused as they neared me. One of the larger rams had those beautiful curved horns and I was a bit afraid at first. We each stood our ground and looked into the other’s eyes. We both decided the other did not pose a danger and we rested quietly together there for a while. I then continued my trek and the ram continued his grazing in that same spot. After the sun had gone down I returned the same way I had come. That same ram was still in that spot, watching for me to come back. He then accompanied me as I walked to the gate of his field and again made eye contact as I left. Perhaps sheep are followers, but certainly not stupid! This metaphor of sheep changed for me after that real life experience.
Because of being “up close and personal” in that large group of sheep, I was interested in knowing more. I identified at least six different breeds of sheep, many whose names I cannot pronounce. The variety was incredible. Some had black faces, some white faces, some were rounder than others. Some had long black legs, and others shorter white legs. I was fascinated by those with pink faces. Some of their wool was coarse and some soft and fluffy. Some had large curved horns. Each of the sheep had a painted owner’s mark, a bright red stripe, a yellow cross, a circle of blue and so on. All of the sheep graze together until spring when they are gathered and separated for shearing. Though different looking, they were able to co-exist in a peaceable and calm way, each getting what they needed.
Taking the metaphor of sheep representing human beings, I wonder. Certainly there is a wide diversity in people’s appearance, as was true of the sheep but did that Scottish flock hold a message for us that Jesus wanted us to know?
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I believe Jesus acknowledges and encourages diversity in his followers with this statement.
At the time this scripture was written the sheep that did not belong to the fold were most likely the Gentiles. And the writer of this passage was encouraging inclusion of the Gentiles as equals in Christianity.
Today we know that the body of Christ includes all nations, races and people. There is diversity in Christ’s church worldwide. We know this and yet do we embrace this diversity?
I wonder, “Who are the gentiles of our day?” Who are the “other sheep” who do not belong to this fold?
I ask you to keep in mind the image of that large group of sheep of all kinds grazing quietly together, including, accepting and watching over me that night. Can we not do the same to the “other sheep” of our time?
Jesus, our Good Shephard, said, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. Amen.
A friend of mine says, it takes God to know God. We can get a certain distance toward the divine on our own, but eventually we need supernatural help. It takes God to know God. If that’s true, and I think it is, knowing God requires a bit more than the techniques we use to learn things in most of our life. If we need to familiarize ourselves with something, we might read about it, talk to someone who is an expert in it, Google it.
And of course, people read and talk and google Christianity, as they should. The world is full of skeptics who researched the historical data on the Resurrection and came to think it was plausible – there are enough books telling that story to fill a whole bookshelf. And in the Episcopal church, at our best we place a high value on that kind of thing – intellectual inquiry, encouraging asking questions, hoping people will think things through and not just blindly accept what someone else says.
At our best, this is a great trait. Sometimes among our denominational family though, it turns into condescension towards others, or intellectual laziness that is content to applaud questioning as an end in itself, and resists actually reading and thinking historically and textually about doctrine and Scripture. I’ve noticed in discussions of the Bible that as our culture has shifted steadily to emphasize self-expression as the highest good, folks seem to want to jump straight to how they feel about a text, or how they feel about other people’s actions related to the general topic of the text, rather than beginning by using our brains to read and absorb and interact with what it actually says.
The Gospel we have this morning is like that. We lose so much if we jump straight to how it makes us feel without noting that it’s full of perplexing details. Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Excuse me; how did he get in the room? They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. But you just told us that not five minutes ago, they were discussing the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What’s with the "ghost" remark? And startled I can understand, but if it’s they know it’s Jesus, why are they terrified?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Why does he tell them to touch him when he told Mary Magdalene not to? Is he proving his identity by showing them the marks of crucifixion, and if so why are there still wounds in a risen body? Does being raised not fix that? They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Do risen bodies have to eat? How often? Is this some kind of stunt? If we don’t consider the text closely enough to feel disturbed by it and ask questions about it, we are never going to receive its benefits. We have to start by observing what the text actually says.
And then Jesus tells them, I told you “while I was still with you: everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” And here comes the moment where, as important as data and observation are, we go beyond it as we’re confronted with this startling sentence: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
Don’t jump over that. Look at what it says. Note that this is not a claim that the disciples thought harder or the disciples changed their opinion or the disciples heard some new information. It’s claiming there was an act of God. He opened their minds. It starts with their already being aware of what’s in the Scriptures – you can’t understand something you’re not even aware of – but it goes beyond that, because at this moment Jesus supernaturally changes the way they are able to absorb and conceptualize something they had naturally observed and learned. It takes God to know God.
Some of us have been in good Bible studies, ones where people both intellectually observe the text and are open to the Holy Spirit, as opposed to one where people just share how they already feel about things loosely related to the theme of the passage. If you have been in a good Bible study, I will wager that you have had this happen to you. You have had God open your mind to understand the scriptures. You saw things one way, and then something happened inside you that you weren’t the cause of, and everything looked different. It takes God to know God.
In the spiritual life, it’s definitely not that we don’t use our intellect and our powers of research. It’s that we do, but God adds something to them that we could never achieve on our own. He reveals himself. When we carefully consider what the Scriptures say, God steps in with the next step: He opens our minds, in the words of today’s Gospel, to understand them. Or in the words of the Collect prayer for today, he opens our eyes to behold him at work. God gave us intellects so that we could use them. But God also acts upon us and reveals himself, to bring us closer to him than mere human powers can get. Both these things are true, and in the Christian life neither stands alone.
