Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter High Mass Sunday 26 April 2015
Sermon preached by The Right Reverend Allen Shin, Bishop Suffragan New York
Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
It is wonderful to be back in this famous parish church. Let me begin by thanking Fr. Alan Moses for the invitation and the hospitality of Theresa and Fr. Alan. It is also good to see many familiar faces once again. I cannot tell you how delighted and honored I am to break the word with you in this morning’s Eucharist.
In today’s reading from Acts we have a conflict situation between the Jewish temple authorities and Jesus’ disciples over the healing of a sick man. The chief priests questioned Peter by what power and in whose name the sick man had been healed. And Peter replied, “By the name of Jesus Christ,” and reminded them how they had rejected Jesus who became the chief cornerstone.
This conflict is an example of the power struggle between the Jewish temple authorities and Jesus’ disciples in the early period when the followers of Jesus were searching for their own identity. In fact, Peter’s polemic in today’s reading and in his other speeches in Acts articulates the dividing line and the beginning of the separation of Jesus’ disciples from their Jewish roots. And not surprisingly it all hinged on the identity of Jesus as the true Messiah and Savior. As Peter points out, “There is salvation in no one else.”
This must have been a painful process for them. But, what I wonder about it why some people are inspired by Jesus and others not. They saw the exact same person and the exact same wonderful miracles he performed and the exact same wonderful deeds he did. So, how is it that some people were inspired by Jesus and others not? The early disciples of Jesus were no less Jewish than their counterparts, and the men of the Jewish authorities were no less religious than the disciples of Jesus. They shared the same holy Book and the same inherited faith.
It is hard to tell whether Peter and the early disciples were making a conscious effort to break away from the Jewish faith, or whether they were, in fact, trying to correct and save the state of religion which had gone astray from its essence as they saw it. The latter was more likely at least in the beginning, and, thus, their call to their Jewish brethren to belief in Jesus who embodied the essence of the God’s merciful and loving grace and revealed it to them in his crucifixion and resurrection.
Recently I came across an interesting website which provides a support network for clergy who lost their faith and have become atheists. Some of them were complaining how difficult it was to be ex-clergy-turned-atheists. What were they thinking, I wonder?
It also got me thinking about how people lose their faith as much as how people come to faith. You probably know someone in your life, a friend or even a family member, who has lost his or her faith. What happened to them? What is their story? What does it mean to “lose one’s faith”?
There are probably a whole lot of explanations for losing faith—theological, doctrinal and even spiritual. And I suppose the institutional church may be to blame in some of these instances.
But, my theory is that fundamentally they lost the personal relationship of trust and love with Christ. They lost that one sure foundation of their faith. They thought they had it. But, when challenged with difficult situations and events in life, faith not founded upon the trust and love of Jesus is like a house built on sand. They lost sight of the love and the beauty of God’s holiness. They forgot that faith is not founded upon an institution but on the person of Jesus Christ.
I think this is also the fundamental point Peter is making in his speech to the men of the Jewish temple authorities. The faith the disciples were taught by Jesus is rooted in his deeply personal relationship with God the Father.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This statement of Jesus points toward the deep personal relationship he has with his followers which is, in turn, founded upon his love of the Father.
The more I reflect upon Jesus’ teaching and life the more I am convinced that this deep spiritual and personal relationship with God is the unique and the centrally most important spiritual insight and wisdom of Jesus. This insight came to him at his Baptism when he heard the voice from heaven, calling him “My Son and my beloved with whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit rested upon him. What he came to see at that moment is that it is possible to have a deeply personal relationship with God whom he now called “my Father.”
We take this for granted but I don’t know of any other religion that teaches the deeply personal relationship with God as its central teaching of faith. A god in general is a distant and impersonal being who is totally somewhere else other than our lives. Nirvana is a wonderful state of ecstasy, I am sure, but it isn’t a state of personal relationship with God, a God who is very much with us in this life, in our midst and within our hearts. Jesus modeled and lived his life for such a deeply personal relationship with God whom he called his Father.
There are different levels of knowing someone. How has Jesus known you? By laying down his life for our salvation. In today’s reading from the First Letter of John, the writer begins with this insight. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
One may have thousands of Facebook friends but no true friend whom he can count on to lay down his life for him, that is a friend who truly knows him. How many people do you really know who know you to that level of knowing—to lay down their lives for you? I can count a handful—my parents, my brother, my wife and maybe a couple of friends. I know this because I know and love them enough that I am willing to lay down my life for them, too.
How did we come to know who we are in the first place—our name and our identity? Because our parents called us by our names and gave us the identity we developed as a child. We know ourselves as Christians because Jesus Christ has first called us each by name and brought us into his flock and gave us this identity. We will continue to know ourselves deeper as we learn to know Jesus deeper. This is precisely the insight St. Augustine came to when he said, “We come to know ourselves by knowing God.”
I am not a shepherd and have never been one. But, apparently shepherds know the name of each of their sheep. It signifies their personal care for their flock of sheep and an emotional relationship and bonding they have with their sheep. In the same way, Jesus in this statement is conveying such personal relationship he has with his disciples as with God his Father.
I remember giving a homily on this passage to the children one Sunday at my former parish on Long Island. I told them about sheep—how they weren’t very smart and needed lots of guidance, and that the shepherd’s job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would hurt them. Then, I asked the children who might the sheep be in the story. They answered, “People.” Then, he asked them who the shepherd was, and they all said, “Jesus.” Then, I asked, “Well, then, who am I?” There was a moment of silence and a little boy said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.” I have been called many things as a priest as other priest colleagues might have had similar experiences. But, it was the first time I had ever been called a sheep dog, and I wasn’t about to expand on that metaphor.
Later on, Jesus says to his disciples, “Abide in my love.” We don’t do “abiding” very well. Abiding means resting, stopping, not leaving, and even waiting patiently. Our home for most of us is our abode. We know we can abide at home, because it makes us peaceful and restful. We can let our hair down and put our guards down and be ourselves. That’s what abiding is.
We can abide in Jesus, because God is love. His love is our sure foundation and eternal abode. Abide in Jesus. He is the vine that gives us life. Find peace and assurance of hope and faith in his unconditional, self-sacrificing love. It is love that glues chaotic and frantic parts of our lives together as a whole. It is the love of Christ crucified that glues our spiritual life together as one. Abide in his love. This deeply loving relationship with Jesus is what inspired and transformed the lives of the disciples and it is to this to which Peter is witnessing in his speech in Acts.
Jesus is at the center of our spiritual relationship with God and, thus, at the center of our spiritual life of faith. It is through Jesus that we are able to enter into our personal relationship with God. Take a moment to ponder upon what it means for you that Jesus knows you and loves so deeply to have laid down his life for you. What does such love mean for you? What does it mean for you to abide in Jesus’ love?