The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest,
St. Michael’s Church
Before we begin, one programming note: Today we will further reinforce the spiritual impossibility of avoiding mixed metaphors. You’ve been warned.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is informally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, but this reading from John’s gospel has Jesus describing his own role not as shepherd but as gate: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
In the parable, the sheep go out each day to seek pasture—a place to safely graze under the protection of the light of day and the wise guidance of the shepherd. They come back each evening seeking protection from the night’s dangers and rest to prepare for the following day’s journey.
If Jesus is the gate, we sheep encounter him at least twice each day, reminding us in the morning that he sends us out with work to do and reminding us in the evening that we have labored enough for today. We go out, we come in. Exit and return.
This notion of a daily, almost rhythmic encounter with God makes me think of breathing, of the opportunity to breathe in God’s Spirit and empowerment in the morning and breathe out all my frustration and regret as I walk in the door each night.
I think these visions would be familiar to the disciples we hear about in our first reading, from Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
There it is again: Day by day. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we grow in our awareness of the presence of Christ all around us. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we slowly learn to be a little more patient with ourselves and others, and little more generous and grateful and full of joy.
Of course, commentators on this passage from Acts are right, I think, to be a little skeptical of whether it quite so straightforward for disciples to be disciples, and for the church to be the church. Even if they knew something about forming holy habits.
For example, it’s true that the economic system of the day was quite different, and there’s no doubt that the experience of tight-knit community and the apostles’ “signs and wonders” must have been very powerful. Nevertheless, the thought that any group of people would pool their wealth and possessions quite so unselfishly and with such apparent unity of purpose—let’s just say I suspect the reality was occasionally more contentious. Certainly much of what comes later in Acts and in the Epistles suggests that frequent disagreements would soon follow. And of course there’s nothing wrong with disagreements.
But even if this account of the daily life of the earliest Christians is a bit nostalgia-tinged, I still find the overall picture believable. Indeed, we find stories like these throughout the history of our faith: ordinary people accomplishing remarkable things, and as this morning’s reading from 1 Peter reminds us, often enduring great hardship along the way. What all the stories have in common is that these communities knew that God was helping them to accomplish this work, together, day by day. One shepherd. One flock. Also one gate, I guess.
A few months back I saw Martin Scorsese’s striking film Silence, based on a novelization of the experience of the Kakure Kirishitans. These were the “secret Christians” who practiced their Catholic faith underground during the Tokugawa shogunate in seventeenth through nineteenth century Japan.
The film focuses primarily on Jesuit missionaries who sneak into the country to support these communities and to search for their mentor who is rumored to have renounced his faith. But for me the most compelling moments are the early scenes of worship and fellowship in Kirishitan homes. When the priests arrive, they ask the villagers how they manage to practice their faith.
Their answer could be right out of the Book of Acts: Everyone here is a member of our secret church. We have a group of elders who lead us in prayer and teaching. We baptize our children. “We hide the Kirishitan images but God still sees us, yes?”
They had their Lord, and they had each other, and despite horrendous persecution they lived lives of quiet and courageous faith, day by day. They found pasture not in daylight but in shadows. They found it nonetheless. And though their faces had become masks that could not show it, Andrew Garfield’s Fr. Rodrigues verbalizes what is evident in all the scenes of devotion and fellowship: “I was overwhelmed right away by the love I felt from them.”
I mention all this—an example of the the breadth and depth of experience among Christ’s followers—because we skipped the most important part of the parable. It might be the most important part of the entire gospel. We got a preview in Psalm 23 in that famous line about our cups overflowing, but Jesus puts an even finer point on it at the end of today’s gospel: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Abundant life … that is the purpose of our daily encounters at the gate, of the rhythmic breathing in and out of God’s rejuvenating Spirit, of the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, of the breaking of the bread and the prayers, of pooling our resources to care for each other and those in need, of the God-given strength to endure suffering and to work for justice, of icons and rosaries hung on the wall or the rearview or hidden from authorities who do not approve.
The purpose of all these gifts is to experience abundant life. God wants to give us this life right now, each and every day.
I am shocked and frankly embarrassed by how often I forget this reality, how often I see the world through self-imposed blinders that allow me to fixate on the day’s usually inconsequential worries instead of its joys or even its worthy sorrows.
I hope you will spend a few moments with me thinking about the ways God desires your flourishing, you life abundant. What does that look like for you? How do you experience it? It can be as profound and overwhelming as the warm embrace of a loved one after a time spent apart or as simple as one slow, restorative breath.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. We are not quite halfway through the great 50 days. We cannot control what gifts we may be given in our continuing celebration of the season of new life. But we can control how we notice and receive them.
Enter through the gate. Live by the example of the saints who came before us. And trust that goodness and mercy will follow you all your days—because Jesus longs for you to experience life in abundance.