Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
With our rallying cry at the beginning of worship we remind ourselves and each other that we are still, indeed, in the midst of the Easter season, and that this is cause for jubilation.
Jesus is risen from the dead! Easter joy and Easter life abound.
While Easter tells of the miracle we can neither fully explain nor fully appreciate, celebrate it we do, not only this season but throughout the year in worship, as we celebrate each Sunday as a little Easter, celebrating in the Eucharist the resurrection hope and the new life that come to us through Jesus.
Imagine it is first century Palestine in that first “Easter season,” however. The women have seen the empty tomb, and some have heard the report of angels. A few of the disciples have also gone to check out the burial-site and found it to be as the women reported; not only the body of their friend and master gone, but his grave clothes neatly folded on the place where the battered, bruised, dead body of our Lord had been lain following the crucifixion.
Then, there are the post-resurrection visits by Jesus. In the first, (not counting the “gardener” who appears to Mary Magdalene in John’s tomb-side report), on the very night of the discovery of Jesus’ missing body, the comforting words of Jesus, “Peace be with you.” Again later, a week later in fact, when the confounded Thomas sees and believes in the risen Lord, he blurts out the greatest refrain of faith in Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Back in the 21st century now, here we are. We have just about another month to dwell in this liturgical Easter season. The song and prayers of the church continue to reflect our Easter wonderment and Easter joy, and we continue to dwell in the immediacy of resurrection hope.
Yet, our church life was never meant to separate us from our lives as citizens of the world, neighbors who absorb the uncertainty, pain, and upheaval of our creation and society. Rather, the faith we have received, and which is fed through worship, with the reading and proclamation of the Good News week after week, prepares us to live in the world, sharing the mercy and love of God with our neighbors and witnessing to the new life that comes through Jesus.
The Good Shepherd whom we celebrate today in our Scripture experienced and acknowledged the brokenness of the world and strove to both point out that brokenness and to charge his followers to be leaders in the world, working to ease suffering, being intentional in our care for the poor and outcast, and witnessing to the peace and hope that only Jesus can give.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is one of our favorite images for Christ. But I wonder if the reality of Jesus as shepherd isn’t subsumed by artwork and imagery that imagines the iconic Jesus rather than the real flesh-and-bones Jesus.
First of all, look at the images we have for Jesus the good shepherd – a scrubbed-clean, handsome young man with trimmed hair and beard, holding in one arm a pure-white placid little lamb and in the other a shepherd’s staff; in this image Jesus himself is dressed in a clean white tunic and robe.
Let’s get real for a moment. We live in Lancaster county, after all; have you ever seen sheep that look as scrubbed and clean as the sheep in our images related to this text?
Have you ever been close to any sheep or lambs around here or anyplace else? The annual Farm Show doesn’t count – you know those animals have been washed and prepped for show.
If you have gotten close, then I suspect you know what I am referring to: sheep are smelly. Lambs are cute and all, but they are messy. Touch them and you will find their fleece oily – part of the reason for the stink that emanates from them.
Shepherds in Jesus’ time slept out in the field with their flock. There was no outdoor plumbing. It was a rough life. It was dirty work. You didn’t get to go home at the end of the day and take a long hot shower. So, the images that we carry and that we cling to may not be realistic and may in fact keep us from understanding the Jesus-as-Good Shepherd texts as Jesus intended them.
So, let’s look at the context. In the Gospel of John, what precedes this text is a story of healing that Jesus performs on the Sabbath, enraging the religious elite. Jesus gave sight to a man blind from birth and rather than rejoice in the man’s healing and new life, the religious authorities condemn Jesus for his actions.
The Good Shepherd passage that we have today is part of a longer passage that is divided up and rotated in its annual sharing on the 4th Sunday of Easter, or Good Shepherd Sunday each year. In the previous section, heard last year, Jesus contrasted the shepherd with thieves and bandits; then in the section we just read Jesus compares the good shepherd and the hired hand.
The emphasis is in the level of commitment and the motivation between the two; A hired hand isn’t committed enough to risk his or her life for the flock – many will disappear at the first sign of personal danger. They don’t work out of love for the sheep, but for pay. They are in it for themselves, for their own survival, for their own gain you might say. They have little genuine concern for the lives of those entrusted to their care.
We have all probably encountered people like them before; people in it for the paycheck – people who demonstrate little true dedication or concern for their work, or for those in their care, or for the welfare of the organization, group, or institution for which they work. You may have encountered people who demonstrated little work ethic or integrity, because it just didn’t matter much to them.
There are those who have meaningful and worthwhile work to do, but they do it for their own glory, sense of self-importance or gain; they care little for those entrusted to their care other than as means to an end. The world is filled with this kind of “hired hand.”
They are motivated by self-interest. In our world today – both people and institutions with legitimate and important roles may seem to have little to no regard for those they are called to serve.
Then, there is Jesus. And make no mistake about it, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will give his life for the sake of his sheep.
The point is, this metaphor goes deeper and means more than we have ever given it credit for. We have made Jesus’ clothes milky white and his image picture-perfect. We are often offended at artwork that depicts a Jesus that is dark, dirty, scarred, and gruff-looking.
It is hard for us to face and embrace the bold, gritty, tenacious Jesus who aligns more closely to the more realistic picture of shepherd. This Savior of ours is self-sacrificing, and tends to hang out more in the wild, untamed, impolite, dirty, and difficult places in the world. He continually seeks out the sinner, the hurting, self-destructive ones.
I saw a video this week that depicted the kind of sheep Jesus looks out for:
The video shows a sheep that has apparently fallen head-first into a narrow crevasse. Its plump body has become lodged and for the first minute or minutes and a half of filming all you see are it’s back legs and hind end as its savior pulls and yanks and tries with all his might to loosen the wiggling, objecting animal. Finally, after a great deal of pulling and twisting and working at the stuck sheep, he manages to loosen it and then free it from the crevasse. All is well.
Except that the moment he lets go of the sheep, it flees, runs up a short incline, and then leaping, ends up right back in the crevasse, stuck once again. The caption reads, “When Jesus left the 99 to rescue the 1 and the 1 was me.”
As we celebrate Easter we consider the story of the Good Shepherd. The one who did not self-serve, stay clean and safe, abiding always in peace, carrying docile sheep cradled in his arms.
Rather, in Easter we celebrate the sacrificial love embodied by God who became muddied and bloodied to save the foolish, obstinate sheep who cannot keep themselves out of trouble, but leap back into the fray as soon as we are freed.
This is the Good Shepherd loved and sent by the Father to claim, rescue, revive, and restore life to the cosmos and all who live within it. This Shepherd continues to work in the world because Easter is ongoing – it is not a once-and-done.
The Good Shepherd promises peace and presence and protection to those in his care, and he never ever gives up on them. He never runs away. He never truly gets those garments gleaming white, because he does carry us, even when we are stinking, and struggling, and wiggling, and fiercely fighting to jump back into the crevasse.
This is the real shepherd. This is the Son of God sent to be the savior of the world. This is the Shepherd that for my life and your life did die and rise again. This is the savior and Lord of Life that will remove any barrier, heal every wound, and overcome any obstacle to keep you and claim you, all for the sake of love that is so deep and so wide and so high we cannot even imagine it.
This is Jesus.