Sermon May 7, 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2017

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

From the Gospel according to John, (Jesus said), “The sheep follow (the Shepherd) because they know his voice.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

     As you might have guessed, this Fourth Sunday in Eastertide is referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday because of the focus of today’s scripture readings. From the idyllic comfort of the shepherd leading his people into the green pastures of Psalm 23, to St. Peter’s statement that once we “were going astray like sheep, but now we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls,” our lessons draw our attention to the Good Shepherd. A shepherd who, John’s Gospel says, calls each of us by name and leads us into abundant life. 

This morning’s Gospel reading is often heard at ordination services because of its images about shepherding and leading. But, this Gospel isn’t about the role of priests and ministers at all. It is about Jesus Christ and our relationship with him and to him. Regardless of our place or our role in the Church, we are equal members of the same flock. We follow one and the same Shepherd: Jesus Christ our Lord. He has called us by name and we, in turn, follow where he leads.  

And it is in that statement “follow where he leads” that things start to get a bit muddy and difficult. You see, this sermon started out as a teaching on how to discern God’s voice. More specifically, that according to John, just as the Shepherd takes time to get to know the sheep by name, being present with them, listening to them, and studying them, so we, too, need to commit ourselves to getting to know our Shepherd by name. And that is only possible through our own personal commitment to take time to be in the presence of God, and to study and learn about God. We do that in our corporate gatherings together on Sunday mornings and at other times, but most especially through personal daily prayer and study. Such a daily commitment is the only way any of us can ever hope to embrace an adult understanding of what it means to be, as we say in baptism, called and “marked as Christ’s own” as well as, what it means to follow the Shepherd’s leading. 

The truth is, we live in a world of constant noise. Our ears are assaulted all day long with the sounds of our cities, towns, televisions, radios, traffic and other people. Even our own consciences, our inner voices as we often describe them, compete for our attention. It is hard to recognize the Shepherd’s voice in the midst of daily clamor. That’s why it is so important to spend time with God each and every day. For those wondering where to start in that journey, our Book of Common Prayer offers a wonderfully simple guideline for spending time with God in prayer and scripture reading. It shows how to pray upon arising thanking God for a restful sleep. Then, pray again as we begin our day offering ourselves to God. At noon, how to offer prayers and re-center ourselves in God. At the end of the day, pray in thanksgiving for everything that happened to us whether ill or good, and before retiring for the night, center our thoughts once more on God in whom we find our rest. Daly prayer is the beginning to a way of life together as Christians. In fact, it is a rule of life that teaches how to recognize God’s voice. But having recognized God’s voice, having heard the Shepherd’s voice, the question remains, “now what?” 

Our reading from Acts immediately follows last week’s lesson on the conversion of the three thousand who heard the good news of the Gospel. They accepted that Jesus Christ is both Messiah and Lord; they’d heard the Shepherd’s voice call them by name. Now, Acts tells us, these converts committed themselves to a new way of life. In this reading, we hear echoes of our own baptismal vows: “They devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is what we committed to do in Baptism. It is the key to growing in our faith and discerning the voice of the Shepherd so that we can follow his lead. In his book Life Together, the late theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer describes the entire second Chapter of Acts as a blueprint for Christian life and growth as a community of faith. Citing today’s particular reading from Acts, Bonheoffer suggests that the devotion of these new converts to learning and fellowship demonstrated their total commitment to faith and the Christian way of life. Acts tells us that these people – as different as they were and from all sorts of diverse backgrounds and abilities - became a new community. They became a community defined by common faith and identity. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 12:27, calls this common faith and identity, this community, the body of Christ. Our identity lies in Jesus Christ into whom we have been baptized and called to new life. Think for a moment about Jesus calling the twelve disciples. Imagine how very different they were from each other: Different in politics, different in religious zeal, and probably different in their practice of personal hygiene. And yet, they became a united and committed community. The Church does exactly the same thing. Jesus Christ, the Shepherd, calls us by name to gather together for fellowship, for instruction, and for the breaking of the bread, and then sends us forth to follow our Shepherd. And Acts tells us that when the church responds to the Shepherd’s voice and commits to living differently, a new identity emerges so that we have all things in common. We become of one mind and demonstrate a remarkable ability to not only discern the voice of God, but to be God’s presence in our community, to truly seek and serve Christ in every person we meet. This doesn’t mean that we become clones with no individual personalities as that would be boring: our diversity makes the Christian life a wonderful journey. But we do hold this in common: we are of one mind when it comes to following the voice of God and, therefore, following all of God’s commandments, all of God’s values, following God’s way of life. And, Acts says, when we are of that one mind and commit to follow our Lord, we become people of goodwill and generous hearts. 

And that’s where things start to get muddy, especially within the Christian Church. You see, not every Church chooses to follow Christ in the same way that we, as Episcopalians, so choose to follow him. Some say that the Church’s role is solely, to quote Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Others say no, the church’s role is to be Christ’s presence, to quote Matthew 25:44-45, “As you have done to the least of these (the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned) so you have done to me.” So which is it? It is both. It is both because that’s what our Shepherd taught and showed us. And I suggest that both are impossible to embody if we do not know the one in whose name we preach and teach and serve in this community. For if we truly know the one who has called us by name, then our very lives will reflect his affirmation of the two greatest commandments. And those commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, body, mind and strength, and to love all that God loves – that is, to love our neighbor as much as our own selves. If our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is correct, then those of goodwill and generous hearts are so because they ensure that everything they say and do reflects those commandments, those values of God. 

You see, it’s not enough for us simply to preach Christ crucified, to be baptized, or to gather together week after week. It’s not even enough for us to pray and study every day. The Shepherd calls us to follow him and following him means to embrace and demonstrate in our very lives everything he taught us. And therein lies the struggle, the difficulty, the truly radical call of the gospel to live differently.

These are interesting days as a nation and as people of God. Our ears and especially, our hearts and minds, are bombasted daily with mixed messages about what it means to truly follow Jesus, about what it means to truly care for our neighbor and especially, the widowed and orphaned. That is something each of us must sincerely and prayerfully discern. 

Yet, in that discernment, we need to remember that today’s reading from Acts simply concludes the writer’s account of how the early Christian Church was formed for mission. Prayer, study, learning, gathering, all these things took place in order to prepare the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to move forward in mission. Having committed to a new way of living and to follow everything the Shepherd taught, now their real work began. Chapter three describes how their work in the community transformed the lives of their neighbors, how their work began to fulfill the promise, “Now you shall be my witnesses.” But we can’t get to that place of mission and witness until we have learned to recognize God’s voice and committed ourselves to follow the Shepherd’s leading. That choice, that commitment, once again, is each of ours to make. Ours to make alone. 

Let us pray: In the words of this morning’s Collect, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls each of us by name, and truly, truly, follow where he leads.” Amen.