Sunday, May 12, 2019

Talking about sheep and shepherds

A Sermon preached on May 12, 2019, Easter IV, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

This Sunday is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday because, in each year of the liturgical cycle on this 4th Sunday after Easter, the Gospel is always taken from the 10th chapter of John where Jesus speaks of himself as the "good shepherd". But the readings we heard this morning must be the least “shepherdy” of all the texts available for this day. With the exception of Psalm 23, we heard nothing about shepherds, let alone good ones, and in the Gospel, sheep were mentioned only twice. Where did they go? Who left the paddock gate open?

When Jesus talks about sheep or shepherds, he is using them as metaphors, as codes if you like for something else. Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times, more than any other animal, and for two main reasons. Sheep were common, the most important livestock for the nomadic tribes that had once made up Israel, and for the agricultural society that Palestine still was in Jesus’ day. So, the listeners would understand examples that referred to or made use of sheeplike characteristics: social, willing to follow their leader, and in popular myth if not reality, stupid and prone to get themselves into trouble. Throughout the Bible, sheep are also used Bible symbolically to refer to God's people. 

The same goes for shepherds. They were common too – you might remember running into them in one of the stories about Jesus’ birth. And many biblical figures were shepherds, at least for a while, among them the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, Moses – it’s what he was doing when he spotted the burning bush, King David, and the Old Testament prophet Amos. As a listener you would know what a shepherd did, and that their primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock. And again, in the Bible, shepherd was used as a metaphor for the rulers of Israel. Ezekiel (34) prophesies against the shepherds of Israel, both the temporal and spiritual rulers, because they have ruled the sheep, the people, harshly and brutally. And in that passage, as well as in today’s Psalm, it is the Lord God who is the shepherd: “I will shepherd the flock with justice,” says God in Ezekiel (34:16) or in our Psalm (23:1) “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

When Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd he expects his listeners to recall all these other meanings: that the sheep he claims responsibility for are the people of Israel, that he is motivated by a desire to care for their safety and welfare, and that he has a leadership role, and that he acts on God’s behalf or even in God’s place. Yet if we look at the gospel reading it would seem that he has miscalculated and that these very weighty claims he has been making have not been properly or fully understood. Why else do the people ask him “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24) And this is not the first time some of the people have struggled with his message. At the very beginning of this chapter, right after his first shepherd and sheep illustration, we hear that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (10:6) 

Something has gone wrong. Why is his message not getting across? For over 70 years now, social scientists have developing models of how we communicate, the first major model dates to 1949 and was developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver. In this standard view of communication, also called the transmission model, communication is viewed simply as a means of sending and receiving information and consists of three main components: a sender (Jesus), a channel (language, in his case metaphorical language), and a receiver (the other Jews). 

Where can things go wrong? Shannon and Weaver argued that there were three levels of problems for communication. The “technical problem”: how accurately can the message be transmitted? I don’t think this was the problem, I’m sure they heard what Jesus said. Either he taught in small groups or made use of natural features to be heard: a boat just off shore, a mound. 

Then there is the “semantic problem”: how precisely is the meaning 'conveyed'? Is this the case here? Is it the use of metaphor? Again, I don’t think so – the additional meanings of the words sheep and shepherd were well established and would have been particularly clear to the “clergy” of the day – including the implicit criticism of their role as shepherds to the nation. 

Finally, there is the “effectiveness problem”: how effectively does the received meaning affect behavior? This is the key issue. The problem was not that they did not understand what Jesus said, but that they did not want to accept it. Other communication researchers have critiqued the standard model for being a little too mechanical. Those communicating are not isolated individuals but part of systems. They have differing purposes and interpretations, that effect how we understand what is said. All these factors play a role here too. Accepting that Jesus was speaking as God, would have meant being willing to give up their position of power and privilege, and following him instead. The issue was not the sender, or the message, but the recipients. 

Sure, Jesus has not said simply, "I am the Messiah." But he has told them this in more ways than one. By word, including metaphor, as well as by what also what he has done, by the signs of power, plenty, and healing: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (John 10:25). The problem is not his lack of clarity, but their lack of faith:I have told you, and you do not believe,” he says. They have chosen not to belong to his sheep – and his sheep are no longer just the people of Israel but any and all who hear Jesus’s voice and follow him. His care for their, for our safety and welfare is both unlimited and eternal. His sheep will be safe for ever. No predator or enemy can snatch them out of Jesus’ hand, not even death, the last great enemy. 

