The Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 3, 2020
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.
1 Peter 2:19-25
This Eastertide we have heard stories about how the Risen Christ reveals himself in a simple word or gesture. It seems that when Jesus’ friends encounter him for the first time after the Resurrection, they do not recognise him. They are confused and anxious, sad that their teacher and leader had been killed. For despite his telling them exactly what would happen, that he would be handed over to the authorities, be killed, and on the third day rise from the dead, they could not really get their heads around this idea. So when they meet him they do not see him, they mistake him for the gardener or a traveller, somebody, anybody but Jesus. It is their expectations getting in the way of reality.
Last week, we heard about Cleophas and his friend journeying those seven miles to Emmaus and walking with the stranger and talking about the extraordinary events that had just taken place at Jerusalem. They have no idea it is Jesus with whom they are travelling until they sit down at table with him. Thinking they have invited him to be their guest, and he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread. In this action he becomes their Host and all is revealed. He becomes known to them in the breaking of bread. It is a simple action, but it is all it takes.
When on that first Easter morning Mary Magdalene takes Jesus for the gardener, he needs only say a word, “Mary,” her name, and she immediately sees him afresh. Almost without hesitation she names him in return, “Rabboni!” It isn’t in grand actions, great bangs and flashes that God comes to us, that Love enters into the present moment. It is in the small things: in the meals we share; in a word that shows us that we are known and loved.
When Jesus calls Mary by name he demonstrates that he knows her, personally (that is to say in the way people know each other, have shared, lived experiences, a connection). Calling us by name is, in fact, something that we already know God does. In last week’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah we heard,
Thus says the Lord..., O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”
Here the text seems to be telling us that God calling Israel by name is in itself a saving act. It is something empowering in and of itself, and signals that God has made the first move, that God has already redeemed us. The God who calls us by name will stay by our side, protect us, ensure we are not overwhelmed. Naming us comforts us, creates trust and relationship. It is, in fact, the basis of faith.
So when Jesus says “Mary,” he is doing so much more than merely revealing his identity. He is saying that she is known, supported, and redeemed. What is just as wonderful is that Mary knows him in return, can answer him back with an equally personal greeting. It is not a one way street. Not only does God know our name, but we know God’s name. We know God because of what God has done for us. We follow God, believe God, because of the relationship established, nurtured, and renewed in the seemingly innocuous act of naming. The relationship of faith is reciprocal and this is an essential characteristic of the God of Israel and of God’s Word incarnate.
John’s Gospel is a book of signs. It gives us concrete images that help us understand Christ’s nature. He is the Word, Living Water, and the Bread of Life. Each of these draws out a different aspect of who Jesus is and what the salvation he brings looks and feels like. He is God’s self-expression. He is dynamic, forceful, cleansing, and essential. He is nourishing and the focus of our common life. Last week, in passing, I mentioned perhaps the best known of all these, saying that it was as the Good Shepherd that the Risen Christ appeared to Mary in this encounter, calling her by name. As the good shepherd he cares for us and seeks us out when we are lost, even if just one of us has gone astray. Perhaps, however, the most powerful aspect of the Good Shepherd is this quality of knowing us, of us knowing him, that we call each other by name, that our relationship is reciprocal.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins by explaining the difference between illegitimate power and legitimate authority. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” A man may enter the sheepfold and may remove the sheep by force, but that does not make him the shepherd of the sheep. It makes him a sheep rustler. For the true shepherd,
To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.
The first great quality of the shepherd is that he calls the sheep by name. The second is that he is known in return: known to the gatekeeper and, most importantly, known to the sheep. A crucial sign of his authority is that it is recognised by the sheep themselves: “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” The third, which Jesus names later in the passage is the extent to which he will go to protect his sheep from harm. In the passage that immediately follows today’s reading, Jesus tells us that “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In this world, the stakes are high. Thieves do enter, sheep are led astray, and the shepherd’s own life is at risk. It is essential that the sheep and the shepherd recognise each other, know each other, are truly in relationship with each other.
Sheep tend to be used as an image of slavishness, and we are all familiar with the idea of dismissing someone who just goes along as a “sheep” or of describing someone who is unreflective, who doesn’t think about their actions as just “following like sheep.” Scripture, however, does not accord this criticism to the species. Quite the contrary. Sheep are given all sorts of credit. These sheep know better. They won’t just go along with a stranger. They know the difference between the one who loves and cares for them and the one who only seeks their exploitation for personal gain. We can only aspire to be as discerning as these sheep!
Ours is an active relationship with the Good Shepherd. It is a life of vibrant, lived faith. It is overflowing; and the fulfilment of Jesus promise, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The relationship described in Isaiah, that began with God’s acting on behalf of Israel and was demonstrated by God’s calling the people by name, is the relationship we have with God in Christ. This is our abundant life in him.
In times like these it is easy to forget how much we are loved, how much God in Christ cares for us, knows us, and has already lain down his life for us so that we “may have life and have it abundantly.” In a word, however, it all come back to us. The Good Shepherd is there, calling us each by name, deeper and deeper into relationship with him. All we need to do is answer back, as Mary Magdalene did in that garden. If we do that we will not be led away by those thieves—by doubt and dispair, by greed and self-interest. We can remain steadfast, trusting in love, keeping our eyes open and trusting in the works of love we see all around us. If this season of the Resurrection has taught us anything, it is that God comes to us, calling us by name, still bearing the scars of his passion, made new, having defeated death. Keeping our eyes open, now that we are prepared to find him, we can see him, walk with him, break bread with him, allow him to teach and strengthen us. In short, we can encounter the Risen Christ and have life abundantly.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Easter Feria, 28 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume