30 April 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Sermon preached by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Let us pray. Let the words of my mouth and the collective meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock, our Redeemer, our Shepherd, and set out hearts on fire with your love. Amen.
Easter is easy to love. In the Northern Hemisphere, Easter comes as we transition to spring and everything comes back to life again after a long winter. Green foliage returns. Flowers bud and bloom in a kaleidoscope of colors. What lay dormant during winter bursts forth from the ground as if to say, “Hello! I have arrived.” The days get longer. The weather gets warmer – or at least somewhat warmer. Rain provides water for life.
For us Christians, these natural phenomena are coupled with our emergence from Lent’s austerity into Easter’s exuberance. We make sure the Sanctuary glints and gleams. There are abundant floral arrangements. Our hymns are upbeat and triumphant. The choir kicks things up a notch. And Stephan plays that organ. Talk about pulling out all the stops! Our joy matches both the meteorological season and the liturgical season.
In Easter, we go crazy, and we say crazy things. We proclaim that God has done an enormous, miraculous, indescribable, inconceivable thing for us. We proclaim that God became enfleshed in our humanity, lived as one of us, suffered and died as one of us even at our own hands, and yet that was not the end of the story. We proclaim the profound truth, the Good News, that nothing – nothing – can separate us from God’s love. We proclaim that, in Christ, God has overcome what seemed permanent and insurmountable: death itself.
Every Easter, we arrive at Good Shepherd Sunday. We mark this Sunday with probably the most beloved Psalm in the Psalter. Psalm 23 begins with a bold personal: the Lord is my shepherd. God provides for our temporal needs: food, water, and safety. God also provides us delicious spiritual things, reviving our souls, calling us toward love and justice, anointing us with abundance. And this Psalm concludes with a promise: “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.” Some suggest this translation does not do the first half of this verse justice. They argue it is more accurately something like “Surely your goodness and mercy shall dog me all the days of my life.” I suppose if you’re going to be hounded by something, it might as well be God’s goodness and mercy. I also have this image of God’s goodness and mercy as an eager puppy following us everywhere, ready to pounce on us and shower us with puppy kisses.
Jesus takes up this shepherd image. Christ (and God) is both shepherd and gate, protecting us from danger and those who would harm us. Like Psalm 23, this Gospel lesson ends with a promise. Unlike thieves and bandits who come to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Also like Psalm 23, though, the translation does not do the promise justice.
John’s Gospel was written in Greek, a language with several words that can mean “life,” each with different shades of meaning. Bios refers to physical life. Think “biology.” Psyche refers to the soul, the intangible aspects of life like the mind, emotion, and will. Think psychology. John refers to the abundant life Jesus brings with neither of these words. Here, John uses a word he is rather fond of: zoe. This is where we get the name Zoe. John quotes Jesus saying, “I have come that they might have zoe, and have it abundantly.” Zoe refers to God’s divine life, existence in its fullest meaning. Zoe refers to the life of the Eternal One. Zoe refers to the God whose name is “I Am,” very the source and ground of being itself.
Jesus’ promise is nothing less than the fullness and wholeness of God’s life, – not just that, but that we could experience the fullness of God’s life abundantly. God does not hoard or hide the ineffable nature of God’s life. Jesus came to invite us into that life, life in its most complete form. Jesus inextricably enfolds our life into God’s life. Jesus invites us into life at its trustiest and most whole. But wait. There’s more. Jesus does not promise us zoe only after our bios ends. Jesus came that we might have abundant life now. That’s powerful stuff!
Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but reality seems to be at odds with our bold Easter and Good Shepherd pronouncements. We claim that Christ destroyed death, but people still die, leaving us with profound grief. Two of my beloved siblings in Christ experienced the sudden and tragic loss of a family member during Lent. Trust me, they know the truth and power of Easter. Yet, their mourning continues into this Easter season, and that mourning is at times bitter and angry. Even knowing the truth of Easter, they are struggling to see through the fog of their very real grief over their very real loss. This community, too, knows loss and grief, having just lost a beloved member. Even as we declare that Christ is resurrection and life, our mourning and pain are real.
Then look at our world. Our world is ravaged by war. We continue to abuse God’s creation. We use race, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, creed, ethnicity, and a host of other things to divide us and as excuses to oppress and marginalize. Mass shootings and gun violence continue their stranglehold. There is poverty, homelessness, and hunger in our midst. Where is Easter?! Where is the Good Shepherd?! Where is abundant life?!
The dissonance between Easter and the world’s reality confronts us with the oft quoted predicament that “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” How exactly are we supposed to do that? How can we proclaim Christ’s victory over death when violence and death continue to surround us? How can we proclaim Christ as the Good Shepherd protecting us from thieves and bandits when thieves and bandits perpetrate violence and injustice before our very eyes? How can we say that our Good Shepherd gives us green pastures and still waters and guides us deftly though the valley of the shadow of death when people around us lack food, water, and shelter and regularly face death? How do we live as Easter people in a Good Friday world? How do we live as Easter sheep in a Good Friday sheepfold?
Together. We do it together.
Today, we focus on Christ as the Good Shepherd, but let’s look at the sheep. Sheep are not solitary animals. Their social instinct is to bond closely with other sheep. There is safety with other sheep. Sheep also follow those whom they trust and know. Sheep’s lives depend on their relationship with one another and with a good shepherd.
We claim that all baptized people are called to make Christ and the love of God known in the world. That is how we live as Easter sheep in a Good Friday sheepfold. When grief and mourning obscure the Good Shepherd, we cry and mourn with our siblings and help them hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. We go to the oppressed and marginalized sheep, seek forgiveness, and welcome them back into the fold joyfully, proclaiming them to be beloved by the Good Shepherd and by us. In the face of violence and everything else wrong in our world, we remind each other of the Good Shepherd, the one we trust and know. We guide each other toward the Good Shepherd’s voice.
I’ll offer you some experts: the youth of this parish. This all hits squarely on the theme for Nightwatch this year: Let Your Light Shine. This year’s Nightwatch journey challenged our youth to consider some of our world’s problems, interspersed with periods of reflection and prayer. This follows Jesus’ pattern of caring for the oppressed and marginalized and taking time away for prayer and renewal. The lesson for our youth was that, even in a Good Friday world, we can offer even a little bit of light – and together, we can reflect the true light which enlightens everyone, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that the darkness cannot overtake.
This is what Jesus’ first followers did. Their world was no safer on Easter Sunday than it was on Good Friday. They found safety together, and we are told that they experienced the abundant life, the abundant zoe, Jesus came to bring. “All who believed were together and had all things in common . . . . Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
How do we live as Easter sheep in a Good Friday sheepfold? Together, guiding all toward our Good Shepherd’s voice.