Yesterday, I went with Deacon Lois Howard to see how she exercises her ministry with a group of preschool children and a group of adults who have Alzheimer’s. The preschool and the day program for the adults are in the same building in a church in Lexington. Every Wednesday morning for the last five years, Deacon Lois has gone there to minister to them in a very special way.
The Adults had their chairs arranged so that they could see Deacon Lois use the Godly Play elements as she told a story. The children paraded in and took their seats on the floor in front of the adults. Then Deacon Lois did her thing! She told the story of “The Table of the Good Shepherd.” The story starts out in a sheepfold. Deacon Lois pointed out that each of the sheep is a different color. I think the children had already noticed that because there was glee all around. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep out of their fold and over to a large table. After they arrive, others are invited to join them. The others, Deacon Lois pointed out as she carefully arranged them all around the table, were all kinds of people. Different from one another, just like the sheep. There were older people and children. There were men and women, boys and girls. There were people from far away and people who looked more familiar to us. She pointed out that everyone is welcome at the Table of the Good Shepherd.
For me, this was a wonderful prelude to the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It helped me pay more attention to the flock in the passage from John. The character of the flock reveals something about the one who guides and cares for it. The fact, for example, that there are different kinds of sheep indicates that the shepherd values diversity along with unity.
I’m very grateful that the Good Shepherd values this sort of unity in the midst of diversity, yet I am aware of how difficult it is to achieve and how challenging it is to maintain. We tend to associate with people with whom we share racial, cultural, economic, and religious characteristics and values. At times we may even ridicule those who appear to be different.
The Good Shepherd calls us all, “from every nation, race, people and tongue.” Unlike the societies in which we live, in the Good Shepherd’s flock our differences are to remain as distinctions but not as separations. They enhance the color and texture of the community of believers rather than alienating or marginalizing. There is no dominant or superior group in this flock. We are all God’s people, "one flock, one Shepherd."
It is a paradox of our faith that the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God. Of his own accord, he laid down his life for the sheep. He paid for the undisputed right to lead us by the shedding of his blood. If we hear his voice and follow him, he will make it possible for us to live together in peace. If we can do that, as diverse a flock as we are, perhaps the flock of Christ can offer hope to our divided world. This is reason enough to cry out: Alleluia!
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. – Luke 24:36b-42
An advertisement for a guest speaker at a Houston, Texas church announced that the speaker’s topic was “Activating the Presence of Christ.” That put me off and I’ll tell you why. The presence of Christ is not something that is “activated” by individuals or even groups of individuals. You don’t “make” Christ present in your home or workplace and I don’t “make” Christ present in the bread and wine at the Altar.
God’s presence isn’t dependent upon our subjective awareness. We can be grateful for that! In a world where we can control and manipulate so many things, it is really a comfort to know that God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all life, is constantly fulfilling the covenant promise to be with us no matter what. The divine presesnce is not dependent upon our consciousness. It may be the one thing in the universe that is never “up to us.”
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung discovered a statement to this effect among the Latin writings of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus, the Renaissance scholar and humanist, said the statement had been an ancient Spartan proverb. Jung popularized it, having it inscribed over the doorway of his Zurich home to remind those who entered that "awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10). The phrase is also inscribed upon Dr. Jung’s tomb. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. (Bidden or not bidden, God is Present.)
We are all aware of the idea that God in Christ never forces his way into our lives. That theme, and the related theme of the free will of the individual, are artistically expressed in Holman Hunt's famous painting, "The Light of the World." The latch on the door is on the inside, not on the outside where Christ, the bearer and embodiment of light, stands knocking. But note that Christ is present. His presence may be acknowledged, welcomed, resisted, denied, or ignored, but not “activated.”
Luke 24:36b-42 is one of several readings used in the Easter season that provide an account of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. Jesus stood among them and spoke to them. They were startled and thought they were seeing a ghost. There was no knocking at a door. There was no “activating” his presence. He was there by his own will. Moreover, this gospel writer and others go out of their way to make it clear that this was no ghost. He was corporeally present. He invited them to touch him, he ate with them, and they heard his voice.
