Acts 4:5-12, I John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
On Easter Day and the first two weeks following Easter, the Church tells the stories of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, to his disciples. We read or hear the stories of the women at the tomb; the Apostle Thomas and his doubts; the disciples in the "upper room" and the Risen Jesus eating a piece of fish. The Church has designated this Fourth Sunday of Easter, every year, as "Good Shepherd Sunday"; and on Good Shepherd Sunday we begin to consider the results, as it were, of Christ's Resurrection. How was the community of Jesus to continue to live together after the Easter "honeymoon" had ended? After Jesus had departed from them, and their feet hit the ground, then what? What was to characterize their fellowship? What kind of community were they to be? How could they continue to be "Easter people" day after day? These are some of the questions that this Good Shepherd Sunday seeks to answer.
The central affirmation of today's Gospel Lesson is Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. ... I know my own and my own know me. ... There will be one flock, one shepherd." In four short phrases, Jesus gives us a portrait of the nature of Christian community. First, the community is where Jesus is the good shepherd. An intentional "listening for the voice" of the Risen Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, underpins the whole spectrum of Christian living. In personal and corporate prayer, we listen for the voice. In the reading of scripture, we listen for the voice. In worship and the sacraments, we listen for the voice. In responding to the needs of others placed around us, we listen for the voice. In the sharing of our lives with one another, we listen for the voice. and that voice is Jesus' voice.
Developing attentiveness to God's voice - the voice of the Good Shepherd - is fundamental to living a spiritual life - but it is also one of the hardest things to cultivate. Henri Nouwen has compared one of the first stages of listening prayer to a person who, after years of living with open doors, suddenly decides to shut them. Visitors who used to come and go at will start pounding on the doors, wondering why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they realize that they are no longer welcome do the visitors desist. Nouwen, of all people, is not using this metaphor to suggest we be inhospitable with one another. Rather, many distractions occur when we seek to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd. Persist, and they will become less and less distracting.
A second characteristic of the "Community of the Resurrection", is that it is where we have a sense of being known. "I know them,..." Jesus says. Today's collect puts it even more intimately. "Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name,..." What an incredible thought! When we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, what we hear is the most powerful of all sounds in our ears - our own name! All our lives we hear our name as we hear nothing else. We hear it called in every conceivable tone and setting and for reasons and purposes too numerous to mention. Our name has been spoken by voices we will never forget and by voices which we wish we could forget and cannot. Our name has been called lovingly, sternly, harshly, gently, angrily, seductively. We have heard it whispered passionately and shouted in exasperation.
To know that our name is on the lips of our Lord is to possess the richest intimacy with him. To know that he speaks our name gives us our ultimate sense of who we truly are. Intimacy lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Intimacy with God. Intimacy with other believers. Intimacy with oneself. Intimacy, through the Holy Spirit, with strangers or even enemies. The Community of the Resurrection derives its life from the sacred intimacy it shares with the Good Shepherd - the One who truly knows us, and calls us each by name.
The Community of the Resurrection is where we follow the Risen Christ in faith. Listening for the voice, and opening ourselves up to be intimately known, leads naturally into "followership". Anglican theologian H.A. Williams once said: "The opposite of sin can only be faith, not virtue." Therefore, followership in the Community of the Resurrection is marked not by perfection, but by faith in spite of imperfection. Goodness, which even Jesus would attribute only to God, is not self-generated in the Christian community. It is derived from being "in Christ". Jesus, the Risen One, becomes the One without whom we cannot live. Following is our way of living in Christ - abiding in Christ is what the Fourth Evangelist talks about. If we love Jesus, we will follow him.
A fourth characteristic of the Community of the Resurrection is that it is where we experience eternal life. Eternal life, in John's Gospel, is a qualitative rather than a quantitative term. Traditional and popular approaches to the term "eternal", presuppose that the question is, How long does it last? More appropriate is the question, What is the nature of such life? And in John's Gospel, eternal life is life which trusts that what Jesus Christ revealed and continues to reveal about God is true. And what is revealed? That the world for us is not an alien, hostile, and evil place but rather is the creation of God who gives to it and to us light and life; that God loves the world and comes to it in order to make possible a relationship described as being empowered to be children of God; that this relationship is one marked by grace and freedom; that worship and service are the appropriate responses to God’s initiative; and that this relationship is a continuous and growing one - best described as abiding in God.
So - quite simply - the Community of the Resurrection is where the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard; where we have a sense of being known; where we follow Jesus in faith; and where we experience eternal life - life in Christ. In a very real way, we are the sacrament of Easter. We are the "outward and visible sign" that God's love has triumphed. Walking, talking, and eating with the Risen Christ, we - the Community of the Resurrection - are now the ones God depends on to manifest God's love - new life - in the world.
In the Name of the Risen Christ - Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool