Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
To Shepherd and To Build: Acts 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18
Each of our two readings for the day, Act 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18, has a different and interesting central metaphor for how we are to understand Jesus. Through Christian history, both of these metaphors have taken root in Christian community. If you spend some time among Christians, at some point, you will encounter art and songs and simple short hand for Jesus that includes these phrases. There is even a low-cost loan program from the national office of the United Church of Christ called the Cornerstone Fund. It's a fund that helps church better use their real estate serve God and neighbor. It makes sense that they use a construction metaphor for Jesus as their name. There are churches all over the country... all over the world, really, that have names like Good Shepherd, Shepherd of the Hills, Chapel of the Shepherd, and Shepherd of the Valley. Plenty of Christians understand Jesus as their guide and protector. No wonder so many churches are named shepherd. This Sunday in the church year is even called Good Shepherd Sunday. That probably means "shepherd" is an important metaphor.
The great thing about metaphors is that they have layers of meanings. And, they can be important to different people for different reasons. It's probably worth taking some time to explore just what these two metaphors- Jesus as cornerstone and Jesus as shepherd- have to say to us today. The foundations of the world we know are ever changing. We look for guidance on how to understand Jesus and follow him in a world so different from the one he knew. What does it mean for us to have Jesus as a cornerstone and to follow Jesus as a sheep follows its shepherd? How do these stories live in our everyday context?
First, the cornerstone. The book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It is a collection of stories about Jesus' disciples and their ministry after the resurrection. There was conflict at the end of Jesus' life in Luke. The conflict continued through the early ministries of his first followers. The apostles Peter and John were leaders, and therefore, targets in the early movement. This part of Acts 4 tells a story of a time they arrested and go to trial. They have continued Jesus' ministry of healing, which garners them attention from people who are suspicious of their actions. You see, there was an official religious process to being healed. You went to the temple. Officials in the temple examined you. It was only after this examination and their verification would the community accept that you were healed. In Acts chapter 3, Peter and John bypassed this process, healing a man with mobility issues as they themselves traveled to the temple. They did so without communal authority and they did not direct him to seek official healing. They simply healed him, and then preached about that healing in order to teach people something more about Jesus. As you know, when people work outside of the accepted systems, the people who run the systems don't always like that.
An important thing to remember is that much of the conflict during Jesus and the earliest disciples' ministries was a conflict among people of the same faith. Jesus was Jewish and offered a critique of the practices of many leaders in his tradition. In following his example, Peter and John also offered a critique of their leaders. Now, a generous reading of this courtroom scene would admit that priests, Sadducees, and the captain of the temple had a right to question anyone who was preaching and healing in this place of worship. This was their holy space, they had a responsibility to make sure that anyone healing and preaching there did so in good faith and in accordance with their traditions. They had the right to question anyone who preached or healed there, especially if a preacher was openly critical of their practices. We shouldn't be surprised when they ask John and Peter what gave them the power to heal. We shouldn't be surprised that they want to make sure the healings happen in their God's name.
This is where we are reminded that following Jesus often means being willing to be in conflict with your own leaders. It also means being willing to tell the truth about how you experience God, even when it differs from how others experience God. When Peter and John explained how they could heal the man at the temple gates, they can't help but talk about Jesus. You see, even though Jesus is no longer with them physically, the Holy Spirit is living in them and empowering them to continue Christ's own mission. Peter, though he knew he could be punished, told them about his mission. He told them how Jesus had taught them to heal and taught them about God's beloved kin-dom. He told them about how God had proven stronger than death in the resurrection. And, he reasserted his deep connection to their shared tradition by citing Psalm 118. He believed that this Psalm of Thanksgiving said something about how to understand Jesus. A stone that builders once rejected was actually strong enough to be a cornerstone. Jesus was that cornerstone.
This means that Jesus was the foundation of all they did. Jesus inspired them to heal and to work outside of structures that left little room for grace. Jesus taught them to recognize people in need and to help them, even when it was inconvenient. Jesus modeled truth-telling for them, showing that the truth is important enough that it is worth the risk of telling it. And, he showed them a vision of God who would not let death the last word. Each of these lessons became the foundation for their ministry and for the beginning of the church. With a cornerstone that they could be sure of, they were able to build upon their foundation. We, as inheritors of their traditions, are called to keep on building.
And, what of our second reading, Jesus' description of the Good Shepherd? There are many stories of sheep and shepherds in whole Bible in general, and in John in particular. As members of an agrarian community, the people who listened to Jesus would have responded well to these images. They were shepherds and farmers. They understood the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. Their livelihoods depended upon competent shepherds who could care for the flocks that provided for their food, their religious sacrifices, and their ability to trade with others. It was wise for Jesus to teach using an example of sheep and shepherds. They understood what it meant to care for a flock.