No doubt by the time the epistles and gospels were written, several decades following the resurrection, it was important to the bearers of the apostolic witness to counter certain Christological positions that were gaining in popularity. The Gnostics and others believed in a docetic Christ. In their thought, Christ only appeared to have lived and died, since a god would never defile himself by taking on human flesh and blood. Others taught that the resurrection appearances were “spiritual” experiences and tried to reinforce the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul, wherein we are just passing through.
Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead, not into a spirit world. Luke’s resurrection appearance is a way of saying “no” to a spirituality that says the body and all things physical are inferior and evil. The resurrection completes the incarnation and declares in the clearest of terms that God values and loves all that God has created.
The Risen Christ continues to be present with us in physical ways, principally in the Eucharist. The season of Easter was always used in the early church as the time to instruct newly baptized people in the sacraments, which they were now able to receive. This practice is still carried on frequently in the contemporary church. It is helpful, because all of us need to be reminded of the meaning of our sacramental relationship with God in the Eucharistic Meal. We come here not to “activate” the presence of Christ, but to experience him in the table fellowship. Then, we are sent into the world to be an extension of the experience of Christ’s living risen presence to others in touchable, tangible, real ways that make a difference.
St. Augustine, a fourth century bishop in North Africa, put it this way in an Easter sermon: "You are the body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken; you are to be blessed, broken, and distributed; that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of the eternal charity."
It is true today. As we know Christ we understand that we are to make Christ known when we walk out of the church into the mission field at our doorstep. We have been fed so that we can feed others who are hungry, as are we, for that which satisfies the deepest hungers of our lives.
The Reverend Ken Kesselus, a colleague in Texas, tells the following story:
Once when a certain preacher launched into a children’s sermon, she was confronted by a visiting child, an eight-year-old friend of a regular member. The boy was new to this church, but was a regular attendee at another congregation that did not have children’s sermons. Nevertheless, the visitor tried his best to follow the line of the preacher’s effort to connect with the children. Attempting to hook the children with something familiar before making her point, the priest asked the children to identify what she would describe. “What is fuzzy and has a long tail?” No response. “What has big teeth and climbs in trees?” Still no response. After she asked, “What jumps around a lot and gathers nuts and hides them?” the visiting boy could stand the silence no longer. He blurted out, “Look, lady, I know the answer is supposed to be ‘Jesus,’ but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Human beings usually want to give the “right” answer, the answer others expect. The eight-year-old boy had more courage than most of us might have had. He acknowledged what he thought others might want him to say, but he found a way to express his doubt.
Each year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we read the gospel account of St. Thomas the Apostle in which he expresses his own doubt about reports of the Resurrection of Jesus (John 20:19-31). He had not been in the company of the other Apostles when Jesus appeared to them that first Easter. When the others told him they had seen the Risen Savior, he couldn’t believe it. He may have wanted to “go along in order to get along” with the others, but he was compelled to express his doubt. He might have said, “I know the answer is supposed to be that I believe you saw Jesus, but it sure sounds like a ghost to me.”
A week later, Thomas had the opportunity to see for himself and confirm in his own experience that the Risen Christ was not a ghost. But for a period of time, he was skeptical. His questioning and doubting must have been as hard for him as it was for the little boy trying to understand the illustration about the squirrel. Because we too struggle with what may seem clear to others and with accepted norms, we can identify with Thomas and the little boy.
I am grateful to be a part of a Church where it is safe for people to express their doubts and ask their questions and challenge accepted norms. It is a Church where we don’t have to mindlessly accept what seems to be the accepted answer or point of view. It is a Church where it is okay to be doubtful, confused, and skeptical. It is a Church where we can remain in the company of others as we struggle with matters of doubt and faith. It is a Church where from childhood we are encouraged to ask questions and to wonder as we journey toward faith.
The example of Thomas’ honesty and forthrightness fosters hope in us and empowers us in our seasons of doubt. We need that kind of faith community as we wonder where God fits in with harsh and frightening realities of life and death. We need a faith community where we can be encountered by the Risen Christ who can lead us to the truth, just as he led Thomas. In such a community, we can work through our uncertainties and emerge on the other side with an even stronger faith, just as Thomas did.
