The fourth Sunday of the Easter season has a nickname. It’s sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel is always taken from John chapter 10, the passage where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and the other readings also talk about sheep and shepherds.
Good Shepherd Sunday was a very big deal at Good Shepherd Church, where I used to be the priest, and and I came to realize—if I didn’t already know it—just how powerfully people relate to this image of Jesus.
Our hearts just resonate with the image of a God who walks with us, and cares for us. Who will keep us safe and make sure our needs are met.
That’s why the 23rd psalm is probably the most popular and best known of all the psalms.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
It’s a popular choice for funerals. And that’s what really hit me as I reflected on these readings last week, while I was already immersed in preparing for Horace’s funeral: Our readings today look a lot like a list of readings for a funeral.
There’s that touching line in the first reading from Acts, about the death of a woman named Tabitha, and how her friends stood weeping as they remembered her good works.
And the reading from Revelation. It’s not the same passage as the one Betsy and her family chose for Horace’s funeral, but it does have that same line about God wiping away every tear.
And finally we have today’s Gospel, where Jesus answers the question about whether or not he’s the messiah by talking about his sheep who hear his voice and follow him.
“I give them eternal life,” he says, “and they will never perish.”
Eternal life is the theme that ties all these readings together. But it’s not what you might think. It’s not just about something that happens to us when we die. Because this life that Jesus gives—this eternal life—is something that begins for us now.
It isn’t just life that lasts forever. It’s really the fullness of life that Jesus promised when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” And it’s not just about peace and comfort. It’s a little more challenging than it might seem at first.
As John tells the story, If there’s one central theme that Jesus is preaching, it’s God’s gift of eternal life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So if eternal life isn’t just something to look forward to when we die, and it’s not just about peace and comfort and being happy with God in heaven, you might well wonder what it actually is. What does Jesus mean when he talks about eternal life?
Well, for one thing, it’s a present reality, something we already have. And it’s not just something that happens to us as individuals. It’s about God’s transformation of the whole entire world. The same as the coming of the Kingdom of God, the term that’s used in the other three Gospels.
It’s what we’re talking about in the Lord’s Prayer, where we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
And what do we have to do to get eternal life? The answer to that one is pretty simple. Eternal life is ours through believing.
But it doesn’t just mean accepting certain doctrines about Jesus to be true. It’s about putting our whole trust in him. The sheep who follow Jesus are the ones who believe in him. Who trust him. They’re the ones who have eternal life.
So then what are we supposed to do once we have it? Well, let me say that it’s not just about lying down in green pastures.
The writer N.T. Wright is a Bible scholar and a retired bishop in the Church of England who wrote a book called Surprised by Hope, which is one of the best explanations I’ve heard.
Wright says it’s about what God does through us, not just what God does for us.[i]
If you look at the entire Good Shepherd passage—and today’s Gospel is just a part of it—it isn’t just about following Jesus home to the sheepfold where he’ll keep us safe. It says he leads them out. The sheep follow him out of that safe place and into a world that doesn’t always feel safe and comfortable.
But they know the voice of our shepherd, and they follow him. And following Jesus means doing his work in the world.
We’re supposed to be a sign of the New Creation God began on Easter morning, and we have to be a part of making it happen. Because Easter isn’t just about what happened to Jesus. It’s about how what happened to Jesus is changing us, even now.
Changing us, and changing the world. Changing us so we can change the world.
We’re not just here to look for a sign that God is working in the world. We’re supposed to be that sign.
Now more than ever, when every week’s news seems to bring some terrible new development—and last week was no exception—the world needs us to be that sign.
It’s not a coincidence that we have these somewhat funereal readings while we’re still celebrating the Easter season, the season of Resurrection. Eternal life is a participation in God’s New Creation, which was launched on Easter morning.
We can’t make that New Creation happen by ourselves, but we have to be part of that effort. No matter how impossible it might seem.
Bishop Wright likes to use the image of stonemasons working on a great cathedral.[ii] They’re all busy working on different tasks. One might be making statues of saints, while another works on gargoyles. They don’t necessarily know where those pieces will end up in the building. They might not even live to see the whole thing finished.
None of these workers is actually building the cathedral all by themself, but their efforts are all essential to the finished product. And the same is true of us. When we follow the Good Shepherd, each of us has a part to play in building toward God’s New Creation. And everything counts.
So this is Bishop Wright again:
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures … all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.[iii]
This is what it means to be Easter people, to live the resurrected life. Amen.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.
[i] Wright, N T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008, 200.