John 10 is actually a story similar to Acts 4, but instead of Peter and John being questioned, it's Jesus. He has just healed someone outside the bounds of their traditional healing rituals. This healing shocked everyone. The leaders of the community, though they don't arrest him, are still suspicious of his power. Jesus takes this time to explain where his power comes from and how he's going to use it with a metaphor that the people understood. Like Peter and John who call up on the Psalms to explain Jesus as a cornerstone, Jesus calls up on the imagery of the shepherd in Hebrew Scripture to explain his ministry. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, he was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. There is a shepherd in the book of Ezekiel, too. That shepherd sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Jesus had sought out this wounded man and healed him. There is also a shepherd in Isaiah. This shepherd comforts and heals his sheep. That is the core of Jesus' ministry: Offering comfort and healing. Jesus said he is a good shepherd. He will do all of these things. He is more than a hired hand. He will call out to his sheep and they will know him. He will sacrifice himself for them.
Throughout John, Jesus functions as this good shepherd. Jesus called out the names of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, first when he healed Lazarus, and second, when he showed Mary that he had risen, inviting them to his flock. He made sure his sheep were safe when he left his disciples in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. He found his sheep when he found each one of his disciples, and called them to ministry. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. Importantly, though, Jesus wasn't the only shepherd. In the days after the resurrection, Jesus told Peter he needed to be a shepherd, too. In John 21, Jesus said, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." He told him, "Tend to my sheep." He said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd. His followers are shepherds, too.
We have Christ as a cornerstone for our ministries of healing and proclamation. We are called to be shepherds and tend to Christ's sheep. We have in these stories, examples of the forebears of our faith risking censure, at best, and imprisonment and death at worst, by following their calling. Ours is a time when there is a great need for builders and shepherds. Ours is culture less concerned with tending and feeding, and more inclined to separating and destroying. As our social safety nets are threatened with budget cuts and our neighbors are threatened because of the color of their skin and the content of their faith, we need people who are willing to stand up, like Jesus, John, and Peter did. People who are willing to be instruments of healing and nurture instead of destruction and greed. There is going to come a time when each of us will have to answer questions about who calls us to such work. May we be willing to live like Jesus is our cornerstone. May we be up to the task of serving as his shepherds.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5130
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3628
J.R. Daniel Kirk: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3630
Mitzi J. Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1250
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Looking for Jesus- Luke 24:36b-48
The women had told them that Jesus had risen. In this way, Luke is very much like John and Matthew. The women who had followed Jesus and later went to tend to his body were the first witnesses to the resurrection. They became the first preachers of this particular piece of Good News. But the male disciples did not believe them. They thought Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James' mother Mary, and the other unnamed women who were present were simply telling "an idle tale"… a lie or gossip or garbage, you know the things women's stories get dismissed as all the time. The women had seen the presence of God through two beings in dazzling white. They had been reminded of Jesus' own message that death need not be the end. But, the men, with the exception of Peter, did not think their report was worth heeding. Either it was too strange or they were too sad to be willing to entertain any hope after the crucifixion. The women had told them that Jesus had risen. They chose not to believe.
Eventually, someone believed the women, else we would not be here. Today's reading describes how some people came to believe. There are two stories. Our reading for the day is the second. First is the story of the two people meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I tell this story sometimes when we share communion. After all, it's a story where Jesus' friends recognized him in the breaking of the bread. That's one place we, too, regularly recognize Jesus, in the breaking and sharing of a simple meal. Those two, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, run to tell the others, just as the women had. When they arrived, they learned that Simon has seen Jesus as well. As they talked about these incredible sightings, verifying what the women had said, Jesus appears once again and offers them peace.
I learned in my research this week that there are ancient historians who recorded different ways to check and see if a person is a ghost. Apparently, ghosts were a big enough concern that learned people developed tests for other people to make sure that the person they were talking to was really there. First, you may check the potential apparition's feet to see if they are touching the ground. You might also check their hands, to see if they feel solid. You may examine their teeth and watch them eat. Jesus followed the template of this kind of test to show that he was not a ghost. Though he has offered peace with his appearance, he saw that they were frightened. He saw that they had doubts. He knew this kind of ghost test would be familiar to them, so he ran through the motions, showing his hands, his feet, sharing some food. He needed to show them that he was real and really there. He needed them to believe.
