Fifth Sunday of Easter
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who defines who we are and whose we are. Amen
So Peter has a crazy thing happen to him,
he’s out and about spreading the good news
that Jesus is the Messiah,
he’s doing it among his fellow Jews
because they’re the ones waiting for the messiah
the one sent from God to the chosen people of Israel.
Now remember these are the people who God chose
and set apart a long time ago
and to mark their apartness
God gave the chosen people all these laws to follow as a gift,
you know the main ten,
no other Gods,
don’t use the name of God in vain,
keep the Sabbath,
don’t kill, don’t covet etc.
and then after the main ten there came a whole lot more,
some six hundred more laws
and the arrangement was
that as long as the people followed the law
life with God would be good
but if they broke the law
God could do everything from hide
to downright punish the people
usually through occupying armies
taking over the promised land.
Now this is over simplifying the relationship
because God is also gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
but the essence is that the mark of the chosen people
is the following of the law, however imperfectly,
it’s how the Israelites show they are chosen
both to God and the world around them.
Following it is a big deal.
Which brings us back to Peter and his crazy experience.
Peter is in Joppa sharing the message of the messiah
He takes some time to pray
and while he’s praying he has a vision,
in the vision he sees a buffet of animals
that are prohibited for food by the law,
and a voice tells him to “Get up, kill and eat”
Peter protests saying
“by no means Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”
he’s a faithful follower of the law
it’s the right response,
but instead of congratulating Peter for his faithfulness
the voice says “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
as the vision ends
some gentiles arrive,
gentile is the blanket name for everyone else
those who are not chosen by God
and they invite Peter to come with them
and nudged by the Spirit Peter does
and as he shares the news of Jesus
the Holy Spirit comes on these outsiders
in the same way that it had on all the disciples
and faced with the actions of the spirit
Peter goes ahead and baptizes the people
and stays with them
and by doing so breaks the law.
Which is why when word of this gets back to Jerusalem
the people there are pretty upset with Peter,
in spending time with the gentiles
he has betrayed his identity as an Israelite
in our first lesson we hear Peter’s explanation
to his fellow apostles and believers,
and at the end of his story he concludes:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
With this the complaints are silenced
and the apostles praise God
for giving even the gentiles the good news.
Faced with a huge shift in identity
Peter and the apostles hesitate,
push back even
it’s a natural reaction to changing identity
but despite their misgivings as they pay attention to the work of the spirit
and as they remember the teachings of Jesus
they are able to praise God at the new thing God is doing in their midst.
After all, on their last night together
Jesus did give them a new commandment,
a new identity marker for the community
when he told them “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love is the new law
The new marker for the community
and honestly we struggle with that,
even after all of these thousands of years,
like the Israelites we go through periods of struggle
where the communal identity shifts
toward a more inclusive understanding of community
and then we settle in
until it seems like we’ve always done it this way
And that’s when God shakes things up
Reminds us of the law of love
and breaks out the phrase
“What God has made clean you must not call profane”
And once again we struggle with our identity
because things are changing,
those we thought were out are now in,
these are the moments where we must follow the lead of Peter
and pay attention to where the Holy Spirit is moving and working around us
and remember the teachings of Jesus
and perhaps then we will conclude with Peter
“who was I that I could hinder God?”
Because when we think about it,
what God is doing for them,
whoever that happens to be,
it’s the same thing God has done for us,
In love God claimed us
and gave us an identity that will never change,
child of God
that identity is ours
no matter what anyone else says,
or how the community changes
we are God’s beloved,
and when we think of it in this way,
who are we to hinder God? Amen
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the Good Shepherd. Amen
Sheep, well shepherds
appear all over our readings for today,
it’s why this Sunday has the nickname,
Good Shepherd Sunday.
I don’t claim to know much of anything about shepherding
other than it is the shepherd’s job to take care of sheep
which generally means leading them to food and water,
finding them when they wander off
and protecting them from things that want eat them, like wolves.
At least this is the portrait of the shepherd
that is painted in the Bible,
a theme that Jesus takes up when he proclaims in John 10:11
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
which in this Easter season
we are well aware that he does.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he promises to take care of us
and that is comforting,
no matter how independent or tough we are
or pretend we are,
we all long to be cared for,
to be assured that everything will be okay,
that there is someone looking out for us.
And Jesus does,
but he also has expectations for us
as we follow him
and that leads to the truth
that lies behind all the talk of the tender care of the good shepherd,
the truth there is no guarantee
that life lived in and with God
will be free from dangers or hardships,
in fact Jesus is quite clear
that those who follow him
should expect danger and hardship,
what Jesus does guarantee, promise,
is to be with us,
in the midst of these times.
