At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. 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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Read the Revelation Reading)
It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection! We are half way into the 50 day season of Easter. And for the past three weeks, we have stuck close to the events of the early days after the empty tomb. Jesus meeting the disciples and Thomas behind locked doors. And Jesus meeting Peter and others on the beach, calling Peter to feed his sheep.
Yet, the 4th Sunday of the Easter begins to move us along from the early resurrection moments. Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of the Easter has been observed as Good Shepherd Sunday… a day to be reminded of our Shepherding God calling us into God’s great flock. We hear familiar readings like Psalm 23 and we hear Jesus use familiar sheep and shepherd images in John. And as church folk, we love those quaint images of Jesus with a fuzzy sheep… usually on some oil painting found in a church basement or at grandma’s house… Yet, Good Shepherd Sunday has a deeper sense that it is moving us along in the story of resurrection. From resurrection moments to resurrection community.
And so we hear also from Revelation, John’s vision of the great multitude, the great flock before the throne of the great shepherd at the end of time.
A few decades on from the resurrection, and the first communities of Christians, of Jesus’ followers, were struggling in Roman society. They were social outcasts because they refused to follow the social order. It was essential in the Roman world to know where you belonged. Society was divided up by class, ethnicity, gender, occupation, citizenship, language, and religion. And those early church communities were marginalized because they had this inconvenient habit of declaring that under the One God of All, there was no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. They rejected a world that saw gods in everything, mountains and bubbling springs, the sun and moon and stars, in war and harvest, in nature and animals. They worshipped the one God of all things who died on the cross and rose again on the third day.
This was a threat to the Roman Military cult who believed the essence of their success at conquering new lands was that in each new place they came to conquer, they adopted and prayed to the local mountain gods or river gods or whatever kind they found for victory on the battlefield – and they go it.
For a community living under oppression, marginalized and ostracized, sometimes even sent to the coliseums to be eaten by lions, the Revelation of John provided a vision of God’s great promise of reconciliation… the unity of God’s people worshiping before the throne, the Shepherd’s one great flock.
This great unified multitude gathering before the One God’s throne is as counter-cultural today as it was for early Christian communities. We too live in a world that encourages us to look around for people who are like us, who resemble us, and to fear anyone who doesn’t. We constantly navigate the many and various divisions that categorize people. Whether it is which political party we support, what religion we practice, what education level we have obtain or job we do, what the colour of our skin is or the gender we identify as or generation we belong to, what sports team we cheer for or tv show we are fans of. Our world is just as divided and categorized as the ancient world. And the narratives, the stories that we are told push us to fear those who are different, those who don’t belong to the same tribes and groups we belong to.
The idea that we belong to one great multitude is one that goes against most of what we are told by the world around us.
And so it is no wonder that when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd, we hold on to the images of shepherd staffs and fuzzy lambs. We love those paintings of a kindly Jesus holding a little sheep in his arms. We want to be comforted, we want to hear that we are one of the sheep, one of the people who gets to be a part one of the most important groups we can think of.
Yet having just come from the cross and empty tomb, from Thomas seeing the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, from Peter’s shame being met by Jesus’ compassion over a breakfast of fish on the beach… is fuzzy sheep and kindly shepherds where we have been headed with all of this?
If we are honest, the radical inclusive of God’s kingdom is something we don’t usually want to imagine. The idea that those whom we fear, those who are different, those whom we often would rather keep out and keep away from, are actually a part of us can make us uncomfortable. A great multitude of people full of those who we struggle to imagine as being anything but other from us is hard to grasp.
So it is no mistake that the place and time that this great multitude comes together is not the end of time, but a moment that we know all too well.
My seminary internship was in Calgary, and I was placed in fairly affluent congregation in a neighbourhood just a few blocks from the University. Recently, the C-Train, Calgary Light Rail transit system, had just added a stop close to the church. And one of the consequences was that this sleepy neighbourhood was all of a sudden accessible from anywhere in the city. Many poor and homeless figured out that begging in the burbs was more profitable than downtown. And the church’s back porch and beneath the spruce trees in the yard became convenient places for homeless folks to sleep off a high. This also meant that from time to time, this mostly affluent congregation would welcome some of Calgary’s poorest to worship.
As the intern, one of my usual roles in worship was to serve the common cup at communion. Since most people chose individual cups, I often stood back and watched people coming and going from the altar rail. In those moments, it seemed like a glimpse of the great multitude. As people came to rail, there were oil executives and bank mangers next to retirees and school children. Ex-CFL players alongside teachers and retail managers. Homeless people next to engineers and nurses, people who had lived in the neighbourhood for 80 years next to new immigrants.
Despite all the ways in which we seek to divide ourselves, to find ways in which we are different, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back as we all came to the table in the same way. Hands open and empty, we are given bread and wine… God gives us the Body of Christ to make us the Body of Christ. As a seminary prof once said to us, “Swirling around in the cup are all your brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Good Shepherd Sunday and the great multitude gathered before the throne tells us a story of God’s desire for us that is very different than any story we hear the other days of the week. It is a story rooted in this gathering that we belong to right here and now. It is the gathering of God’s people before the throne… it the story of God gathering us, and all creation before the word, before the waters, before the bread and wine.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is not just a gentle shepherd holding a fuzzy little sheep, but a God who is gathering us, all of us, all the varied and different kinds of us… gathering all of us up into the great multitude worshipping before the throne. Worshipping before the throne of the one who has come to die with us, and who shows us the way to resurrection and new life…
To new and resurrected life in the one great multitude, God’s great flock to which we now belong.