Easter4—Year C–May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
168 years before Christ, Antiochus IV, King of the Seleucid Dynasty in Syria, massacres Jews in Jerusalem, shuts down the temple worship, and the following year erects an altar to Zeus in the Temple where he orders pigs to be sacrificed. The Jews revolt and liberate the temple two years later under the leadership of Judas, nicknamed “Maccabeus” which means “the Hammer”. Judas the Hammer, with his brothers and a rebel army kick out the enemy, remove the altar to Zeus and rededicate their Temple to the One True God. A great victory! Ever since then in December Jews celebrate Hanukkah, which means “dedication”, as an 8 day festival remembering the rededication of the Temple. You can read about this in the two Books of the Maccabees in our Apocrypha or in the Roman Catholic Bible.
In today’s gospel Jesus is at the Temple during Hanukkah when those opposing him ask him if he is the Messiah. “Tell us Jesus—tell us plainly. Are you going to become Jesus the Hammer and overthrow the unjust, oppressive, soul-crushing Empire occupying our country?”
Of course, then and now, there are religious folks who believe that in the face of the overwhelming power of Empire that it is best to “go along to get along”, so they wrap themselves in the flag, burn incense to the emperor, figuring that it is better to get on the emperor’s train than getting run over by it.
Other religious folks, then and now, say, “Don’t worry about how badly people are being treated—the systemic injustice, financial inequality, mass incarceration, and violence toward the stranger—none of that matters because when they die they’ll go to heaven and get their streets of gold and gates of pearl and all will be well. So they tell those who might be inclined to armed revolt to be good citizens and wait for their reward in heaven.
Of course Jesus doesn’t believe in violence—he’s no hammer!. But neither does he believe in appeasing the empire or passively waiting to die and go to heaven. If he had he would have gone into the hills of Galilee where he could have told his stories, lived to a ripe old age, and died in his sleep. Instead, after his baptism by John, the Spirit of God electrifies Jesus to act out an alternative strategy. Through table fellowship with the suffering and marginalized, through liberating the sick, through parables describing the mercy and forgiveness of the Kingship of God, Jesus embodies his belief that the oppressive systems that destroy community, trash creation, and crush souls are being undermined by the eternal, infinite, and unconditional Divine Love. This is the Jesus-Movement, says our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
It doesn’t take long for empire to realize what a threat Jesus is, so they execute Jesus outside Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon and sleep like babies that night knowing the threat has been neutralized.
But then on Sunday morning the threat comes back to life and begins infecting his depressed followers with the same Spirit that animates him, so that they too may live the Jesus-Movement. They build diverse community around a common meal, the Eucharist, in which Jesus is both host and meal. They care for the sick and live the merciful Justice of God. They embody peacemaking as they following the Good Shepherd—that is the Good King, Jesus. For in the OT shepherd is a metaphor for King—Moses and David are shepherds, and God is called Shepherd o his people by the prophets.
But here’s the thing: this is only possible if the disciples are no longer afraid of death. Hebrews 2 puts it plainly: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
When we are held in slavery by our fear of death, then we are too afraid to risk loving the stranger, working for justice, and sharing our wealth out of gratitude for the abundance of God. Those behaviors can get us killed, jailed, fired from our job, or bullied on Twitter and Facebook.
For example, the only way the women and men of the civil rights movement find the courage to march in the face of dogs, fire hoses, and beatings is because they believe what the Good Shepherd says to us today in the Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Eternal life isn’t something that starts when we die. Rather, eternal life is living in this present, often difficult, moment the same way we will live when the Kingship of God, arrives in its fullness.
Eternal Life is visible when we follow Jesus, AS IF God is already running the show, even though it is quite clear the Empire, and its acolytes, can still do us harm. For his first followers it means living a Jesus-shaped life in community in the midst of the Roman occupation while practicing healing, forgiveness, and mercy, as if death is no longer an enemy to run from. To live as free human beings united in a community with Christ who is One with the Father—that is One in Spirit, purpose, and compassion.
Eternal Life means living now with the faith that no one can snatch us out of the hands of Jesus.
Luke tells us that early on the Day of Pentecost there were about 120 disciples. After Pentecost the number rises to over 3000. Still not enough to threaten empire from the outside, but certainly enough to witness to a the Jesus Movement that can begin to undermine the credibility of the Empire’s culture of violence, exclusion, and oppression.
These women and men witness the fact that all glory belongs to Christ, crucified and risen and therefore that the emperor has no clothes.
They live in the faith that “The Lamb at the center of the throne is their shepherd and no matter what happens, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
What does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that every time I cry God is with me in my grief? Yes, that’s exactly what it means, though God does this wearing ten thousand disguises.
But that’s not all it means. It also means that in the New Creation we will be reunited with all those we love but see no longer, so there will no longer be any reason for our tears. After all, what parents need to cry, except for joy, when they find their child who was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found!’
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, not Jesus the Hammer, says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. ”
Week by week at All Saints’ Church we receive Christ in Word, Sacrament, Fellowship, and Service and are given the spiritual gifts of courage and love to take up Jesus’s alternative strategy to resist Empire and create the Beloved Community.
Let us pray: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.