The familiar image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd [John 10:11-18], is a very popular one – even, it seems, in our modern, urbanized society, in which most of us are not shepherds and know next to nothing about sheep. What we do know, of course, is that the luckier sheep live to provide us with wool, while the less lucky sheep become lamb chops.
That, I suspect, may be precisely Jesus’ point in using shepherd and sheep language – precisely what makes Jesus so special as a shepherd. This shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – a somewhat unexpected reversal of roles, a reversal of roles which brings about a new kind of relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.
In most ancient pagan religious understandings, what above all distinguished the gods from us was the gods’ greatly envied freedom from death in contrast to our inescapable mortality. By becoming one of us himself and experiencing our human predicament by his voluntary dying, God – in Jesus – overcame this separation between God and us, and so reversed not just the traditional job descriptions of shepherd and sheep, but also the pagan idea that human beings exist, like sheep, simply to serve for the satisfaction of the gods.
It turns out, in fact, that God actually takes satisfaction precisely in this reversal. This is why the Father loves me, Jesus says, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. So an age-old separation has been overcome, and something new has happened in our world. A brand new connection has been created between God and us by the death – and resurrection – of the Good Shepherd, who accepted the limits of our mortal life in order to bring us, together with him, to something new beyond those limits.
Now that’s all well and good, but didn’t it happen such a long time ago? And not much really seems to have changed in the world, has it? Easter comes and goes, year-in and year-out, and it all begins to sound routine, doesn’t it?
But there was nothing routine, certainly, about Peter’s sermon in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 4:8-12], in the aftermath of the first post-Pentecost miracle, an amazing cure which Peter somewhat modestly calls a good deed done to a cripple. It all happened, Peter proclaims, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom God raised from the dead … ‘the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
What a claim! The sheer boldness of it – that humanity can be saved and that Jesus Christ is its one and only savior!
Recognizing the boldness of that claim and taking it seriously – making it our own claim – is what Easter time is all about. Admittedly, given the inevitable limits of our attention, it takes some effort to keep up that Easter enthusiasm – to keep it from wilting along with the Eater flowers!
And so we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, during which we read every day from the Acts of the Apostles – to recall the fervor of those first new Christians, who were transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and sacraments. And we see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. For, as Peter’s sermon makes clear, the universal power of Jesus’ name is not limited or constrained by any human failure to hear it.
Jesus himself says he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also he must lead, and they will hear his voice. The Savior of the world calls all people to his Father, as he continually transforms the world through the uniquely saving power of his death and resurrection. In Jesus, God can now be found in every aspect of human life, in places and people where one might least expect, in situations which our limited imaginations may even turn into obstacles to God’s presence.
Our mission, the mission of the Church animated by the power of the Risen Christ, is to go beyond the limits of our imaginations, and become, like the otherwise ordinary people whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, effective witnesses to God’s saving power in our world through the death and resurrection of his Son.
And we have to do this together, as his Church. We can’t be spiritual without being religious.
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 29, 2012