Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 13:14, 43-52 | Revelations 7:9, 14b-17 | John 10:27-30
Almighty and everliving God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven so that the humble flock may reach where the brave shepherd has gone before, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
We continue the journey of the early church in these Sundays after Easter, and one of the strongest images in the early church of this work that God was now doing, so much more personally through the God/man Jesus, was always directed toward this taking them on a journey and bringing them to a better place, a better land. The Old Testament is filled with the image of God working through others, Moses, other prophets, trying to get these people to make this journey with them. They would take them to a new place, a new land, and Jesus continues that. We still see this idea of the God, now God/man leading people to the promised land, and the focus is on his, not so much his guidance to get there but what he does when he’s with them.
We saw the foundation of the church or the beginning of the church last Sunday rather in the gospel. It was Jesus talking to Peter. He said, “Peter, if you’re going to lead my church, two things are necessary. You have to fall in love with me. You have to see me as I am, because if you do see me for who I am, you will love me. And then your task is to take that same love that you have for me and to direct it towards those you care for.” Every minister, every leader of every congregation that calls itself Christian is called to love those that he’s serving and to guide them to a place of fulfillment, of richness, or no longer an empty, dry, hot desert but to a rich and cool and moist, green, fertile place. It’s a beautiful image of what our life is intended to be by God. So it’s interesting also to me that one of the main ways in which the early church imagined this God/man was not as a man hanging on a cross dying for us, as we do now, in terms of our Christian symbol, but it was always the symbol of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, that’s the images we have over and over in the earliest places of worship.
So how do we regain this image of this church we belong to, knowing its goal is to bring us, not so much to this place, but to awaken our imaginations and our understanding to the fact that we have been already taken there? We’re there now, and the point is the kingdom is now. The kingdom is present. We’re not so much working to get there. We’re there. It’s a gift. It’s given to us. The first reading, we see, in a way, a strange reaction on the part of the Jews when the message of Jesus began to become clear to them. You see it in the time when Jesus first announced that he was the Messiah. He was with his Jewish community, and he was telling them that this time is now, and what’s happened is there’s this work that is now being accomplished in your midst. It’s you’re being freed from a burden of the law, and you’re being given this freedom from stress and from being imprisoned by rules and regulations. You’re free. You’re loved as you are. You don’t have to work on making yourself into something to receive these gifts, and that, I think, is what made the Jews so angry, because they lived in such a strict practice of regulations, rules and laws that they did. And they were good in the sense that they made one constantly aware of their relationship with God, but it also had a shadow to it. It was always somehow performing for God so you knew you had his favor, because when you notice the way Judaism looked at those who were suffering and struggling, it was always the punishment for not doing what God asked. So the motivation for being a follower of the law was more than just, “I want my life to be engaged in my relationship with God. I want to celebrate it always.” It was more like, “Please accept me if I do everything I’m told.” So when the disciples come along and speak to these people and say, “All those things you’ve done all your life in order to receive the hope of a new life, no, the new life has been won for you. It’s already given to you. You don’t have to earn it. You just have to receive it. You’ve been given life — given life. It’s in you. Now your task is to live with God in you. Live as if the kingdom is now.” That’s such a different focus than earning it, and if you can imagine, it’s sort of like, if you worked all your life to buy something and you still hadn’t gotten it, and then this group comes in and says, “Oh, we’re giving those away. We just give those away.” You’d say, “Wait a minute. I’m jealous. It’s not fair.” And so the Jews rejected this incredible, beautiful mystery and message of Christianity. God is with you. God is in you. You are in him. Don’t try to earn that. Just accept it. Believe it.
The image in the Book of Revelation that is the second reading, it’s saying, “You’ve already been cleansed and washed in the blood, so you are all that you need to be.” Now that you are that, what do you do? Just sit back and say, “Oh, great. It’s all been done”? No. You listen to what it awakens in you. What does it awaken in you? Well, if you can imagine that the leaders of the church, first and foremost, have to be like their followers, you look at what Jesus said to Peter. He said, “All right, your ministry is to share with people the mystery of the love of God.” So you’re filled with that love, and then you want to give that love to the people around you. In the process of giving it, you’re nurturing them. You’re nurturing them. You’re serving them life. So that’s the main thrust of this religion that we belong to, this faith, and so when we look at Peter’s requirement to feed and feed and tend the flock, I want you to think about what that is. What is it we’re feeding each other? How do we tend to each other? How does the church do it for us? How do we do it for each other? I want to use an image that James Hellman — he was a professor of psychology when I was at the University of Dallas. His lectures were just amazing, but he gave one on the difference between needs and wants and desires that stuck with me forever. So I want you to imagine that this feeding that we are to do for each other, the church is to do for us, is giving us the thing that we need, essential thing. Needs are like air, water, food. When you think about what we give to each other, what is the thing that we long for more than anything else? What is the essential thing we need in order to engage ourselves in this new life that God has won for us? The only word that comes to my mind is truth — truth. Please tell us the truth. Without it, we’re lost. Without it, we’re kind of empty.
