Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Fourth Sunday of Easter 25 April 2010 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Easter 4C 25 April 2010 Textweek


In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

For those who wish to drift off in the sermon, feel welcome to, because while we were singing that last hymn, ‘Precious Lord’, there’s a quote on the opposite page from Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.” It contrasts beautifully with that sort of Southern Baptist prayer that we’ve just sung. The hymn has got a really comforting sound to it, it is very easy to be drawn into it, so later hum it to yourself and read through it then flick across the page to Rabindranath Tagore, where his theology speaks a different where his theology speaks and sings a different tune. Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and perhaps Good Shepherd Sunday should carry a health warning: ‘Beware - Good Shepherd Sunday can damage your understanding and experience of Easter and turn you into sheep.’ That should be written on Good Shepherd Sunday. According to Catholic online, that font of theological wisdom, “Jesus is the Good Shepherd we desperately need. He laid his life down for us. True shepherding is a life of total self-giving.  Sheep without a shepherd have no defence against the wolves of this world.  Our land has become a land of orphans; children have become orphans of living parents, priests have become isolated from their brothers in the priesthood. The sheep are without shepherds.” And it is the readings from Revelation and from Chapter 10 of John’s gospel that introduce us to this orthodox image or icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Or do they?

If you read John’s Gospel on its own you can find some resonance with the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd in that orthodox sense: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (27) And if that is all we read, especially if we’ve been to Sunday school, we might readily accept that Jesus is the Shepherd and we are his sheep. However, that’s where the health warning needs to be applied. I wonder if the Patriarchy of the church, corrupted by the gravitational pull of institutional power, saw this differential between sheep and shepherd as a wedge that could reinforce the distinction between priest and people, and in looking after their own positions of power they unwittingly distorted the revelation of Christ by creating an icon or idol of Jesus as the one shepherd and thereby condemned us (humanity) into mere animals (sheep) blindly following the shepherds call? It is a gap, a degree of separation that undoes the very power revealed in the activity of Easter.

Looking more closely at the gospel reading we see that Jesus is responding to the questions of religious orthodoxy, and so the text can be seen quite differently if we appreciate that he has deliberately chosen the image of “sheep’ as a reference to them, to those who seek to deny his power. They are the sheep that follow without question, following blindly where the traditions of the past lead them, or rather constrain them.

Jesus however is differentiating between sheep and sheep, between the traditional Jews who called him into question, the church that follows blindly, and ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me’ (27). That difference identifies some very un-sheep-like sheep:
‘My sheep HEAR my voice’, an important emphasis in John’s Gospel which opens with,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”
These, “my sheep”, hear the Word that gives voice to the whole of creation: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I KNOW them’ - a knowing that speaks of intimacy, understanding and oneness. ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they FOLLOW me.’ They do as I do.

Now with that understanding we can re-read the reading from Revelation with less confusion.
For between John’s Gospel and the reading from Revelation, Jesus moves from being Shepherd to being sheep – the lamb at the centre of the throne.
‘for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life’ (17). If we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so too we are the lamb at the centre of the throne, guiding humanity (each other) to springs of the water of life.

What on earth does this all mean? Why are we (or why am I) making such a point about the apparent confusion of sheep and shepherd, and about Jesus as Good Shepherd and also as Lamb at the centre of the throne??? The answer becomes clear when we look at the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ – the outworking of the activity of Easter on those who experienced Easter: ‘Tabitha, or Dorcas, a woman ‘devoted to good works and acts of charity [v36] became ill and died. [v37] So Peter got up[v39] – he rose. ‘He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.’[v40]. Peter continues the activity of Easter after the Easter event. No longer are we looking at miraculous works performed by Jesus super-hero, we are looking at the potential of Easter in ourselves.

Once again according to Catholic online: ‘Jesus is the Good Shepherd we desperately need.’
That is a distortion birthed in fear, maybe even birthed to engender fear. The truth of Easter is revealed in Christ for us to imitate as the Body of Christ. Peter raises Tabitha from the dead: he gives life, he brings life and he creates life. Perhaps, like Christ, he is life in his very being, one with the very essence of life, God’s divine Love.

We might well be sheep in our imitating, in our following of what has been revealed, and we can be. We are called to be lambs at the very centre of the throne. Nowhere in the Easter narrative are we called to a life confined by super-six fences and lived in accord with the TV program guide. We are called beyond the existence of time between Birth and Death, beyond the fear of ‘desperately needing a good shepherd’, beyond a church that looks to Jesus. We are called into a becoming that is life giving to all, a sense of being that is not determined by the fear of death, but that rather is driven by a vision of eternity, a vision of Life that has unending value, a life that gives life as we give of ourselves.

We are the sheep AND we are the shepherd.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris