On this 4th Sunday of Easter each year – often called Good Shepherd Sunday – we turn to a portion of John Chapter 10 for our Gospel text, and we read a bit of the Good Shepherd discourse.
It’s really wonderful to read this today as we’ve already celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, witnessing what is nothing less than a miraculous act of God disguised as, hidden under, enacted through a simple ritual of washing, and anointing with oil, and covering in white cloth, and speaking words of promise – God’s own words of promise, God’s own statement of claim on this life on this child – as God, through these ritual actions has named and claimed Norah Samina Rashid as God’s own beloved child transferred from slavery to sin and death into eternal life in the name of the crucified and risen Christ.
It is nothing short of a resurrection miracle!
To say it in the language of the Baptismal Rite found in the old green Lutheran Book of Worship: we are born children of a fallen humanity and in Baptism we are reborn children of light
Or to say it in Biblical language, in the language used by the writer of Ephesians in the New Testament: even when we were dead in sins and trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ Jesus
Or to say it in the language of today’s Gospel reading: we are sheep of God’s flock, given into the care of Jesus our Good Shepherd and there is nothing and no one who will ever snatch us out of his hand.
Today we also celebrate the presence and the gifts of our 32 members of Reformation who are over the age of 80! They, like Norah, have been baptized and have lived all these years under that naming and claiming love of God in Christ.
Baptism is clearly a bath of sorts – water is used as a symbol of washing, and we believe that it involves the cleansing of sin. But Luther, in his Small Catechism also instructs us that in Baptism we receive
- The forgiveness of sins
- Redemption from death and the devil
- And the gift of eternal life
And then he asks the logical follow-up question: How can water do such great things? To which he gives the answer: Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water…
There’s an interesting exchange at the beginning of our Gospel reading today.
The religious authorities (the ones that John’s Gospel calls “the Jews”) come to Jesus at the time of the festival of the Dedication and they ask him, once and for all, to just tell them plainly who he is – Is he the Messiah or not? And Jesus says: I have told you, and you do not believe. Only, there’s a problem here at this point, because, you see, Jesus hasn’t told them plainly, or, at least, John didn’t bother recording where and how he did, if he did. But Jesus continues by pointing to the works he’s done and he says that those works ought to be testimony enough for anyone who belongs to God’s flock – You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. Jesus is contending that anyone who’s paying attention ought to be able to recognize in and through his acts of grace and power just who he truly is.
Now, I’ve got to be honest here that I’m a little uncomfortable with this whole section from verses 24 to 26. There’s a way in which these verses can be read that paints God as a capricious despot arbitrarily choosing some while rejecting others, as if God is doing signs and if you miss the signs God’s going to reject you because you didn’t belong to God in the first place. Some have, in fact, read this text and others like it in just that way, using it as a pretext for religious bigotry and exclusion. But we need to keep this within the context of the rest of this chapter, and in the context of the rest of the New Testament for that matter.
Earlier in the Good Shepherd Discourse Jesus says that God has sheep in other flocks which clearly stands in opposition to those who want to too narrowly define who’s in and who’s out in terms of those God loves and claims and saves. In fact, one of the other parts of Scripture people try to use as a pretext for excluding people from God’s salvation is Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11 where Paul interprets Israel’s rejection of Jesus as being part of God’s plan. Paul ends up explaining that, because his own people rejected Jesus, the good news spread out through the rest of the world, and, in the end, God’s going to bring them back into the fold. So we should be careful about ever counting any one or any group out of God’s saving love, because just might be up to something bigger and better than what we can recognize.
I mean, just look at the description of the heavenly scene in Revelation 7. Gathered at the throne of the Lamb is a great multitude from every nation and tribe and peoples and language. God’s love is expansive! So much so that I’d venture to say that we’re all going to be surprised at who’s included in the end – that we’re going to be shocked at how many other sheep in other flocks recognize the voice of the Savior and follow that voice into eternal life…
Jesus promises that no one will ever be able to snatch from his hand those who belong to God. This is the promise of eternal security in which we rest as sheep of God’s flock. Regardless of the trials we face in this life, we have the promise of a future in God when we will be joined to, with, and in Christ the Lamb in the great feast pictured so beautifully and so powerfully in Revelation 7. And as we’re gathered, we’ll finally receive the fullness of God’s promised life – as the one seated on the throne of heaven will shelter us all. There will be no more hunger and thirst, no sun to strike us by day, nor any scorching heat, for
- Jesus, the Lamb of God, will be our shepherd
- Jesus the Lamb of God will guide us to the springs of the water of life, and wipe away every tear from our eyes
- Jesus the Lamb of God will transfer us from the darkness of sin and death into the light and life of God’s eternal reign
Understanding how this happens is beyond us, and so we hold it as true by faith, for Norah, for ourselves, for all the Baptized people of God in every time and every place, and for all those sheep God claims from, in, and among those other flocks. And in the light of that faith we raise our voices together with the voices of believers from every age in shouts of Easter triumph, saying:
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!