Good Shepherd Sunday, Fourth After Easter

Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10

Our call to discipleship. to following the resurrected Jesus  whom Sam Wells, Rector of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London calls, “the body language of God”, is ever before us as the centre point of the Mission of God in the world. It is our central focus as Christians at all times, and especially at this time, a time of pandemic and uncertainty, of death and physical separation from one another our communities and  even our families.

This is a time when many of us are struggling with self-care, let alone the care  of those around us who are suffering all kinds of losses. Humanity has walked through many valleys of death, and we walk through a very real one now. One who walked a valley of death in the mid 20th century and who has left an inspiring record of such a time is German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Along with Scripture, we’ll listen to some of his words today. Bonhoeffer is commemorated in our Anglican church calendar on August 14 along with fellow European martyr,  Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar. In fact, August 14 1941 is the actual day of Kolbe’s death at Auschwitz where he volunteered to die in place of a stranger. 

Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The imprisoned Bonhoeffer wrote of discipleship, of closely following Jesus.  So it is good today for us to remind ourselves, on this Sunday traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, of some of the key things that discipleship entails.  Bonhoeffer like Kolbe  was a modern European martyr to Christian faith.  And as he reminds us in his challenging work, The Cost of Discipleship, and his other writings, discipleship is sometimes costly; it involves taking risks, and in Kolbe’s case, laying down one’s life for others. But as Scripture and the example of our Living Lord teach us, discipleship is ultimately rewarding as we allow ourselves to be embraced by the life and love of God. Discipleship is allowing ourselves to be interrupted by God:

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God”, wrote Bonhoeffer. “God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plan by sending us people with claims and petitions.”. Wise words in times like ours.

So in that context, our readings today speak to at least four concepts deeply embedded in the kind of discipleship the Risen Christ calls us into: Community, Care, Commitment and Communion.

Our reading from Acts, chapter 2, is a ringing call to authentic Christian community. Although not all aspects described in this account of life in an early Christian community should necessary be taken as a model for our life together in 21st century Canada, it fully embodies a way of life that embraces the Kingdom, or presence of God among us in Christ. The account follows directly after the story of Pentecost and Peter’s stirring sermon on that occasion. It describes people coming together in tangible ways: for instruction, fellowship, meals and prayer – celebrating God’s presence among them. God initiates new corporate life in such a way that ‘fear’ comes over them – awe and respect for God’s overflowing love. Although most of us are not called to live in communes today, it is the spirit of the idea that is important here as our community embraces ourselves, and those around us – our figurative “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” It’s the spirit once again beautifully captured by Bonhoeffer:

“The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them.  God’s love for us is how by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word (Jesus), but also lends us God’s ear….We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them”.

What is important here is that this account does not celebrate community or the Church for its own sake. The community of faith exists an an extension of the ascended Lord Jesus’ commitment to bring God’s life and love to the world. The call to community, then, is an icon of God’s mission in the world. And as we share our most sacred of meals together, the Eucharist, we do so in the context of outward looking community, taking the nourishment of Christ’s presence in bread and wine and turning it into serving the world.

Psalm 23 is well known to us – the Shepherd Psalm. It speaks of care. In his book The Heart of It All, an encapsulation of the depth of God in relationship to us as communicated in Scripture, Sam Wells identifies the care of God – for creation, for Israel, for the world and for each of us called into discipleship. He points out that Israel is ironically closest to God during times of wilderness and exile. To paraphrase Wells, discipleship begins when, like ancient Israel, we discover that we are as important to God as God is to us – and that in the end, all our struggles are struggles with a God who walks with us in all circumstances – embracing with us the pain and the joy that is human life. We come to realize that God is enough for us. The shepherd God is a God of journeying who “leads” and who invites into the kind of care imaged by the psalmist / hymn writer as a table of bounty spread before us. The valleys of death that we walk through are not meaningless, or in vain. Our Gospel, our Good News, does not promise unconditional prosperity to those whose lives act out of the love of God – as some would have us believe –  but challenges us to walk through our pain and the pain of others, so that we may ‘dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

As God cares for us, so we care for creation and for one another. Psalm 23 is about more than personal comfort; it rings with the challenge to defy and rebuke the valleys of death all around us in the assurance that God is with us as we move forward in discovering and participating in God’s mission in the world.

