Updated: Jan 30
The last two weeks we have incorporated a prayer into the service that represents a counting of the Easter Omer. Today is the Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, meaning twenty-nine days have passed since Our Lord was offered to the Temple as a sacrifice to God.
Let us pray:
Today is four weeks and one day, as twenty-nine days towards the Omer – our measure as fruits of the Lord Jesus Christ – which culminates with our receipt of your Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
Guide us this day to learn from your words and find insight from you … as the Word of Life … so we may be strengthened in our devotion to God our LORD and His Holy Son, through the Holy Spirit.
Today has a name, as far as the lectionary is concerned. You may have picked up on it from the bulletin or noticed the repeated theme coming from the readings. Today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
Today we read Psalm 23 – “The LORD is my shepherd ….”
We also read from John, where Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.”
It should be understood that “Good Shepherd Sunday” does not coincidentally fall now, during the season of Easter … amid the counting of the Easter Omer.
It should also be understood that the lectionary for each Sunday normally includes: an Old Testament reading, a psalm, an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading.
It is not coincidence, that beginning Easter Sunday and continuing throughout the Easter Season, including the Sunday of Pentecost, we have replaced the Old Testament reading with readings from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
All of this is planned, with purpose.
The Easter Season is focused on the ACTS of those who had been disciples of the most-holy man named Jesus of Nazareth; but those followers were who would be transformed into Apostles. The eleven became themselves most-holy men, by witnessing the resurrection of the Christ and learning from him for 40 days after. That diligence of faith was rewarded when they were given the Holy Spirit on the Fiftieth Day.
The Holy Spirit is why the disciples ACTED as Apostles. Without ACTS, a disciple is nothing more than a student unprepared to stand and walk alone.
In fact, the four Gospels could be called “The ACTS of Jesus Christ, as recalled by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” Jesus did many things before his death, including healing and preaching, with all his ACTS for the benefit of others.
Thus, we must see that “Good Shepherd Sunday” is not about reminiscing … not about how we should always recall how Jesus is, was, and will forever be the “Good Shepherd” … not about siting mutely as a disciple, thinking you are being asked to believe Jesus was a gift from God that can never be duplicated.
Instead, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” coming during the Counting of the Easter Omer period, is designed to point out how the Apostles – this week Peter and John – were themselves “Good Shepherds,” as seen in the text from the Book of Acts. They were graduates of the “Jesus Basic Training Program for Disciples who will become Apostles.”
“I just need a few good men. Soldier, did you know Psalm 23 prophesied the coming of Jesus? Can you see how Jesus was foretold by Isaiah?”
A graduate of Jesus Basic Training finds his or her own flock.
Therefore, you sit here listening and you are immersed by words that set a course for you.
YOU are called by Jesus to be a Good Shepherd … just as he was and is … just as the Apostles were and still are … as new Apostles … new Good Shepherds.
In the story we read in Acts today, which is a continuation of last week’s healing of a lame beggar outside the Temple, Peter and John are now found arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin.
Peter told them – as did Jesus, not too long before Peter addressed that assembly – “The stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” Peter, then added, “There is salvation in no one else.”
This is read today because in John’s Gospel we read of Jesus saying, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away.”
This is the same as a “builder” seeing a perfect “cornerstone,” from which a solid structure could be built – one that would last forever – but the builder then rejecting that perfect cornerstone’s use, perhaps from fear that such a perfect cornerstone would negate the further need for a “builder,” if the “structure” built was a school that trained disciples to become Apostles.
Anyone less than a “good builder” would become as worthless as a “hired shepherd,” always coming back to oversee quick fixes to the poor structure originally designed, or running away from lawsuits charging malpractice.
It says the temple hierarchy of the Church of Judaism was not connected to God – it knew it – and it didn’t care that it wasn’t – as it was only in that position of quasi-power because it was profitable … on a material plane. The Sanhedrin was nothing more than “hired hands,” where “hired” says they were paid to serve.
If you listen very carefully, or if you read and re-read this passage about the Good Shepherd and the hired hands, you can see deeper meaning coming from Jesus saying, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.”
You can quickly read that and think, “The one shepherd is Jesus, with the one flock being all Christians.” That would be true, in one sense; but that is not the intent or the whole truth.
In Psalm 23 … the one psalm of David that most Christians memorize and easily recognize … we recall, “The LORD is my shepherd.”