There are two conclusions about life that we ultimately have to make. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Or did he not? If he didn’t, as Paul says, we are of all people most to be pitied. But if he did, then our hope is sure because it is founded on a promise that confronted death and won.
It’s easy to say something like that, to hold up a coin and show you both sides and say pick one and stick to it. The stakes in that case aren’t very high. But when something goes wrong, when a loved one dies, when a pandemic takes away everything from family reunions to a spontaneous drink with friends, the meaning of those words, “Jesus is risen, Jesus is Lord,” are a lot easier to ignore or even forget. Sometimes the world just gets too big and too messy for us to really believe that the battle has been won and we are the victors. Sometimes we just want to lock our doors and stay inside for fear of what may confront us without.
What is doubt but fear that Christ has not risen?
That fear is exactly what kept the disciples inside on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death. When Mary Magdalene brought news of the Lord’s resurrection, none of the disciples went out to find him, rejoicing in the power of God. Instead, they locked themselves in their rooms because they were terrified.
It was in the midst of that fear that Jesus appeared before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” He held out his hands and showed them his side. “Peace be with you.” And Jesus breathed on them, giving them his Spirit, the Spirit of peace, the Breath of God, before he disappears. But in his absence, the doubt once again creeps into the disciples’ minds, and when Thomas emphatically and infamously does not believe their report, they all go back into hiding, locking the door behind them. A week later, Jesus appears again, saying again, “Peace be with you.” And immediately he turns to Thomas and shows him his hands and his side; and Thomas, repenting of his doubt, recognizes that Jesus is who he is. My Lord and my God.
If we ask what or who overcame the disciples’ doubt, the answer, I think, is obvious. The risen Lord himself. But just because the answer is obvious does not make it any less remarkable. Jesus doesn’t confront his disciples’ lack of faith or the fact that they abandoned him, he just shows up. And in that act of showing up, the Son of God, by his very presence, scars and all, lifts his disciples out of their fear and commissions them to do his work. “Peace be with you,” he says again and again; and the peace he gives is himself.
As much as we might not think it, as much as we might protest against it, we are the very same as the disciples. Confronted with death and disease, with the threat of violence or with the pain of indifference, we can be tempted to hide in our homes, to put our lamps under a basket, because we cannot risk the hurt of Christ’s resurrection not being true. But when we doubt, Christ himself answers. He reaches out to us through his Word, through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, through the church herself, saying, “Peace be with you.” Because Jesus is risen, because Jesus is Lord, the promise is true: where there is a cross, there will always be resurrection. AMEN.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
When Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb on the first Easter, they are coming looking for an end. Jesus is dead, his mission is over, and they just want it all to have a proper burial. They are coming looking for an end, whereas God is offering them a beginning. They are going to bid farewell to their hopes, whereas God is welcoming them to a future in which hope becomes something substantial and concrete.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
The hope Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome learn about this morning is not primarily a hope of life after death or a hope of comfort now, though the Christian faith does offer us life after death and give us comfort. The young man at the tomb tells these three women not that they can feel less sad because Jesus has gone to heaven, but that Jesus has been raised to new life by the power of God, his body is no longer in the tomb, and he is already out in front of them -- in this world, in that risen body, going ahead of them to apply to our world the same power that raised him.
In this year where so many human bodies have been invaded by a virus, where nearly 3 million human bodies have died of it, where we’ve reckoned anew with all the human bodies who have been harmed because their skin is brown or black – in this world, we need a God who deals with bodies. We need a hope that is substantial and concrete, a hope that is bodily, a hope that is not just for later, but for now -- and this is the hope we hear about on Easter.
The Presbyterian writer Timothy Keller has a brand new book drawing on the overwhelming events of the last year, which for him coincided with battling pancreatic cancer in his own body. It’s called Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. As he works through the data on the resurrection, he lays out why the hope Easter proclaims works in times of fear: because it guarantees that Jesus in his risen body is already out in front of us, drawing his future into our present, and his risen body into our mortal bodies.
“In the resurrection,” Keller writes, “we have the presence of the future. The power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time has broken into history [on Easter] and is available, partially but substantially – now.” That power breaks into the world specifically in the risen body of Jesus. Not in an idea or an aspiration, but in human flesh – human flesh remade into a carrier of the power of God’s coming Kingdom.
So hope for a Christian is not optimism. Hope is not wait and see. Hope is not put a good face on it. Hope is not pie in the sky when you die, although the hope that begins today certainly extends past the grave. Hope for a follower of Jesus is substantial, concrete and bodily, guaranteed in the risen flesh which carries God’s future now, and brings it into our world, our bodies, our lives.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
Let me read that quote from Keller again. What we learn today is that “The power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time has broken into history [on Easter] and is available, partially but substantially – now.”
It is available. Not in its fullness till the next world, when God’s whole future is made manifest, but still available, partially but substantially, here where we can see it. And in fact, you will see it in just a few minutes yourself. After all, the body of Christ that we offer and share at every Eucharist is, of course, that very same risen body, that very same carrier of the power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time.
Easter is not just for later. If you come to communion today, in just a few minutes you will hold it in your hands. And at the end of time, the fullness of its effects will be realized, substantially and concretely, and all suffering, evil, deformity, and death will be destroyed. But it begins now. It begins here. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Happy Easter.