I read another scholar this week who pointed out something interesting. María Teresa Dávila notes that while we are likely intended to read Jesus' resurrection as a victory, it is not a victory without cost. His body bears the marks his struggle. His hands and feet, though once again alive, are scarred by his interactions with the Empire. Victory didn't erase the scars. He continued to carry on his very skin the evidence of a life lived in radical commitment to God's love and justice. All of his ministry was created in the face of the destructive patterns of the Empire. Even his ultimate victory will always be remembered in light of his great vulnerability. His wounds were there. They knew it was him because they saw them. It did them no good to pretend that they weren't there. In fact, according to Dávila, it reminds us that "the work of building the beloved community takes place within history and within our wounded bodies." The presence of Christ's wounds helps show us that our own woundedness has a place in our community. We don't have to hide it in order to take part.
Once he was sure that they knew who he was, he reminded them why he was there. He reminded them that the Messiah wasn't a military leader who would be declaring war on God's behalf. He reminded them that repentance and forgiveness were central to his life and should be central to their on-going ministry. And, he told them that they had a future... one without his physical presence but still guided by the Spirit. In a lovely little line just after today's reading, Jesus said they will be clothed with power from on high. But, they have to wait for it. God will give them what they need to do this work. They are already the witnesses to God's grace in this story. There will come a time very soon where they will share what they've seen.
The thing is, it is not just the ancient disciples who are witnesses to the Resurrection. We are, too. We have encountered Christ in so many ways. We know that there is something Divine that is real and bigger than us and that there is a just and loving future we are building with the Holy Spirit. We probably didn't ask to be a witness. One rarely does. And, yet, here we are witnesses to the movement of God in this world, tasked with sharing the word, and empowered to carry this mission out. In so many ways, we are like these men. We have seen the Lord. Now, we are invited to share that experience.
It's not always easy to bear witness, though. We can get out of practice, if we ever really started to begin with. I read something from the scholar Lucy Lind Hogan that I thought might help give us some form to our witness... help us flesh out how we describe our God to someone else. What she wrote is actually a shorthand description of today's reading... an easier way to understand how this story flows. I think it can also help guide us in our learning to be witnesses for Christ. The whole process centers around these 5 words:
We won't always initially understand our encounters with Christ. Each encounter we have must be examined. We will practice discernment informed by prayer, the scriptures, and by our interactions in Christian community. With all the sources and some guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can work to more fully explain and understand how we've encountered Christ. We can never say fully what and who God is, but we come closer every time we are willing to share some of our story with others.
The eating part is important, too. This isn't just about an ancient ghost test. I think it can be shorthand for relationality. We share food in worship when we take communion. That is a ritual that is always supposed to teach us something about the presence of Christ. We share food in community, having coffee and cookies after church while we catch up on our weeks and baking casseroles for someone who has been ill. We share food with complete strangers at the food pantry and at lunches on our lawn. When we eat together, we care for one another and give one another the opportunity to, once again, experience Christ through fellowship.
When we've had an encounter that feels holy and placed it in conversation with our scriptures and traditions... when we've prayed about it and talked about it with people we trust... when we feel like we might have an explanation or a couple explanations for our Holy experiences... when the Holy Spirit moves with us, we may feel a sense of enlightenment. Even in times when it's hard to communicate what we experienced, we are called to try. We are called to practice. Jesus promised that we can be clothed with power from on high that will help us share this good news. Now we just have to live like we believe it.
Shortly after our reading for today, Jesus exits the story for the final time, carried away to be with God. We will exit, too, from this house of worship, from our homes and places of work, from the plays and games and activities that provide us with evermore opportunities to encounter Christ. We will exit the place where we have sought sustenance for our journey. When we leave, we are invited to go out singing God's praises. We will exit so that we can proclaim the Good News of our encounters with Christ so that the whole world will know something more about love and justice. We will leave as witness to God's loving future. Even with our fears and our doubts, we are still witnesses. May we help one another to live out this holy calling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3627
Lucy Lind Hogan: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1238
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5126
María Teresa Dávila "Third Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Whom Are You Looking For? John 20:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That is how this whole Gospel begins... with poetry that is trying to tell us something about Jesus. It says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." There are few lovelier phrases in the whole Bible. John wants to make sure we understand something. Jesus was close to God... was as close to God as a word on God's lips. Jesus was at the beginning, the word that started everything. Jesus was a Word that had life to it... that created... that had power. Jesus was the Word and this Word is life and builds life and is the light the gives life. Jesus is a Word that can never be drowned out or overcome. Jesus is a light that never will truly be put out. We should remember that when we start today's reading in the darkness of the tomb.
John asserts that this Word was never simply an idea or a feeling. Not that ideas and feelings aren't important or powerful. It's just that John thought this Word was concrete. This Word became flesh and lived among us. This Word is like us, experiencing every facet of what it means to be human. The Word was born and had a family, though the Gospel of John chooses not to outline all of that story. This Word had friends and enemies. This Word hungered and grew thirsty. This Word mourned and laughed and wept and grew tired. In every way that one can be human, the Word was like us. This Word even died. That's how completely Jesus, the Word that was present at creation, identified with humanity. This identification had a purpose. The Word did not become flesh just to see if it could. Incarnation is not a Divine Power Trip. The beginning of this Gospel told us that this Word had a purpose. You see, all people who receive this word will be changed. Whomever receives this Word will become a child of God. This Word is here to create connection... to build a family with humanity. Nothing will be more powerful than this mission. Not even death can sever the connection from God through Jesus to humanity. The Word cannot be drowned out. Even the tomb cannot seal the Word away forever.
