The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 4th Sunday of Easter
7 May 2017
1 Peter 2:19-25
Despite no longer being a society that readily relates to analogies of shepherds and sheep, the enduring quality of God as the Good Shepherd is one that still reminds us of God’s care for us as the sheep of God’s pasture and brings to mind, for many of us, images readily identified in the still widely known 23rd Psalm. Our Psalmist today gives us the familiar image of God as one who accompanies us through the ups, downs, and dangers of life, seeking for our wholeness— even giving us solace and comfort amidst persecution, as reflected in today’s Epistle. One of the most comforting statements for many Christians, even today, is the familiar: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
But today’s gospel doesn’t speak of Christ in the familiar, comforting terms of shepherd, who watches over us and guides our coming in and our going out, but rather as the gate itself, through which God’s continuing shepherds will come to guide God’s people.
In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus has just healed the man who was born blind, whom the Pharisees then questioned extensively. As you may remember from this past Lent, the Pharisees believed him to have been born in deep sin for being born blind, and the fact that Jesus healed his blindness made them that much more suspicious of Jesus. They expelled the formerly blind man from the temple for suggesting that if Jesus were not from God, he could not have done these things.
Jesus, then having found the newly sighted man revealed himself to the man as the messiah and said that he came so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind. The Pharisees, overhearing this, have just said to Jesus, “surely we are not blind are we?” to which Jesus responded “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.”
The story continues in today’s gospel, with Jesus saying “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.” This is a direct challenge to the Pharisees who claim not to be blind and yet are clearly opposed to Jesus.
In essence, Jesus has just called the whole lot of them thieves and bandits, posing as shepherds, but whom the sheep refuse to listen to because they await the true shepherd’s voice. In this direct and rather scathing indictment of his opponents, Jesus proclaims that those opposing his teachings and living in ways contradictory to the way he demonstrates cannot shepherd the people to true and lasting life in God. Those that oppose his way and his teachings, clinging to the way of human tradition and self-serving wisdom are essentially stealing the sheep away from God and threatening to leave the people in spiritual disarray. It doesn’t seem that in this particular encounter, Jesus is trying to win any new friends.
Today’s epistle picks up on a similar theme from the opposite side of the equation. Speaking to those who have been bodily stolen and enslaved by another kind of thieves, the writer of Peter’s epistle is writing to those living in slavery and persecution, in exile. Much as our Psalmist describes God’s presence giving us solace and comfort amidst persecution, our epistler commends and encourages those suffering abuse and pain who have no recourse and yet are still seeking to follow Christ’s teachings and live out Christ’s way by not returning evil for evil.
Although, as a survivor of abuse, my hackles raise when the abused are encouraged to model Christ’s sacrifice, what the epistler actually commends is Christ’s response in not returning evil for evil, nor returning threats for pain—in essence, although enduring unjust suffering, not taking that abuse into their hearts and becoming abusive or hateful themselves, but resisting courageously in ways that may help to keep their hearts and spirits whole… or again in ways that reflect God’s shepherding accompaniment and presence with them and in them during their suffering. As prisoners and slaves, the only control they may have is how they choose to respond to the situation in which they have found themselves. Do they become like their abusers, or do they retain what little wholeness is left to them? In Christ’s idiom, they may have been stolen physically, but their spirits may yet fuel their courage to resist in hope.
In the Easter cycle, Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees is a foreshadowing of what is to come when he puts his flock in the hands of Peter and the rest of the disciples, which is described in today’s reading from Acts. By speaking of himself as the gate rather than as the Shepherd, Jesus sets up an evaluative model by which only those who seek to continue Christ’s teachings and way of life can be trusted as shepherds to guide and teach Christ’s followers after his departure from them.
Our reading from Acts describes Christians in the early church as being devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers;” to devoting their livelihood to the common good of their community; to spending time together in worship, sharing meals together “with glad and generous hearts[;] praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
In some ways we’re not all that different today. We’re still following the teachings of the apostles in the Gospels and pastoral letters that make up what has become canonized as the New Testament. We’re still committed to a weekly practice of Eucharist where we engage in teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. We still give out of our own earnings to help others to have what they need to live; and we still spend time worshiping and praising God in our daily lives.
The meat of today’s gospel, of which Acts serves as an example, is that even after Christ passed out of this world, God will never leave us without those who will follow in Christ’s footsteps— to continue his teachings and continue loving as he loved. The beauty and simplicity of today’s gospel is the reminder that all of us who have come through that Christ-gate of Baptism are equipped to proclaim, through word and action, that good news that brings abundant life to all those who finally hear the familiar voice of the One who has sought them throughout the ages of the world.
Where we seek relevance and encounter God’s accompaniment and care in our journeys is the ongoing story of faith that continues in us, and, through us, to others.
There are currently those who have encountered thieves and bandits of our contemporary world, who have encountered those who have taught them that they are fundamentally disordered, that they are unloved by God, and that they are not welcome at God’s table of fellowship and mutual accompaniment. While we do reach out to some of these in our ministries both to the homeless and those in prisons, there are yet those of us who have encountered the gate blocked at a more fundamental level. As many of you know, we’ve been talking in several committees at Calvary about renewing our commitment to welcoming those in the LGBTQ community as an Integrity parish. Over the coming weeks, there will be some more information about what this means, as well as an adult forum to discuss it and answer questions on May 28, but what this means on a spiritual level to those who have been taught that Christ’s promise of love and accompaniment does not apply to them, is a chance to finally hear the voice of the One who has sought them since the beginning of time, and who will never stop seeking them—not in spite of who they are, nor conditioned on any change, but just as they are, and precisely because of who they are.
The theology I grew up with taught me that who I loved and how I loved could set me outside of God’s grace. I was taught to be ashamed of a part of God’s own love reflected back in the lives and loves of some my own people—people who have shown me more of Christ’s love, care, accompaniment, courage, grace, and Spirit than I’ve encountered anywhere else in my life. It took a lot of years to unlearn that teaching. It took a lot of soul searching and conversation to accept and treasure what I had always experienced of God’s love. And it took about fourteen years of research to claim my own voice in, and contribution to, this conversation in the book I’m working on getting published.
Walking in accompaniment with those seeking God’s grace and love in the context of taking up their cross of authenticity, we are given the opportunity to help others unlearn the teachings that have left them exiled, enslaved, and abused. Given the grace to have found ourselves in front of the opened Gate of Christ’s promise, all that remains is that we be willing to call with the long awaited shepherd’s voice to welcome home some of God’s lost and stolen people… and beyond the Integrity story, to continue to seek for all those still listening and pining for God’s voice.
As we continue to seek underserved communities and new ways to invite the world into our experience of God’s inexhaustible love, grace, and care at Calvary and beyond, may we be reminded that leading where Christ has led, teaching as Christ has taught, living as Christ has lived, and loving as Christ has loved comes with it the promise of God’s accompaniment, favor, grace, and abundance in all that we undertake. Today’s gospel invites us to become Good Shepherds of God’s love. May we find ourselves both challenged to rise, and ready to rise to the challenge.