Think about the way you feel when you look at leaders of companies, leaders of — politicians or leaders of the church, worse, when they get up and they seem like they’re lying? What does that feel like? What happens? It’s like, “Oh, my God. I have to be able to trust these people. It’s the core of what I need from my friends, my family, my church, people I elect, my doctor. I don’t want to hear something that’s going to make the doctor more money. I want to hear the truth of what I need, what really works.” So it’s one of the things that I think is so important to understand in this work of Christianity. We’re here to give, always, each other the truth, and what that means is we don’t have to say everything we feel exactly, but we’ve got to be authentic — authentic, truthful, honest. What you see is what is, that kind of thing, and then the wants, what we want is community. We want something that feels nurturing, that fulfills this longing we have for intimacy with other people, with the world, with the animals that we love. We want that. An isolated life is torture. In fact, one of the things we do in our prison system, which seems like real torture, is to put somebody in solitary confinement. What’s that other than a completely separate sense of self from all that’s around us? We want the communion, union, connection. We do, and that’s such an integral part of the teaching of Jesus. He says clearly, over and over again, it’s our capacity to love others that is so satisfying for us. It really does fulfill deep, deep wants. I want to be effective. I want to be loved. I want to love. It’s the most natural thing. And then the one I really want to talk about is desire. We need the truth. We want community, but what do we desire? What’s the deepest longing of every heart? Well, if you look at the teaching of Jesus, it’s pretty clear. He’s saying, “What I want you to do is do what I’ve done. Follow me.” What did he do? He was engaged with the God who created him in doing the ultimate work that God longed to see happen, and Jesus, the man, entered into a relationship with God where he was very hard to distinguish between his work and God’s work through him or God’s work in him. And he changed the world by engaging in a work that was his destiny — his destiny.
I don't know how I can tell you what your destiny is. I don't know exactly how you can find your destiny, but whenever you’re doing the thing that’s somehow deep inside of you, that’s when you know, “That’s what I’m here to do.” And there is something like that in us. If we don’t believe that, then I guess we can’t ever really understand what satisfies our deepest longing, but there’s something in you that you know you are called to do. And when you’re doing it and — not even whether it’s effective — that’s what Jesus is teaching us. If you do what you’re here for, if you’re called for and you do it with as much integrity, honesty and truthfulness, whether successful or not, you have done what you’re here to accomplish. I love that image. I’m here to be who I am and become more of who I am and be who I am for the people in my circle of family and friends, and somehow in that role, I believe that this God, if I offer my life and my understanding to him, if I say, “Show me. Show me. Teach me. Reveal to me. Awaken me to the truth of who I am,” he will. He will. It would be a horrible thing for him to say, “This is what I’ve made you for, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.” No, he shares it with us. He tells it. It’s this thing that — you might just say one way to imagine it is the call to serve — to serve, and if I make it into something like gigantic work, like to —I don't know — write the definitive book on some subject — that’s near to my heart right now — or just doing something that’s extraordinary, it’s not that. It’s somehow engaging in something that feels natural. It feels like, “This is what I was called to do.” Then when you’re engaged in it, there is going to be a response, and the response is — I don't know how to describe it, but it’s satisfaction. It’s some — I don't know — sense that it of itself is the fulfillment of the joy you’re looking for, and it’s not about whether it’s received or used or applauded or whatever. Wow. How different is that for many of us who end up learning at a very young age that the way we end up with community and unity with people is to please them and to do what they ask, and if we don’t, we lose their favor, and therefore we feel isolated and alone? Nothing could be more destined for failure than forming your life in a way that would be what others want or desire and therefore love you.
I suppose for that very reason it’s so important that the core message of Jesus is, “You are loved. You are my Father’s delight.” He wants nothing more than to do what you really do want, and that’s to become who you really are. And I love the phrase in the scripture today. “Nothing is going to take this out of my grasp of being able to accomplish it. If you want it, it is yours. I promise. It’s my Father’s will for you.” Sometimes I feel like Christianity is calling me to do something that feels like I’m denying everything that I am or trying to repress everything that’s not good in me. What a shame to fall into that trap when it’s the most exciting, most amazing partnership with a God who says, “We will succeed. We will achieve this incredible goal.” Amen.
Father, your promise seems at times too lofty, too great for us, and yet you see within us the potential that you, Father, have created, and you know that we are capable of greatness, not because of our own strength but because of what happens when you dwell within us, when you become one with us, when you enlighten us. Thank you for this gift. Let us trust in it constantly. It’s the truth. It’s the truth. We’re never alone. We never work out just of our own strength. We are yours, and you are our shepherd, and we know your voice. Amen.