Acts 13, 14-52 + Revelation 7, 9-17 + John 10, 14-30
April 17, 2016 at Saint Peter & St William Churches in Naples, FL
Not too many years ago I was presiding at a funeral for man I had come to know during the last few months of his life. He was very ill, but taking his time about surrendering to the arms of mercy. It was my privilege as his pastor to share some time near the end of journey getting to know him. We prayed, we talked, laughed, and cried a few times. There were great stories shared between us, and then it was time for the funeral. A business associate and golfing partner stood up to give a “eulogy.” I sat for what seemed to be about an hour and half as the gentleman, with all good intentions, told the congregation about all the things his friend had done and accomplished in life. As he went on and on about this and that, I learned a lot things, got a lot of information about the man who had died, but as it went on and on, I began to realize that the speaker did not really know his colleague. He just knew a lot about him, and there is a big difference.
There are many people these days who know a lot about Jesus Christ. These folks probably know even more about him than those people who were hounding him to step into their trap. Some of those people John calls “the Jews”, at the time, knew what he had done, and they could probably quote things they had heard he said. They had an idea of “Messiah”, and he didn’t fit the description. They did not really know him. They just knew about him. Sadly, it is not much different today. There are books and movies, plays, videos, children’s coloring books, thousands of publications everywhere with all kinds of information about Jesus, but knowing Jesus Christ by hear say is a long way from knowing him personally, and that’s the issue raised in this week’s Gospel.
These verses come in reply to the question a not-so-friendly crowd put to Jesus about whether or not he was the Messiah. Refusing to fall into the trap of allowing himself to be defined by their messiah concept, he replied that they could not understand him because they were not among his sheep, and then he goes on to describe those who were his own. You see, it is all about a relationship, a relationship that real, immediate, and ongoing. It is not enough to know what Jesus did in the past. We have to know and experience what he is doing now in this church and in our lives day by day, and that relationship is just like every other relationship. It takes time, and it takes a little work. It takes a lot of listening, a lot of attention and presence. This is how you get to know someone. Some of those people were stuck on what Jesus was without any concern about who he was. They wanted to argue about a Messiah. He wanted to be their shepherd. The issue is: who is he, not what is he. That comes later. When you get to the point who Jesus is, you will know what he is. They didn’t want to put in the time and the effort to know who he was.
Now there are some who like to call this “Good Shepherd Sunday, but I am not so sure that is a good idea, because you can’t be a shepherd if there are no sheep. At least not for long. If this is “Good Shepherd Sunday” it is also “Good Sheep Sunday.” There is as much information here about who we are as there as there is about who Jesus is. We are a people who belong to the flock, who listen, and who obey the shepherd’s call. We know what we must do: listen and obey. We also know who we are, God’s children, and the more we work our way deeper into the wonder of that relationship, the deeper will be our faith and the richer our lives. While those who are nagging at Jesus over this “messiah” stuff, keep pushing for his identity, he pushes back to define another identity, ours. When this whole episode is over, we end up knowing as much about ourselves as we know about Jesus of Nazareth. In the few verses we hear today, we have an invitation that strikes at the very heart of our contemporary society that so prizes and encourages individualism. This phenomenon that so marks this age of human history is a time of extraordinary loneliness. I think sometimes this is why we see so many people are behaving so strangely and often so violently. The behaviorists call it “anti-social behavior.” I just call it loneliness. Most of time it is simply someone hurting so badly from a lack of attention and affection that they will get what they need any way they can. They don’t feel like they belong, but this Jesus proposes that our identity comes from belonging, from joining, and committing oneself to another or to a family.
I was struck this past week while sitting with these readings to notice for the first time a curious conflict of images. In the second reading the symbolic figure representing Christ is described as the “Lamb of God”. There he is a symbolic Lamb, one of the sheep? Then in the Gospel he becomes the shepherd. What is revealed to us is that Christ is both Lamb and Shepherd. In our tradition, we say that he is both the victim and the priest. More theologically, we profess that he is both human and divine. These seemingly contrary juxta-positions are really a reminder that draws us more deeply into the Incarnation of God who has become Man for the sake of our redemption. What we draw from pondering this is that we have a God and a Savior who has been one of us, who has lived among us, experienced everything we know about human life from birth to death. This Shepherd has been a Lamb. We have a God who lives with us. We have a God who knows us from intimate experience, and a God who wants to be known, not “known about”, but known. It is a God who has spent time with us and listened to us. Our voices are heard in these scriptures over and over again: “Help me.” Lord, I want to see.” Lord, I want to walk.” Lord, my daughter is ill with a fever.” He comes to Martha and Mary in their grief. He embraces a grieving mother whose only son has died. He touches those no one else will touch reaching out to the lonely and those shunned and avoided. Even in his most desperate hour, he listens to the cry of a dying criminal and makes him a promise.
We who choose to know this Shepherd become part of his flock. He knows us, and we know him. We stay in the fold. We listen. We make time to hear what he asks and what he promises. We are not out “doing our own thing.” We are always doing His thing. We care for each other, and we care about what he cares about. This is what and who we are becoming as members of Christ’s church on Good Sheep Sunday.