Homily from service on May 8, 2022 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We’ve hit the point in our weekly lectionary cycle where the post-resurrection appearances have stopped and we’re starting a series of pre-Easter flashbacks now. Basically, we’re in the montage at the end of the movie…right before he disappears for good…where a lot of the things he said and did…a lot of the breadcrumbs that got dropped all along the way…get shown again, and remembered in a new light, so that we can all go…“Oh. OOOOOH! That’s what he was talking about!”
Today we’ve flashed-back to the time before the crucifixion…when we were in Jerusalem for the festival of Dedication (which we now know as Hanukkah). It’s winter John reminds us, but if we rewind a bit further we’d remember that we’ve been in Jerusalem for months and Jesus has been talking about shepherds and sheep the entire time. And no one really understands why.
“The shepherd goes in through the gate…the sheep hear his voice…they follow him out,” (John 10:1-5). “Ok. Where are you going with this Jesus”… “I am the good shepherd.” “Ok. Hold up. Who are you?” Or more like, “who do you think you are?” See, you wouldn’t think that claiming to be “The Good Shepherd” would get the authorities all in a twist. But… It’s actually a loaded statement, and might actually cause someone to say, “who do you think you are?” Because what’s easy for us to miss—but what they would have heard…is the reference that Jesus is making to Ezekiel.
Ezekiel is the prophet who eats this scroll God gives him and has these wild visions of creatures with four faces, valleys of dry bones coming back to life…and he has a long diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel” (Ezekiel 34). “O mortal prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…you who have been tending yourselves! Is it not the flock that the shepherds ought to tend? You partake of the fat, clothe yourselves with the wool, and you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not tend the flock. You have not sustained the weak, healed the sick, or bandaged the injured; you have not brought back the strayed, or looked for the lost; but you have driven them with harsh rigor.”(Ezekiel 34:2-4) He goes on in that vein, but you get the idea. Then God says to Ezekiel, “Here am I! I will seek out my flock…I will rescue them…I will look for the lost, and bring back the strayed; I will sustain the weak…I will graze my flock…I will let them lie down in good pastures…” (paraphrased Ezekiel 34: 11-15). Sound familiar? So when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd”…he’s not saying, “I’m really good with sheep.” No. He’s saying “I am so deeply aligned with God, that I do what God does.” Sustain the weak, heal the sick, reclaim the lost, etc.
It’s also true, that since Jesus is claiming to be the good shepherd…he’s implying that there are bad shepherds around… No wonder the authorities are upset.
“I am the Good Shepherd.” I do what God does. “The works I do in my father’s name testify to me…[because] The Father and I are one.” Which is not the doctrinal or metaphysical statement that it has come to be. Jesus is not saying God and I are the same person, or same being, or have the same essence…he’s saying, God and I are aligned in the work that we are doing…Sort of like when we sing the song that goes…”we are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.” We’re not claiming to be the Spirit, or identical to the Lord; we’re proclaiming that we are one…that we are united with them…collaborators with them in the work that God is doing…reconciling, healing, seeking, strengthening…(that theological read, that they are the same person comes later).
“The works I do testify to this”…the works Jesus has done in his life testifies to the reality of God at work in the world…So remember last week when he asked Peter again and again and again, “do you love me?” Remember what he said every time Peter responded (with increasing agitation), “Yes! you know I love you!” Remember what he said? “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-19). Do what I do. Do what I have done. Be part of the work of the Good Shepherd and, ”Follow me.”
Because, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” And since I seem to be unpacking a lot of John’s dense text, let me also mention, the line, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” He’s not saying that “the sheep” (us) God has given him are greater than everything else…(this isn’t ”we’re number one!”).
So, just like, he’s not saying, I’m really good with sheep. He’s making a reference to Ezekiel’s distinction between God the Good Shepherd, and the bad shepherds that are everywhere.
He’s not saying that he and God are the same substance (later theologians will make that claim), he’s saying God and I are aligned in the work we are doing.
Here, he’s not saying that we (the sheep) are greater than everything else… This sentence is a debatable English translation of some garbled Greek syntax. There are actually different versions of this sentence in several ancient texts [Feasting on the Word, Year C, V2. p. 449], the most reasonable translation of it is, “The Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.” Hear the difference? One emphasizes the greatness of the sheep (“What the Father has given me is greater than all else,”) the other emphasizes the greatness of God (“The Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.”). And since John really wants us to see and understand that God and Jesus are one and united in the work of healing, saving, and bringing light to the world…it makes more sense that he would proclaim the greatness of the Creator and not the greatness of the sheep?
In the coming weeks, we’ll have more of these flashbacks…in fact most of the rest of the year—from now until Advent—is remembering the things he said and did during his life that help us in our journey through this world. This world which is not getting any easier to navigate. This world in which bad shepherds too often still hold the reins of power, and sheep are still lost and hurting. As we continually try to navigate this broken, beautiful world, try to remember what Jesus did…the works that testify to the reality of God in the world…and tend the sheep. Remember the words he said that sustain and heal and feed the sheep. Remember that God is the Good Shepherd greater than all else, and who is constantly seeking the lost, reconciling the divided, binding up the wounded…listen for that voice…and follow. Amen.