Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (Good Shepherd Sunday)
JonTom Kittredge, preached at St James, Porter Sq, 2011 April 29
1 John 3:16-24
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. (Collect for Fourth Sunday of Easter, BCP 1979, p 225)
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. It also has another name; the collect I just read is a hint.
It’s called Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, the Psalter selection for this Sunday is the 23rd Psalm, and every year the Gospel lesson is taken from the 10th Chapter of the Gospel of John, the chapter where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd.
There are many ways one could go with these readings, but I latched onto one statement: “I know my own and my own know me.” I think I focused on it because we’ve been covering the resurrection appearances in church school for the past few weeks.
Incidentally, it’s been very rewarding to be the assistant teacher to the great Anne Read in the Middle School class year. We have a lively, engaged group of kids, and y’all are luckier than you know to have Anne. The amount of planning and work she pours into her classes is amazing. The banners at the front of the church alone are testimony to the kids’ energy and Anne’s creativity.
Anyway, when Anne and I were discussing the Easter lessons ahead of time, I mentioned one particular resurrection scene that gives me the chills. It’s also from the Gospel of John. Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb on Easter morning and found it empty. She goes and tells the disciples, and Peter and John come running and verify that the tomb is empty and then return home.
Mary is left alone weeping beside the tomb. She bends over and looks inside and sees two angels. They say to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She answers, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’
She turns and sees a man standing there who says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” (John 20:11-16)
At that point in the story, I stopped and asked the kids, “The man said to her one word; what do you think it was?” One guess was, “Believe!” Another was, “Alleluia!”
Both were good guesses, but what the man said to her was,
And she replied, “Rabouni!” which means teacher.
If I were forced to pick only one favorite verse from the Bible, it would be John 20:16, this one.
As Christians, we make the claim that God exists, which is not really such a radical claim. Much more bold is our claim that God knows each of us personally, and loves each one of us intensely.
Earlier in Chapter 10, in the part which we heard last year on Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus says, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. ... The sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Just as Mary knew the voice of the risen Jesus when she heard it.
I know that the various doctrines in the Creed can seem abstruse and irrelevant, but to me they matter, and none of them more so than the Incarnation. We believe that Jesus was not just a good man, and not just a Spirit-filled man. We believe he is not just the Son of God — of course, we hold that he was the Son of God, but not just the Son of God — he is also God in Godself.
To me it matters tremendously that God has lived the life that we live. I can’t explain what that could possibly mean exactly or exactly how that could possibly be, but it’s what keeps me Christian.
As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God... Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:17)
Isaiah says, referring to the Suffering Servant of God, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:4)
And today’s psalm tells us, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Over the last three hundred years, theologians have spilt much ink trying to explicate the question of why, if God is both all-powerful and all-good, is there then evil in the world? They have even given this question its own name: Theodicy.
I won’t pretend to have read deeply in theology, but one book that I have read influenced me deeply: The Domestication of Transcendence, by William Placher. He says that these theodicies tend to end up at either a God who is not really all-powerful, as we would understand it, or not really all-good, as we would understand.
Either God is bound by certain rules of the universe that keeps God from removing suffering, or God permits evil for the greater good, because, for instance, seeing others suffer arouses empathy in us.
But surely these aren’t satisfying answers. Such a god might be logically consistent, which matters if a logically consistent god is the greatest priority of your theology. But why would we want to worship a god who, in the face of suffering, is either impotent or callous?
And neither god is consistent with the God who is revealed in scripture.
Placher proposes a different response to suffering, one that does not seek to excuse God, but instead says:
(1) I don’t understand, and I can’t imagine why you should be suffering in this way, but (2) I trust that God has not forgotten you, and that you do not finally lie outside of God’s love. The theodicist will correctly point out that this does not explain evil, but it is not clear that victims want explanations. Indeed, offered an “explanation,” they may feel affronted, or, even worse, internalize an account that puts the blame on them in a self-destructive way. (W Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence, p 206)
The Christian answer to the problem of evil has to begin with the Cross. Ours is a God who redeems and saves, but also suffers. God suffered in the form of a human being on a cross at one time, but God also “sustains the world we live in and the life we live,” as it says in the Evening Prayer service, and the Cross implies that bearing a suffering world involves bearing suffering.
I have heard the analogy that, just as a cut sawn across a tree trunk lets us see a ring that runs, hidden, up the entire length of the tree, so Calvary is a cut across time that lets us see God’s suffering to sustain this world from the moment of creation until now. (M Smith, Nativities and Passions, p 149)
To be honest, I find it hard to respond to some of the language Jesus uses in this passage:
I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have received this command from my Father. (John 10:18)
It seems a little passionless and morbid to me, until I think of it, not as God ordering the death of a third party to save us, but as God offering Godself to us and for us.
I have always found powerful the words of Eucharistic Prayer A, which we used during this past Lent, “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will.” (BCP 1979, p 362)
Jesus has laid down his life for his sheep. The shepherd has become the lamb, as it implies in the “Christ, our passover,” the fraction anthem that we’re using during the Easter season. I’ve always loved those words; I wish we used them more often and always miss them when we don’t.
They’re a quotation from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
“Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:7b-8)
I’m sorry if all this talk about suffering and the Cross seems a downer, especially on such a comforting, uplifting topic as Christ the Good Shepherd. I’m just a Good Friday kind of person, the type who finds reflections on the Cross comforting and uplifting.
But, if you’re more of an Easter person, then feel free to ignore any of the preceding that you find unhelpful. Let me instead give you some other words that may work better for you:
The LORD is my shepherd;*
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures*
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul*
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;*
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;*
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,*
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Psalm 23)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.