The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday every year. Our collect and readings remind us that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the Middle Eastern shepherd is a metaphor for the divine nature.
Like the flocks they tended, the shepherds of the Bible were often dirty and woolly, enduring sun and rain for days or weeks on end. But unlike their flocks, they were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture, and allaying thirst. The shepherd knew his flock as no one else. And the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”
Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening of the sheep enclosure at night and during times of danger, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor, his own presence stretched out and bridging our insecurities. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Sometimes we are like lost sheep. We live in a world where it is easy to lose direction, to lose our bearings, and to lose a sense of who we are and where we are going. It is easy to go astray. It is then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world. We are also most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, such as hatred, anger, and violence.
Week by week, we come to the Paschal Banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance, and to be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world is still a dangerous place. The human heart listens for the voice of the Shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. He is the Gate through whom we pass as we come to be fed and as we go back out to feed others in his Name.
I’ll see you in Church!
P.S. I want to share with you one of my favorite musical settings of the twenty-third psalm. It is by composer Howard Goodall and some of you will recognize it as the theme song from a BBC television production about a flock that was tended by a very interesting shepherd. The choir is that of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Three weeks ago, the Lawn of St. John’s Church was covered with snow. A few days after Easter the snow is gone and the grass is amazingly green. I'm reminded one of my favorite Easter hymns, Now the Green Blade Rises. Take a moment to read these wonderful words of new life, hope, and springtime:
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain, Thinking that He’d never wake to life again, Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain, He that for three days in the grave had lain; Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain, By Your touch You call us back to life again; Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
We all know those seasons of life when things seem frozen, lifeless, hopeless, or entirely unfair. Easter is God's word of hope that life and love will triumph over all that. In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find that news most perfectly expressed.
May the Great Fifty Days of Easter be filled with reminders of that good news. And, beyond that, may we all be Easter People throughout the year, bringing that message of hope to others.
Enjoy this rendition of the hymn by the Choir of Ely Cathedral.
At the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter a “new fire” is ignited and blessed with this prayer:
O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Paschal candle is the first candle to be lighted from this sacred fire. The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes the eternal presence of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Light of the World in the midst of his people, the Light which darkness has never overcome.
The Paschal candle is sometimes referred to as the “Easter candle” or the “Christ candle.” The term “Paschal” comes from the word Pesach, which in Hebrew means Passover, and relates to the Paschal mystery of salvation. The tall white candle may also remind us of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the Israelites in their Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The minister may trace symbols on the Paschal Candle. These symbols may include the cross, five grains of incense embedded in five red or gold wax nails, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, and the number of the current year. The five nails are symbolic of the five “glorious wounds” on Christ’s crucified body. The Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, remind us that Christ is the beginning and the end of creation. The number of the year represents the “today” in “Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The worshiping assembly then processes into the dark church led by the Paschal candle. The candle is raised three times during the procession, accompanied by the chant “The light of Christ” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” Following the procession, a prayer known as the Exultet is chanted, traditionally by a deacon, but it may be chanted by the priest, a cantor, or a choir. The Exultet concludes with a blessing of the candle:
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
It is customary for the Paschal candle to burn at all services during the Great Fifty Days of Easter as well as at Baptisms and funerals. It reminds us of the presence of the Risen Christ and his call to the Baptized to bear his light in the world.
During these fifty days and whenever we see the Paschal candle burning, let it remind us of the words of Jesus:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 15).
Enjoy this hymn from our Hymnal 1982, sung by the Choir of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California. May your Easter life be flooded with light and my you reflect that light wherever you may be.
During the forty days of Lent each year we spend time getting ready for the celebration of Easter. There is fasting, self-denial, prayer, intensified devotion, scripture study, and other disciplines designed to cleanse our hearts.
Then, comes the big celebration. Easter. Like so many Christian holy days, Easter seems to disappear the next day as life returns to "normal." But Easter should be more than that to us! It certainly was to those early disciples. Easter is more than a day!
Easter is a season of celebration.The Risen Christ walked among his disciples for forty days after his resurrection. He taught them, ate with them, prayed with them, and loved them. Before he was taken up into heaven, he promised to send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The promise was fulfilled on the fiftieth day when they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish feast of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. In Greek, it is called Pentecost. Pentecost is seven weeks, or fifty days, after the observance of Passover and commemorates the spring wheat harvest. This feast has also been associated with the remembrance of the giving of the Law to Moses. As the law was written on tablets of stone, the Spirit would write God's law upon the hearts of believers. When Moses came down from the mountain, he found God's people worshipping an idol and 3,000 of them died. When the Spirit was given, the disciples were obediently waiting in Jerusalem. 3,000 people were saved! The New People of the New Covenant were empowered by the Life-giving Spirit to be Christ's Body in the world, proclaiming to everyone the Easter message that Christ is alive.
Easter is a lifestyle. We are Easter People! As those early disciples in Emmaus and Jerusalem and in Galilee experienced the living presence of the Risen Christ, so we recognize that he stands among us today. To paraphrase Jesus, "believing is seeing." When we gather to hear the Word and share in the Holy Meal, it is usually easy to experience his presence "enthroned upon the praises of his people." The challenging part comes when we disperse. When Christ's Body touches the world through you and me when we are apart from one another, do you suppose the Living Presence is felt?
Easter is our only hope. St. Peter writes, "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..." There is a lot of help out there for people with all kinds of needs. But Christians believe that beyond help, people need hope. So what if you are physically or emotionally well. Life is just not complete without hope. The Easter faith gives the world hope.
