Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 29, 2012
Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:16-24
Last Sunday afternoon we had a pretty wonderful confirmation service at our cathedral in Newark. Aside from a weird technical difficulty with the bishop’s microphone, everything went more or less smoothly.
Since I was the MC for the service I sat up in the sanctuary. I was sorry not to sit with our confirmation class, but my spot gave me a great view of the service. It was moving to see people from Grace and other churches around the diocese come together for this special day, to celebrate as people knelt before the bishop and publicly confirmed that they are part of our Christian community.
Speaking of the bishop, my seat gave me a close-up view of him. He was wearing his colorful vestments, his mitre – the distinctive pointy hat worn by bishops – and he carried his crosier – his staff that symbolizes that he is the chief shepherd of our diocese.
Looking at his crosier I thought, what a heavy responsibility. It’s a heavy responsibility to look out for everyone in order to hold the community together. It’s a heavy responsibility to try to pull wanderers back into the community. It’s a heavy responsibility to occasionally have to poke those who have grown lazy or those who have tried to undermine the community.
But, the responsibility isn’t all on the bishop. He’s the chief shepherd of the community but he’s not the only shepherd.
We priests are called to be shepherds, too.
I remember one day early on in my time here, Lauren had a board meeting at General Seminary that required her to stay in New York overnight. Before she left she looked at me and said, “Take good care of the flock.”
Gulp. I remember being struck by that – and maybe for the first time really thinking about - and feeling - the heavy responsibility of shepherding this community.
But, it’s not just bishops and priests who are called to be shepherds of the community. You are, too.
As Christians, we’re all called to be shepherds. We’re all called to look out for one another. We’re all called to hold the community together. We’re all called to at least try to pull wanderers back into the community. And we’re all called to challenge those who have grown lazy and those who try to undermine the community.
It’s a big challenge because building a community and holding a community together is hard work. It was hard work for Jesus. It was hard work for the Christians who have gone before us. And it’s hard work for us today.
We hear some of that hard work from the past in today’s lessons from the Gospel of John and from the First Letter of John.
The Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be completed – probably right around the end of the First Century, several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus and his first followers.
The Gospel of John then is the product of divine inspiration working through decades of human reflection on Jesus – reflection on the meaning of his life, death and resurrection.
So, the Gospel of John tells us about Jesus - but it also offers a window into the life and troubles of a particular Christian community at the end of the First Century.
Today’s passage opens with Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.”
I’m guessing that after seeing countless artistic depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd and hearing many sermons on Jesus the good shepherd, the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd doesn’t get us too worked up.
But, in the late First Century it was a different story. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of sheep-shepherd imagery but it’s God who is the good shepherd. We hear that, of course, most famously in the 23rd Psalm.
On top of that, “I am the Good Shepherd” is one of the many “I am” statements made by Jesus in the Gospel of John. (“I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and so on.)
Again, we probably don’t get too worked up about all of this, but in the late First Century it was a different story. The “I am” statements made by Jesus echo God’s name as revealed to Moses in Exodus. So, many people believe that the repetition of “I am” statements in the Gospel of John is really a way of saying Jesus is divine.
Now, this was a big development for strictly monotheistic Jews – and for many it was too big of a step, leading to a deepening split between the followers of Jesus and the Jews, and challenging the unity of the still-young Christian community.
We can hear some of that tension throughout the Gospel of John. One example is in today’s lesson when the evangelist quotes Jesus criticizing “the hired hand” who doesn’t care for the sheep, it’s probably meant as a swipe at the Jewish leaders of the time.
Anyway, in the Gospel of John we hear how hard it was to hold that Christian community together.
Then, in our epistle reading we heard a passage from the First Letter of John, written probably not too long after the gospel itself and offering another window into the life and troubles of this community.
This time it seems there has been a serious split within the Christian community itself with some people downplaying Jesus’ humanity and being more concerned with spiritual matters than serving the flesh and blood needs of the community.
So, the author of First John tries to hold the community together by recalling the loving sacrifice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, writing, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” and then he makes the immediate connection to life in the community, writing, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
And then, there’s the haunting question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
In other words, we’re all called to be good shepherds.
We’re all called to be good shepherds who build and hold the community together through loving sacrifice.
We’re all carrying invisible crosiers.
Being a good shepherd, building and holding together a community is hard work and it requires loving sacrifice. But, it’s worth it.
It was worth it for Jesus.
It was worth it for John’s community at the end of the First Century.
And it’s worth it for us here at Grace Church.
Most of the time we use our invisible crosiers in quiet ways.
We use them when we reach out to a person we know who is sick or struggling. Or when we call up someone we haven’t seen in a while and say, hey, we miss you. Or when we let someone cry on our shoulder. Or when we work hard to make our services beautiful, or to take care of our buildings and grounds, or to sing to the best of our ability.
Sometimes, though, we use our invisible crosiers in more public ways.
It was amazing to be here a week ago during the “days of rummage.” So many people lovingly sacrificed in ways large and small. So much good was done. But, what sticks with me was the evening I walked into the kitchen and about 15 volunteers were packed around the counter enjoying what smelled and looked like a delicious meal, drinking a beverage of their choice and very obviously just enjoying one another’s company.
There were lots of good shepherds using their invisible crosiers at the rummage sale, building and strengthening the community.
Finally, back to last week’s confirmation service. Lauren and I presented 18 people to be confirmed and one person to be received into the Episcopal Church. Watching them one by one kneel before the bishop, I thought how fortunate, how blessed, I am – we are - to be part of this community.
So many of the youth confirmands have essentially grown up here at Grace.
By my count six of them were baptized – by Lauren - right over there at our font. Over the years these young people have been shaped in beautiful and profound ways by so many good shepherds right here at Grace.
Just think about how many invisible crosiers have been at work guiding and supporting these children and young people as they have matured in their faith.
Our cup runneth over, indeed!
So, today we’re presented with the familiar image of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
And now, you and I are also called to be good shepherds. With God’s help, we’re called to lay down our lives for each other, to offer loving sacrifice, and to use our invisible crosiers to build, protect and strengthen this community.