Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 – Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is different from the hired hand, he explains, because when the hired hand sees a wolf coming, he runs away. The good shepherd not only stays with the sheep, he lays down his life for them.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be by now that this is no ordinary shepherd. In fact, “good” is probably an understatement.

I’ve never known any full-time shepherds. It’s not as common of a profession in 21st Century Tennessee as it was in 1st Century Palestine. But I imagine even back then that you’d have been hard pressed to meet one who was willing to die for his sheep.

Therein lies the point. Jesus is no ordinary shepherd. An ordinary shepherd would probably, like the hired hand, have run away. Or perhaps an ordinary shepherd would have sacrificed a weakling in order to protect the pride of the flock, or defend only a particular sheep that, despite his better judgement, he had named.

But the Good Shepherd? The Good Shepherd doesn’t risk his life only for the sake of a sheep that he’s especially fond of. The Good Shepherd neither fights off the beast nor scapegoats a lamb. Instead, the Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life to save the entire flock.

A sacrifice of that magnitude is based on a lot more than affinity or fondness. It requires nothing less than the Love of the One from who all love comes. That Love—God’s capital-L Love—is precisely the Love of the Good Shepherd who says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

This is the Love of the God who knows humanity and divinity inside and out. This is the Love of the Shepherd who knows what it’s like to be a sheep, and a sheep who knows what it’s like to be nabbed by a wolf.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the living, breathing, flesh-and-bone manifestation of a Love so divine, so profound, so perfect that even after 2,000 years here we are still gathered together to celebrate it. But let us be clear. We do not only celebrate this Love because it led the Shepherd to lay down his life for us. We celebrate it chiefly because by laying down his life he took it back up again.

This is the paradoxical promise at the center of our faith: in dying Jesus was raised to new life.

We share in that same death and that same resurrection. When we renew our baptism each year during the Great Vigil of Easter, we are reminded that when we pass through the waters, we are buried with Christ by a baptism into his death so that we might be raised with him to new life.

By virtue of our baptism then, we share in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s important, not because it is some sort of “fire insurance” that saves us from burning for eternity, but because it has real-life implications for how we live our lives now.

In this post-resurrection world, we embody the risen life of Jesus. Here. Now. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Always.

So not only are we inheritors of Love strong enough to bring back to life that which was three days dead, but we are called to proclaim it. Take Peter for example. In our lesson from Acts this morning we find him in the custody of the authorities after healing a man in the name of Jesus.

Peter says, “let it be known to all of you . . . that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

These words comprise one of the first sermons ever, in which Peter is testifying to the promise of the power of Jesus whom God raised from the dead. Because Jesus has new life, says Peter, so does this man have new life. Because Jesus has new life, so do each of you have new life. Here. Now.

Peter also says something that a lot of 21st Century Christians have trouble with. He says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Some hear it as exclusive. And indeed, it is hard for us not to when for generations we have heard Christians whose primary means of invitation to the faith is something akin to, “Believe or be damned to the fiery pits of hell!”

But I don’t think Peter’s message is meant to be exclusive. He is merely expressing his sincere belief that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead God acted once on behalf of all humanity for all time. As a result, no human person or entity can claim to have exclusive access to the power of God.

Yes, the claim comes from an unashamedly Christian perspective. It places Jesus’ resurrection as the hinge-point of salvation history. But, at its core, it also means that no person can with authority say, “Unless you believe like I do, you’re damned for all time.” That is not, nor has it ever been, the central message of Christianity.

The keys to death and hell have already been to Jesus given. And he has unlocked the door and thrown the devil out. Been there. Done that. Already taken care of.

God became human, the Shepherd like the sheep, even to the extent of death. By dying he destroyed death and by raising him to new life again, God has brought us all into free and lasting life in the presence of our redeemer. We are now united with God in resurrection life.

That means it’s never not Easter.

That means we are at present filled with the true Love of God.

That means eternal life begins at the font, not the grave.