So, don't let Easter fade like the blooms on your Easter Lily! Easter is more than a day; it is a season, a lifestyle, and a faith that fills our lives with hope.
One of the most poignant passages we will read during this Holy Week is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Philippi:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. - Phil. 2:5-11
I am struck by the description of the depth of Jesus’ obedience “to the point of death – even death on a cross.” His journey, especially during the days leading up to the Crucifixion, was a journey of obedience. That gets right to the heart of Holy Week, doesn’t it?
We know that the journey was not without its moments for Jesus. He prayed about it until he sweated blood. The temptation to take another path, to escape, to avoid the cross, was always there. But he knew his mission and was obedient to the One who had set this path before him.
By his obedience to that higher vocation, Jesus was able to overcome his inner conflict. By his commitment to the mission entrusted to him, he was able to remain steadfast until he fulfilled it. By his discipline in the midst of confusion, he was able to discern the way forward toward his redemptive objective.
In the story Ninety-three, Victor Hugo tells of a ship caught in a violent storm. When the storm was at its height, the frightened crew heard a terrible crashing below. A cannon they were carrying had broken loose and was banging into the ship’s sides, tearing gaping holes with every smashing blow.
Two men, at the risk of their lives, managed to secure the cannon again, for they knew that the loose cannon was more dangerous than the storm. The storm could toss them about, but the loose cannon within could sink them.
So, too, the outside storms and problems of life aren’t the greatest danger. It’s the terrible destructiveness of a lack of obedience to the highest, best, and noblest dimensions of life that can send us to the bottom.
The cross could have destroyed Jesus. But it didn’t because in humility he submitted himself to a discipline that kept him within the Divine Will. We could use some of his obedience in our own lives. Maybe some will rub off on us as we walk with him in the Way of the Cross during Holy Week, through the Crucifixion, into the Tomb, and into the glorious Resurrection on Easter. Let’s do it together!
The writer of the Gospel of John seems to have been more interested in Jesus’ friendships than the writers of the other gospels, and this may be because the author of John was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend – the “beloved disciple.” We usually identify this beloved disciple as John, although the gospel does not give him a name.
Of all the gospels only John remembers that at the Last Supper, Jesus declared his disciples to be not servants but friends. He tells them, “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). John also tells us of the close friendship Jesus seems to have enjoyed with Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus, whom he raised from death (John 11:1-44). And, John passes on to us the somewhat disturbing story of Mary’s impulsive gesture of pouring expensive perfumed ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair (John 12:1-8).
Friendship occupies a middle ground between familial love and romantic love. The common interests that help create friendship can make friendship an easier one than some of our familial relationships. Friendship is different from kinship in that we choose our friends on the basis of common interests or experiences. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that while lovers long to look into each other’s eyes, friends stand side-by-side looking at the shared interests that drew them together and made them friends in the first place.
So, what are we to make of Mary’s shocking gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair? Whatever this act meant, it was profoundly troubling both then and now. John attributes Judas’ discomfort to his greed. In the parallel story in Luke, Simon the Pharisee is embarrassed because of the reputation of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. We may have similar reactions. Like Judas we may be bothered by the seeming waste of expensive perfume, or like Simon we may think the gesture is inappropriate. But Jesus seems to view the actions of Mary as an unusual gesture of friendship. Jesus was so comfortable with himself and with Mary’s friendship that he was able to accept such an extravagantly intimate gesture.
In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses). Jesus, God Incarnate, has called us friends. He has invited us into a relationship. If we accept this invitation, our friendship with God in Christ will deepen and become intimate. We will be able to do things for God that we would not otherwise do. And as our intimacy with God grows, it will become a fragrant offering, filling not just our house but the entire world with the perfume of Love Divine.
This year's Fourth Sunday in Lent readings from Joshua 5 and Luke 15 echo the words of Psalm 32: "Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven" (Ps. 32:1).
Both Joshua 5 and Luke 15 deal with wandering. The nation wanders in the wilderness due to disobedience. The youngest son wanders in a different kind of wilderness, lost in disgrace. In both stories, the wanderers make their way back home out of the wilderness, but neither the nation nor the youngest son finds relief from the disgrace that has resulted from disobedience and wandering. It is only the absolution by the "other" (God in Joshua 5; the father in Luke 15) that redeems their past. "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." "This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" Each absolution is followed by a feast. In both cases, the feast symbolizes that the shame of wandering has been replaced with the promise of a new life.
This is the story of God's love affair with us, isn't it? God gives us the world / we'd rather have another one / it turns out to be a pathetic substitute / we find ourselves lost, alone, ashamed / we try to find our way back into God's embrace / God finds us groping around in the darkness, welcomes us home, and throws a banquet.
Notice that the story of our redemption is not simply that we are saved, forgiven, absolved from something. We are saved, forgiven, absolved for something. Our liturgy conveys that message in many ways, but none so well as in the words of Absolution, "Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through the grace of Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life."
After we receive the assurance of God's pardon, we are promised that God will also strengthen us in goodness and keep us in eternal life. Our life has a purpose and that purpose is clarified for us when we are in communion with God. That's because, as the collect for last Sunday puts it, "we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves."
To be "kept in eternal life" is to live in the kingdom of God, the realm where God is in charge and where a life-giving feast is always waiting.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
The word "prodigal" means "spendthrift." In both stories of wandering from Joshua and from Luke, it is God who is the true prodigal.
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