“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads.”
These words are from our collect for the day, and they echo what is stated in the Gospel from John. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the scriptures point to the attributes of Jesus as our Good Shepherd.
Jesus leads and follows us. He keeps us safe from behind and before. Remember the shepherd’s staff, one end to pull us out of danger and one end to prod us into where we need to go. Jesus provides for us. He revives us when we are worn out and guides us with goodness and mercy. He desires the best for us. He comforts us when we are sad and lonely. He wipes away our tears. He is with us in all times and in all things. In his presence we will not be hungry nor thirsty nor unprotected. And then, through his resurrection, Jesus gives us the ultimate gift of eternal life. These are strong characteristics of one who loves us deeply. This is how we know that He is the Good Shepherd of us all.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She knew what was ahead of her which is a sad part of the disease. What she was most concerned about was that she would forget my name. While this was how she expressed it she was also concerned that eventually she would forget everyone’s name whom she loved. And even, perhaps, she would get to the point when she would no longer remember her own. Names were very important to her. She saw them as encompassing all that there was to be known by another. A name summed up your individuality, your personhood and what made you different from all others. She desired to be able to call each loved one by their name and her great fear was that she could not.
As is true of those with memory loss, we had this same conversation many times. Each time I was able to reassure her, I would not forget her name and whenever she could not recall mine, I would quietly remind her. Near the end, of her life what she was most afraid of was Jesus would forget her name. Alzheimer’s is an awful disease. Her fear was real and yet, the assurance we hear today is that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, does not ever forget our name. And, more importantly we are promised that He is with us in every circumstance of life.
Today we are in the middle of the Easter season, the time when we walk with the risen Lord. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. These are not empty words but true promises that we know especially during this season. Over the past few weeks, we have heard about occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples. Jesus walked and talked with his followers in his risen body. He made himself known in various ways through breaking bread, through eating with them, through showing them his wounds. Jesus calmed their fears each time with his voice and by calling them by name. He knew what each person needed to believe in him and he provided that for them. Each of these gospels we have heard stressed his great love for all his followers, both those who were in his physical presence and those who have believed and worked for God’s kingdom throughout time. Jesus voice and Jesus’ presence bring comfort.
Then we come to today’s lessons, and they seemingly do not fit the pattern of the past few weeks. Instead of hearing about events of the resurrected Christ, today’s gospel event took place just before the crucifixion. As Jesus walked in the temple those around him questioned him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Tell us plainly. Those words may be our words at some point or points in our lives. Show us. Give us a sign, we say in our desperation. Let us know the truth. Now, probably the question put to Jesus in this passage was not a genuine desire to know but rather another attempt to trick him. For the most part those asking the question were not sincere in wanting an answer. They believed Jesus to be a troublemaker and a threat to their power and authority. They hoped his answer would give them the evidence to prosecute him and get rid of him once and for all. But we who hear the words today understand their question, at least in part, Jesus, tell me plainly. Are you the Messiah?
What answer would you and I want? What signs would we need? Perhaps a sign would be the answer to our prayer that our children, our loved ones are kept safe. Or perhaps a sign would be a complete recovery for a particular person’s illness; or maybe the sign we seek is that nothing bad will ever happen to us and those we love. We are often worn out with what is going on in this world, the almost daily news brings stories of nearby disaster. We read of violence in our cities, of rising rates of disease, poverty and war. What sign would work for us here and now?
Jesus’ answer to those original questioners is the same answer he gives us now. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life. This answer is not about an extraneous sign or work. Rather it is about relationship, our relationship with Jesus, and Jesus’ relationship with us. He loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for us. Today’s gospel reminds us of what the resurrection is all about. It is about the depth of God’s love, God’s love for us. We hear his voice; he knows us by name, and we follow him because of that relationship. Our proof comes from Jesus knowing us, loving us and being present with us in all things. He is our good shepherd. Regardless of what is going on in the outside world, Jesus will not abandon us nor forget us.
Our proof is our relationship with him. The love God has for us through Jesus cannot necessarily prevent our being hurt or having bad things happen to us, but Jesus will be with us in all. He knows us. He knows our name. He knows our fears and joys. And He knows our need of him. Our shepherd is with us. More than this, though and most importantly Jesus gives us eternal life. There is no greater comfort. There can be no way to state it any more plainly. Jesus is the Christ; he is our Messiah. He invites us into his presence. We do not ever have to be alone. The proof we seek is in our relationship with Him.
We are also reminded today that every relationship has at least two participants. The shepherd calls and the sheep follow. In this morning’s collect we pray that we may follow where Jesus leads. As have disciples throughout time, we have a responsibility to this relationship. Belonging to our loving and protecting shepherd means that we will follow him. We will return his love through our worship of him as we do here this morning. We will return his love by following his example of loving others and by sharing the good news of His story with them.
Today’s lessons are an Easter message. Jesus calls us by name. He cares for us; he guides us and supports us. He gives us eternal life.
Let us pray,
O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.