Peter is simply inviting us to live like that’s the case. Do you hear the difference? The focus of Peter’s sermon is not what the resurrection is going to for us when we die. The focus of Peter’s sermon is what the resurrection means for us now, as we live.

Jesus’ resurrection changed Peter’s life. And by the power of the Spirit and in the name of the God who made it possible, Peter wants you to know that it can change yours, too. Here. Now.

How exactly?

Well, there are far too many examples to name here. But one that seems especially fitting for today comes from our reading from the first letter of John. It is this: if you happen to find yourself with all the goods of the world passing by someone in need, do not refuse to help them.

You just might begin to get the idea. 

Knowing God

Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 – Acts 11:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Today’s collect has a great first line. “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life.” That phrase has stuck with me since we first read it together at Bible study on Tuesday. 

To know God is everlasting life. That packs a punch. 

It suggests that our relationship with God is not casual. God is not a mere acquaintance or a distant relative. True knowledge of God is not futile or easily acquired. Rather, true knowledge of God is the result of a life spent experiencing God, listening to God, and responding to God. 

Faithful Christians have been doing just that for centuries. In today’s lesson from Acts, the Apostle Peter recounts a vision by which he comes to deeper knowledge of God. 

Peter sees God’s great picnic blanket lowered to the earth carrying animals considered to be unclean. Nevertheless, the voice of God commands Peter to kill and eat. Peter politely refuses, but three times God assures him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  

After the vision, the Spirit leads Peter to the home of a prominent Gentile where he begins to preach. The Holy Spirit falls on all who are gathered there, just as it had on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. 

Through this vision and the subsequent events God reveals that his kingdom is available even for those outside of Judaism. 

It seems simple enough to us. Jesus came for everyone. Gentile, Jew, slave, free, black, white, gay, straight, woman, man, non-binary. (The list goes on.) But imagine a Jewish believer in Jesus’ time. It would have sounded preposterous that a Gentile could receive the word of God.

Jewish followers of Jesus were uniquely suited to receive the Good News of the Messiah. They were children of Israel, decedents of Abraham. Christ was the fulfillment of what had been foretold by their prophets in their Bible. 

Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, the idea that Gentiles could be included in a salvation they had not-so-long-expected didn’t make much sense. 

Gentiles did not live by the law. Their men were uncircumcised, they consumed forbidden food, and they didn’t perform ritual acts of washing before table fellowship. How could they all-of-the-sudden be a part of the in-group? 

At this point, it’s tempting to draw an unflattering analogy between these early Jewish followers of Jesus and Christians today who refuse to acknowledge that the love of God is for anyone but them. 

It’s been done before. 

“The Jews were too legalistic! They were so focused on their law that they couldn’t see that God was trying to do something bigger and better! Don’t be like them!” 

Let’s not fall into that trap. It would be hypocritical. By criticizing Peter for eating with Gentiles, Jewish followers of Jesus were not saying anything different than what we might say today. 

“How can Baptists be Christians? They only do communion twice a year, and when they do do it they use grape juice! It’s unconscionable! It’s not biblical! It’s simply not done!”

Have you ever noticed that no matter what denomination they belong to, Christians tend to find Jesus firmly aligned with their beliefs, as if they have the market cornered on Christianity. 

Christians get stuck in an either/or mentality. They see things as mutually exclusive. If you don’t have Eucharist every Sunday, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t only offer baptisms on major feasts, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t perform “last rites” immediately before death, then you’re doing it wrong. 

When we engage in that kind of exclusivity we miss the point. Just because we have chosen to follow Jesus in a particular way, doesn’t mean that all the other ways that people follow Jesus are wrong.

There are, of course, some ways of following Jesus that are wrong. If your idea of following Jesus involves speaking hate, or excluding people who are different from you, or taking it upon yourself to damn others to hell, then you are absolutely wrong. But just because some ways are wrong, doesn’t mean that every way but ours is wrong.

God did not send Peter a vision to tell him that Jewish food laws were irrelevant or that the old covenant was thereby invalid. God is simply telling Peter that knowledge of God is not limited to people who observe the food laws or practice circumcision. 

