March 31, 2013
William G. Carter
Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Today I offer a different kind of Easter sermon. We have heard about the miracle of resurrection. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. She runs to report to the disciples, and two of them run back to check it out for themselves. They see the stone is rolled away. Inside, the linen wrapping is folded up. They return dazzled by the mystery, one of them believing, the other one scratching his head.
Mary Magdalene stays behind. She weeps from shock. Looking inside once again, she sees two angels. She doesn’t seem to care that they are angels, and murmurs, “They took away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they took him.” Then she turned, saw the gardener standing there. Like the angels, he wants to know why she is crying. She says, “Sir, if you took him away, tell me, and I will take him back.”
He calls her by name: “Mary!” With that, her dark world is flooded with light. That’s what I want to talk about briefly today. Not merely the report of a long-ago miracle, but that moment of knowledge when we know Jesus is alive. He was dead, past tense; now he is alive, present tense. That is the truth of Easter: Jesus was dead, now is alive. Easter was not something that happened long ago. It is here, it is now.
If you listen in the communion prayer, we sneak it in. How do we state the mystery of faith? “Christ has died, Christ is risen…” The risen Christ is the eternal Christ. He stands outside of time, but he steps into time – our time, others’ time – he is now longer bound to the past. Welcome to a present-tense Easter.
This is how I suggest we think about Easter – as something here and now. Jesus Christ is alive.
Paul, the great apostle, had his eyes opened. There he was, maybe two or three years after the death of Jesus. His name was still Saul. He was a pious Jew, trying to snuff out that new sect of Jesus-followers. As he stomped along to the city of Damascus, breathing threats against the Christians, hunting them down, a bright light knocked him off his high horse. Then the great Voice spoke, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That was the moment everything changed. He knew who it was, because he was known. He was called by name.
According to the account, Christ in his resurrection glory is not an obvious presence. He slips in an out of crowds, he comes and goes. His own people do not recognize him – until the disguise, or the face becomes familiar again, or especially when the Stranger shows that he knows us.
Some sixty years after the resurrection, somebody named John wrote what he could in a book. He had no tips on how to recognize Jesus as he comes and goes. If there are any clues, they are in Easter stories. Mary sees him when her name is called. Others see him when he suddenly comes to commission them to forgive in the power of his Spirit. Even Thomas, Doubting Thomas, the one who says, “I’m not going to believe unless I put my finger in the nail holes,” is stunned awake when Jesus appears in a locked room and says, “Here are my hands; you want to do that thing?” He was listening offstage the whole time. When he chooses to appear, he makes it clear that he knows you.
The church that gathered around John, the Gospel writer, was not particularly spooked by this. The book was written around 90 AD. They had sixty years to get used to the absence of Jesus, which really wasn’t an absence. Christ is usually out of sight. But how do they know he is alive? They hear his voice.
I selected the Good Shepherd text from chapter 10 to go along the Mary Magdalene story from chapter 20. In chapter 10, John has collected a few short speeches about sheep and the Good Shepherd. A lot of the early Christians were Jews; they remembered Bible passages about shepherds. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He takes me to the green pastures and the still waters.” They knew those words from the 23rd Psalm.
They also knew the words from the prophet Ezekiel. God says, “I will search for my sheep and seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places where they have scattered. I will gather the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed all of them with justice.” Oh, that was one of God’s great promises from Ezekiel, chapter 34. God would be the shepherd.
Do you know how the church of St. John knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead? Because that was their experience. God provided for them. God cared for them. God took a stand for those who were weakest and most vulnerable. The God who was real for them in Jesus Christ was indeed the one who was their shepherd.
I’ve been interested in the noisy racket coming out of Rome this week. Pope Francis, still somewhat new on the job, stopped by a detention center on Maundy Thursday. The papal custom has been to wash the feet of twelve people just as Jesus washed the feet of his twelve disciples. But the “twelve people” have usually been twelve men, twelve priests – and this Pope washed the feet of twelve prisoners. Not only that, two of them were women, and one of the women is a Muslim.
Well, maybe you heard the racket – “What’s the world coming to? How dare the pope, who sets his own rules, decide to wash the feet of people like that? What’s the world coming to? Do he think this God’s Kingdom or something?” You would think the Christians would read their own Bible – the Good Shepherd is the one who gathers and restores, who gives strength to those who need it, and who ignores the ones who don’t need him. This is Biblical justice.
And for what it’s worth, do you think the lives of those twelve prisoners is ever going to be the same again, after the global leader of the Roman church got down on his knees, washed their feet, kissed their feet, and blessed them? I’m going to guess that Easter came early for those twelve.
What impresses me about the words of John, chapter ten, is that Jesus speaks in the present tense. “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. I do this because I choose to do this. I know my own, and they know me.” It’s all in the present tense. When the words were set to parchment, it was 90 AD, yet he spoke to those Christians, probably living around the Asian city of Ephesus – he spoke to them as if he was right there with them. Because he was – and he is.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life, and he takes it up again. Death and resurrection. This is his power: the power of self-giving love, shown in the cross; the power of resurrection, where the life of eternity brings him back and fills us up. This is the Father’s love, he says, shown to us, told to us. And this is the Really Big Clue that Easter is real. It’s real where love is stronger than whatever threatens to scatter and destroy.
At 10:00 today, we dedicate the first stained glass window in this building that has a face on it. It’s the Good Shepherd window by our corner door, given in memory of a shepherd named Jack who served God as a pastor, husband, and friend. When we were talking with Baut Studios, the stained glass studio in Swoyersville, a number of details got worked into the window. You will see a rainbow trout jumping; that’s in honor of Jack, who loved to fish. The streams of light from the sky come down, prompting us to look toward heaven. The sheep are not particularly bright; that’s how sheep are, you know. The eyes of Jesus follow you around the area; that’s intentional, too, without being spooky. It is a wonderful design which we will enjoy for years to come.
But here is the one suggestion that I made: the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd have nail prints on them. The Good Shepherd is the Risen Lord. He is completely alive, and he comes in the total love of God. It’s a glimpse in colored glass that he is with us, and we are his. When we hear his voice, we love others as he loves all of us. And Easter keeps going on.
One of our church members is not with us today. She is one of the volunteers people from this congregation who serve monthly meals at the St. Francis soup kitchen in Scranton. This has become an important way for people in our church to show Christ’s love to those who have great need for that love. Well, anyway, she got wind that the leaders at the soup kitchen were planning to shut down today. Most of their core of volunteers wanted to spend Easter with their families, and in their churches.
On one level, sure, it’s Easter. Big day for families and churches. But the more she thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with her. She has come to know the people who eat at that shelter, to love those people. Finally she said, “Forgive me for skipping out of worship, but I think I need to serve them Easter dinner. Otherwise a lot of them will find a locked door with nothing to eat. This year, I’m going to celebrate Easter by feeding some of the people Jesus loves.”
What do you think?
I think I can hear the Risen Lord. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.