Today, on this the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate what is known (in the liturgical life of the Church) as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Collect of the Day directly echoes the Gospel lesson, that God might “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”
The pastoral imagery of the twenty-third psalm, perhaps the best known of all the psalms, opens with those timeless words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…he maketh me to lie down in green pastures…he leadeth me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Stress and anxiety just melt away, for me, at these words)
The lesson from the Revelation to St. John refers to “the Lamb at the center of the throne, who will be their shepherd; he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The Seer John is given a vision of a time when God will right all wrongs, restore all things, and finish what got started in the Garden of Eden in a complete, holy, new creation.
These lessons today draw on the rich imagery of Jesus as both Lamb of God, and Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. This is at once one of the most tender as well as fierce images of God’s care for us: “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, “I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
It is not difficult to connect the thematic dots between these lessons and Good Shepherd Sunday, but what to make of this episode in the Acts of the Apostles? If we were to play “which one of these stories is not like the others,” Acts might be our obvious answer. Perhaps. But if we dig a little deeper, we might discover that Peter here is doing the very thing that Jesus told him to do, “Tend my sheep, Peter. Feed my lambs.” Peter is following where Jesus has led.
In the upper room, on the night before he died, Jesus promised his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” In raising the disciple Dorcas (aka Tabitha) from the dead, Peter is continuing the work of Jesus.
You may recall, in earlier Gospel scenes, occasions where Jesus is healing the sick and raising the dead. In Acts, Peter and the disciples, too, are healing the sick and raising the dead. In fact, a close reading of these stories in the Gospel of Luke (volume one of the two volume Luke/Acts anthology), demonstrates how Peter is following in the footsteps of Jesus. Both Jesus and Peter were told to come quickly when a little girl (in Luke) and the woman disciple Dorcas (in Acts) were near death. In both instances, there are people standing around weeping, mourning the loss of life. In both instances, the mourners were sent out of the room. And in both instances, Jesus and Peter, took the deceased by the hand, called them by name, and commanded them to “get up.” These two stories are mirror images of one another. The Acts of the Apostles are the Acts of Jesus, part II. A good subtitle might be, “The sheep following the Shepherd.”
It is fascinating, that in the Greek language in which these books were composed, the word translated here “get up” is anastasia – the very same word used for “resurrection.” Peter is literally saying to her, “Tabitha – be resurrected.”
Peter, through much pain and suffering, has come to know the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd; and Tabitha, being called by name, is resurrected into the risen life of Jesus. They are following where Jesus has led.
The “where” of where Jesus leads is into the resurrection. We see here that resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus because he was special, but that the resurrection is something that happens to each of us as we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, where he leads. The “where” of where Jesus leads is into resurrection.
Now, if the concept of resurrection leaves you scratching your head and feeling a little bit baffled, you are in good company. We witness, along with the disciples, resurrection happening before our very eyes, and yet we can hardly believe our eyes. We sense that resurrection is not merely some eureka moment, not just some intellectual insight, but the speaking of our name, the taking of our hand, a fully sensorial experience of new life.
The life of Jesus – even and especially in his resurrection – has a wonderful physicality to it. The disciples touch the physical wounds of Christ, they eat fish and break bread with him on the beach. So, too, our experience of the resurrection will not be contained in thinking deep thoughts, our experience of the resurrected Christ will be in bread and wine blessed, broken, and given for us. Our experience of the risen Christ will be in our embrace of one another, proclaiming the the gospel in word and deed, continuing the incarnated resurrection of the Body of Christ.
If we find that we don’t “get” the resurrection, perhaps it is because following the Good Shepherd is less about thinking deep thoughts, and more like learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end. The truth is, resurrection typically involves drowning. In the deep waters of baptism, we are buried with Christ, and raised to newness of life. “So, also, consider yourselves dead to sin,” the Apostle Paul writes, “and alive in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Your resurrection may not be complete, but it has already begun. You, me, and God’s entire creation is a work in progress.
When we are faced with an opportunity to forgive someone, or confronted with Jesus “in the least of these” will we know how to respond because we have been practicing resurrection? Will we fully absorb the words and taste the Lord’s resurrection in the Eucharist? Will we translate the liturgy into our living, the resurrection into reality?
What we do here in this sacred space is a template for our living out there in the world. What we do here matters profoundly, and has consequences for us beyond these doors. These words of blessing, grace, and peace that are spoken to us here, we are meant to speak to a world that is yearning to be heard. Practicing resurrection translates fear into hope, dominance into cooperation, anxiety into trust. The voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, speaks words of healing that make resurrection a reality.
In order to get up – to be resurrected – and go, we must first listen for the Good Shepherd, calling us each by name, and then follow out to where he leads.
May the risen life of our Lord be translated into the risen life of you, who are resurrected by name. Go forth in the name of Christ. Go forth in the name of the Good Shepherd, following where he leads. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – SATX
Easter 4c (2016) – Good Shepherd Sunday