In the Episcopal Church we do certain things in certain ways for certain reasons. God is not calling us to abandon our rituals of common prayer. God is calling us to understand that God is not exclusively limited to them. 

That’s right, Gentiles can also experience God. And for that matter, Baptists can, too! God is bigger than the Church. One set of rules or guidelines simply cannot capture all knowledge of the divine. 

That’s okay, dear ones, because God continues to reveal himself to us, and each time he does he invites us into a deeper knowledge of him. 

It might be in the form of the Holy Spirit guiding the General Convention to affirm the ordination of women or the sacredness of same-sex relationships. 

It might be in the still, small voice that encourages our bishops to stand up against senseless gun violence and the laws that perpetuate it. 

It might be in any number of things. Maybe even in something that happens to you this week. 

Some say this is sacrilege. They say that everything we need to know was given to us in the Bible. The Bible may contain “all things necessary to salvation,” but that does not change the fact that God continues to help us interpret it.

I think some folks are scared that if we say that God still speaks to us that it will negate the things that God has already revealed. That’s simply not the case. 

The fact that God continually guides us into deeper knowledge of our sacred texts does not mean that the texts have reached their expiration date. It means that God’s help is required in order for us to continuing mining their depths. 

Deeper knowledge of God comes as a result of our participation in the life of God. Sure, there will be times along the way when we realize that we don’t know God completely. That’s a good thing. 

It keeps this faith thing interesting. 

It reminds us that God is God and we are not. 

It keeps us coming back again and again to meet God in prayer, scripture, liturgy, and sacrament. 

In other words, it keeps us in eternal life. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me! 

Show yourself to be alive

Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019 – Acts 9:36-43 – Trinity, Winchester

During the Easter season we hear quite a bit from the book of Acts. Acts chronicles the early days of the Church, the first communities of faithful disciples, and the early apostles, like Peter and Paul, who led them. 

Speaking of, you may remember that the official name for Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles.”

An apostle is one who is “sent out.” Just as the first apostles were sent out to proclaim the resurrection, Christians continue that work today. That’s what it means to believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” which we confess each Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. 

Our Church is apostolic because its members are sent out into the world to bear witness to the power of resurrection and to the glory of the Risen One.

In our tradition bishops are said to be apostles of the Church. As Episcopalians, our bishops (men and women, black and white, gay and straight) are living, breathing reminders of the apostolic faith.

They represent the corporate nature of our faith. Administratively, liturgically, and pastorally, they remind us that the church is bigger than our parish. Most of all, they are the chief witnesses of Jesus Christ in our communities. 

You also share in the apostolic faith because you are a witness to the living Christ, the Christ who not only was raised, but the Christ who is risen, this Jesus who is among us now.

In today’s passage we encounter a model for our Christian witness in the Apostle Peter. Yes, Peter was eventually Bishop of Rome, but before that he was just an ordinary believer, called by an itinerant Rabbi who once bid him, “Follow me.”

Tabitha, the only woman referred to as a disciple in the entire New Testament, is dead. In the wake of the tragedy, the other disciples send for Peter. He comes quickly, finds the widows of Joppa in mourning, clears the room, and kneels in prayer. After summoning Tabitha to “get up,” he “shows her to be alive.” 

The disciples send for Peter in their time of grief because he is a comfort to them, and he represents a link to Jesus. But while the disciples may view Peter as a link to Jesus, Peter doesn’t come to Joppa to bring Jesus with him. In fact, when Peter arrives, he finds the Spirit of Christ already there. 

In the fragrant oils used to wash the body; in the bitter tears the mourners shed; in the very clothes the widows wear, symbols of the love and life of their dear friend Tabitha, the Risen One is already present. 

That’s how it often is, isn’t it? In times of sorrow, when we gather at the bedside of an ailing family member or at the funeral of a loved one, God is already there. 

The vicar may come to anoint a sick parishioner, but she does not bring Christ with her, she comes to show us that Christ is already there.

