Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

And I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah for ever.

The Lord is my Shepherd. We hear these words often during the year, repeated as the Psalm of the day three times in this cycle of lessons. They are words with which we never tire. They never grow old or irrelevant. They bring comfort and peace to many, Christian and non-Christian alike. Though many modern believers do not fully grasp the significance of the words of this Psalm – not knowing what it means to shepherd sheep – we understand that God is our Shepherd and that He will take care of us.

We hear these words this day because the Gospel lesson for this week is a lesson about the Shepherd and His flock. The Shepherd, in this case, is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we are the flock. The lesson is a warning to beware of those who are not truly the shepherd, those who would steal the sheep with false promises. Jesus says, “He that entereth not by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”

In the Old Testament, the word shepherd often refers to the leadership of the people, both religious and secular. David was a shepherd boy who became the shepherd king. The priests were seen a shepherds, caring for the people. In Jesus’ day, the shepherds were the Pharisees and other leaders both in the community and the temple. Ultimately, however, our Shepherd is God, a reality so eloquently stated by David in today’s Psalm.

God’s place as LORD was not so sure at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Our Gospel lesson comes right after the story of the healing of the man born blind. At the end of that story, the Pharisees asked Jesus if they were blind also. He responded, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.” The leaders thought they were right with God and that they were close to Him, but they were really blind to the truth. It was their job to take care of God’s people, to shepherd His sheep by pointing to God as the Shepherd. Instead, they burdened the people with a path of self-righteousness that was impossible to attain and would never bring them to God.

Christians have a great many ideas about what it means to be Christian, about the nature of Jesus and what God intends for His people. We argue about everything, from the littlest details to the eternal doctrines of our faith. Some things matter, they are the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, there are too many Pharisees in our world today that teach doctrines that go against the word of God. They preach a false gospel, a gospel that offers no grace or hope. It is a gospel that burdens the people, leads them from God into a life of works righteousness or religiosity.

Jesus told the Pharisees that the sheep will follow the shepherd because they know His voice. The Shepherd is Jesus, leading us in a life of faith. We follow because we hear Him and find comfort in His words. Just like David, we look to God to take care of our needs. It is hard for us to identify with the language of the psalm because we see little comfort in lying in a field for a night. However, it is not merely the comforts of living that God will provide. He grants us even greater blessings.

We can see how it is meant to be for those who believe in the passage from Acts. The Christians gathered together regularly to hear God’s word and to share in the breaking of bread. As we meet together, sharing Word and Sacrament, we are sustained in our faith. We may not be lying in a green pasture or drinking from cool clean water, but we are feasting on the bread of life and the living water that is our Lord Jesus Christ. In Baptism and the Eucharist, we are restored and guided in our faith for His name’s sake. David writes, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In these words, he foresaw the gifts of God’s means of grace through the Church – the sacraments that bring us faith and sustain us through all things, even the valley of the shadow of death.

Through the Church we live without fear as we walk together in faith, because God is with us. In acts, the believers shared everything in common, even selling their goods to care for the needs of other brothers and sisters in Christ. They shared God’s grace, giving to those who had less and receiving when they had their own needs. They met daily for prayer and study, and often gathered to share fellowship with one another. They did all this with joy, praising God. Doesn’t that sound like dwelling in the house of the Lord forever?

Jesus told those listening that He is the door for the sheep. He is the way into this life of grace and mercy. Then he told them that those who came before were thieves and robbers. This does not refer to the Old Testament prophets, but rather the false prophets who had so distorted God’s word and burdened the people with a false gospel. “The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy.” Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, like the sheep cared for by the Great Shepherd.

Peter reminds us that dwelling with God does not mean we will never walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As a matter of fact, our Lord Jesus suffered for our sake and calls us to follow Him. He suffered at the hands of men, though He’d done nothing wrong. He was hung on the cross, innocent of sin. Though men found it right to put Him to death, Jesus did not turn away from their wrath, but instead stood firmly in the will of God, doing that which He had been sent to do. It was for our sins that Jesus died, and for our sake that He now lives. “For ye were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”

Jesus is indeed the door, the only door into the kingdom of heaven. Those who hear His voice will follow without fear, knowing that the Great Shepherd will provide all we need. The life we live in this world will never be perfect. The shadow of death looms over all that we do, because sin still rules in the lives of many. However, we walk in faith knowing that God has already established our home forever. Until that day when we will know the fulfillment of that promise, we have the gift of the sacraments to sustain us, like that green pasture and still waters in David’s song of praise.

There are false prophets, false shepherds teaching a false gospel. However, hear the voice of the Lord Jesus and do not follow after those who speak that which does not give life. You might suffer, because the world does not like when we follow the Shepherd. The world wants control, false prophets promote a doctrine of works righteousness and religiosity because it gives them the power over your soul.

Unfortunately, the Church does not look much like it did in those early days. There are few who gather so regularly for prayer and study. We do not sell our possessions to support another’s needs. We don’t eat together with one heart or constantly praise God for His mercy and grace. We are also not adding to our numbers daily those that are saved. We are, at times, like a flock of sheep gone astray. When we listen for the voice of our Master and follow Him, we will know what it is like to dwell in the house of God. But even when we fail, we can be assured that our Lord walks with us and we shall have no fear of death. We shall not want for grace because through Jesus Christ there is an abundant supply. Thanks be to God.

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