The Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 22, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, There will be one flock, one shepherd. I am the Good Shepherd.
Greetings, fellow sheep. Today at the end of our service we will go out and find good pasture in our backyard children’s garden – the sun and the birds and the blossoms tell us that it is time again to bless our garden, to bless the water and the soil and the seeds and the labor that will bring forth the cherry tomatoes, the parsley and basil, the lettuce and sweet peppers, that we will enjoy on lazy Sunday afternoons this summer. Our little bit of earth, this land that we are stewards of, this part of the good planet God has given us, needs our care and our attention – and as people who live in concrete and steel and glass, we need this land to remind us who we are, people of earth, sheep of the shepherd.
This bit of greenness grounds us – lest we forget and think we’re each of us an autonomous individual, self-made with our minds made up – this earth reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Made of the earth, like all the other parts of creation, all the other human beings and plants and animals and rocks. We are part of the one flock.
But we all too often forget. We live out our forgetting in the destruction of this earth, using up resources and clogging our warming seas with plastic because we are too greedy to change. We live out our forgetting in the supremacy of whiteness in this culture, examples like the arrest in Philadelphia repeating over and over again. We live out our forgetting in how we treat one another in ways big and small, how men treat women, how the native-born treat immigrants, how all of us treat those who differ from us. We need reminders like the story of the Good Shepherd, a story that tells us again loud and clear that we are one flock with one shepherd, one who loves us, and calls us each by name. We need reminders of just what it is we believe.
In this season of Easter our sermons are focusing more or less explicitly on elements of our Sunday worship. We’re covering these elements all out of order, because we’re basing the order on themes in the readings for each Sunday that seemed to echo the different parts of our liturgy. We began two weeks ago with the offertory, bringing the gifts to the altar; last week it was the confession and the exchange of the peace; this week it is the creed, which we say every Sunday directly after the sermon.
We say the Nicene Creed, one of the three ancient creeds of the church, as part of our response to hearing the Word proclaimed in the lessons and the sermon. (The other two creeds are the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed – the Apostles’ Creed is part of our Morning and Evening Prayer service, and also our baptism services; the Athanasian Creed you can find in the historical documents section of the BCP and see why we don’t really use it in worship.) For a church that welcomes doubts and questions as freely as we do, and that embraces members who aren’t sure just what they believe, you might wonder sometimes why such a strong statement of belief is a regular part of worship at all. I’ve known many a churchgoer who leaves out parts of the creed they don’t agree with, or crosses their fingers at the parts they’re not sure about, or just flat out refuses to say any of it. So yes, we clergy know all about your tricks, fellow sheep.
The church hasn’t always included the creed in worship. In the early church it was understood that the ‘creed’ of the Eucharist was the Eucharistic prayer, which lays out the outline of our faith quite fully over the bread and wine. It was only when the church became concerned with combating heresy that it created the Nicene Creed in the first place, adding to it over several councils and regularizing it as part of worship. The Roman church did not accept the creed as part of the Eucharist till the 11th c., and then only on Sundays and feast days.
But then when the Reformation placed the emphasis on sola scriptura, scripture alone, many churches rejected the Nicene Creed again because it wasn’t all biblical. It nearly didn’t make it into the American prayer book. And I’m not even going to get into the great controversy over the filioque, a short phrase in the creed that has been part of the division between the church in the East and the West for over 1000 years.
So it’s a statement created by councils and committees, acting to defend the orthodoxy of the church, fought over to this day by Christians, and it’s redundant to what we say in the Eucharistic prayer and elsewhere. Well, you’re thinking, no wonder I don’t bother saying it all. Rather than reminding us of our unity and faith in one God, we’re all off in our own corners over these words that we say. What’s the point?
