Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 12th May 2019 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)
Acts 9.36–end; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9–end; John 10.22–30
The story of the spread of the Christian faith across the pagan world which the Acts of the Apostles describes for us continues today. Luke has just told his readers that Saul, the arch-enemy of the Christian community, has been stopped in his tracks, converted, and immediately becomes Christ’s messenger to the Gentiles. Now we hear how Peter is also making inroads into Gentile territory, visiting and encouraging church communities that have already been established. The energy and power of the risen Master inspires Peter to bring back from the dead one of the congregation in Joppa. This victory over death, the restoring of life to Dorcas, has Luke deliberately echoing phrases and images he has used before in the first volume of his writing, his Gospel, in the account of the Lord’s raising of the young daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official. We are meant to understand that from now on the Church will continue the healing, saving work of its Master.
The second lesson, from the book of Revelation, is a very technicolour vision of the final struggle for truth and life against the powers of evil. It looks as if this dramatic tale of impending judgment has been written to encourage a collection of congregations to remain faithful. Although the risk of physical persecution is not immediately apparent. The cult of Emperor worship is growing across the Empire, and the temptation to pay lip service to it might still destroy the church’s witness. Today’s passage prepares us for the Gospel. It is a vision of a glorified Church, which has survived persecution and martyrdom, and now rejoices before the Throne of God. This follows on from a passage which has just described the dark times the Church militant has had to endure on earth. Two storms have been raging across the universe. First the forces of evil have vented their fury on Jesus’ disciples, and then in response the winds of God’s judgement have been unleashed against them. Amidst this terrifying chaos an angel of light has been sent to mark the faithful with the seal of the living God, ensuring their survival. The victorious and risen Christ has guarded and preserved his disciples from harm as judgement falls on a disordered and rebellious world, and brought them safe into his father’s presence. This is the reassurance that we hear again on the Lord’s lips in the Gospel today.
The Church Triumphant bursts into singing, and we see this song taken up by an immense crowd of believers representing all the nations of the earth. The Gospel has reached the ends of the world.
Now they are joined by the choirs of heaven in their song of praise before God, and the risen Lord, giving thanks that they have at last arrived at a place of unending joy and peace. The image of the Lamb at the heart of the throne of God, bearing the marks of the slaughter house, the wounds of sacrificial love, reassures them, and us too, that through the self offering of Jesus our sin and smut will be washed away, and all that frustrates and sets out to harm us will be done away. At last we will be free, whole, and the hurt of the past will be healed. This song is going to be sung again later in John’s account of the end time, when the dragon, symbol of all evil, and Babylon, the pagan Roman Empire, and all that it symbolises, corruption, violence, and depravity, will be finally conquered and sent into unending darkness.
If this seems too fantastical, the message bringing hope to the Church in dark times is set out for us in the Gospel in a much more down to earth setting, as Jesus faces hostility himself. Some have seen his signs of healing power as evidence of his claim to be God’s messenger, but others are dismissing him as crazy and dangerous. John has been using the story of Jesus healing a man born blind to present Jesus as the Light of Life. The theme of the conflict between good and evil, light and darkness has been appearing constantly throughout the Gospel, but now John prepares us for the final battle between them. This theme of this struggle for truth and light and love is now set in a cold climate. John earths what could be a poetic fancy in the realism of the growing hostility to Jesus. He is walking up and down to keep himself warm in the sheltered area of the temple during the winter festival of Dedication, a celebration of Israel’s liberation from oppression, and the re-consecration of the Temple, which had been demolished by her pagan enemies.
Asked about his true identity (is he Messiah?), Jesus is evasive, turning the question back over to his critics, as he often does. “What do you think?” he says. “Can you see that I am doing my Father’s work, or not?” He picks up again the image that he loves to describe his mission, seeing himself as the good shepherd of God’s people. He has taken up this image of the good shepherd from the prophets. They have constantly warned the political and religious leaders of the nation that if they continue to only serve their own interests, amassing wealth and power for themselves whilst reducing their fellow countrymen and women to poverty, then God himself will come to rescue his own. This is that moment, Jesus says, God has arrived in the person of his Son to deliver and liberate his people. The Gospel ends today with a statement that can only infuriate Jesus’ opponents, who see it as blasphemous. Not only does he claim that God is his Father, but that he and the Father are one. This will be seen by those eager to arrest and execute him, as a claim to be equal to God, or, worse, a claim that he himself is divine.
All three scripture readings today ask us the same fundamental question – ‘Where am I in this struggle for the victory of light and truth and love over all that is evil? And (more to the point) where do I find the strength to remain true and loving?’ That hymn taken up by those who have been through the same ordeal and battle tells us. It is the one marked with the wounds of love and sacrifice who will lead us to springs of living water, that Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep.
Today those two images that the early Church constantly went back to to describe their Master collide. And that gives us hope. One (the image of the Good Shepherd) Jesus uses of himself, so identifying himself as the God who arrives on earth to bring things to their rightful fulfilment, The other, an image used by others of Jesus, is the picture of a Lamb slaughtered and sacrificed. It had already been used by Isaiah, the prophet, to describe the suffering servant of God, the man of sorrows who will remain faithful to his calling despite torture and death. We hear John the Baptist seize on this image at the outset of the fourth Gospel to describe Jesus, John points two prospective disciples to Jesus as he passes.
I said that in the liturgy today these two images used to describe Jesus ‘collide’. One is a title used of him by others, describing his humanity. The New Testament scriptures give us plenty of evidence to show that the early church found this a very useful description. Both Peter and Paul use it.
The other picture, again raided from the prophets, the good shepherd is an image Jesus takes up for himself. He is the arriving of God on earth to bring about the ending of oppression and evil. The ‘collision’ of these two images in Jesus reassure us that he is the God become Man, marked for ever now with the wounds of love, which he endured by sharing our human life to its depths. This conjoined image of the Shepherd-Lamb, the Human-God, assures us of his promise, made to us in the Gospel today. “No one can snatch you out of my hand. I know you, and give you eternal life, you will never perish.”
The God-Man, Shepherd-Lamb reassures us that the hymn sung by the church triumphant will finally be ours, that “we will hunger no more, and thirst no more, God will shelter us, and Jesus the Lamb will guide us to springs of life-giving water, will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”