Easter IV - 13th April 2008

Holy Eucharist – Address

Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller

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Collect for Easter IV
ALMIGHTY God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

In lieu of Old Testament lesson: Acts 2, Vv 42 - 47
Epistle: 1 Peter 2, Vv 19 - 25
Holy Gospel: St John 10, Vv 1 - 10

When I was young, and the church’s worship was contained within the Book of Common Prayer, the Second Sunday after Easter was commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday. It got this name from the Holy Gospel of the day – part of the tenth chapter of that according to Saint John. As you have just heard, that passage was our Gospel proclamation this morning. If we add to this the references to sheep in Saint Peter’s first Epistle, then I think we could usefully refer to today as Good Shepherd Sunday. Incidentally, the Psalm appointed for today, although, by tradition, we don’t include it in our liturgy, is Number 23, the Good Shepherd Psalm.

   There are many references to sheep in the Gospels: I counted about 40, of which nearly half are in the tenth chapter of Saint John. The most common association is probably based on Our Lord’s words, ‘I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep.’ There is a picturesque, bucolic view of the shepherd, who, finding that one sheep has strayed, leaves the flock to search for it – a scene that fulfils the Christian ideal of God seeking out the recalcitrant sinner and bringing him, or her, back to the Kingdom. I suppose it is a pity that this view is usually a sort of Sunday School scene, showing a smiling Jesus walking across a sunlit pasture land with a sparklingly clean white lamb on his shoulder. I am no farmer, still less a shepherd, but, from my limited experience of sheep, they are, with the possible exception of a few that are kept as pets, the dirtiest, grumpiest, most belligerent (one could almost include bloody-minded) animals that ever made a break for freedom. An escapee will have tangled itself in the undergrowth, rolled in the mud, trampled through the deepest mire and it will most assuredly not want to be caught. This is the sheep that the tired and weary shepherd is most likely to have to drag, squealing and kicking, back to the fold. On reflection, I suppose the use of sheep dogs and quad bikes has made the role of today’s shepherd somewhat different from that of Biblical times.

   Jesus was not talking to his disciples when he called himself The Good Shepherd – they knew already of his total care for his friends and the local people. He was speaking to the Pharisees. They would have recognised the allusions to shepherds. For a thousand and more years the Jews had understood the concept of the Good Shepherd image of God. In the book called Genesis we can read that Joseph was saved, ‘By the power of the mighty one of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, the God of your father.’ Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Zeccariah all used similar ovine imagery. The Pharisees knew that Jesus was declaring himself to be God. Not the Son of the Trinitarian God, as Christians understand the phrase, but monotheistic God himself. The Jews had no understanding of the Son-ship of God. They had been led to believe that God would come again to rule the earth through a Messiah, a human saviour, very much in the mould of King David; a warrior who would finally rid them of the tyranny and oppression of their Roman overlords. That Jesus proved not to be the sort of Messiah that the chosen people expected led them eventually to bay for his death before Pontius Pilate, the local leader of their hated occupying power. At that death, a most agonising and humiliating crucifixion, the sins of the whole world railed against Jesus. Yet he did not flinch from his sacrificial duty to his heavenly Father. He combated the sin of all men in all times throughout all ages. And he was victorious. His final shout from the cross, only recorded by Saint John, of Tetelestai is usually translated as, ‘It is finished!’ Equally, it can be a shout of success, ‘I have done it!!’

   It is sin that blocks us from God; it gets in the way of our relationship with him. There is an underlying principle that it is sin that makes us unapproachable, impure and separates us from God. Our impurity in the sight of God makes us tangled and unkempt, perhaps like the escaped sheep I mentioned earlier. Yet, Jesus comes to clean us up, to bring us back to the flock, to cuddle us in his arms, if that is not too childish a metaphor.

   Just before we come to the altar rail to receive our communion, we hear the words of the Agnus Dei, ‘O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, give us your peace.’ In this symbolism, Jesus becomes the lamb. This imagery is grounded in sadness, because in this role he becomes the victim of sacrifice. In the worship of the Old Testament Temple, a lamb was presented as a sacrificial offering for sin. The sins of the people were symbolically transferred to the lamb when they placed their hands on its head. It was then killed and the priest offered its blood, its life, on the altar of sacrifice. It was thought that the sins of the people offered in this way were done away. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God, he was not saying, ‘there goes a sweet and gentle man’; he was saying, ‘there is the one who is going to be placed on the altar and sacrificed to take away our sins, to cleanse us with his blood, to remove the barrier of sin, to restore us to God’s nearer presence.’ This was all predicted 500 years earlier at the time of Deutero-Isaiah. You will remember that he wrote, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ – words made doubly famous by their inclusion in Handel’s great oratorio Messiah. Jesus has borne all of our sins and they were nailed to the cross with him. God the Father has demonstrated through the resurrection of his beloved Son from the dead that he was completely satisfied with the sacrifice that Jesus made for the sin of the world. We believe that through baptism and faith in Jesus, we are incorporated into him, and therefore we too have full, complete, and everlasting forgiveness.

   In his first Book of Common Prayer, brought into use on Whit Sunday, 1549, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer described the offering that the Lamb of God made to the Father as, ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. We can confirm from our Epistle that Jesus was perfect. Saint Peter wrote, ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’. And later, ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed; for you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.

   That sacrifice is made readily available for us today. We do not have to kill a lamb and have its blood sprinkled on our altar. That old way has been replaced by the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross. In the old way, the Jewish way, the sacrifice had to be oft repeated, it had no permanent efficacy. This new sacrifice was once and for all. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in chapter ten, wrote, ‘And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins’. That was under the old, Jewish covenant. ‘But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’ This is the new covenant. We can receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice in a very real way by coming to the altar rail and receiving the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. These consecrated elements are, we have been promised, the very body and blood of that sacrificial Saviour. It is by this means that Jesus has promised to be with us always, through life, through death and on into the life of the world to come. It is through this nourishment of our immortal souls that we can stay grafted on to the vine that is Christ.

   On this Good Shepherd Sunday we are called anew to be Good Shepherds to the lost in this world. We can share the joy of Easter, not just to shout ‘Alleluia’ but to live it and to show it; for each one of us to be an Alleluia in the world.

Copyright © David Fuller 2008

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