May 7, 2017-Shepherding the Community

May 7 2017 Sermon

Acts 2:42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

John 10:1-10

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Every year, this particular Sunday after Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. No matter what year it is in the three year lectionary cycle of readings that guide worship and preaching, there is always a selection from John 10 on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. When preparing this week, I remembered that the first sermon I ever heard preached at Kingston Springs United Methodist Church was on Psalm 23 by our own, Roger Hamiter. He helped us see the ways in which the body of Christ demonstrates ministries of comfort and compassion for those who are afflicted in body and spirit.

This morning’s gospel reading is also paired with a reading about the early church in Jerusalem, those followers of Jesus who were carving out a new communal existence on this side of Easter. These particular verses come just after the Pentecost experience in which the Spirit of God descends upon dozens of followers. We’ll return to that text in just a few weeks.

When I was in my later years of high school, having expressed a call to ministry, my senior pastor at the time took me to make hospital visits with him. I supposed he figured that I would have to learn how to do this sooner or later and why not learn how to do it with a mentor at my side. I did not know the older adult women that we were going to see. I think she had been homebound for many years and chronic illness kept her in a revolving door of hospital admissions and discharges. She didn’t speak much during the visit. My pastor made up for her lack of talking. When it came time to pray, he first indicated that we were going to recite the 23rd Psalm together and then pray through the Lord’s Prayer. The three of us did just that.

In the faintest whisper, I heard that woman recite that Psalm precisely as if she had written it herself. Somewhere deep in her core that Psalm resided as a source of comfort, heavy with memories of all the times it was read at funerals and graveside services for friends and family. That Psalm pointed her to the promises of God of abundance in this life and the next and that Christ our Lord leads us to those places. Into green pastures and beside still waters until your cup runneth over.

I imagine that in our unison reading of that text this morning that many of you did likewise as the older woman did, remembering some of the times that well known Psalm spoke words of peace and comfort amidst suffering or at a service of death and resurrection celebrating the life of a loved one. That Psalm strikes a chord in our heart because we all yearn inwardly to be known by and entrusted to the care of the Eternal Shepherd.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who protects, leads, and nurtures the flock is a favored and tender image of Gods love in human form. It evokes a security that is comparable to Christ beckoning the children come to him as a sign of Gods kingdom despite the disciples attempts to keep the children away. When you’re afraid, alone, uncertain about the future in front of you, or wayward, the promises of security and deliverance from your current circumstances can be heard and seen in Christs insistence that he is the Good Shepherd.

In the midst of discourse with the Pharisees, Jesus declares that he is the gate that leads into the sheepfold and a bit later that he is the Good Shepherd. This is in response to a larger ongoing scene with the Pharisees. Right before Jesus begins doubling down on shepherding figures of speech, remember he had healed a man born blind from birth. That healing is the event that prompts the later discourse. After the man’s sight is restored he is driven out of the temple by the Pharisees for being a bit cheeky in his responses to their line of questioning about who it was that restored his sight. After being expelled from the temple, Jesus finds the man and this encounter results in the healed man declaring his belief in Jesus as Lord. As the conversation continues, Jesus insinuates that the Pharisees are spiritually blind and it is then that he continues to teach using the image of sheepfold gate and good shepherd.

Often Jesus’ miracles in John’s gospel are followed by discourses about the reign of God in the world. The full narratives are longer than what we cover in a single preaching text, but it’s helpful to know there is a pattern of Jesus explaining his ministry when the visible acts aren’t understood by disciples and strangers alike. When the Pharisees can’t make sense of how the blind man was healed, Jesus interjects to show that the blind man knew the voice of his. Shepherd and followed him into the fullness of salvation. In that instance, the fruit of salvation was physical sight restored and spiritual life fulfilled when he comes to recognize Jesus as Lord.

For you, the fruit and effect of salvation will be different but it’s source is the same. Perhaps freedom from addiction. Restored to right relationship with a relative or community. Given an identity that can’t be earned. The door to redemption is listening for the Shepherds voice. Hearing, coming to recognize, and following the divine voice of the Good Shepherd is a journey heading deeper into the territory of redemptive grace.

The other image of God in Jesus Christ that our gospel reading presents to us is that of the gate into and out of the sheepfold. A lot of ink has been spilt as folks try and make literal sense of Jesus claims in light of 1st century animal husbandry practices. What did a sheepfold look like? Where was it in relationship to the rest of the house? How could Jesus be both the gate and the shepherd? Wouldn’t he have to be one or the other? If Jesus is the gate and the shepherd then who is functioning as the gatekeeper? But as figures of speech, these images take us far beyond any literal meaning and are full of depth revealing the ways of God in the world.

God’s saving work in the world is like a shepherd who has the best interests and health of the sheep in mind, leading them to places of abundance daily before returning them safely to the sheepfold for rest.

On the other hand, there are people and forces at work in the world who scheme, steal, and break in for the purpose of ravaging the sheepfold and harming the sheep for personal gain.

Where do you see shepherding behavior at work in your life? In the life of this community? On this side of Easter, as Christ followers living without the physical glorified body of Christ among us, we have a major challenge. It is ours to figure with the prodding of Gods spirit what was exclusive to Jesus earthly ministry and what he modeled and intended to be carried on in his absence by the apostles and church. And this is why I’m glad we have the Pentecost text to accompany today’s gospel reading.

I earnestly believe that the church is called to demonstrate the validity of the claim that God in Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. That is not a hollow claim of the gospel. It is embodied action that this community takes part in daily. The early church in Jerusalem, half scared to death because of fear of those who executed Jesus, gather together, eat, pray, and share life. These are ordinary and mundane actions that represent the reign of God in the world so others may come to experience divine grace. And you do this as well. You shepherd one another. You pray over one another’s lives. Sometimes you lead or walk beside someone through the valley of death and all its suffering. And this is life giving ministry that builds up the body of Christ. I see it often and I want to see more of it. Bear one another’s joys and burdens in love, pray over one another, break bread, share a spirit of unity, and invite others into the fellowship. For such work, we are called by the one who leads us beside still waters.