Monday, April 30, 2007

Good Shepherd Sunday 2007

Every 4th Sunday in Easter season is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It’s a day when we are reminded of how Christians down through the ages have taken comfort in Jesus’ promises that, as the good shepherd, he gives his life for us so that we may have eternal life. And he makes us part of his eternally secure flock.

Eternal life and eternal security. Our hearts and our souls long for these things. We often seek them in the wrong places and from the wrong persons. No mere human being – no matter how virtuous – and no merely human institution – no matter how powerful – can grant them. But on “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the Church tells us that there is one who can give us that kind of life and security. There is one we can trust as our guardian and our guide. And that one is Jesus Christ.

We proclaim the message that Jesus gives eternal life and eternal security throughout the Great 50 Days of Easter and beyond. It’s a message we underscore in the baptismal liturgy as the oil of chrism is imposed with the words: “ … you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308). It’s a message we proclaim in every funeral liturgy. And in hearing that message, we are invited to put our trust in Jesus, the one who, in our baptisms, makes us part of his flock.

Back in Jesus’ day, however, not everyone who heard his claims accepted them. Not everyone responded to his promises with trust. Not everyone became his disciple.

John’s Gospel tells us that some people called Jesus “a good man,” but others disagreed, saying, “he is deceiving the crowd” (John 7:12). And elsewhere John says that “there was a division in the crowd because of him” (John 7:43).

In another instance, John reports Jesus’ outrageous claim that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:52). In response, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66).

In a dispute with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus said “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). In saying that, Jesus used a name of God revealed to Moses, thus claiming perfect equality with God for himself. In response to this perceived blasphemy, “they picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59).

Then there’s today’s reading in which Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd is linked to his identity as the Messiah, the Christ. By claiming to have the power to give eternal life and eternal security for those who hear his voice and follow him, Jesus claims a power that belongs only to God. So once again, Jesus identifies himself with God by saying, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). And although it’s not included in today’s reading, the response to this claim comes in the very next verse in the form of violent rejection: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him” (10:31).

As one scholar notes, over and over again, “Jesus … points to himself and claims that he is the visible presence of God” [Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 315]. Some people respond to that claim with trust and acceptance. Others walk away. Some try to arrest him. Still others try to kill him.

Jesus’ claim to be one with God, the creator of heaven and earth, forms the basis on which we dare to believe that Jesus is the good shepherd – the one who can give us the eternal life and eternal security that he promises.But as in Jesus’ day, not everyone accepts the claim that Jesus is one with God.

Some say, for example, that Jesus was a lunatic. He made grandiose but groundless claims for himself because he was insane. “Before Abraham was, I AM”? “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you”? “The Father and I are one”? Surely, this is crazy talk!

Others say that Jesus was mistaken. He sincerely believed that he was the Messiah and the Son of God. But he was wrong. As anybody back in Jesus’ day would have known, there’s no way that God’s anointed one would die naked and bleeding on a cross. The shame of Jesus’ death proves how very badly mistaken he was.

Still others claim that Jesus was lying. He knew good and well that he wasn’t the Messiah or the Son of God. But he claimed that he was out of ulterior motives. Perhaps he wanted to be famous. Or maybe he was a nationalist zealot who wanted to expel the Romans from the Holy Land. And the only way he could raise up an army to do that was by claiming to be something he wasn’t. But again, Jesus nailed to a cross exposed the Messianic lie.

And then there’s the view that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah or the Son of God in the first place. All of the stuff about that in the Gospels and the creeds was made up by later Christians. It was all part of an effort to consolidate power and control over and against others who had rival views. It was a political thing. In reality, Jesus was probably just a prophet or a moral teacher. But nothing more than that.

Let’s imagine some of the consequences if one of these responses to Jesus’ claims is correct. That would mean that what has been proclaimed as the heart and soul of the Christian faith for almost 2,000 years would be, at best, a mistake, and at worst, a lie. And a mistake or lie perpetrated by the Church. If that’s the case, we cannot trust the Church or what we’ve received from the Church. So the New Testament, the historic creeds, the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, the promise of grace in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, even the words of our hymns – they would all be united in perpetrating a falsehood. And if that’s true, we dare not look to Jesus for eternal life and eternal security.

But there is another option. And that option is that the New Testament and Christian tradition are united in telling the truth about Jesus’ identity. The mystery of faith handed down in the Church over the centuries, proclaimed in the New Testament, expressed in the creeds, and articulated in our Prayer Book liturgies is trustworthy. Jesus really is the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus really is “the only Son of God” (BCP, p. 358). Jesus really is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (BCP, p. 358). And this same Jesus has died, is risen, and will come again.

If that’s really true, it changes everything. Not only is death no longer the end. Not only does love overcome hatred. Not only does reconciliation trump estrangement. Not only does evil fail to get the last word. Not only can we look to the future with hope and confidence regardless of what slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may rain down upon us. But even more – our baptismal vocation to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and to “respect the dignity of every human being” is not just a bunch of nice sounding words printed in a Prayer Book (BCP, p. 305). On the contrary, if Jesus really is who he says he is, then because he lived that vow all the way to the cross, our baptismal vocation is nothing less than the truth of God incarnate and a cause eternally vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.

My friends, the Good News is true. Jesus can deliver on his promises to give eternal life and eternal security because he really is one with God. We may have doubts and questions. We may feel inadequate in the presence of God. We may not be sure what to believe. And that’s okay. For regardless of where we find ourselves – no matter if we’re well within the fold or have strayed far and wide – Jesus the good shepherd seeks us out. And he calls to each and every one of us, saying: “I know you. You belong to me. I want you to be where I am. Trust me. Follow me. And be assured that nothing and no one can ever take you away from me. For the Father and I are one.”