Today is the fourth Sunday in Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This day is a tradition in the Church year and I have christened it Wednesday of the Easter season. It is our cue that the Easter season is half way over; we are on the downhill slope to Pentecost. For this reason, you may begin to notice a change in the character of our readings.
Since Easter, we have focused on the Risen Christ. Jesus has appeared to three central groups of disciples: the women, the apostles and the less famous disciples. These appearances bring a much needed sense of peace and hope to the disciples (and us). They reveal truths about Jesus as the Risen Christ and his authority. Most of all, these stories offer ways for The Church to be in relationship with the Risen Christ.
Next week, our readings will begin to prepare us for “Life after The Ascension.” For three weeks, we return to Jesus’ teachings about discipleship. He will encourage the faith and belief of the disciples. He will turn our attention to The Great Commandment, reminding us that God’s Way is the way of love. These readings should encourage and direct us as we follow the Risen Christ.
Today, then, is an in-between kind of day. As we head towards Pentecost, our readings point us towards an essential ingredient of discipleship: relationship. Today, we remember that discipleship begins with deep reliance and trust in Jesus and one another.
Have you ever gone on a trip, a really long trip? Think about all you need: food, gas, clothing, money, oh(!) and a map. Have you ever traveled with children? Children add a whole set of necessary items: more food, more clothing and, perhaps some entertainment. And then there’s everything that needs taken care of at home: house sitters, pet sitters or, even, baby sitters. Whatever the situation, if these basic needs are not met, you can be assured of trouble. And, then, even when you are prepared, the unexpected still lurks around the bend. These are the moments when the term reliable becomes especially important.
Who do you call to help change the flat tire? Who do you trust to care for your animals, plants or children while you’re away? Who do you depend on? Most likely, they are people or companies that you trust: people you can rely on.
Discipleship is often likened to a journey. Maybe it’s because Jesus was always on the move, traveling throughout the countryside. Maybe it’s because we have some sense that life is not static; that our lives are dynamic and there is transformation that happens within us. Regardless, if we understand discipleship as a journey, then there are some essentials along the way.
What do we need as we journey with Christ? Psalm 23 and our readings from Acts this morning seem to be direct answers to this question. Both readings point to two kinds of needs for the discipleship journey: physical and spiritual. We need shelter, food, water and rest. We also need wisdom and discernment to follow and trust God’s way. And, perhaps most of all, we need compassion and mercy.
Who do we rely on along the way? Psalm 23 points us towards our relationship with God. Acts reveals a particular kind of community. If we base our discipleship in these readings, then we can trust God and depend on each other.
All of this seems simple and obvious. There’s really nothing new at all in what I’ve said. There is, though, something very risky in this way of life.
Imagine if I asked all of us to place all that we had on the altar. I mean everything: cash, check books, deeds to our cars and homes. And then, imagine I told you to trust me and I began to re-distribute everything according to each need. Would you really put everything on the altar? Is there anyone you would really trust in this kind of situation? What feelings would you have? What would you be thinking?
Now, I’m, obviously, not going to ask us to do this (whew!). I do, though, wonder: is there anyone we would trust this much? Would we do this for Jesus? Do we rely on God for all of our needs?
These are the hard questions of Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus affirms for us, with images of shepherds and sheep, that he is trustworthy, reliable. This is confirmed by the testament of the psalmist and the Early Church in Acts. Yet, somehow, when we ask ourselves to fully rely on God, we stumble.
And, there’s that other question lurking in our readings today: how much do we rely on one another? The time I’ve spent in this community tells me there would be a resounding, yes, to this question. And, our readings ask us to go deeper, to put everything on the table with God and with one another.
This is the work of Christian discipleship, the core of Good Shepherd Sunday: relationship and community. Can we imagine that Christ is our companion, our friend, our colleague? Can we imagine that we are partners in the life of discipleship? Of course we can.
The challenge put before us today is to deepen our relationships: to spend more time with Christ and to share more of our lives with one another.
Reliance and trust make us vulnerable to the hazards of the world and one another; they are also essential in the life of discipleship. When we practice vulnerability, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. This transformation draws us closer to God and God’s kingdom and this is the cornerstone of our faith.
There’s another important aspect of today’s readings. The community between Christ and the disciples is never wholly to their benefit. The shepherd calls the sheep out. He guides and directs them as they strive into the world. We, a community of disciples, are also called out. Jesus invites us to share the community we have, with Him and one another, outside these walls.
With 71 grocery bags given to Salvation Army as an example, we are already doing this work. The invitation of Good Shepherd Sunday is to “keep it up.” This is more than a pat on the back. It is an invitation to go deeper, to offer more of ourselves. 71 grocery bags is a symbol of something deep growing within us: a growing community with Christ and one another.
This community will take time. It will take courage and strength. It will take trust and risk. Most of all, it asks us to listen for Christ’s voice, to rely on His strength and to follow Him in all we do.
Peace be with you,