Take our beloved Psalm 23
even as the psalmist describes the green pastures
and still waters provided by the shepherd,
what sounds like a pretty cushy life for a sheep,
the psalmist acknowledges walking through the valley of the shadow of death
and the presence of enemies,
what makes the difference for the psalmist
is the presence of God in the midst of these experiences.
The danger is there
but the psalmist does not fear
because of the comfort of the Lord.
These themes are present as well in our reading from Revelation,
Revelation or the Apocalypse of John
is an odd book
but rather than being a prediction of the future to come
as so many have thought,
it falls more into the category of resistance fiction.
A story written to convey truths
to an oppressed group of people
in a way that will not bring down the wrath of the empire upon their heads.
The Christians to whom John wrote in Revelation
were living under the Roman Empire,
their proclaimed belief that Jesus is Lord
rather than the Caesar
placed them at the margins of society at best
and subject to death for treason at worst
things were going to get worse before they got better
this is the setting for our reading from Revelation,
where John in his vision
sees a great multitude around the throne of God in heaven,
from every nation and language praising God
John finds out that this crowd
are the people who have come through the “great ordeal”
they have suffered on behalf of Jesus
so now they get to spend all their time worshiping God
“and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These are images are familiar,
they are the words of the prophet Isaiah
to the Israelites in exile,
God promised to bring them out of exile and God did,
now God promises to bring the people out of the tribulation to shelter,
but God will do this as a shepherd,
walking with the people,
through the danger
to the promised land of safety and security.
Once again God does not promise that there will be no suffering or hardships,
what God does promise is to be there with the people through the hardships.
It’s the way God works,
Jesus is the good shepherd
And we follow him because he knows us.
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus says today in our gospel reading,
and that is the key to the good of the shepherd,
the knowing of the sheep.
This knowing is a heart knowing
rather than a head knowing,
the kind of knowing that means the shepherd can pick individual sheep
out of what looks to the rest of us like an undifferentiated mass.
It’s the kind of knowing that anticipates
that some sheep like this kind of grass,
while others favor another
so the shepherd makes sure to frequent both pastures,
it’s a knowing that heads off that one sheep
that always wanders away from the rest,
And the sheep,
knowing they are loved and cared for
follow the voice of the one who loves and cares for them.
Even if it means going through some dangerous spots,
they follow because they know the shepherd will go with them
and take care of them.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he knows us with the knowledge of love,
a knowing so deep we cannot help but respond
in the good times and in the times of trouble,
and when we wander away
Jesus comes to find us
and bring us back into the fold.
And now some of you are sitting there thinking
‘that’s a pretty message pastor but how’s that going to work out?”
In this Easter season we’ve been spending time with the disciples
who have been saying pretty much the same thing,
Jesus has appeared to them post resurrection
and given them the good news
and they wonder ‘how’s that going to work if you’re ascending to your father Jesus?’
and Jesus has told them,
you’re going to do it,
I will be present in you.
Last week we heard the final conversation between Jesus and Peter
where Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep and tend his flock
and in that instance the lamb became the shepherd.
Just like in Revelation where the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
we lambs are to be shepherds to one another.
It sounds kind of funny
but again that’s how God works,
so here we are,
lambs that are cared for
and shepherds that care for others,
we have both roles to play.
Sometimes we’re more lamb
and sometimes we’re more shepherd
but we are always bound by love.
We’ve been lambs this morning,
we have heard we are loved and known,
and now it’s time to put on our shepherd hats,
I want you to look around
and notice who is missing this morning,
think about who you haven’t seen for a while,
this isn’t a rhetorical point
I want you to take a moment and pick one person or family
you haven’t seen here for a while.
Everyone got someone in mind?
Okay, now it’s your turn to be the shepherd
this week I want you to reach out to that person,
write them a note,
give them a call.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
just a simple I noticed you were gone,
I missed you
And in this way they will know they are cared for,
that they are known,
that Jesus is with them wherever they are in life,
just like he promised. Amen
Second Sunday of Easter
Alleluia Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen indeed alleluia!
Christ is risen,
the tomb is empty
the messengers from God have appeared,
Mary has proclaimed to the disciples
that she has seen the Lord,
the disciples don’t really believe her
but it is an explanation for everything else that happened
and Jesus did say something about coming back
now that they think of it
Christ is risen, now what?
It’s a question both for the disciples and us.