Even the location of this story tells us something about the relationship fostered by Jesus with God and humanity. In the same way the beginning of the Gospel calls us back to creation with the Word, this story calls back to creation with the garden. In the beginning of the whole Bible, God's first creations lived in the garden. God engaged with the ones in the garden. God called the Garden good. There was intimacy, life, and beauty in creation of the garden. The garden was a place of abundant life... life enabled and enacted by the Word. I am certain that Jesus' followers thought his crucifixion was his destruction. I am certain that they thought it was the end. But, we readers recognize words that we've heard before. We remember that good things happen in gardens. We know that in a garden there is always the possibility of new and abundant life. There are few places where the human and the Divine have been closer together than the garden. The Word can re-create life, even here, in this garden of death.
Mary will need to hear this Word before she'll understand the miracle that is happening right in front of her. Seeing won't quite be enough. This is not the first time that one has needed to hear the Word in order to know the Word. In chapter 10, when Jesus described his relationship with humanity, he said he was like a good shepherd who cared for his sheep. He said that he would do anything for his sheep and that he must add more to his fold. He said that his own sheep will hear his voice and follow him. He will call them by their name and will lead them out. Just as a blind man hears Jesus and believes in chapter 10 and Lazarus hears Jesus and is raised from the dead in in chapter 11, Mary will need to hear Jesus to understand that he is living again. She will need to hear the Word to understand.
First, she sees that the stone has been rolled away, and she is afraid. She goes and tells her friends who look and see that Jesus' body is not there. Then, in her deep mourning, she looks herself. She sees angels where Jesus' body is supposed to be. It appears that seeing angels isn't even enough to restore her hope. She continues to weep. The angels ask her why and she explains that she believes that someone has stolen Jesus' body and she does not know where they took him. In her distress, she turns away from the angels. Can you imagine being so bereft that angels don't even hold your attention? That's what Mary is feeling at this point. So, she turns around and sees a man who she thinks is a gardener. They are in a garden. It makes sense. She's still not seeing clearly, though. She still needs to hear the Word to understand.
Jesus speaks for the first time in the story. He asks her two questions: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? The first question is one of compassion, a hallmark of his ministry. The second question calls us back to the beginning of his ministry. The first thing he ever said to his very first disciples is a similar question: "What are you looking for?" We are to read this and recognize it. We are to realize that we are hearing a new beginning. But, she still doesn't recognize him. She asks him if he knows who took Jesus' body and offers to retrieve it. Jesus picks this moment to relive his role as the good shepherd. He says his sheep's name. He says to her, "Mary!" She hears the Word. She finally understands. The Word has not been erased. Jesus is risen.
At this moment, Mary joins the multiple other women who serve as the first witnesses to revelations of Christ. The Samaritan Woman at the well heard Jesus say "I AM," that is, I am the Messiah of which you've heard. Jesus' mother was the witness to his death on the cross. And, now, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Jesus commissions her to be the first preacher of this good news, too. After he tells her that he can't stay, he reassures and tells her to deliver a special message to the others. He will ascend to God. This is where the greatest future promise lies. You see, this isn't simply a story about resurrection, that is, salvation from the grave. This is also a story about ascension. The ascension is the final act in this Gospel that assures the continuing relationship between God and God's children. Jesus doesn't just want Mary to say that he is risen. He wants her to remind them that the Word has made them children of God. Jesus' ascension will assure them of this promise and of their on-going relationship with God. Not even death can destroy that promise. So, Mary went to them and she preached the Word. She said, "I have seen the Lord." She reminded them of the promise.
While Mary was the first preacher of this particular good news, I believe Jesus' words to her have a lot to say to us, too. If Jesus were right here today and asked you, like he asked her and like he asked his first disciples, "What are you looking for? Who are you looking for," what would you tell him? What did you expect to see when you walked through these doors? If you didn't see what you expected, what would you need to hear in order to believe? What Word reminds you of Christ's promise? And, when you leave this place, what Word will you carry with you? What Word will make you shout "I have seen the Lord?" Who are you going to tell about Jesus?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Randall C. Bailey, "Easter Day (Resurrection of Jesus), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Mary Hinkle Shore: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3610
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5121
Lucy Lind Logan: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1236
Also, our great Easter art came from the Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.