Updated: Jan 31, 2021
Today represents the end of the fourth week of the counting of the Omer.
We are now on the 28th day since the ceremonial presentation of the First Fruits in the Temple during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread – Passover (Nisan 16). That count reflects the one done by God’s chosen people, the Jews.
The count is 22 for us Christians, since Easter Sunday. We have now begun the fourth week of the symbolic training that the disciples experienced with the risen Lord.
Some Jews, those following in the footsteps of the descendants of the servants to the Temple priest, the Levites, see the number four as representing “Foundations.”
Such symbolic associations are Kabbalistic, and they bear importance, worthy of spending a moment of reflection on this.
The four corners of the earth means going in all directions, with everything covered. There are four elements of the material universe: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. From those elements, everything in the physical realm is made.
We say we want to be “fair and square,” where the meaning reflects rules, honesty, and a solid footing, where stability is in focus.
The cornerstone, or foundation stone, is a four-sided cube, upon which we build from strength and stability. Thus, Jesus is the earthly cornerstone to Heaven.
So, the fourth number in the counting of weeks (Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks, beginning with the Day of Pentecost) can be seen as focusing on readings that set the Foundation for belief in Christ.
In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus tell of such foundation, using the analogy of a sheepfold. Jesus said he was the gate keeper to that pen or enclosure for sheep, where multiple flocks would spend the night. But, Jesus also said he was the gate itself.
The Israelites, then Jews, were the focus of that analogy, where the Law of Moses acted as the surrounding stones creating the sheep enclosure. Like the Jews, we Christians are the “sheep” in the same “pen.” As Episcopalians – our flock’s title – we are but one of many flocks that fall under the heading of “Christianity.”
Each congregation of each individual church can then be seen as but one flock among many flocks, in a very large holding area.
Jesus opens the gate to the pen, into which all believers in Christ enter; but Jesus opens the gate to good shepherds. People who have become the mind of Christ, through receipt of the Holy Spirit, they send in their flocks of sheep to Christ for safekeeping.
The shepherds are Apostles, but the Apostles were first sheep, who had a good shepherd.
When one sees the ultimate purpose of Christianity to be something like, “Tag, you’ve got It,” where “It” is the Holy Spirit, then the sheepfold is actually the place where Apostles are formed. It is from that place that Jesus becomes the “gate” to Heaven, for the Apostles.
Jesus said, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house,” and he has gone there to prepare a place for us sheep, with the expectation that we will become Apostles.
We are not the only ones in the pen, waiting for that development. Remember, we are on day 22, so there is time. Still, there is much work to do.
As I said, there are many flocks in the sheepfold of Christ. At the time of the first Apostles, only Jewish people believed Jesus was their Messiah. Jesus Resurrected and spent time with his disciples, teaching them how their role was to become Apostles. He then ascended, leaving them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. With Jesus watching in spirit, the disciples were elevated to Apostles, through their hard work, becoming Good Shepherds for both Jews and Gentiles.
Other flocks are now in the sheepfold, making up the universal [catholic] church, of which Episcopalians are a part.
Every denomination is represented in this enclosure of Christianity. As long as they enter with Christ opening the gate, and they see Christ as the gate to the Father, they have the opportunity to be more.
This then turns the focus on the Good Shepherds, those who have gathered flocks of sheep. Jesus said, “The flock will not follow a stranger, but will run from one unknown. A Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name, and the sheep know the sound of the Good Shepherd’s voice.”
This says an Apostle is one from the flock. He or she is one in a family relationship with the flock. He or she is one who has a personal investment with the flock, based on love, caring, and a burning desire to have each sheep in the flock to grow itself into an Apostle, being able to lead a flock of its own.
We tend to look at a priest, a vicar, a rector, as a good shepherd; and that is the way it most definitely should be, but …
Each Christian family is its own church, with its own Good Shepherd.
If one looks around the pews of any church on any Sunday, one can see the different flocks of that individual church. In that way, each church building acts as a surrogate sheepfold for Christ … one of many around the world.
Regardless of where, one should find that a well-raised flock is like a good vine that bears good fruit. An Apostle is then not only a Good Shepherd, but also a Good Gardener, one who raises the vine off the ground, who pulls out the weeds and wild grapevines that try to intermingle with the good vine. A Food Gardener is one who prepares for new growth each season, by harvesting the good grapes and making holy wine.
In the reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see what a Good Shepherd is; and we see who a Christian sheep is.
We read, “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
We read that “Awe came upon everyone.”
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
It was a wonderful life back then, soon after the first rush of the Holy Spirit into the disciples. We find that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
<PAUSE to reflect on what was just said>
They sold everything that wasn’t needed, for the common good of all, and that system “added to their number.”
The first Christians were “all-in” AND “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
A few years ago, possibly after reading this passage in a lectionary class, I caught up with the leader of that group as he hurried to get his favored spot in a pew, for the main Sunday service in that church. I asked him, “Whatever happened to that “all-in” Church?”
