Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:19-25
Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
Saint Peter was walking the streets of heaven which seemed overly crowded to him. He went to the gate to look in the book they keep when people check into heaven. He found no comfort in what he saw; he knew that there were too many people on the streets based on the information in the book. He said to Saint Paul, “Paul this doesn’t look good! Are there really that many extra people in the streets? Who are these people and how did they get here? Go and see if you can find out what is happening.” So, Saint Paul ran off to investigate while Saint Peter stood at the gate personally. After a while Saint Paul returned with a report. “You are right, Peter, there are extra people here.” Saint Peter replied, “I knew it. Where are they coming from?” Saint Paul answered, “Oh, its Jesus. He’s helping people climb in over the back fence again.”
This is a funny joke, but this is the lesson in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus doesn’t have to bring people in over the back fence because He is the gate. It is through Jesus Christ that we enter into the blessedness of eternal life. Comedy often has a ring of truth to it, and sometimes it seems the Church tries to limit entrance to heaven. We set boundaries and judgments based on our understanding of the scriptures.
It is a fine line we draw, since the scriptures are sometimes difficult to understand. What does any city dweller know about shepherding? What does any businessman know about tending sheep? So, we live in the hope of eternal life, based on the promise of Jesus rather than the sum of our knowledge. Unfortunately, we sometimes read texts from the Epistles and we see how a joke like this one can be made. Peter, Paul, and the others seem to set boundaries and judgments that keep people out of the Church.
The scriptures are given so that we might grow into the people God has created and ordained us to be. As we follow the example of those who have gone before, we grow in faith and maturity, giving us the courage and the strength to share the message of Jesus with others. If we have hope for them, we will share the gift of eternal life with them. If we set up boundaries and judgments against them, then we will not bother to do the one thing God has commanded us to do: share the Gospel. Why bother if they don’t belong anyway?
In all things, Jesus is our focus. As we follow Him, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Those who we once considered enemies will become brothers, not because they change but because we begin to see them from a new perspective: through Jesus colored glasses. There is no reason to limit the number of people on the streets of heaven because God’s grace is big enough for all. He wants us all. We are reminded in this passage that the way we get there is through Jesus - whether it is over the back fence or through the front door.
Our texts for today revolve around the word “shepherd.” The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and we hear a piece of John 10 each year. This year, John 10:1-10 tells us Jesus is the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation, and how He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. In the end He provides proof of His authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe, they’ve been given to Him by His Father. The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23; it is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the LORD. The LORD provides. The LORD directs. The LORD leads. The LORD restores. The LORD guides. The LORD protects. The LORD comforts. The LORD feeds. The LORD anoints. Life under the LORD’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed. We are called to be faithful to the LORD, to follow our Shepherd and to trust in Him. We will hear His voice and He will take care of us.
I suppose there are those who are as troubled by our confidence. The world struggles to understand how we can be obedient to a fairy tale. How can we believe that God would call us follow His commands, especially in this day and age? Tithe? Isn’t there better ways to spend our money? Church on a Sunday morning? Don’t you want to sleep in? You are studying the Bible again? You have read it so many times there can’t possibly be anything new to glean out of it!
We know, however, that God will use our resources in ways we can’t even imagine, that time with God in community is more than just a place to be and that the Bible will always surprise us with something new. Yet, we also know that there are people who make claims about God’s voice that are questionable. God will never call a mother to murder her children. God may call someone into a job or situation, but we can’t assume that He’s doing so because we will win. How many politicians look foolish after an election when they did not get selected after boasting that God told them to run?
The thing is, sometimes we just don’t know the reason for God’s calling. Do you think the disciples ever thought that they were following a shepherd who would die on a cross? The politician might just be led to run to be a voice, but not a winner. His reasons might be different than we expect. We are to trust His voice, to be obedient, to follow. He is not leading us down the road we want to go, He will guide us on the road He intends for us. Unfortunately, His path might mean walking through the valley of the shadow of death, a place we would rather not go. But the blessing is not found in the satisfaction of our desires, but in the trust that God is in control. We need to be careful that we are listening to His voice because He will not lead us on a path that goes against His Word.
As much as we want to believe that we hear God rightly, we must remember that we are imperfect and that we can easily be confused and tempted to believe what we want to believe. We live in a world that is full of noise. It is full of voices calling us to follow this path or that path. They want us to believe in their idea, to do things their way, to follow the path they think we should follow. That path is very often not the narrow path of the Gospel that relies solely and only on Jesus Christ, but is a wide path filled with options. People today prefer choices. They want the best of every religion. They want to believe what feels good. They want their faith to express and fulfill their desires.
We live in a world that is increasingly becoming “people-free.” It is even more so at the moment since we are isolating against a virus, but it has been happening for a long time. The grocery stores provide “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can watch church on television, order pizza on the Internet and watch movies streamed to our televisions.
The problem with this “people free” world is that personal interaction is a necessary part of living. Even the most introverted person needs other people. We need to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole. That is perhaps the hardest part of this whole experience for many. We can’t live virtually forever.
The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity. Individuals get lost in the crowd, which is just as well for many of the people who attend. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians.
We are struggling now because our communities are divided. I’ve seen a meme that shows Satan laughing because he closed all the churches. God answers, “But I opened one in every house.” This might be true, and I do believe that people are finding ways to be faithful in this time of uncertainty, but the problem with the meme is the idea that God is satisfied with a million little churches. He’s not. We have to find a compassionate and safe way to gather together again, but we can’t “do church” this way forever.