The “one shepherd” is then YHWH, the One God. Realizing that means one can see Jesus as “one flock,” or a flock of one, who had the “one shepherd” within him, through the Holy Spirit of God.
Thus, Jesus the Good Shepherd always said, “Truthfully, I speak what God has me say,” as the ‘mouth of God’ on the physical plane.
The Counting of the first Easter Omer is 49 days, with the last 40 being after Jesus was risen (day 7 – a Sabbath), showed himself as risen to his disciples (day 8 – a Sunday) and then spent his remaining time with his disciples, preparing them to realize the full intent of his words, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Each individual disciple had then (has now) to come to the realization that “I AM the one flock,” when YHWH is within me … AS ME.
Sheep need a shepherd to be nearby … on the hillside overlooking the meadow below, where the sheep happily graze, without a care in the world. Thus, physical sheep depend on an EXTERNAL protector.
Sheep are then like disciples … totally dependent on a leader.
A “hired hand” is then an “external protector;” but a “hired hand” is one who does not “own the sheep.” Therefore, a “hired hand” is one who will not “lay down his life for the sheep.”
The word “sheep” denotes both the singular and plural number. That means a flock of sheep is one or it is many.
When you see yourself as “a sheep,” as one in a “flock of sheep,” then you only think in terms, “Mmmmmm, I am so looking forward to grazing today. I am going to enjoy the sweet taste of fine earthly grasses and shrubs, and the cool refreshing delight of waters from the mountain’s streams and cisterns. I look forward to leaping and playing and doing nothing other than meeting my own needs.”
As “a sheep,” you never think about the safety of others. You only depend on someone other than you to protect you from harm’s way.
As a Christian, we are just like this. Those who come to church (still), do so to listen and be seen with the flock, leaving all the shepherding to the priest, minister, or preacher. After all, “He or she studied to do sermons, so it is not up to me to question anything, much less challenge anything.”
However, in that position you are then ALWAYS at the mercy of “hired hands,” because … after all … regardless of who it is that leads you to green pastures and still waters, it is YOU that has to take in all YOU can.
Regardless of which “hired hands” told you the things you wanted to hear, and which “hired hands” turned out to be snakes, or which “hired hands” you hated to see leave … ANYONE who is not you is nothing more than external protection … a “hired hand.”
No one in this world, other than you, is ever going to eat your food or drink your water for you. On the contrary, a hired hand is more apt to strip you of your value (fleece your wool) and every once in a while slit your throat and eat your mutton, using your skin to make coats.
In that sense, external shepherds … bad shepherds … false shepherds … they can only possess you … own you … on the material plane.
That is why God and Christ seek to own the true you … your soul … so God and Christ can make YOU “one flock,” with “one shepherd” within you, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
To give up ownership of yourself, you have to lay down your life for the flock that is YOU. YOU have to let go of being a sheep and let God and Christ transform you into a Good Shepherd.
You have to stop being a disciple and start being an Apostle.
Not too long ago, I read an article posted on a blog, which was addressing why “Millennials” were leaving the Church. The article was written by a “Millennial,” from a perspective that expressed one person’s opinion, as to why that Millennial no longer saw the Church as appealing. Thoughts on the matter then led that person to draw conclusions as to what changes could be made to to the Episcopal Church, in order to bring back the young folk.
Basically … and I am paraphrasing now, but not too wildly … the author’s solution was: “Make Church less like school and more like a coffee house.”
That person made a comment (similar to), “Many millennials are in college and spend so much time learning away from Church, the last thing they want to do is go to some place where they have to learn some more.” The recommendation went on to suggest “high quality coffee, not the cheap stuff.”
In short, this youngster suggested the Church should stop being a Church and become a social group.
Unfortunately … that change happened LONG ago and that is why millennials … and so many others … are leaving the Church today. I have seen the churches of other denominations cater to more of that environment of entertainment – with upholstered “stadium seating,” cup holders in the armrests – for coffee that is sold at the refreshment center outside the amphitheater – replacing hymnals with a big screen and song lyrics shown on that, along with a bouncing ball, to go along with the band on “stage,” with a dancing choir, and a preached with a need to do a performance “in the round,” with a “hands free” microphone headset.
Some take their sermon notes with them as they walk about … using the latest smartphone in one hand. A physical Bible to read from is optional for the other hand.