The disciples are still unsure
of what exactly is going on
except that three days ago
they witnessed the brutal execution of their leader
so they decide the best course of action
is to lay low for awhile
and so that Sunday evening
finds them gathered together in fear and uncertainty
behind locked doors.
And into the midst of their fear and uncertainty,
saying peace to the startled disciples
I imagine them all sitting there in shock,
the doors are still locked after all,
and while they might have a guess
they’re still not sure who it is
until Jesus shows them his hands and his side,
marked with scars from being nailed to the cross
and pierced with a sword.
And then the disciples rejoice,
Jesus is among them!
But the question still hovers,
now that the disciples recognize him
Jesus is able to answer that question,
he gives them the gift of peace,
says “As the Father has sent me so I send you”
and breathing on them,
just as God breathed into Adam at creation,
Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit
and tells them that they are to continue his work,
bearing witness to the possible relationship between humans and God,
a relationship Jesus showed them with his life,
a relationship they are to show others with their lives.
So now the disciples know what they are supposed to do next
and it’s not too long before they get to try out their new role of bearing witness.
It turns out that Thomas,
one of their own
was not with them when Jesus came to them,
but he was a follower of Jesus
he should be an easy sell right?
So echoing Mary that first morning
they proclaim to him
“We have seen the Lord”
and Thomas, echoing their own words to Mary
responds “unless I see the marks in his hand for myself, I will not believe”
Now we don’t get the disciples’ reaction to this pronouncement
but I’ve got to think that it dampened their enthusiasm some
for the mission that Jesus had given them
because the next time we see the disciples
where are they?
Out the in the world continuing Jesus’ work?
No, a week later
they are in that same house
in the same room
with the doors shut.
The only difference is that Thomas is with them this time
and once again Jesus appears among
them greeting them with peace.
Then he turns and offers himself to Thomas,
saying “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side, do not be unbelieving but believing.”
When we hear these words
we sometimes add a mocking tone to them,
indeed we’ve added the epithet Doubting to Thomas’ name,
but there is no reason to interpret Jesus’ words and actions
as anything but filled with grace.
Jesus is offering Thomas what he needs,
encouraging him farther down the path of faith.
And having been given what he needs
he proclaims “My Lord and my God.”
and with that goes a step further
than the rest of the disciples in his belief,
he grasps the nature of the special relationship between Jesus and his abba
the relationship that John the author of the gospel
has been conveying from the very beginning with the words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God.
Thomas gets it.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks,
knowing full well that it was what Thomas requested,
but then goes on,
turning it seems to us
saying “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Again I don’t think there is judgment in those words,
Thomas is blessed with his faith through sight
and those who believe without seeing Jesus are also blessed,
we are blessed by our belief
not how we came to it,
there is no greater blessing than being in relationship with Jesus, with God
And having recorded Jesus’ benediction,
John turns once again to us,
the readers throughout the ages
and says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
And once again the ball is back in our court,
the tomb is empty,
Mary has delivered her message to the skeptical disciples,
Jesus has appeared to the disciples through locked doors,
given them the gift of the holy spirit and ascended to his abba.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen,
The end of Jesus’ story
is just the beginning of ours,
like the disciples we have been given the gift of the holy spirit,
in commissioning the disciples
Jesus has commissioned us
to continue his work in the world,
living our relationship with God openly
in witness to the life-giving nature of relationship with God,
all while walking our own path from unbelief to belief.
Simple enough right?
because no sooner than we’ve excitedly proclaimed
we’ve seen the lord!
We will meet a Thomas,
who demands proof that we ourselves cannot offer
and before we know it we’re back in that room
with the others who are just like us,
with the doors shut
wondering what to do.
And that’s when Jesus comes to us in grace
offering himself to us once again,
and gathered with fellow disciples
we listen to the stories of the signs that Jesus did
stories that point to a truth greater than the stories themselves,
a truth greater than us.
And Gathered together at the table
we reach out and place our hands on Jesus’ body
given for us,
and in our fellowship we share our own experiences with the risen lord,
in Sunday school opening each week
we take time to share our God Sightings,
those places we’ve seen God at work in our lives during the week,
this time lets us hear others’ experience of God
and reminds us to watch for God throughout the week.
So while we may doubt or encounter a Thomas or two
Jesus comes to us
as we share our lives with each other
and maybe just maybe we move farther along the path
from unbelief to belief,
it is a path we walk our whole lives
and often takes some odd turns along the way
doubling back or twisting around,
sometimes we have to travel awhile
before Jesus comes to us in the way that we need or notice
but he will,
and when he does,
with Thomas we will exclaim “My Lord and my God” Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.