Well, allow me to say a few words about that. As I sometimes try to make clear when I invite us all to stand and say the creed, the creed offers a statement of the faith of our tradition. We say it together as a community because it expresses what we collectively as the church believe. The creed says, ‘We believe’ – which is the original language of the creed, the first person plural (for longtime Episcopalians, it’s something our current prayer book changed back to how it used to be). So it is less a personal statement of beliefs and more a corporate statement of faith, linking us to our ancestors and to Christians around the world today. As my liturgy professor from seminary, Louis Weil, wrote in his book Liturgy for Living, “To recite [the creed] is to confess one’s faith in Christ as the church has always held it and continues to do so. One believes with the church and hence confesses faith in the words ‘We believe.’”
It’s also important to know just what the verb is we’re using: We believe, in Latin credimus, comes from credo, meaning to trust in, believe, rely on, commit to. We are claiming together our trust in God as experienced as Creator, Son, Spirit. We are relying upon the love and care of that one God, light from light, the Spirit active in the church and the world. We lean on God together as we say these words – which is a very good response indeed to hearing about God in the liturgy of the word. And to my mind at least, it’s a very different response to taking a doctrinal test that we all score 100% on. We trust in God – even though we will never, we know, fully understand God. And we trust in the witness of God’s people throughout the centuries, as declared in these 226 words. Even in those times when we aren’t just sure any of makes sense to us; even when we have trouble feeling it ourselves. We, together, rely on God. That’s what we’re saying when we stand and say that creed together. That’s also why we sometimes sing it, or a paraphrase of it, as we have the last two summers – to remind us that it is poetry and symbol and song of our common faith, not a checklist of things for us to assent to intellectually. The creed reminds us that we Christians trust in God, who creates us, who knows and redeems us, who acts among us always.
Which brings us back around to the Good Shepherd. This image Jesus gives us in the Gospel of John has been compelling to Christians right from the start. The very earliest depictions of Jesus in the catacombs of Rome, the earliest religious art of the Christian church, in fact, are of Jesus as the good shepherd – linking him to the shepherd king David and to earlier scriptures that speak of God as shepherd of our souls (like in Psalm 23). There are churches named for the Good Shepherd, and thousands of stained-glass windows with that theme (although, curiously, not here at St Michael’s). The Good Shepherd is popular in pictures and books for children, and Psalm 23 is many people’s favorite passage of scripture. When we are in need of reassurance, the Good Shepherd image reminds us, we can trust that God is in charge. We are safe no matter what comes. God protects us from harm.
And the sheep, Jesus says, know his voice and follow him. The sheep is us, of course. And as sheep, we aren’t just marching along individually, deciding whether we want to follow today or not, separate from one another until we choose otherwise. We’re not masters of the universe, or even masters of our own destiny. On our own, we’ve messed up the pasture, the planet we live in. We destroy each other over inessential differences of color, and yes, of creed. We suffer in our mortality and limitation, unable to guarantee our own success, or the timing of our own death. But we’re part of a flock, journeying together with others, like it or not. And we have a shepherd, one we can trust – we can trust God the Father and Mother of us all. We can trust Jesus, who died for love of us and rose again from the dead. We can trust the Spirit at work among us. And by saying all of this, we remind ourselves that God has us in hand, each of us and all of us knit together, all part of this good creation God has made. And trusting that, we live that out – we care for the creation we’re part of, we care for the flock we’re part of, we help bring healing to this world. That’s what the faith of our tradition is; that’s what we do together.
The letter of John tells us, And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23) The belief and the living out the belief are all tied together. We trust, we rely on God, and so we can love each other. Believing, trusting in God, leads us into love. We don’t get one without the other.
In a few moments, we’ll stand together and say the creed. In a few moments more, we’ll come to the table and share bread and wine. And then we’ll go outside and bless that garden, and we’ll all go on our way in the world, our souls revived, guided along right pathways. Listen for the voice of the shepherd. Quiet yourself enough to recognize God’s voice. Trust that God is there, creating, redeeming, sanctifying – as God’s people throughout the ages have witnessed, as we ourselves say together every week. As part of the one flock, cared for by the one good shepherd, let us love.