The story of Thomas affirms that doubt can give way to faith, just as death is overcome by life. It assures us that the God we worship can handle our doubts and fears. It tells us that honesty is necessary in our relationship with God and God’s own people in times of uncertainty as well as in times of confidence.
The Apostles were blessed because they saw the Risen Christ and believed. Their subsequent ministry was to nurture faith among others who had not seen. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The ongoing work of this Church is to continue the ministry of the Apostles and foster the even greater blessing that comes from walking by faith and not by sight. And for every generation of Christians since the first one, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that faith in Jesus Christ requires at least some struggle with doubt.
That’s really what Easter is all about. We are Easter People, traveling together on a marvelous journey toward those faith-filled moments when we discover the Risen One at work in our lives and in our world – moments so profound that we can only exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
P.S. Here's an old hymn based on this gospel passage and sung to a new tune by Marty Haugen.
Today is Maundy Thursday among Western Christians. It is the day we recall the experience of Jesus Christ with his Apostles in the Upper Room on the evening before his death. Because they were gathered there to celebrate the Passover Seder together, we mainly associate the day with the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
But the name for this day is derived from something else that happened in that Upper Room. The English word Maundy in the name for this day of Holy Week is derived from the Latin word mandatum, the first word of the phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ("I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John 13:34 by which Jesus explained the significance of his action of washing the feet of the Apostles.
What kind of love has to be commanded? Obviously, the kind of love Jesus expects us to show for one another, which is a reflection of the kind of love Jesus shows for us. We sometimes call it "Love Divine" because it is the kind of love that is natural for God. It is not so natural for humans, so we have to be made conscious of the importance of it. We have to be commanded.
In today's ecumenical Holy Week service at Calvary Church in Ashland, Kentucky, our preacher was The Rev. Garrett Bugg, Pastor of Ashland's First Presbyterian Church. In speaking about the Great Commandment, he referred to Jesus as "the Commander." It is intriguing to think of Jesus Christ as "the Commander." An analogy formed in my mind from my experience sailing on Elissa, the official Tall Ship of Texas. Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland by Alexander Hall & Company. She carries nineteen sails covering over one-quarter of an acre in surface area. Her home port is Galveston, Texas and from there she sails from time to time during the year, usually on day sails, with a crew of dedicated and sturdy volunteers.
Originally, her crew consisted of about five or six. These days, the ship's crew is made up of about twenty-five. Twenty four crew members sail her and one crew member is the cook. The Captain of the ship is usually brought in from some other part of the country to command the crew. He stands above the deck in a place where he can see where the ship is headed, where the crew members are deployed, and the position of all the sails. From that vantage point, he shouts commands such as "on the main," "on the fore," "batten down the hatches," and "come about." After the command is given, the crew members responsible for carrying it out shout it back to the commander, indicating that they not only heard the command but are carrying it out. This amazing litany of command and response onboard a massive sailing vessel makes it possible for the ship to sail on course and safely reach her destination.
Jesus Christ, our Commander, gives the command to love one another just as he has loved us. The response he awaits is for us not only to let him know we have heard the command, but to carry it out. "If you know these things," he promises, "you are blessed if you do them" (John 13:17).
Although it is a very long way from the image of Jesus bending down to wash the feet of his crew to the image of a naval commander shouting instructions to his, I believe there are many similarities when it comes to fulfilling a mission. Jesus issued the Great Commandment with a clear vision from a unique vantage point. The cooperation and welfare of his crew on their journey and safe arrival at a particular destination were his primary concerns. His own obedience to the mission was an inspiration to those from he sought obedience. Teamwork, cooperation, and oneness are necessary to complete the mission of a sailing vessel as well as the mission of Jesus Christ. His Great Commandment is still essential in carrying out his Great Commission.
If we want the world to believe in our Savior, we have to learn to fulfill his command. The way his love is lived out among his followers in word and action is our most authentic and believable witness. If doing for one another what he has done for us were so simple, he would never have put it into the form of a command.
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