The Fourth Sunday of Easter
21 April 2013
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with thee and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Revelation of John is one of the most beautiful and poetic books of the Bible. It is also, arguably, one of the least well understood parts of Scripture. For many is a universal blueprint for how God’s plan for the comsummation of Creation will unfold and, indeed, it paints a highly vivid picture of such events. The real significence of the text is more complex. Written towards the close of the first century by a man called John and addressed to the “seven Churches in Asia,” it speaks in highly symbolic language of the stiuation that Christian communities were facing under Roman rule and of how hard being a Christian in these circumstances was. While it does speak of how God will bring about his kingdom and innaugurate his own empire based upon very different values, we should not read it in any literal way.
This Easter I have chosen for us to hear at the Epistle the appointed lections from Revelation. In all of them, I believe, they ask us to reorient our priorities from those of the world to the priorities of God. They ask us to invert our values and trust in the values of the Kingdom of God, not of the kingdoms and nations of our world. Today’s selection from Revelation, chosen to compliment the Gospel passage on this “Good Shepherd Sunday” is no exception.
Indeed, this is the Sunday in Eastertide when we are, each year, asked to examine the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and we always pray “that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead.” In today’s Gospel, this image is enriched with Jesus words:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
We follow the Good Shepherd because we are in relationship with him, he knows us and we know him. This Good Shepherd gives us the gifts of safety and of life, a gift which can not be taken away. The addition today, however, of the words and images from Revelation adds a new level of complexity to this beautiful and well-worn image.
The passage from Revelation that we just heard is a vision, a vision that offers the hope of divine protection to the faithful, protection especially during the period of tribulation about which the author writes, but also a promise of protection for all the faithful who may find themselves in travail. Is it, however, the protector we might expect. One of the first images that springs to mind of a protector is someone who wields power, who can martial force to shelter those in need. That is not, the kind of protector John offers, John offers his listeners a vision of the protection offered by a lamb, by the lamb that was slain:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” .... Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.”
It is the Lamb who has seen them through the tribulation, it is in the Lamb’s own blood, his red blood shed for them, that their robes have been washed and made white. Death has been turned for good. The Lamb that was slain will give shelter and rest. A lamb, one of the weakest of creatures, the most vulnerable of all creatures will be the one to save them.
And why? “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The Lamb is become the shepherd and John has offered the vision of God in Christ as both lamb and shepherd, the one who needs protection and the one who offers it. God in Christ knows what it is like to be both lamb and shepherd, the one who is slain, who is offered as a sacrifice, that which is made holy and set apart for a purpose. He also knows what it is like to be the one who leads us, tends to us, seeks us out, calls us each by name, and who will protect us from those who would destroy us.
Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the people is also the lamb who is in the midst of the throne and who gathers the faithful around him. He is the one who was slain for us and rose again to be our Shepherd, the Shepherd who knows us, who is in relationship with us, and who loves us more than we can know. He is the one who offers us comfort and “wipes away every tear from [our] eyes.” He offers us the love and comfort to know that our love for him and for each other is enduring, enduring beyond the reach of death and the grave and he promises us everlasting life with him, both in this age and in the age to come.
This message of love and hope, this message of the victory of love over death, of God’s comfort and care are especially poignant in these days. The events of the past week or so give us pause and shake our senses, as we have experienced great loss in our own community and while our nation, especially our friends in Greater Boston, struggles with the evil and horror of terrorism. In and through these events, in and through all the events of our lives, however, I would offer that signs of God’s love spring forth like flowers from seemingly dead earth. As with the terrible events of September 11, 2001 and hurricane Sandy, we have seen images of those who have rushed to help those in need, both in the immediate moment and in the days and months and years that have followed and we have heard stories of love and hope breaking into our fear and sorrow. Closer to home, we remembered Frank Horak’s life yesterday with a beautiful celebration in which we palpably felt the enduring presence of his love as we remembered the promise of Resurrection life. We have seen God’s love bring people together in new ways and give hope and comfort in the midst of fear and anger. We have seen the love of God, in and through the hands of loving people, wipe away the tears from our eyes and remind us that we are loved and that love endures.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Alphege of Canterbury, 19 April 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume