Christ Jesus offers us abundant life, which is found following him into the world and opening our hearts to his transforming, both of which can be frightening; but we are in the care of our Good Shepherd, always.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, year A; texts: John 10:1-10; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There seems to be a difference of opinion in our readings today and it’s troubling.
Jesus says that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. So why does Peter tell us that the actual example Jesus gave us to follow as disciples was suffering for doing what is right? How is that abundant life? And the Lord our Good Shepherd leads us on right paths for his name’s sake, paths which go to still waters and green pastures, but paths which also lead through the valley of the shadow of death? If we are following God our Shepherd, and our Shepherd is Good, what on earth are we doing walking in the presence of our enemies and in valleys of shadows and death? Shouldn’t a Good Shepherd guide us on safer paths than these?
Do you see the problem? We are told we are safe and yet we are told we will suffer. We are told we are guided and yet we are told we will go through dangerous places. We do not fear, we say, because we are in the care of the Good Shepherd. But it sounds like our Good Shepherd may need us to go places that aren’t always in the safe confines of a sheepfold.
So our question is: is it truly safe to follow this Shepherd after all?
It’s a question we need to answer since in at least three of our readings the call we hear is to know and listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd, and follow.
The first of Jesus’ images today is that of a group of flocks sheltered together near a village. All are gathered into a common fold, with a gate and gatekeeper shared by all. So when the shepherd is ready to go out in the morning, he or she calls to the sheep, and only the sheep belonging to that particular shepherd perk up and follow.
Jesus’ implication is pretty clear: do you know who your shepherd is, and if so, will you listen for his voice? And if so, will you follow? Or whose voice are you following in your life? Peter’s letter says that discipleship is all about returning to our shepherd and guardian, and the psalm implies that we hear our Good Shepherd’s voice and follow always.
This may seem obvious, but is it? We can seek comfort and hope from God, and find it in Christ Jesus, who reveals the love of the Triune God for us and for the world. We can come here and confess and hear that we are forgiven. We can come here and hope to hear that we are always in the love and care of God.
What we seem to find difficult is knowing what to do when our God calls us to follow. As long as we can do what we want and live how we live, we’d like relationship with God. But a call to follow implies change in us of any number of kinds: change of heart, change of behavior, change of lifestyle, change of mind.
It is impossible to encounter Christ Jesus and not hear this call. Sometimes it’s a call to repentance: to turn around from where we’re going and go a different direction. Sometimes it’s a call to love: to set aside our feelings and inclinations and offer love to those whom we find it hard to love. Sometimes it’s a call to lose: to let go of what we cling to so we can be open to new life.
And none of these are easy. This is part of the suffering for doing what is right Peter speaks of. It’s not torture, as happens to many who follow Jesus in this world, it’s only a change of heart. But it will be painful, and somehow we seem afraid of that. I realize we seem to be talking about this a lot lately, but it’s hard to avoid that this is where the Scriptures are taking us, and always have been.
So when and how do we take it from our head and our knowledge and let it change our hearts and lives? When and how do teach each other to we lift up our heads, in other words, when we hear our Shepherd’s voice, and start to follow? Instead of following all the other voices we’ve been following.
This image of a protected sheepfold sounds an awful lot like the locked upper room in which the disciples placed themselves Easter week. You can stay locked in the sheep pen and think you’re safe, locked behind closed doors. But we’re not.
The disciples were met by the risen Christ inside their locked room, and he led them out into new life. As a shepherd leads sheep out to pasture. They couldn’t stay locked away, and not just because they were needed out there to reach others with the Good News. The locks they really needed opened were the locks of their hearts behind which they were hiding in fear.
The real Easter transformation of the disciples wasn’t as much their going out and preaching. It was their inner change that led to that. The Spirit of God made them new people, changed people. From the inside. It wasn’t just the room that got unlocked.
And where they found life, so will we. But not locked away in the sheepfold.
Abundant life from Christ Jesus is only found when the locks are off and the doors opened.
This just makes sense: how can we find real life if we’re always locked away?
And it’s really important that we see this as a first step toward discipleship, the beginning. It’s easy to get distracted by the serving, by “what we should do.” But it’s no good running a food shelf if our hearts are still locked away and our lives unchanged.
So we really want to begin with our hearts and with how we are with those closest to us. If we have locked away any possibility of Christ Jesus calling us to a new way of being with those who are closest to us, how can we begin to think about loving our neighbors in the community or in the world?
If it is off limits, locked away, for God to ask us to give up being self-centered in our daily lives, how can we become like Jesus, how can we follow? If it is off limits, locked away, for God to ask us to change how we react to people in our families, how we treat others in our congregation, how can we become like Jesus, how can we follow?
If it is off limits, locked away, for God to ask us to give up getting our own way, to ask us to let it go when others seem to disregard us, how can we become like Jesus, how can we follow? If it is off limits, locked away, for God to ask us to adjust to others and make allowances for them instead of resenting that they don’t adjust to us and make allowances for us, how can we become like Jesus, how can we follow?
And if none of this happens, what would the point be for us as a community to talk about bearing the love of Christ into this neighborhood? Diapers and meals are important and good. But what if our Savior, our Shepherd actually wants us to change inside as well?
It seems that’s what his voice keeps calling to us. Abundant life is when we unlock our hearts and are changed by the Holy Spirit. When we are made new, then we really don’t have a lot of difficulty seeing where to serve, starting with those closest to us whom we love.
When we unlock the doors and let the Spirit change our inmost ways, then how we will live in the world – in our families, in our congregation, in our neighborhood, in our country and world – will become obvious. Because we will be living in the joy of a new, abundant life. Or at least on our way to it. And we will want to share it.
There are two things that we absolutely need to remember about all of this.
First, Jesus comes in through our locked doors. As much as we think we’ve locked away all our problems and the things we don’t want to change, Jesus is already there. He’s good at coming through locked doors, is our Shepherd. So he’s already inside us, wanting to give us peace. Wanting to fill us with the Spirit. We can no more keep him out than not breathe.
But second, we cannot go out through locked doors. And out is the way to life. That’s why our Shepherd calls to us. He can and does come to us. He can and does give us the key to open the doors. To leave the sheep fold.
But our Shepherd will not force us out. He won’t force us to be different. He will not force us to follow. Our Lord and Shepherd would have us hear his voice and come, willingly.
And maybe that’s the whole point of the Bible’s insistent witness that our Shepherd is Good. Because there’s a lot that doesn’t seem safe in all of this, and could be frightening. But if we know ahead of time, as we do, that the risen Christ, our Lord, is a Good Shepherd to us, then, then there’s no reason we wouldn’t want to learn to hear his voice. And no reason we wouldn’t want to follow.
So do not be afraid.
You are loved by the God who made all things and who cares for you as a shepherd cares for her sheep, and who is known to us in our Good Shepherd, our risen Lord and Savior.
He is calling to you, to me, and asking us to follow. But we do not fear, because even though this path will lead to loss and change and through frightening places, even in our own hearts, we are walking with and behind our Shepherd, who faced all such pain and suffering already and is risen. He will keep us safe: from our enemies – both those inside us and outside of us – and safe even in valleys of shadow and death.
We have to leave what we thought were safe places because they actually aren’t safe, and we cannot live in them. We can only live where our Shepherd shows us, and we can only have abundant life when he transforms us.
But let us not be afraid. Because this is our Good Shepherd we are talking about. Even death cannot stop his love for us, for you. All will most certainly be well when we follow his voice.
In the name of Jesus. Amen