Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 04/25/2021)
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The health and success of any group of people is largely based on that group’s ability to both claim and live out a shared identity. A shared identity names values that guide behaviors that creates culture. The most successful sports teams, businesses, organizations, and congregations create a culture that holds one another accountable to a central vision.
Our Second Reading this morning, from 1 John, is written to an early Christian community wrestling with its identity. You may have noticed that our second reading during the Sunday of Easter have come from, and will come from, First John.
First John, along with Second and Third John, was once attributed to the singular author of the Gospel of John. Scholars are now in agreement that the three letters, along with the gospel, were written by the same early Christian community.
Specifically, First John was written to a divided Christian community experiencing an identity crisis. The division seems to have been caused because some among them, but who had gone out from them, were teaching and saying things about Jesus that were different than what the Gospel of John taught about Jesus. It’s not exactly known what these other teachers were teaching. From the language of First John itself, we might speculate that these other teachers in some way were denying that Jesus was the Christ and that Jesus had come in the flesh. Some scholars believe these teachers were connected with Docetism – the belief that Jesus was a spirit, but not a physical human being.
To affirm the identity of Jesus, and thus the identity of the early Christian community, First John affirmed that what was true of Christ, was what the Gospel of John said about Christ. First John begins like the Gospel of John. The Gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word …” First John begins “We declare to you what was from the beginning.”
In Chapter 1 verse 14, the Gospel claims that– “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” First John says: We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.”
First John affirmed the Gospel of John’s teaching that Jesus was love. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.” In John 15:12-13 Jesus taught “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” These teaching are affirmed in First John 3:16 “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we out to lay down our lives for one another.”
First John affirmed the Gospel of John’s teaching that the central responsibility of believers, is to love as Christ has first loved us. From the Gospel of John 13:34 – “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. First John 3:17 echoes this teaching: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” And again in First John 3:18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
To a community experiencing an identity crisis, First John affirmed the teaching of the Gospel of John, that Jesus came in the flesh to love. In response, the identity of Jesus’s disciples is to love in the same way. To love in truth and action, to love by laying down our lives for one another.
Today, in the liturgical calendar, on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, we come to what is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
As we once again receive the metaphor of Jesus as Good Shepherd, along with the audience of First John, we today have a similar need to clarify our understanding of what it means that Jesus is a good shepherd. Just as First John addressed false teachings among believers in its day, I would like to address a false view, or at least a view inconsistent with the teachings of the Gospel of John and First John, about what it means that Jesus is a good shepherd.
I believe the false teaching is this: that Jesus as a good shepherd is something like a concierge.
You know what a concierge does, right? A concierge is a person who assists with personal business such as travel appointments, scheduling, and errands. We might think concierges are just in high-end hotels, but there is now such a thing as concierge medicine. In concierge medicine a doctor limits the number of people in a practice so that each individual patient has more time with the doctor, so that the personal needs of the patient can be catered down.
Is Jesus as shepherd our Holy Concierge? We tell Jesus what we want and then Jesus helps us get it? Is the role of Jesus to schedule bus tickets to the still waters, arrange an Uber to the green pastures, and schedule us passage on right pathways? Is it Jesus’s job to provide us assistance and blessing along the paths we have chosen for ourselves, a holy source of help when we experience potholes or detours along life’s road, a holy assistant to help us get back on track?
I think the authors of First John would be appalled and repulsed by such a view of Jesus. The authors of First John, in affirming the witness of the Gospel of John, professed their belief in a savior who not only set aside his life for us, but who calls us in the same way to set aside our lives for one another. In a preview of a verse from First John we will hear next week: “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister they can see, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
To live in the shepherd, is not to ask what the shepherd will do for us, rather, to live in the shepherd is to ask how we can lay down our lives for one another. To abide in the shepherd, is to not look inward at what we want or need, but to live outwardly to respond to those in need around us. Living in the shepherd, is about living with one another in a community of love.
Being clear about a “concierge view of Jesus” has consequences. We in the white Western Church, swimming in the waters of capitalism and individualism, far too often look to a personal and individual savior for blessing along life’s way. This leads to an individualistic, and false, view of faith that teaches that the Christian life is about me getting right with Jesus.
By being personally virtuous and polite we can believe we are pleasing Jesus, even as we live in public systems of sin that exploit, oppress, and devastate other children of God. A concierge view of Jesus separates discipleship from public life and public policy, and fails to make connections between our faith and our responsibility to ensure love and equality through all the ways we live publicly with one another.
As opposed to a concierge view of Jesus as Good Shepherd, is the scriptural view of the good shepherd who not only lays down his life for us, BUT also calls us to lay down our lives for one another. I think it’s important to be clear this does not mean physical death.
Laying down our lives for one another is:
- dying to individualism and instead living in and for community;
- dying to self-absorbed and self-obsessed living that separates us from those around us, and instead embracing self-sacrifice and self-emptying for the good of community
- dying to our privileges and hierarchies, in order to bring life to others by insisting on equality, mercy, and justice for all of God’s children..
With this understanding, let’s go back to Psalm 23.
Could it be that the green pastures, still waters, and right pathways have nothing to do with our comforts? That the promise of Psalm 23 is not about a shepherd as concierge leading us to some idyllic place of harmony, ease, and happiness?
Instead, could it be that Jesus leads us into costly love of neighbor, and that it is love itself that are the green pastures, still waters, and right pathways to which we are called; that sacrificial love that feeds the hungry, cares for the sick, welcomes the stranger, visits the prisoner and clothes the naked is the anointing of heads with oil and cups runneth over?
Could it be that the shepherd leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, not by rushing us through death as quickly as possible, but instead, by taking us right into death, joining us to his death on the cross as we die to sin and self in the waters of baptism; in order to join us to Christ’s resurrection in lives of mercy and justice today, and to join us to physical resurrection when our bodies die?
Could it be in this way, joined to the death and resurrection of Christ in love for another, that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives?
Inspired by John and 1 John, we look for the living and risen Jesus Christ today, in communities of laying aside their lives for one another.
In communities that:
- love, serve, and give until it hurts … and then love, serve, and give a little more.
- take risks, dare, and put themselves on the line for justice, equality, and compassion until it is scary … AND then risk, dare, and put themselves even farther out on the line.
- love, not with empty platitudes, but in bold truth and powerful actions that make a real difference in the world – believers that don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk, in courageous actions of life and healing.
The Good News today, is that the identity of Jesus Christ is clear: Jesus Christ is love, love who laid down his life for us. And in that love our identity is clear: in Christ, we are called to live. In love, we are called to lay down our lives for one another.
May the Holy Spirit strengthen you in this faith today and always.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!