Easter 4, May 7, 2017
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
Where is the place you feel loved and safe, where your soul is at peace? For me growing up, it was my grandparents’ house on Missionary Ridge, overlooking Chattanooga. That house became iconic in my dreams—in a dream I’ve often had, I’d dream I was exploring a walk-in attic and all of a sudden it would open up into this fantastic amphitheater under the stars. When I would wake up I’d feel such lightness and peace. That house was my place of green pastures and still waters, where I knew goodness and mercy would follow me all the days of my life.
Of course it wasn’t the house that gave me these gifts, but my grandmother, who I called Mama. I loved my grandfather too, but he was gone most of the day running his electric supply company in the city. Mama would sometimes take me to the movies: I clearly remember seeing with her the 1963 classic: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World”, with an all-star cast. She would also spend time with me working on 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles and taking me to a hobby shop where I could buy models of birds to build and paint. She’d say to me: “Bill, You are my favorite grandchild.”
Of course I’d find out as an adult that each of her grandchildren were her favorites, but even knowing that doesn’t diminish the personal and particular nature of her love. Jesus the Good Shepherd continues to reveal himself to me through her, even though she’s been in paradise for 30 years.
It breaks my heart that not everybody has such people in their lives. You don’t need a degree in psychology to realize many in prison rarely have someone who channels the Good Shepherd into their young souls to protect them from the wolves of this life.
This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t in love with them to, it only means they did not have someone to make him real to them. But the ones who belong to the Catholic fellowship at the prison at MCI-Concord come precisely because Jesus is touching them through Word and Sacraments, and the Body of Christ that exists even in that hard place.
Ask almost any churchgoer you know, and they will tell you that God loves everybody. They’ve heard countless sermons proclaiming that Triune God loves the whole human race.
Yet, as Professor Tom Long wrote recently, this statement of the universal love of God bounces off of us, not because it isn’t true, but because it is an abstraction that carries little power to heal broken hearts.
The Good Shepherd speaks to his sheep as individuals so that we may learn his voice and follow him into Life. In the novel The Shack, made into a pretty good movie that came out a couple of months ago, God the Father, in the guise of a middle-aged African American woman, says to Mack who lost a young daughter to violence: “Mack, I’m especially fond of you.”
It is this personal and particular affection that fills Mack with enough trust to enter the valley of the shadow of his grief and rage, so he might come to know the green pastures and still waters where his soul can slowly heal.
You don’t need me telling you that we are living in a time of deep anxiety. I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t dream of going to Europe now, because of all the terrorism. Yet, it is far more dangerous to drive on the interstate, than it is to visit the Eiffel Tower. But facts don’t have much effect on anxiety: I have a friend who is terrified of flying. He knows all the statistics about the safety of flying and is helped by it up to the point the plane is hurtling down the runaway and his emotions start screaming.
What does help our anxiety is knowing that no matter what happens all will be well. I was thinking the other day how nice it is that my Honda Civic I bought two years ago still has less than 100,000 miles on it. That means it is still under warranty, so if something major falls apart it’s covered.
I also relax when I remember that I am under an eternal warranty—the Bible calls it a covenant—freely given to me by Triune God. No matter what happens—even sickness and death which get closer every day—I’m always covered by the Good Shepherd who carries me, even with all my pre-existing conditions.
But again, it’s not enough just to talk about the personal and particular love of Christ. That’s why Jesus leads his individual sheep into a flock called the Church. It is in the Church that love can come to life and touch us.
We see this in our first reading today about the birth of the Church on Pentecost. It describes a newborn community that is living the abundant life Jesus promises.
From the moment of birth, this new diverse community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
People notice these practices are transforming them into a community that acts like Jesus is still leading them.
As they live out of their new identity in God, sick people start getting well and broken relationships begin to heal. They are so filled with a sense of security and compassion that they are set free from the prison of anxious self-absorption and become glad and generous toward the stranger.
These are people who have the abundant life that Jesus promises.
So it should not surprise us to hear that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
This year we are celebrating 150 years of following the Good Shepherd. We hope this celebration will deepen our experience of the personal and particular love of Christ, so that we may be that personal and particular love to those who need it.
Following Christ may sound like work, and it is, until we realize what is really going on, that Christ is living through us! German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ, but [the Church] is Christ Himself who has taken form among [us]”. Ethics, page 84.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Risen Christ has taken form among us—not because of who we are but because of his promise to do so, wherever two or three, or two or three hundred, are gathered in his Name.
Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The abundant life has never consisted in the accumulation of wealth, but always and only in the opening of the heart to bless the person standing in front of us.
When I learned my grandmother was dying I flew to Chattanooga to see her in the hospital. She was in pain, but alert. I was able to tell her how special she was to me was, “I love you too.”
And the Good Shepherd said, “Amen”.