Some people would happily allow the virtual community to become the norm, but they don’t see how it is having a negative impact on a lot of people. Children are being abused at a greater rate because they are constantly with their abusers. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and pornography are on the rise because people are depressed, bored, and afraid. Though many have made the choice to get outside and exercise, others are living on a diet of junk food and video games. A virtual community may help to a point, but it also allows a certain amount of anonymity. There is less accountability. We may have found ways to connect online, but we need personal interaction to stay on a good path.
We need one another to help us hear God’s voice, to know that what we hear is truly God’s voice.
Community was everything to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He grew up in a huge, loving family that did everything together. He worked at creating a community to educate young men in ministry. Even after he was arrested, Dietrich found a way to create community inside the prison where he was kept. He died well before his time, but through his life we have learned what it means to dwell together in grace and love.
His death was humiliating and painful. He was executed for his role in trying to stop Adoph Hitler. His execution was so horrific that even some of the German soldiers refused to watch. They did not have enough gallows because so many were hung in those days. Instead, they used meat hooks from the slaughterhouse, lifting the victim slowly as they were hung with nooses made out of piano wire. The victim suffocated to death in about thirty minutes. Before the hanging, he was stripped naked and beaten, then led into the yard. His last words were, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.” He lived his life in the knowledge that he followed the faithful Shepherd. Despite the hardship, Bonhoeffer knew that he would find himself in the presence of God in the end.
Martin Doblmeier, filmmaker, created a documentary about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that was aired on PBS a few years ago. In an interview about the movie, Doblmeier said, “Most people know Bonhoeffer because of his writings. Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, Life Together, these are classic books that will inspire Christians and non-Christians for generations. You feel in his words the youthful passion of a man struggling to understand the will of God, knowing the earthly price that is often paid for responding to that call. In his own time Bonhoeffer was not a widely known figure, but over the last few generations his stature has grown and his writings have become more and more influential. I think that is because, in the language of today, he was a man who not only ‘talked the talk,’ but ‘walked the walk.’ In the world of religion today there seems to be a widening chasm between the left and right, the progressive and traditional - especially in the Christian world. What is extraordinary is how Bonhoeffer’s appeal seems to cross over the divisions, finding wide acceptance on both sides. Conservative Christians are attracted to Bonhoeffer because he is so Christ-and Bible-based. The progressive wing is attracted to Bonhoeffer’s commitment to social justice. It is not that the two sides should be in any opposition, it is simply the fact that too often they are and Bonhoeffer is a unifying figure, not a divisive one.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of the kind of life God calls us to live. He was neither a liberal nor a conservative; he was both. He was frustrated with the liberal theology of the Lutheran Church in Germany which caused him to eventually leave. He felt that it was willing to follow the loudest voices, which is why it was no longer relevant in the society of his day. The Church was not willing to stand up for what God said was right and against what He said was wrong.
Everyone has an opinion in the conversations about what to do next, but few are willing to listen to the others. In Bonhoeffer we can see that there are different ways of seeing the world, and that perhaps the best way to deal with it is not division, but community. There is a reason that God chose the image of a shepherd to describe His character and work. A shepherd doesn’t lead one animal, he cares for many. It isn’t a hundred individuals that is under His care, it is a flock. While He knows and loves every sheep, able to call it by name, the shepherd’s world is in community.
We can work together for the sake of God’s kingdom, unified not by a point of view but by the amazing grace of Christ Jesus. Our work here in this world will end, but that end is not the end, it is only the beginning of life for us as we join in the heavenly community of saints for eternity. We join that community not by our own discipleship or actions, but through faith in Jesus Christ. If we remember this, eyes always on the cross and the promise that is found there, we’ll know the unity that they saw in the early church. We can have the kind of community that Bonhoeffer tried to build wherever He was, even if we are a diverse group because we are led by the same Shepherd.
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 only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” 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 you were going astray like sheep; but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer 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. It seems that shadow looms ever more clearly these days, taking from us not only our freedom but our peace of mind. It has also stolen from us the community that we need to keep us on the right path. There are false prophets and false shepherds who do not teach God’s truth. 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. However, we walk in faith knowing that God has already established our home forever. We will struggle today and tomorrow, but God’s promises are eternal. We don’t know if it will be now or later, but we will be able to gather again in community, following the Good Shepherd as a gathered flock, receiving His gifts that sustain us like the green pastures and still waters in David’s song of praise.
In the beginning, the Church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.
Have we lost touch with His voice? Do we hear Him when He calls? Are we ready to respond with mercy and grace to meet the needs of those who are suffering in the world? Or are we following the voices of strangers? Do we trust the thief that claims to be the voice of God but who only wants to steal the gifts God has given? Are we willing to trust God even when we are suffering? Is Jesus our focus, or are we chasing after our own agendas, theories, expectations?
As we follow Jesus, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Even if we don’t think we have enough, we’ll be able to find more than we need to help our neighbors just as they will help us. This is the kind of community that others long to join.
We struggle now because we cannot be together, but we can trust in Him as we walk this shadowed valley. Let’s devote our time to the work of God, learning how to hear His voice through study, worship and prayer. Then when God gathers us together again, our community will look a lot like that one in Jerusalem so long ago. We don’t understand what God is accomplishing through us at this time, but we can trust that His will is being done by those who hear and believe enough to act. The work might not be what we desire or expect, but as we follow the Good Shepherd, it will glorify Him. And the Lord will add to the numbers daily those who are being saved, perhaps even bringing them over the back fence according to His grace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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