The bishop may come to preside at the funeral, but he does not bring Christ with him, he comes to point to Christ where Christ always is. 

The mourners may come in droves from all around to give their condolences, but they do so not because they alone can bestow Christ. They do so because Christ calls them to where he already is. They do so to continue the work of resurrection.

Likewise, by raising Tabitha, Peter continues the work of resurrection. Peter shows us that Jesus is with us. Resurrection was not a one-time event; it is a continuing reality available to us all, even today.

As sweet as that sounds, there is always more work to be done. Just because we know that Jesus is always present, doesn’t mean everybody does. In fact, a lot of people don’t, so you need to tell them.

You are sent out to proclaim Christ. It’s your job, not to bring Jesus with you wherever you go, but to call attention to Jesus where he already is. 

That’s hard work, primarily because there are people in the world who think the Church is dead, who think God is dead. They look around and see a world torn apart by school shootings, capitalist greed, and rumors of war. They say things like, “If God is good, then God must not be around anymore.” 

I’ll admit, it seems those people have a point. Some days even the most hopeful among us are assaulted by this world’s convincing ubiquity of despair. As long as we stay silent, that’s exactly where folks are going to stay. We must not stay silent. We must not stay silent because we are Christians sent out to continue the work of resurrection.

Even in the freezing cold winter of the soul it is our duty to turn over every rock and leaf looking for life and saying “Show yourself to be alive!”

There are even those in this very community who accuse this very church—Trinity Episcopal Church—of being dead. For whatever reason some folks have it in their head that we have gone astray. 

They say that we are not real Christians. They say that we don’t believe in the Bible. They say that we associate with sinners. They say that we are trying to spread certain “agendas.” They say that we don’t care about Jesus as much as we care about politics. They say that no one even shows up here on Sunday morning. 

We know that none of that is true, but their words make it clear that we have more work to do. The good news is, we have the eternal power of the resurrection to help us do it.

Just like those early days of the church when Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, these are crucial times for our parish, and our Church, and indeed Christianity itself. It’s going to take each one of us, sharing the Good News of the resurrection, to show this town, this nation, and this world, that we go on living in spite of it all. 

Maybe that’s why God raised Tabitha from the dead. God knew that there was so much to be done that he wasn’t quite ready to spare another disciple just yet. Maybe that’s why he sent Peter to say, “Get up.” 

Maybe that’s why he sent Jesus here today to say, “Get up, and show yourself to be alive.” 

It Takes Courage

April 27, 2017 – Thursday in the Second Week of Easter – Acts 5:27-33

Tonight I preached at the seminary’s final Community Eucharist of the semester. To view the sermon click here.

And so it is with today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles as it has been with many of our readings from Acts since Easter: we join the following program already in progress.

The lectionary people have invited us into a vignette that is but one in a series of events in which the disciples find themselves in deep trouble. They have been performing healing miracles and teaching all over Jerusalem in the name of the Risen Lord Jesus. And here’s the thing: a lot of people are loving it. They’re won over by the hundreds. It’s no secret that Peter and the rest were good at what they were doing, and in tonight’s reading they appear before the council largely for that reason.

At the outset of the passage it says, “When they had brought them [from the Temple where they had been teaching], they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them…” They brought them, they had them stand before the council, and the high priest questioned them—it just sounds like a biblical precedent for our discernment process.

But, it’s more than that. We need to pay attention to what’s happening here—it’s pretty serious stuff. This is the same council that Jesus appeared before. These folks really don’t like the disciples stirring up people’s emotions and disturbing the civil order. No government does.

The council elders say, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

Listen to that: “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

It’s blood that the council members don’t want anything to do with, bad blood. “Don’t you go blaming us for his death!” the council elders seem to be saying. [1] Oh the nastiness, animosity, and distrust they feel toward that blood!

For many Christians today that blood is a good thing. It’s like when I see Tom Early in the hallway. “How are you, Tom?” He replies with a crooked smile, pointing his index finger at me, “Washed in the blood of the lamb.” The fountains of hymnody flow with it. It’s the only tonic capable of curing our sinful ways.

