A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.
We’ve been dropped at the end of a familiar story: “I am the Good Shepherd,” says our Lord. (Indeed, this is Good Shepherd Sunday, and over the three years of the lectionary cycle, we make our way through the entirety of this extended metaphor. This time last year, we read that more famous portion of the text.) The Lord is our shepherd – not just any shepherd but the Good Shepherd. Christ isn’t some mere hired hand who runs off at the first sign of trouble but rather the very one who seeks out the lost sheep, who wades into the swift waters to rescue the drowning, who crawls through the briar patch to free the ensnarled, who fights off bandits and wrestles wolves to save the lambs. Far from the clean-faced and bed-sheet-clad shepherds of modern Nativity plays, Christ is the shepherd who smells like the sheep and lays down his life for the flock.
Hearing this imagery, the crowd is…
…dumbfounded. As is so often the case with the disciples and the crowds alike, the metaphor seems to go right over their heads – and the people are left with blank stares. They should catch the reference – that David was a shepherd, that the Psalmist calls the Lord God a shepherd, but the people want something a little more cut-and-dry. As Saint John carries on with the story in the verses we read today, Jesus is wandering around the Temple for the festival we now know as Hanukkah when the Scribes and Elders come to him and demand an answer: Enough riddles and parables, they say. Tell us plainly: are you the Messiah? C’mon, out with it.
Jesus responds that his miraculous works – those glorious signs – testify to his identity. His claim to divine anointing has been on full display, and he has not hid it. Throughout John’s Gospel up to this point, Christ has performed six messianic signs: he’s turned water into wine, healed people at Capernaum and Bethesda, fed the 5,000, walked on water, and just last chapter, given sight to a man born blind. How can there be any more doubt about who he is?
But the surest sign is not a nifty party trick nor even a miraculous healing. No, the surest sign is coming.
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says.
I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Earlier, in chapter five, Jesus used similar words when he said:
Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
And in a short time – just a chapter beyond today’s lection – Jesus will travel to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha, and the recently-departed Lazarus. Jesus will cry out in a loud voice, a voice that echoes through the grave and across the divide between death and life, and Lazarus will hear the voice of the Son of God, arise, and walk out of the realm of the dead into life – the seventh of Christ’s great signs. Here, Lazarus, a lamb of Christ’s own flock, though dead, hears the Good Shepherd’s voice, leaves the tomb, and emerges again into life.
All of these miracles, even Lazarus, are only signs, though: they point to a higher reality beyond themselves, to something greater that is to come: Christ’s Resurrection. Lazarus is raised from the dead back to this life, but Christ is resurrected into life everlasting. Christ, the Lamb who was slain, is the Resurrection and the Life, is the Risen One who is worthy of “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might…forever and ever!” Christ the Lamb of God shepherd us out of scorching heat into the coolness of the shade, to the springs of life everlasting, where all our tears will be wiped away. Christ has come that we may have abundant life. As Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote:
By giving life, Christ shows that by nature he is life.
The Good Shepherd calls to us, leading us in the ways of life: to green pastures and flowing, clear water. Even as we walk through the valley of death, beset on all sides by dangers, toils, and snares, Christ our Lord remains our provider. We hear Christ’s voice, even in the midst of the deathly perils of this world, and his voice assures us of new life – because Christ is Life itself.
Yes, this glorious reality has already arrived in Christ’s empty tomb, a miraculous event rooted firmly in the past, and yes we await its coming culmination on the last day when Christ will return in glory to raise us up, a mysterious event at some distant point in the future – but the Resurrection is erupting forth even now in this time between the already and the not-yet! Shoots of green are bursting forth in our pasture, and even now the scorching heat is waning! Even now, those clear, cool waters are washing over us. Christ our Good Shepherd is calling to us – hear his voice! Hear him calling us out of the valley of the shadow of death and into that heavenly banquet. In this time between the times, we the Church have been sent out as apostles to bear faithful witness! New life is erupting all around us, and Christ has sent the Church out to proclaim this truth!
Who are we that we should be entrusted with this important ministry? Who are we that we should be given such power?
Last week, Christ charged Peter to “Feed my lambs” and “Tend my sheep.” And today, we see Peter doing exactly that. Peter, the one who proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ – and immediately began to lecture him on the propriety of the crucifixion. Peter, the one who got out of the boat – and sank after a few steps. Peter, the one who vowed never to desert Jesus – and then denied him three times before cockcrow. Peter, yes, that Peter, is working miracles and raising the dead.
And we have been called into the same apostolic ministry as Simon Peter! We have been given the same gifts as this blessed saint! We have received the same grace and the same Gospel! We are joined with Peter and all the saints into the same one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church through the same Sacraments. Here, in these waters, we died the only death that matters – and were united with all of the saints into the everlasting life of our Risen Christ. Here, at this table, we are weekly nourished by the Body and Blood of our Risen Lord – and make our communion with all the saints through the Body of the Risen Christ. Here, in this book, are the words of eternal life – the same Good News Peter proclaimed. Here in this place we are assured of the forgiveness of sins, and here in this place we are sent out in peace to love and serve the Lord. All we need to practice Resurrection is here – because here we are continuously united into the Body of Christ that we may be his hands and feet for the sake of the world.
But our ministry does not end here. We are being sent out from this place to put Christ’s Resurrection in to practice! The Church, the Body of Christ, this Communion of saints, is not confined to these four walls or to a collection of buildings dotting the landscape. We – all of us who have been claimed by Christ – are sent out beyond our walls, borders, and denominational lines, united together across time and space to proclaim this glorious Resurrection. There is an entire world out there in the grips of death, and here, in our little city, are people in mourning just as in Joppa. Beloved, we have been given a apostolic ministry of life. Like Peter, we are sent out to proclaim the Resurrection, that blessed reality already established in Christ’s empty tomb but not yet complete. We, under the caring gaze of our Good Shepherd, are sent out that this Resurrected life may flow through us into a world in need.