4th Sunday of Easter
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 4:8-12 | 1 John 3:1-2 | John 10:11-18
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that putting off our old self with all its ways, we may live as Christ did, for through the healing, paschal remedies you have conformed us to his nature who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
TODAY’S set of readings has two readings by John, one of his epistles and his gospel, and the thing that is so unique about the four books we have that focus on the essence of the life of Jesus and his period of time on earth with us when he was there to teach, to awaken, to move us to a new insight of who we are and who God is; John’s book is so different. I remember when I first heard an interpretation of da Vinci’s Last Supper. John is depicted as one who has his head on the chest of Jesus, and that was obviously to say that they were close friends. But there was much more in it than that. In the artist’s mind, what he was trying to depict was the fact that John was different than the other disciples in so far as he listened, could listen to the heart of the message of Jesus. He didn’t just hear it as a logical presentation as most of us do, but he had that insight into something that was deeper and more mystical, more effective. And so what I want to do this morning is try to channel John, and say what is it that he was trying to get across, because the other disciples also talk about the Good Shepherd. And I know myself, when I’ve gone to these readings, no matter whether it’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, I remember it’s always been a real practical way of explaining it by saying, “we’re all called to be responsible to each other, and Jesus helped us, and we should help our brothers and sisters, and God helped Jesus, and we should all shepherd one another”. In fact, it’s really interesting that one of the most universal images of a benevolent king or leader in the Old Testament was a good shepherd. So it was somebody who was kind and caring. So it was easy to give a homily on the fact that we should be more caring and more sensitive to each other. But that doesn’t go anywhere near what I think John is trying to get across. The thing that I remember learning when I first looked at these parables was that sheep actually do have this quality that when all of the shepherds in an area put all their sheep in one pen, and then in the morning when they go out to pasture, the shepherd calls his sheep by name, and only his sheep follow him out, which I found pretty amazing.
There’s something in this image of the Good Shepherd that has something to do with knowing, knowing someone. Knowledge is an interesting word. It means that you have already some information in you about, let’s say, what is posed to you, what is presented to you as an idea, and you’ll respond if you already have an awareness of it. You’ll say, “Well, I know that. I know that.” Someone could ask me, “Do you know of a church called St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Old Gate Lane, and I’d say, “Yeah, I know that.” But what I really would want to say to them is, “Well, not only do I know of it and where it is and what it looks like, but I feel connected to it. I feel an intimate connection, because I lived there for nine years, and I know the people. I know what we did during those nine years, and every time I see that place or drive by it, I feel that that’s somehow part of me, and I’m part of it.” There’s a connection, and the best way to call that connection, for what I’m wanting you to see and feel with me, is intimacy. Intimacy is knowing something and then the effect of you knowing it is, that you feel connected to it, a union with it. So think of intimacy as a side effect of true knowledge of something, and then let’s look at knowledge more carefully. In this set of readings, there are a couple of references to something that I think is so mysterious and important to fathom and to understand.
What is it that happened to Jesus that got him in such trouble with the Pharisees and with institutional religion at the time? It was truly that he did break rules and laws that were really not that binding. In fact, Jesus even said, “You yell at me for healing a man on the Sabbath, but if your donkey’s in trouble, you’ll work and get him out of it. So if you can help an animal on the Sabbath, why can’t I heal a person’s withered hand,” which would always make the Pharisees shake their heads, like, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were so blind. The interesting thing was they really didn’t like and couldn’t stand the fact that Jesus made himself so intimate with God. He says it. “I know the Father, and the Father knows me.” Then you look at the teaching of the incarnation, which is one of the most core issues that we need to grapple with if you’re going to be a Christian. What does it mean that Jesus is 100 percent God and 100 percent man when most of us, particularly from our Old Testament roots, look at a story like the story of Adam and Eve and realize that story is about man somehow making a horrible mistake at the very beginning and becoming corrupt and evil. Then something has to happen to that evil person to make him into a good person, and we call that salvation. But is that really what happened? Is that image, that we are somehow corrupt creatures that, if left by ourselves, we will go to such a dark place? I know atheists get asked that questions many times. “Well, you’re an atheist, so I guess you’re a murderer and a robber, because you don’t have any rules and laws to follow.” And they go, “Pardon me? No, I believe in goodness and in truth and in love.” “Well, but you’re not a believer.” Well, after Vatican II, our church said you don’t have to be a believer to be saved. Well then, what is salvation? I don't know how to describe salvation other than it’s something that is given to us that keeps us from being lost. I would say maybe the best image I could come up with is, if you’re not saved, you might be living your entire life in a way that you never get to the heart of why you’re here and what life is for, and it’s lost. I remember once being at an AA meeting and a man standing up and saying, “I was under the influence of alcohol for 12, 15 years, and I don’t remember any of it. I lost it. I lost that part of my life.” Salvation is something to do with becoming aware, alert, alive, attentive to what is, what’s real, who I am.
