[Father Riley's Episcopal class continues Sunday, April 24th at 9am in Parish Hall.]
EASTER IV - C - 16 JOHN 10: 22-30
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.” One of the characteristics of John’s gospel is he always sets the scene for us by giving us the time and place. It was winter, John reports, and Jesus is walking in the Temple, in the portico of Solomon.
Between the 7th and the 10th chapter of John, Jesus attends two Jewish festivals over a period of some three months, indicating that Jesus made more than one trip to Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus in dialogue with some Pharisees following his healing of a man born blind that occurred during the festival of “booths,” an agricultural festival commemorating the wilderness wanderings that takes place in the fall of the year.
It is during this earlier exchange that Christ declares himself the “good shepherd” contrasting his ministry with their failed ministry. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” They have failed, then, as pastors of God’s people. Their leadership has been marked by deceit and pride and a lack of compassion.
It was Christ’ words, however, concerning the laying down of his life for his sheep and taking it again because he has the power to do so; a power he declares that has been given him by his Father, that causes a division among the Jews. Some say he is mad and has a demon; others argue for him because he cured the blind man, something they say, a demon would not do.
At the festival of the Dedication, three months later, Jesus is approached again by those who want to know who he really is, or better yet, who he thinks he is. The healing of the blind man should have been sufficient evidence, identifying him as one sent by God. No one had ever healed a man born blind, even they admitted that. But obviously it was not enough.
Throughout the gospels Christ’ words and actions are veiled to those who reject him. “But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep,” Christ says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they know me, and follow me.” The true shepherd not only cares for the sheep with a devotion even to death; but he knows them and is known by them.
The festival, that is the backdrop of today’s gospel, is Hanukkah, also known as the festival of lights. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in 167 BC after it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes. At the festival, the leaders of Israel’s past are commemorated, many of whom were themselves shepherds.
Jesus’ parable of the “good shepherd” is an apt prelude to the feast celebrating the purifying of the temple for one of the lessons read at the festival was from Ezekiel 34 that speaks of God himself coming to shepherd his people; to rescue them, as it were, from the hands of the failed shepherds.
Jesus has come to do just that; to rescue God’s people and to lead them into the kingdom. Jesus fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy, and is the shepherd, St. John sees in his vision, that will lead God’s people to springs of living water.
How could the leaders of God’s people miss it? Why could they not draw the right conclusion based on his words and actions? The contrast, then, is not only in terms of leadership, but a “blindness” as opposed to those, who through the eyes of faith “see” Jesus as the Promised One.
Today’s gospel, then, takes us back to a time before his arrest, trial and crucifixion when those who were opposed to him were gathering evidence against him. They wanted Jesus to say “plainly” if he were the Messiah or not. But Jesus lets his actions speak for him until the last verse, which is plain enough for all: “The Father and I are one.”
It’s all about relationship and so Jesus returns to that theme. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” He will look after them, and even death itself, the last great enemy, cannot ultimately harm them.
The reason Jesus can be so confident of this is that the guarantee is his own unbreakable bond of love and union with the Father (The Father and I are One), and the fact that the “sheep” he owns are the ones the Father has given him. Here Jesus is describing a relationship; a bond, that gives life; a oneness that creates community; a community based on Love.
This doesn’t mean that as His followers we will be immune to suffering, trials and tribulations, or that we will escape death in this world; but at the last we will be found safe in the hands of the Good Shepherd.
Christian confidence about the future beyond death, in other words, is not a matter of wishful thinking, a vague general hope, or a temperamental inclination to assume things will turn out alright. It is built firmly on nothing less than the union with Jesus and the Father - one of the main themes of the whole gospel, and the focus of the Church’s worship.
God the Father created a new relationship between the risen Christ and his followers by raising Jesus from the dead. Because of Easter our relationship to God, through Christ, is stronger than death itself. As St. Paul boldly proclaims in Romans “nothing, not even death, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Our Lord."
This is the Hope of Easter for all who believe in the Risen Christ; that where evil has destroyed all possibility of relationships, God can create new bonds of life through His Love for each of us manifested in and through the relationship between the Father and the Son.
On the cross, God the Father elevated His Son Jesus, from Lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of the world, to the Good Shepherd who will lead us to springs of living water, and where, by God’s grace, we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” AMEN+