All that makes going to church fun for the younger folk … but even with all the extra bells and whistles … if you only go for the music and dancing, then you are missing the point.
The problem is not that a Church teaches too much. The problem is that no one sees a church as a school … as a place of learning.
After all, what is the purpose of going to school?
It is to learn … to pass tests … to graduate … to eventually move on to a career, where one’s education can then be applied in the real “grown-up” world of life.
We see education as a means for possessing things. It is therefore seen as a NEED … whereas millennials do not see the Church as necessary.
To see a man of thirty-something going to school full-time, having been in school since he was eighteen … still not in possession of even an Associate’s degree … much less a Bachelor’s degree … far from the seriousness of seeking a Graduate degree program to enter … that man would be seen in a negative light.
People would whisper (minimally), “Get a job! Stop trying to be a child all your life! Grow up!”
Well, Church is a school.
While millennials see the pointlessness of never moving beyond “pew burn,” with gold and silver stars for attendance in no way being better than sleeping in on Sunday, they have dropped out of Church School because their education says going to Church is illogical.
Those who are growing old with the Church are seen by the millennials as being just like that imaginary man who forever pretends to go to school … for whatever selfish purposes … but never graduates.
The same people attend Church “classes” on a regular, semi-regular, sporadic, or rare occasion basis, but as if that attendance is only to be able to claim Church rights … not to be “expelled” from being a card-carrying Christian (where the card says, “Admit into Heaven”).
Still, few hear a sermon is if it were one lecture in a course, as one small piece of a three-year cycle of classes , with proper study and application intended to lead one to self-sufficiency (minimally), with graduate studies leading a attending Bible Studies or lectionary classes … even teaching others in classes like those (like a Graduate Assistant).
Most see there are no tests to pass from going to Church, no reasons to write down notes, no reasons to be able to become Bible self-sufficient, because they see no reasons to ever graduate.
No big deal. No one is ever going to judge me for that lack of applied faith.
Now, excuse me while I step up onto the “Fire and Brimstone” soapbox.
I rise higher before you, looking down upon you, just so I can state loudly, “Look at what is in the news every day!”
I don’t even need to list anything specific from the news. Just think of what you have heard in the last weeks … months … years.
Does the world seem to be headed towards another sunny day of grazing in green pastures, and sipping from still waters?
Or, does the world seem to be headed towards darkness, where our children no longer want to go to church to learn, because their parents never learned why they went to church … from their parents?
<step down off soapbox>
Okay, enough of the end of the world talk and back to the purpose of today’s fourth Sunday of Easter LESSON.
You have to see how Jesus is talking to YOU … every time Jesus says anything.
When Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he was talking about your neighbors, your family, your friends, your employers, your enemies. YOU are one flock with God and Jesus as YOUR good shepherd, but God and Jesus want everyone else to be a singular sheep flock, just like YOU.
Therefore, when Jesus said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” you have to realize that the voice of Christ is YOU … when Christ is within YOU, through YOUR receipt of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks to those other flocks through YOU!
The lessons are important because, just like the disciples after Christ spent 40 days opening their eyes to the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, those lessons finally made sense to them. Those were lessons they had learned since childhood and knew … but never understood the depth of meaning that was there.
For lessons to reach that point of epiphany, some prior effort has to have been made to … at least to have heard them before … even if half asleep … as the Gospels portray how slow-witted the disciples often were.
You have to have gone to school; you have to remain active in school, before there is hope to graduate from school.
You have to prove to your professors … God and Christ … that you can handle the deeper meaning, from having learned the simpler story.
You cannot go home and pray, “God, PLEASE make me wake up tomorrow as a doctor” … or lawyer … or architect … or computer programmer … or anything that requires an education … and then blame God if you wake up to the same YOU.
God will answer your prayers with the opportunity to gain the education you need … if that is where you can best serve God.
Everyone here is a flock of one. Everyone here is called to be a Good Shepherd, which means being led by God in your heart, and Christ in your mind, because only God and Christ is the “one shepherd of the one flock.”
On the Day of Pentecost … now only three weeks away … each of YOU is called to lay down your life and let the Holy Spirit enter.
If you can make that commitment … if you can make that sacrifice, then you can say, as did Jesus, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
Jesus will be reborn as YOU, and at that time you will fully understand how John said, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.”
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