May 3, 2020, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2020
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.

     I find a sense of irony in this morning’s scripture lessons. Now, I realize that today’s readings from 1st Peter, Psalm 23, and the Gospel according to John, as well as our liturgy and music, focus our attention on Jesus as the Good Shepherd; a shepherd who knows his sheep so well that he calls us by name; a shepherd committed to protecting us from danger and death; a shepherd who leads and guides us so that we walk in the ways of God and uphold God’s values, just as today’s lessons also focus on the importance of our being able to not only discern the shepherd’s voice in the midst of all the noise around us, but follow it every day of our lives. But there is an irony here that is found in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

     Luke, the author of Acts, describes for us what happened after about 3000 people heard the good news of the gospel, embraced Jesus Christ as their Lord, and been baptized. Luke says they ‘devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other words, they were committed to getting know their Shepherd – everything he said and taught. And in so doing, they came to recognize his voice so clearly that they chose to live differently. They adopted a way of life that set them apart from the prevailing culture of their day. A culture that stressed the only thing that matters in life is one’s personal happiness and well-being, not the happiness and well-being of others. This choosing to live differently meant, Luke says, that they shared everything. Sharing was the hallmark of the first Christian community and sharing is what we are called to do and therein lies the irony in today’s reading from Acts.

See, we are meeting online this morning to observe, “virtually”, the Holy Eucharist where Rev. Anna and I will receive the bread and wine, but we won’t physically share it with you because, in this time of pandemic, we are not allowed to physically gather together. And that is food for thought – no pun intended. It is something for us to wrestle with during this time of continuing social-distancing. Our scripture lessons this morning complete with their references to the relationship of sheep to a shepherd and vice versa, invite us to look more deeply into what it means to be a community of faith: a community of faith that is called to share everything: what we have; who we are; our food, our clothes, our time; our lives, and even our deaths. And it was at this point in preparing this sermon that I found myself pleading with God to reveal what it is that the Spirit desires to say to us on this day and with these scriptures given the circumstances of our lives right now. It’s kind of hard to share everything we are and have when we can’t be together.

     In his book Life Together, the late theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer describes the second Chapter of Acts as a blueprint for Christian life and growth as a community of God’s people. Citing today’s reading, Bonheoffer suggests that the devotion of these new converts to learning and fellowship was a demonstration of their commitment to faith and the Christian way of life. Acts tells us that these people became a new community defined by common faith and identity. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 12:27, describes this new community as the body of Christ. The Church’s identity, our identity, lies in Jesus Christ into whom we have been baptized and called into new life, called to follow him.

Now, I probably should clarify that when Jesus says, “follow me” he isn’t asking us to “friend him” on Facebook, or post his picture on Instagram, or tweet about him. To follow Jesus means to truly know him – everything he said and taught - know him so deeply that when he calls, we know exactly how to respond with all that we are and have.

     We are about to begin our 9th week of separation: our 9th week of life as we know it being turned upside down. And to be honest, I am really tired of this pandemic and what it is doing to communities of faith, to cities and towns, and to our nation. In fact, over this past week I found that the initial burst of energy I felt as we discovered new ways to offer worship services and continue to serve the growing needs of our communities, was slipping into disillusionment. I find many people have become short-tempered, understandably frustrated with having to cope with an uncertain future, and some now insist that meeting their needs is more important than the welfare of others. You know, experts - those trained in responding to long term disasters - say that after the first 6 weeks, after that initial burst of energy, it is common to slip into a time of disillusionment and even depression. Well, it took 9 weeks for me. But more importantly, they say that disillusionment is the natural cycle of human response to disaster. And the Covid-19 pandemic is a disaster like none other in recent history. Those same experts tell us that eventually, energy returns, new life begins, and people see light at the end of their tunnel. The truth is, at some point restrictions on gatherings will be lifted although it is believed that even if we are able to gather as a community again, it will be limited in scope for quite some time.  

     Nevertheless, one of the blessings of this time of separation is that I believe we have come to appreciate more deeply the life we share at Holy Cross: our mission and ministries, and our fellowship and worship together. The reality is we do know how much longer we will be prohibited from gathering side by side as a community faith, gathering for worship, fellowship, study, prayer and service. But this I do know, if we use this time to get to know our Shepherd and recognize his voice, when we do come back together new mission and ministry will abound.

     I know that because this morning’s reading from Acts chapter 2 concludes Luke’s account of how the early Church was formed for mission. Prayer, study, learning, and yes, gathering for fellowship and worship, prepared that Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to move forward in ministry and service. Such preparation led to the next chapter in that Church’s history: Acts chapter 3 where the Church begins its transforming work not just in their neighborhood, but throughout the whole world fulfilling the Shepherd’s promise “You shall be my witnesses.” But they couldn’t get to that next chapter without knowing the Shepherd’s voice and knowing how to answer his call.

      And therein lies a timely message for us. Perhaps these days of being unable to meet face to face could be considered an invitation by the Holy Spirit to really get to know our Shepherd’s voice. To that end, the services of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, and Evening Prayer all found in our Book of Common Prayer offer a simple and yet rich opportunity to read scripture and inwardly digest those words, and to pray for ourselves and the whole world. I invite you to consider saying one of those services each day. It is a wonderful way to read through the Bible, to hear the words, the voice, of our Lord and get to know him and how he desires for his followers to live so that when we dogather again for fellowship and worship, we will be even more prepared and I will add, willing to follow him.

     Like the early Church in Acts, if we use this time to truly get know our Shepherd’s voice and all that he taught us, we will be ready to enter the next chapter in our life together as the Church of the Holy Cross in Valle Crucis – a life together that will, no doubt, be different than before (we might have to wear masks for a while) and yet will include not only in-person opportunities for worship and prayer, but a continuing online presence as well so that we proclaim the good news of the gospel beyond our community, and like the Church in Acts, demonstrate a way of living that will set every community apart from the prevailing culture of our day: a culture marked by self-interest and fear. But we won’t be able to enter that next chapter of new and renewed mission and ministry until we have learned how to recognize God’s voice and are willing follow wherever and however that voice may lead.

     Let us pray: (From 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 follow where he leads.” Amen.