“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.
What we do tonight is remember. As a family gathers after a death, we have come together to remember. We take turns telling stories, praying, and sitting some in silence. We find comfort in being in each other’s presence. We are a family, God’s family, and we are in mourning, sitting together, shedding some tears, talking about the one we love who has died an awful death. For a little while we go back in time and identify with those early disciples.
For one night we experience a fraction of the pain of those original disciples in thinking that Jesus was gone, gone forever. Even though Jesus had told them what was to come, on Friday they did not know it. Sunday was not to be imagined. So tonight is a time to put ourselves in their place and think as they did that Friday. What might it have been like to not know Jesus as the Risen Lord? What would it be like to not have Jesus in our life?
A critical part of our Good Friday experience is to live as witnesses of the horror and senselessness of the crucifixion. I have often wondered how could Mary, Jesus’ precious mother, have kept her vigil as her son suffered? His pain was so intense and real; how could she have remained there watching? And yet how could she not.
Tonight we remember and identify with these disciples and like them we look to find meaning in Jesus’ death.
When Jesus entered the upper room on the night before he died for us, he was tired. Exhausted. And afraid. He knew that death was coming, knew that his time was up. This would be his last meal on earth, his last night to spend with his friends. But instead of doing the things we might think a person would do if they knew they were about to die, Jesus does something unexpected. He takes off his coat, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and washes his disciples’ feet.
The whole scene is strange. We might imagine the surprise, even the distaste on the disciples’ faces. Because what was happening didn’t make sense. Barely a day had passed since Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, and the people had hailed him as king. But now he was doing the work of a slave. What did this mean for their understanding of the Messiah? What does it mean for them? Up until that moment, they would never have imagined that this man would pick up a basin and a towel and begin shuffling around the room on his knees, washing the dust of the roads off of the feet of his followers. But here he was, doing just that.
What the disciples didn’t understand and what we so often forget, is that Jesus is a king who embraced humility. As St. Paul tells us, the Son of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, so that we might be saved. On the night before Jesus died for us, he showed the disciples what his love looks like: willingly humbling himself in order to serve and save his people.
Today, we enter into the story of Jesus’ last hours on earth. We walk with him into the upper room, we watch and listen as he breaks bread with his disciples, we wait with him as he prays in the garden. And the whole time, we know that the betrayer is coming. That the cross is coming. But in this moment, here, right now, Jesus invites us — despite our own exhaustion, our own worries and fears — to do as he has done. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus, in this small act of washing feet, challenges us. He challenges our love for honor and prestige, our debates about who will be the greatest. If you want to become great, he said, you must become small. Jesus challenges our distaste and embarrassment with the least and the lost. While we don’t want to look dirty, Jesus is on the ground washing off dirt, he’s eating meals with cheats and speaking to drunks and healing adulterers. And Jesus challenges our lack of love, our desire to correct instead of comfort. While we are picking and choosing who is worthy of our efforts, who is not “too bad to be worth saving,” Jesus is washing Judas’ feet.
This is a hard lesson and we may say to ourselves, “who can bear it?” But the good news is that Jesus has loved us unto the end, straight through Golgotha and beyond.
Jesus has shown us what it means to love as he loves; but we may not feel like we have the strength to do it. And we don’t; only Christ in his humanity and his divinity has the strength to love his own, even his enemies, unto the end — which is why he has given himself for our sake, not only in the act of service and humility, but in his very body and blood.
As we leave here today, we go out into a world that is just as broken, just as violent as the world in which Jesus lived. To love as Jesus loved is hard, and it can sometimes look just as odd as a king washing the feet of his servants. But Jesus calls us to follow him regardless. May we remember that and hope as we come to the Table — for Jesus has given us himself, that we might have the strength to walk beside him. AMEN.