But these folks are afraid of that blood (and rightfully so perhaps). They don’t trust what the disciples are doing. “Don’t blame me for what’s happened!” It’s like—don’t put that evil on me!

They’re afraid, and they’re mad at the disciples; mad because they fear being associated with Jesus and his death. Deep down I think they’re scared that what happened to him will happen to them if the disciples keep winning people over. As their fear increases they lash out in anger at the disciples who are the living, breathing symbols of Jesus.

Sound familiar? It’s what we do. It’s our human condition, evidence of our frailty. When we’re afraid, it feels more natural, easier, to lash out in anger than it does to take up courage. When everything is piling up, you’re exhausted just trying to make it to the end, and you open your mail box and find a C- where there should be at least a B+ and you get angry. You might not pass. You take it out on the professor. Then you find out your diocese has released you, you might not have a job. You take it out on your spouse or your bishop. These types of things don’t exactly breed courage, but courage is exactly what it’s going to take to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

This is the last one of these Thursday night Eucharists for a while, and as we look around the room we’ll the see the faces of those who won’t be here when the next one rolls around. Some of our friends won’t be back. They’re headed out into a world that’s very fearful. They’ll need some courage to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

Courage is required, or else we’ll get stuck in the cycle of fear, too. When your new neighbor at the rectory says, “Listen preacher, it’s like I told the last guy, we don’t need you nosing around here. Wife’s got cancer and my back is acting up again. I’m out of work. God has nothing to do with us.” It’s too easy to ignore the promise of Easter in times like that and to become a prisoner of fear. We can’t let ourselves do that.

We’ve got to take courage like the disciples do when they say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they say. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus … exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior … and we are witnesses to these things…”

That kind of courage is a no-brainer to them by this point. They are literal witnesses to the resurrection. They have no reason to fear any civil authority. When they said this council members got so mad they wanted to kill the disciples. But it’s no matter; the disciples have a reason to hope.

They may have no reason to fear death, but for us it’s much harder, don’t you think? Can you go out into Jerusalem and testify to things that enrage people to the point they want to kill you? It takes a lot of courage. Can you do it?

And don’t say, “Well Peter did it and he’s our model so we’ve got to go and do likewise,” because it’s not the same. No, it’s not the same for us, because they actually saw it. They were there when they nailed him up and they were there to hear the news of his resurrection and they were there when he appeared to them, and breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

They were there, but we weren’t. It was easier for them to live into the promise of the resurrection because they witnessed it firsthand and so could obey God without question, right? It’s harder for us, right? It’s harder now that it’s 2017. That was all so long ago. I want to know how we can do it now!

To say today that we must obey God rather than any human authority—it’s laughable! Can you even imagine how much courage that would take?

Where does it come from? Where does our courage come from today?

In a nursing home sits an old woman that I’ve become reacquainted with recently. She’s the sweetest thing, but it’s a terrible place. I bet you’ve been there. It’s damp and cramped. There are fans that circulate air that has long since stopped moving; all they do is mix the smell from the kitchen with the smell of stale bed sheets. She’s so sweet, but I don’t know how she has the courage to go on in there. The staff members are always scowling. They don’t even try to hide it from the visitors anymore. Where does her courage come from? I can hardly even stand to visit.

Before I knock on the door I peek my head around and see her there reading her Bible. It’s the only book she’ll even try to read anymore. I don’t know how she could go on. I sit down and she tells me she’s been thinking about her family. Each night when the nurse puts her in bed she thinks of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she prays for them. How does she go on? The nurse comes in to bring her pills. “Oh, thank you so much, honey. I know you’re busy,” she says. How does she do it? She tells me about her new friend at her table in the dining room. They used to go to church near each other, so they have something to talk about. “She’s a good Christian woman,” she says. As I get up to leave she asks me, “Before you go, do you think we might have a prayer?”

I just don’t know where she gets that courage…

 

[1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 208.