The fourth Sunday of Easter always features readings from scripture describing Jesus as the Good Shepherd. They are familiar and comforting, thus run the risk of becoming sentimentalized to the point where the power of God’s word expressed through them becomes weak tea, lukewarm and way too sweet. This brief essay attempts to recover some of the world shaking power that lies within them. To do that, I need to go back to last Sunday’s story about the road to Emmaus.
In an internet exchange with other Episcopalians about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I commented on how Jesus came, uninvited and unrecognized, to walk along with two ordinary, unimportant disciples. Another person picked up on it, saying she walks with Jesus every day, which, frankly, missed the whole point. The two disciples didn’t walk with Jesus, Jesus walked with them without revealing himself. Why? For us the question isn’t whether we walk with Jesus; it’s whether he walks with us, perhaps uninvited and unrecognized. Why would God choose to walk with an ordinary person like you and me, doing the best we can along the road of life? Would he really do that? Yes, it’s what he did, what he does.
Why, is answered in part in this Sunday’s readings, and it can challenge us to the core. It revolves around what it means that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are members of his flock. More than a Good Shepherd, Jesus is also the gate and guardian of the place where we are safe and have life in abundance. Gates open to let us out, and to let us in. When Jesus calls us to leave our place of comfort and safety to forage in the world, will we hear his voice, the one that calls us each by name? There are wolves and lions in the world. Will we have the courage to follow him into a dangerous world? When he calls us to return to the safety of his fold, will we hear his voice, the one that calls us each by name? Will we surrender our make believe freedom to follow him?
These are important questions.
Like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the Good Shepherd readings tell us that ordinary, every day you and me are of much value, so valuable that God in Christ Jesus will defend us against all assaults of our enemies, and that surely trusting in him, we need not fear the power of any adversary. (BCP, 99)
But here’s the rub. They also make clear that in belonging to him we are owned by him. We belong to God not as property but as beloved children, friends even. It’s a problem, especially to those for whom the myth of self reliant American individualism inclines them to rebel against the idea that they’re not their own masters. The myth doesn’t create hermits. We’ll accept volunteered help if we think we need it, and it’s offered. We’ll help our neighbor if asked, but we won’t be forced into it. We say we can take care of ourselves, and expect others to do likewise. Anything less is irresponsible, lazy, maybe even cowardly. The myth says all rights are individual rights. God given perhaps, but once given they belong to the individual and no one else. To each his own. We’re not unaware of the greater good, and will partially surrender some rights, in reluctant measure, for the good of the community when forced to do so, but we won’t like it.
To be frank, it’s often a form of idolatry, mostly benign, but sometimes not. It’s not all bad. Personal responsibility and self reliance are worthy virtues if they follow in the way of Jesus. If they don’t, it’s idolatry.
Christians cannot be individualists in the mythical sense of the word because we are not our own possession. We are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP, 308). As Christians following Jesus in his way of love, we no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus who died and was raised for us. (2 Cor. 5.15). It is no longer I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2.20). These words from St. Paul can get a little out of hand at times. Let’s face it, he had a big ego and a strong sense of wanting things done his way, but he was onto something important.
We are not our own possession. We belong to God in Christ Jesus. We are individually known and loved and called by name. But we are not called to stand alone. We are also members of his flock, a community, the welfare of which is as important to God as our own. And there’s more. There are other communities unfamiliar to us, and Jesus is their shepherd also, which means they are our brothers and sisters in Christ though we do not know them, they don’t know us, and they may not know Jesus the same way we do.
Jesus took time out of his day of resurrection to spend the afternoon walking along the road to Emmaus with two ordinary, unknown disciples. He didn’t wait to be asked, he didn’t demand to be recognized, he just showed up. Why? Because they were his sheep, members of his flock, and they were as important to him as Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary and all the rest.
The road we’re on passes through a valley of pandemic death. Our time in that valley is difficult. It’s not the most dangerous valley ever, nor the worst of all possible times. The world has seen worse. America has seen worse. Some of you have seen worse. But it’s difficult just the same, and it’s a burden to everyone else in the world – all at the same time. That’s never happened before. Is Jesus walking with us, even if we’re unaware? Is there a table in the midst of it? Is it filled with an abundance of divine nourishment? Will we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread? Good questions to ask when you break bread tonight.