“The Church”, says Bonhoeffer in the midst of Nazi oppression, “is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others….We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Thus is the nature of our care as disciples of Jesus.

The epistles of Peter are about a third “C” of discipleship, commitment – especially in times of need. God’s commitment to a relationship of Grace with us, and our commitment to abide in God’s love when we feel hopeless – isolated, alone, rejected or even enslaved – is the context of Peter’s exhortation in I Peter 2: 19-25. We are called, and the depth of that call is reflected in that Jesus, “the body language of God” laid down his life to display for all time the all encompassing love of God. We are empowered with empowering grace by the wounded healer is the essential message of Peter here. 

As Bonhoeffer points out in distinguishing “cheap grace” from the grace the flows from commitment to God in spite of our circumstances, “cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap graces the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

Cheap grace is self centred and contrasts with the empowering grace of God that drives our discipleship, our following Jesus, out into the world. It is the grace given so that we m listen to and hear the world’s needs,  that we might be sensitive to the cries of those around us. I invite us to hear again what Bonhoeffer reminds us about listening as a key component or core feature of discipleship within the context of commitment:

“The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word but also lends us God’s ear….We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.”  As Peter proclaims, God calls us out of slavery to become shepherds of God’s grace made possible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Kingdom of God shows us a better way – the way of focussed discipleship.

So our core of discipleship embedded in our readings this Good Shepherd Sunday reflect community, care, and commitment;  but there’s a fourth – Communion.

Discipleship means intimate communion with the Good Shepherd – living in a dynamic relationship from which we receive sustenance, where we live out of “the table prepared before me”, as the psalmist wrote. We know the voice of God in Jesus the Good Shepherd and we are personally fed. We know the voice of God in Jesus and we respond to the needs of the world around us – our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and ends of the earth.

As sheep of the Great Shepherd, we are not dumb – the stereotypical image of sheep. We listen, hear,  respond, and know that we are loved.

We often reduce Jesus’ “good shepherd” teaching to a romantic image, delightfully pastoral – in the classical sense – in tone. But his is no romantic, pastoral image. The shepherds of Jesus’ time with whom his listeners would have been familiar got down in the dirt with the sheep, providing a protection from constant threat and providing nourishment. Those sheep are valued – humanity is precious in God’s sight – made in God’s very image. In fact, those sheep are so valued that the shepherd actually becomes the doorway of protection, lying across the sheepfold entrance while sleeping so no harm is allowed in.

So we listen to the voice of the shepherd over and over again that the distracting noises around us may be drowned out. We listen to God, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, so that we may listen to others and fully engage in our discipleship journey.  The voice of Jesus is nourishment – food for the journey that we affirm when we serve the world, sometimes walking through those valleys of the shadow of death, and at other times when we are beside still waters such as when we gather around His table, humbly receiving the tokens of His passion and saying, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus”. Our discipleship surely calls us to dwell in communion.

Community, care, commitment and communion: the core of discipleship revealed to us by today’s Scriptures and opened to us through our Living Word on this Good Shepherd Sunday. So we affirm once more this day with the saints of every age and with the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Even so, Come Lord Jesus.”

Let us pray,

Creator of the universe,

you made the world in beauty,

and restore all things in grace and glory

through the victory of Jesus Christ.

We pray that, wherever your image is still disfigured

by poverty, sickness, selfishness, war and greed,

the new creation in Jesus Christ may appear in justice, love, and peace,

even through our own discipleship guided by your nourishing empowerment and grace.

We ask this in the name of Him who

is the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

the Reverend Steve Bailey