So let’s go back then, to the image we see that — John’s letter speaks so clearly about it. He’s saying that Jesus is the one who knows the Father, and the Father knows him. That would mean that their natures are very similar, that they have a union, a connection that is deep and powerful, and when you think about that, you can see not understanding that, because you couldn’t in the Old Testament without the teachings of Jesus, but I could see why the Pharisees and scribes would go crazy when they saw a man making himself seem like God, because the two are incompatible. But these set of readings seem to imply no, that’s not true. No, they are compatible, and somehow that’s what salvation has been, that somehow eyes have been opened, not that we’ve been changed so radically, though I don't know how to even describe that. But what if it’s just realizing, our eyes being opened to realize that the nature of who God is is so like my nature, and my nature is like God’s nature? That’s amazing when you think about that. What is it saying? It means that this mysterious creature called God should not remain so mysterious. He should be understood clearly by one who is saved, one who has been touched by grace. That is not so much something that radically changes us maybe as much as it’s something that changes the way we perceive ourselves. So being saved is something that happens to everyone because of this incredible gift that was given through the mystery of the death and resurrection, crucifixion and redemption that we received. It’s so mysterious, but it’s interesting to think that, if we looked at it not as someone we have magically been turned into but somehow eyes being opened that we can now see the true relationship between God and man. And why did it take so long to reveal it? Why did it take, let’s say, 2,500 years, from Abraham to Jesus? Why all that time other than it seems clear, when you study the way God worked with the Old Testament people, that he had to work with where they were, what they could understand. And we criticize often the God of the Old Testament because he’s too violent, but if you were knowing the people at the time, violence was not considered to be something negative. It was just what was. Violence was everywhere. Look at any city built back then in Old Testament times. It was a walled city, because you had constant awareness that anybody at anytime could attack and violently steal, rob, murder you. So that God was also violent against the enemy makes total sense, because that’s the only way you could deal with enemies, but God’s nature is not about violence. If you know that, if you begin to know him, you’ll know that, if he is like us and we are like him, then you realize that violence in the fullness of revelation of who Jesus is, is something that is wrong and destructive, that should never be used. Instead of attacking and trying to destroy that which is evil, we somehow mysteriously surrender to it. Don’t become it in return for what it did to us, and we begin to change the world.
I love this image. I love working with the image of intimacy, because I know what it’s like when I meet somebody and I feel strongly that I somehow know them. It feels like I want to know them, but no, I feel like I somehow know them. And then when you get closer into a relationship like that that seems destined, you’ll find that you have this capacity to begin to trust one another, and you begin to tell each other of things that are going on deep inside of you, and they get to know you. The deeper that knowledge becomes, the more intimate and connected the relationship. That makes total sense to me.
I remember doing a funeral once for a man, a close friend of mine who died at age 60, and his wife was sitting on the porch after the funeral and staring out, looking at the yard. We had just been talking, and everybody was gone. And she didn’t look at me when she said this, just staring out into sort of the darkness, and said, “I never knew my husband. I never knew him.” And it just struck me as the most profound thought that, could you live with someone for 30 years and not know them? Yes, you can, and what a tragedy that is. I know from my experience of the marriage that they didn’t have a close marriage. They lived pretty independent lives, both professionals. They shared a home, and they shared friends. They didn’t have children, but it’s interesting. “I didn’t know him.” How many relationships do we have where we really just don’t know the person, and do we need to know everyone like that? No.
I love the image of Jesus saying the Good Shepherd is one who lays down his life, and he can take it up again. I’ve been trying to think what does John mean by that, and I couldn’t find any commentaries that help me. But I just sat there thinking, “Well, what could it mean?” Well, you know when you love someone deeply and you’re connected and they’re in pain, you’re in that pain with them, and maybe there’s something you could give or do that’s going to take everything out of you, and you can give your life to them for a while, but then you aren’t responsible for them ultimately? So you can take your life back, take it up again. I don't know if that’s what it means, but it makes sense, that this mysterious relationship we have called intimacy, called knowing one another is at the heart of what God has done for us in redeeming us, opening our eyes. But it’s not something you can just turn into a mechanical process of saying, “Okay, I have a friend. I’ll do everything he needs, and I’ll take care of him in every situation.” You can’t, but maybe just knowing them, maybe the flow of a god that is in you and a god that’s in them and the god connects with God, and something mysterious happens. All of that is the world of John, which should be the world of all of us if we’re serious about this Christian message. We can’t just take it literally and try to be good and nicer people. We have to be radically changed.
Father, you choose to live an intimate life with us, and it’s your love for us that gives us the courage and the ability to respond by being ourselves with you and naming the things that we struggle with with you and asking for your support, knowing that we don’t deserve it, but we know it is ours because of your choice. It’s why you’re there. It’s what you want. It’s who you are, and we know that feeling, because it’s what we know we’re made for. Bless us with receptivity to this gift, and at the same time, give us this gift to share with others so truly your dream of all shepherds gathering all sheep together will happen, take place and bring about a world of peace. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.