A sermon given on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist by The Reverend Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
A story is told of a Jewish Rabbi Zusya. When Rabbi Zusya grew old and knew that his time on earth was nearing a close, his students gathered around him. One of them asked if he was afraid of dying.
“I am afraid of what God will ask me,” the Rabbi said.
“What will he ask you?”
“He will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Moses?’He will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?’”
He will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?’
God names us, calls us by name, gives us our identity, the essence of who we are, … for we are vocation bearers and our vocations, unique to each one of us, are always about bringing life in some part of the world.
We arrive in the Cathedral on this the Fourth Sunday of Easter with the stories of Jesus’ resurrection ringing in our ears. For the first three Sundays of Easter, we have seen Jesus encounter his grief stricken and troubled disciples, speaking their names and meeting them in their place of need. When he speaks their names he reminds them of their identity, when he meets them in their place of need, he addresses wherever it is that their vocation struggles to thrive.
Mary was grief stricken. “Why are you weeping?” The angels in the tomb, and Jesus who she thought to be a gardener, said to her. Jesus spoke Mary’s name and she spoke his name for her, “Rabbouni, teacher.” Jesus healed sorrow for Mary and sent her into the world to be Mary, to tell the news that he was alive.
On the second Sunday of Easter we saw Jesus encounter Thomas. Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, speaking his words of peace. Thomas refused to believe unless he could see Jesus’ wounds and place his fingers in them. And so Jesus gave him what he needed. Presence, his physical presence, and Thomas believed. “My Lord and my God,” he said. Again, Jesus is named. Jesus spoke of us in this encounter with Thomas, of we who cannot physically see him, cannot gaze in awe at his wounds. He called us blessed. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” As if he knows that on some days doubt, like Thomas’ doubt, is so very real. And he knows that belief and trust are not easy.
And then there was Peter. As Bishop Chris beautifully lead us in his reflection last week, we know that Peter was weighed down with guilt. And beside the charcoal fire, at the place of his denials, Jesus forgave Peter’s threefold denial and gave him his vocation, to be the one who fed sheep to be the one to lead Jesus’ church in the world.
Which brings us to this Sunday and the theme of sheep. We might expect this Fourth Sunday of Easter to hear another resurrection story, perhaps about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but we find ourselves, instead, in the Tenth Chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus helps us ponder our own relationship with the risen Christ. We saw Jesus encounter his disciples in his time and place, but how does Jesus encounter us? How do we meet the risen Christ in our time and place? It is true that we might well reflect on the resurrection accounts and imagine ourselves in the scenes and find there Jesus speaking our names, healing our guilts, tending to our doubts. But Jesus also reaches us through images found in nature and, in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus links the words “I am”, the God words of the Old Testament, to images with which those around him could relate. Water, bread, a vine … Jesus worked with all of these images. Today it is the image of a shepherd and that shepherd’s relationship with the sheep he tends.
“My sheep hear my voice.” Jesus says to those who questioned him in the Jewish Temple at one of their special feast days, the Feast of Dedication. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Jesus wants us to feel, to know, to imagine what God is like for us, for those of us who cannot actually see the risen Christ. And so he appeals to our imaginations.
In verses just before those we heard read in our gospel reading Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
How will Jesus meet us? How will he tend to our struggles, our frailties, our sins? Jesus appeals to our imaginations, giving us the image of a Good Shepherd. This shepherd knows our names, knows our identities, knows our deepest needs. And Jesus, exploring this image further, speaks of us. This shepherd’s sheep hear his voice.
David F. Ford is a Cambridge theologian who has been working for the last twenty years on a commentary on John’s gospel, a theological commentary, he calls it. I heard him speaking with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on a FaceBook video, as it happens. It was a short conversation, but in it one sensed a man of very interesting and, for me, new ideas and so I ordered a copy his book. In coming months, David Ford, will be our guide at times, especially when the text is from the gospel of John.
In his introduction he explores the key themes in the Gospel according to St John. He writes that the leading question running through the whole gospel is the question “Who is Jesus?” The second key theme is that Jesus’ Spirit is given without measure to us for the ongoing drama of loving. The third theme is about God’s love for all creation. The first question that Jesus asks his disciples in John’s Gospel is “What are you looking for?”
The Gospel is about identity, about our names. Jesus’ identity and our own. Who is this Jesus? And what are we looking for? When the resurrection of Jesus breaks into creation we see in the gospel stories the affect on those who loved Jesus, Mary, Thomas, Peter, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The question for us is: What is the effect of Jesus’ resurrection on us?
David Ford writes this about the resurrection:
“All the postresurrection encounters were surprises, and they were not obvious or straightforward. There is no reason to think that recognizing the free self-revelations of Jesus now will be any less challenging and surprising, or that either the current followers of Jesus or anyone else, will be able to anticipate to whom or how they will be granted.” … “The resurrection of Jesus cannot be understood simply as a historical event alongside others such as his crucifixion … it is a “God-sized” event in which God acts.”
Can we imagine being encountered by a God sized event in which God acts? An utterly surprising encounter?
The image of Jesus as shepherd and of us as sheep might help as we wonder about this. We are so accustomed to speaking ourselves, to acting, controlling, enabling things to happen. It is difficult not to wonder what we might need to do to set the stage (!) for such an encounter with God. But the image of shepherd and the sheep seems to invite us to think a little differently about this. The shepherd is the one who leads and speaks. The sheep in turn follow and listen and hear the shepherd’s voice. What is being asked of us is a gentle thing, a vulnerable thing, a way of being that allows for the presence of the shepherd, of one who is utterly to be trusted, of one who gives eternal life, and from whose hand we will never be taken, in whose presence we are utterly safe.
The shepherd speaks our names and we are to hear his voice. We might do well to sit in silence, perhaps, to pray without words, to allow our cathedral building, or the music of the choir, or the waves of the sea, to calm us. Listening is our vocation in this, silence, stillness, is our stance, it seems. And then, quietly, almost silently, we may hear Jesus speak our names, and we may know a little more clearly who it is that God is calling us to be.
When Rabbi Zusya grew old and knew that his time on earth was nearing a close, his students gathered around him and when one of them asked if he was afraid of dying.
He said, “I am afraid of what God will ask me.”
“What will he ask you?” The student said.
“He will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Moses?’ He will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?’”
Zusya, do you see, was his name.
 See David F. Ford The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary pp4-10.
 David F. Ford, p13.
 David F. Ford p14.