St. Paul’s – Easter 4 – 5-12–2019
They were just kidding, I’m sure, but at a gathering of students I overheard one student say to another, Back off, mister. She’s already spoken for.
A male student had attempted to engage a young woman in conversation. His buddy wheeled around and claimed her as his girlfriend.
I didn’t know we were boyfriend and girlfriend, said the young woman in amazement. How sweet.
Now, aside from any of your concerns about the gender dynamics of that exchange, I want you to keep that conversation in mind. Back off, she’s already spoken for, though a bit trivial, isn’t an inappropriate characterization of this Sunday’s Gospel. All of you here this morning—all y’all—are spoken for. Someone has turned toward you, reached out to you, called you by name, and spoken for you. You are named and claimed by one who does not intend to allow others to name or claim you: Jesus.
You see, your possible mistake (and maybe I’m partly to blame for your mistake) is thinking that religion is something that you do. That faith is something that you can work up in yourself, as part of your determination to get your head straight and believe the right things in the right way. You might mistakenly think that church is where you decide to come as part of a larger strategy for personal development. Or that Church is the place where you gather with others who are striving to be the best they can be. And the sermon? Sermons are where the preacher points out, in as charming and beguiling a way as possible, all the areas where you have been going wrong and what you need to do to set yourself right. In the sermon, you are given the opportunity to make a midcourse correction in your life: Here are the six steps you need to take next week to have a better week. Let me give you three principles that will enable you to achieve personal happiness.
Yes, that’s right. I’m saying that way of characterizing the Christian faith is a mistake.
There are two problems with that way of thinking about religion. First, in spite of your good intentions, there are (hard) limits to your power over your thoughts, feelings, and actions. In short, you are a sinner, as am I. As even Saint Paul said, The good that I would do, I cannot. There are limits to what you can decide to do and achieve, particularly when it comes to God. Most of the time in our history, when we think we are busy cozying up to God, climbing ever higher toward God, what we have been climbing toward is no more than an idol—our construction of a god who is easier to get along with than a true and living God like Jesus.
Second, God is God and we are not. God is holy, whereas we are, well, you know the mess that our very best intentions make of the world. As the prophets say, God’s thoughts are higher and grander and other than our thoughts. No matter how hard we try, no matter which technique we use, we are incapable of climbing up to God. We are totally dependent on God climbing down to us.
And in Jesus Christ, that’s just what God has done. Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd. There may be some shepherds who say to themselves, when some dumb sheep wanders away from the safety of the fold, Aw, let it go. I’ve got plenty of other sheep who stayed right here at home. I can do without one sheep.
No. The good shepherd, Jesus insists, goes out and beats the bushes and searches for that one wayward sheep until he finds that sheep, and then the good shepherd brings that sheep back safely to the fold.
Maybe you’ve never done any serious wandering in your life, never spent time in difficult, dark, trackless wilderness. But even if you have never wandered far, all of us are here this morning not on the basis of something we have decided, or because we took a path back to God, but rather because in Jesus Christ, God decided to take a path toward us.
And in this morning’s scripture, Jesus says that that same good shepherd—once he has laid hold of his sheep, once he knows his sheep on a first-name basis—will never, ever let his sheep out of his grasp. They will never, ever wander so far that the good shepherd can’t find them. Do you need to hear that reassurance from Jesus this morning?
That’s why it’s a big mistake to think of your faith as a positive personality characteristic of yours. It’s a mistake to think of religion as something that you think, feel, or do for God. Your relationship with God is based solely on something that God has thought, felt, and done for you. Here’s a lesson that we keep having to learn and relearn. And yet, upon this truth is our greatest reassurance.
Jesus’s critics are attacking him from every angle. Well, that’s nothing new. And in their attacks, they are surely hoping to dissuade some of Jesus’s followers from following him since Jesus has been attracting more disciples—maybe even some of the disciples who had once followed these self-righteous leaders. Jesus’s critics are attempting to discredit him, to trip him up in his arguments, and to show that there’s no way this homeless, wandering rabbi could be the long-anticipated Messiah. Maybe that’s why Jesus responds with strong, reassuring words:
My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
Let me spin out some implications of this statement by Jesus:
- Who is a Christian? Christians are not only those who have heard the voice of Jesus but those whom Jesus knows. Christians follow Jesus on the basis of having heard Jesus’s voice calling them.
- Christians are not first of all those who give to Jesus but those who have received a gift from Jesus: eternal life—life, abundant, overflowing life, not someday in eternity but right here and now.
- Once Jesus has claimed us, once we have heard his claim upon our lives, as far as our relationship with Jesus is concerned, no one will snatch [us] out of [his] hand. With this wonderfully vivid, strong language, John describes the good shepherd’s unending determination to keep what he has been given by the Father. Jesus is here saying that we—you and I, in spite of all of our faults and weaknesses—are the gift of the Father to the Son. And the Son promises never to let go of what the Father has given him.
Please remember these strong, reassuring words when you come to your times, as we all do, of doubt, uncertainty, and wandering. All of us are subject to various voices that tempt us away from our relationship with Christ. They lure, You are a self-made person. Think for yourself. Accumulate all the stuff you can to protect yourself from an uncertain future. Get a gun and learn how to use it well: it’s your only security. Why waste your time at church? You’ve got better things to do. Faith is fantasy; stick with the facts and live your life on the basis of what you can prove to yourself.
But then, even amid the seduction of the American, demonic sirens, you hear another voice: This one is mine, and no one will snatch this one out of my hand.
That’s your one, best hope. You are claimed. You have been spoken for. And once Jesus has claimed you, he will never, ever let you go. Amen.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, having searched for and then found us, having sought for and then spoken to us, having moved us by your grace to respond to your reaching out, now we are bold to pray that you would keep us in your care.
Stick with us, Lord. Even when we disappoint and fall away from you, keep close to us. You know how our good intentions don’t always result in faithful living. You have seen how undependable we can be.
And yet, we know that it is always your nature to forgive, to keep working with those for whom you died, to keep returning even to those who by their sin turn away from you. We confess that we are totally dependent upon your grace to carry us through. We plead no merit of our own, no great skill at being faithful. Keep close to us, dear Lord, that having spoken for us, you might preserve and keep us. Amen.
Father of us all, Mother of each one,
thank you for your love for us from the beginning of time.
You formed us when we were in our mother’s wombs,
you knit us together lovingly,
your devotion to us has not failed,
your care has followed us our whole life long.
All we are and all we have, we owe to you,
and so on this, the Lord’s Day,
in this house devoted to your glory,
we give honour to you
with our hearts and hands and voices.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Jesus, trustworthy shepherd and guide,
invites all of us to follow him
in the way of justice and peace.
We recognize in him the voice of the Creator,
and we respond in generosity and love.
Let us offer our gifts to the Risen Christ,
in the service of a healed Creation.
The Lord is our shepherd; we want for nothing.
We hunger and thirst no more.
The Lord gives rest and comfort to our souls.
God keeps us in perfect peace.
The Lord sustains us in the midst of trouble.
Our lives overflow with God’s love and grace.
Goodness and mercy will surely follow us always.
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
With the Blessing of God Almighty…..
Our Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life
Who loves us and is with us
And those whom we love and pray for
On this day and forever more.