As he hurried away, he turned and looked at me, saying, “That didn’t work out too well, did it?”
<PAUSE to reflect on what was just said>
Who says it didn’t work out? People being saved in increasing numbers didn’t work out?
It works out perfectly … BUT … when you start getting away from the family Church, the flock where the shepherd knows all the names of the sheep and the sheep all know the voice of the shepherd, then you start letting strangers into the mix ….
Maybe that is what didn’t work out too well?
You know that Jesus warned us, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”
That means anyone who bypasses the gatekeeper – Jesus. That means a stranger in the mix, one who comes in the cover of darkness, when all the sheep are bedded down to sleep, before the dawn has them back out for the green pastures, along with their good shepherd.
Anyone who sees a flock’s willingness to share for the common good can see that as an opportunity to steal possessions or rob the flock of its needs.
Some people can claim poor unknown Christians are not having their needs met, and use a slick tongue or sob story to take advantage of Christian charity.
Such people are not part of the flock’s family, but they start telling the sheep how much need they have, which the flock can help end. They start telling the flock how much the flock needs to give.
If this theft and robbery goes on for too long, then the flock becomes destitute. The wolves in sheep’s clothing get rich. The next thing you know, the bad shepherd is saying, “Let’s just give 10%. I want you to be able to meet your own needs.”
Then you hear people saying, that “all-in thing didn’t work out too well.”
The worst part of that theft and robbery is that bad shepherds are not teaching any sheep how to be filled with the Holy Spirit. That means none of the sheep are progressing spiritually, being enabled to become Apostles, as planned.
That is why we must understand that the gate to Heaven is Jesus Christ, who also opens the gate to the sheepfold, and blesses good shepherds with the gate to Heaven when they graduate a sheep to Apostle.
We cannot allow that theft to take place.
Back in the early days of these true churches, where everyone was “all-in” and together as family, with known leaders who were Apostles, there was plenty of persecution.
Persecution wears down ordinary people. Ordinary people look for ways out of pain and punishment. They look for someone to say, “It is okay. Just stop sharing all things in common. Keep some for yourself. Take it easier. God and Jesus still love you.”
If only Jesus left us a Holy Magic Wand, then we could just pull that out and <poof> there would be no more pain and suffering. Unfortunately ….
Peter wrote his letters to his flocks of sheep that had been left in the care of Good Shepherds. It was their family members who needed encouragement to stay the course. Peter did not tell them to stop being “all-in.” He told them to maintain being fully committed to God, through Christ.
Peter said, “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” He told them, “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you will have God’s approval.”
Peter told them that Jesus suffered in the same way. True Christians have gained Christ as their Good Shepherd because they recognize how much Jesus suffered for them.
Peter encouraged the early Christian flocks by saying, “You were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
In a way, Peter said, “Before Jesus died for your sins, you were only paying 10% and that was not working for you at all. You paid for nothing and got what you paid for.”
Jesus sacrificed for Heaven, and so should you. No pain, no gain.
We make things seem more difficult than they really are, some times. Those of a certain age remember times when you were children, when you had so little your life seemed unbearable.
There was not enough food to eat, never any of the latest fashions to wear, and not enough heat in the winter or cool in the summer. There was an economic collapse, followed by a World War. Ordinary things were rationed or impossible to get, so that the needs of our troops were met first, and foremost.
You survived because the family pulled together, brothers helping sisters, parents helping children. Aunts and uncles and cousins working together to help one another have their needs met.
It was hard. There was an awful lot of prayer involved too …
And it preserved the family through hard times.
Since then, times have relaxed and a time of plenty has made life in America bountiful. We have become used to excess. We have lost touch with what true need is.
We have lost touch with the benefit of sacrifice for family. We have lost touch with the need to spend much time together in the temple. We have moved so far apart from core family members that it is very difficult to break bread at home and eat with glad and generous hearts.
We seem to be praising God for economic wealth and international prosperity, rather than for the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and knowledge to tend our own garden and pasture our own sheep.
We must remember to stay focused on what is truly important, and not become distracted by all the bells and whistles of life on the earthly plane.
That is why we must see the Foundation of Christianity as a responsibility we each must bear. We must learn, so we can teach. We must share with those we know, so we all may be one as a family, recognizing each family is just like us.
We are heading toward the Day of Ascension, when Jesus became the gate to Heaven. We are heading toward our Day of Pentecost, when we can make our own personal Covenant with the LORD, so we can be filled with the Holy Spirit. It will be a time when we will see just how well an “all-in” system works. We will then begin preparing our garden to bear good fruit, as Apostles.
We are lost without family. We are found by good shepherds. We are taught to become good shepherds. We are called to serve that role, as models of Jesus. We know how “all-in” family must be.
For that reason, we can understand how the shepherd king, David, also fulfilled this role in the same manner. He was a shepherd, a student and a teacher. He knew the full meaning of the song he wrote:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; and your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.