A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018. The scripture readings are Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18.
Listen to the Gospel & sermon HERE.
There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests (certainly none around here), this priest loved to talk. While going through Israel, this priest like to tell his parish about what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.
The priest had particular information about sheep and shepherds. He told the people on the tour bus to be on the lookout for sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”
But as the tour bus rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep and a man who was walking behind them. He looked determined and seemed almost to be driving the sheep. The priest was outraged. Here he had been carefully explaining to his people what they should see, and here was something that just didn’t fit. He asked the bus driver to stop the bus, they all got out and he ran up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, and then we look out and we see you walking behind them. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “No, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd does always walk in front and leads the sheep. I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”
One moral of the story is to “Be careful who you follow.”
There’s a lot of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Sometimes it might not exactly resonate with us, most of us being urban people. After all, when is the last time you identified with a sheep? (I don’t mean, “when have you identified as a black sheep”—that’s something else.)
As odd as the image of people as sheep might be for us, it would have been a familiar image for many of the people Jesus taught and talked with. People who heard the prophets, and especially those who listened to Jesus preach all through Galilee knew that sheep tended to move along sometimes following a shepherd, but other times finding themselves having wandered off entirely. Sometimes the sheep would wander into danger and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was almost too late.
Jesus was not the only charismatic teacher and healer who could be followed. Biblical and historical scholars tell us that during the time of Jesus, there were many who claimed to be messiahs, who claimed to prophesy the future, who claimed to be magical, and even a few who claimed to heal. Who, then should we follow?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of one way that we can always tell. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I lay down my life for them and I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus is saying that if we stay close to him—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with other people of faith, by making sure we spend some time occasionally getting out of ourselves and helping others—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.
There are so many who would have us follow them—whether it’s a political leader, a boss, a colleague, or a neighbor. It might be advertiser, sports figures, or the leading voices in academics or the arts— there are many, many possibilities asking us to follow. But as Christians, we recall that we are named at baptism, and God whispers that name again and again, inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love.
Today’s epistle connects words with action as the writer of 1 John reminds us,
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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 help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”