The visions of John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation offer a poetic glimpse of what this glorious promise means: “They will hunger nor more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:16-17) This is a vision of the satisfaction of all physical and spiritual needs.

The security of the sheep rests on the shepherd. How can Jesus promise this? Because of who he serves and who he is. Jesus is not acting on his own apart from the Father. Jesus acts in unity with God the Father: “The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30) Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd is God.
And what do we do with this message? Communicate it of course – so that is heard, understood, and accepted. But most of all, simply rejoice that when we hear Jesus’ voice, we know that we are called by name, and that we can follow where he leads, to the very springs of the water of life, (Rev. 7:17) where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:6)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Resurrection promise

A Sermon preached on April 21, 2019, Easter Day, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 65:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26, John 20:1-18

I recently spotted this meme on Facebook: “In the interests of biblical accuracy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women.” That’s not going to work today I’m afraid, but there is a lot of truth in that statement: Women found and announced the empty tomb. In today’s Gospel Mary Magdalene tells Peter and the “beloved disciple,” "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." (John 20:2) Women were first to encounter the risen Christ and the first to be sent – a role that is called in Greek ‘apostle’ – to pass this message on. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to “go to my brothers,” and so Mary “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (20:17-18)

So, without Jesus’ female followers, we might not be here. It’s a pity that it took our Church nearly 2000 years to catch up on this and give women equal access to all offices and orders … and that many churches have not yet caught up. But that’s not my topic today, not who told us, but what they told us about: The Resurrection.

Can Christianity exist without the resurrection? Paul certainly doesn’t think so: “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied!” he tells the Corinthians. (1 Cor. 15:19) Why is it so important? The resurrection is the event through which everything Christ did and taught is vindicated. It gives his death on the cross meaning. It is the event through which death is defeated and destroyed. It is the event through which God and humanity are reconciled. It not only changes Jesus, but us too.

Without the resurrection, Jesus would just have been a very good human being. Very good human beings are not a bad thing, it is what we all strive to be. But a very good human being is not good enough to fulfil God’s promise that, as Peter writes in his first letter, (1 Peter 1:3-4) “By his great mercy (God) has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven.” Just as there is no Christianity without the resurrection, you can’t really be a Christian without hope: it is a key quality expressing not only the desire for something to happen, but also the expectation and trust that it will happen. 

I’m certain you were all as shocked as I was when I heard about, and then watched the fire rage at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris just a few days ago. I was reminded of the fire here 53 years ago. Our church was gutted, and yet rebuilt within a year. Notre Dame will take longer to rebuild, but it will be restored as a symbol of resurrection and of hope fulfilled. 

Our living hope in Christ through his resurrection both impacts and transforms this life and opens up a perspective to everlasting life. It is so central to our faith, even more than Christmas, that we celebrate the resurrection not just today at Easter, but every Sunday in the Eucharist, at every funeral, and at every Baptism: The Sacrament of new birth and new life. 

Originally all baptisms were by immersion, the baptismal candidate was submerged, pressed under water to symbolize his or her death to sin, before rising again, perhaps coughing and spluttering, as they entered into a new life. Before Lawrence and Rebecca grab Oscar and run away, that won’t happen today. The worst that can happen to him is that he gets a little water in his eyes if I’m not careful enough when pouring. But the symbolism, the meaning is the same. He dies to sin; it loses its power over him. Today he becomes, in the words of the prophet Isaiah,” an offspring blessed by the Lord,” blessed by the constant presence of God’s Spirit in his life so that, as Isaiah goes on to promise on God’s behalf, even “before they call I will answer, (and) while they are yet speaking I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:23-24)

This gift of God’s loving presence is not a treasure to be hidden away, just as Christ’s resurrection promise is not something we cherish until just before we die, as if we don’t need it before then. We are supposed to grow, to be formed, and to be transformed by this gift. The Baptismal Covenant we will recite together is much more than a list of things to do: teach, pray, resist, repent, proclaim, serve. These are acts that change us as we do them, just like the Presiding Bishop’s Way of Love[1] with its very similar sounding set of practices (turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, rest) are meant to transform us by their daily use. 

Jesus’ resurrection is not just a single, historical event, nor just a future promise. The resurrected life begins for us all at our Baptism, that is the momnet when we start living the life of Christ, with the goal of becoming like him. We are continually raised to new life through our Baptism into the life of Christ. And yes, this Christian hope also stretches beyond our earthly lives, even unto life everlasting. The resurrection promise is the very center of our lives as Christians. And that is why we say both with certainty, and great joy:

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