April 22, 2018

Easter 4  April 22, 2018  Ps 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18, John 21:15-25

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Not so many of us are familiar anymore with real-life sheep and shepherding…  Yet the image of the Good Shepherd still ranks high among images for God and Jesus that we treasure most. Many still know the psalm – The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…Many still resonate with Jesus when he tells us I am the Good Shepherd… I lay down my life for the sheep… Many still remember – We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture… (as Psalm 100 says.)

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. Many of us know the words of Psalm 23 by heart…Many find deep comfort knowing –  He makes me lie down in green pastures… He leads me beside still waters… He restores my soul…

We say this psalm together in our household almost every night. It’s so familiar… it can be easy to overlook the way the psalm is actually talking about life… as a journey with God. Life with God includes wonderful lying down in green pastures times, and blessed resting beside still waters times. But throughout most of life we’re in motion… following God…as… He leads us in paths of righteousness for his name sake… and… Yea though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (and sometimes I try to walk a little faster till we get through the darker parts of the valley…) Still, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…

In the psalms, God, the Father of course is The Lord, my shepherd. Like Father, like Son, Jesus continues in the vocation of his Father… tending the sheep of God’s pasture. What wonderful, comforting images we have here, with the Lord our shepherd, and we, the sheep of his pasture…

Though now as I hear…. Jesus asking and saying to Peter Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Tend my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Saying it three times to make the point hard to mistake – If you love me, take care of my flock. You’re a shepherd now, like me. Follow me!

Now like Peter, I’m feeling a little less comfortable…. as I recall our First Letter of John reminding us today  – we’re all going to be like Jesus – doing what Jesus does. Like Jesus, we too ought to be laying down our lives for one another….

And now as we hear Jesus saying he lays down his life for his sheep five times today… I’m hearing the repetition as Jesus’ way of telling us (along with Peter and the other disciples) – we too are supposed to do this laying down of life thing repeatedly…  In the other gospels Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me every day.” Here in John he says “I lay down my life for the sheep”… repeating himself…. repeatedly. Which is typical of Jesus, I know, but…does kind-of  make my image of the Lord, my shepherd… a little less comforting…

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Yet – here in John’s telling of the story, with all it’s discomforting emphasis on laying down our lives for God and one another – all the emphasis on following Jesus…come what may…

Here along with all the laying down of our life…is where we hear Jesus also say – “I take up my life again.”

Jesus says it twice. “I take up my life again.”  Not as many times as he mentions laying down his life. But – perhaps Jesus doesn’t say ‘I take it up again’ quite as many times because he knows our default position is to want to take up life… without really laying it down. Taking up life is good. Taking up life again is the ultimate point of laying down our life.

But Jesus knows most of us do need some occasional reminding… to lay down our lives first – to be able to take them up anew. The life we take up can’t be real – if we haven’t really laid it down… And of course…We need spiritual training (and plenty of it) to be able to lay down our lives for God and one another persistently…day in, day out…

Spiritual training is a lot more like training for a marathon…than for a sprint… I read a good story this week about the nurse, who was running a marathon for just the second time in her life, who surprised everyone, herself included, by coming in  second in the highly competitive Boston Marathon Women’s race. She told an interviewer that because of her job she ran many training runs after working her ten-hour shifts. She got very used to running while feeling uncomfortable… Which, she said, was a big help… running in the cold Boston wind and rain…

Fortunately we don’t have to be fast runners or great athletes to be in good spiritual health. Though we do need to be able to keep walking with Jesus in all kinds of spiritual weather… day in and day out… Spiritual practice, according to Jesus… is all about…

Prayerfully walking and listening for God’s word… Learning the word… Prayerfully serving others in the name of Jesus… Prayerfully reaching out with the good news of Jesus to reach those other sheep in other places that Jesus speaks of… Loving one another without regard for man-made borders…These are the most basic time-tested ways in which we lay down our lives, following Jesus… Laying down our lives is a metaphor Jesus uses pretty much interchangeably with following him and loving one another. We lay down our lives for one another as many different ways as we love one another…as many ways as we follow Jesus.

Awhile ago I came across a story of a tattoo artist who gives free tattoos to cover over racist and gang-related tattoos. This project began (quote) “when a man walked into Dave Cutlip’s shop, Southside Tattoo, with a prison gang tattoo on his face. The man wanted to cover the tattoo with a new one.

“My wife turned around and looked at me, and she was like, ‘You can help people,’ ” he remembers. “And I basically said to her, ‘You want me to tattoo for free, don’t you?’ She actually didn’t say anything, but she gave me that look, and I know that look.” (Sounds like his wife is channeling here for Jesus.)

He and a friend who helps with the project put up a notice on Facebook one night that Dave would do free cover-over-tattoos for gang-related or racist tattoos if people genuinely wanted to change. By next morning more than a hundred requests had come in. Dave, the tattoo artist, and his friend, nick-named “Diver Dave” have continued ever since, giving a lot of time and energy to the radical make-over work. It’s often emotionally wrenching for both of them even to have to look at some of the extreme tattoos – swastikas, pictures of Hitler, graphic portrayals of hate crimes. (Diver Dave is Jewish.) But they believe in the work – believe they’re helping people make changes in their life… on a path towards redemption. So they continue to do the work… day in, day out…

Laying down our lives for Jesus isn’t easy… and isn’t one-size-fits-all. As the psalmist says, our Shepherd leads us in paths, plural, not singular – paths of righteousness for his name sake. Jesus has other sheep in other places. He calls different people  different ways into different ways of serving… according to the situation and need and calling…

Not everyone’s called to be an apostle, martyr, monk, nun or tattoo artist. Not everyone is called to be a full-time pastor, prophet or evangelist. Yet we’re all called to full-time basic Christian service. Sharing in mutual care-giving for all the people of God. In Christ we have deep unity, even as all the specifics of our calls and callings are endlessly diverse.

Not everyone is asked three times if they love Jesus. Not everybody is instructed three time to take care of Christ’s sheep. There’s only two mentions of a charcoal fire in the bible. One is the charcoal fire around which Peter warmed himself as he denied he knew Jesus three times as Jesus heads for the cross…

The only other charcoal fire in the bible is the fire we’ve gathered around last week and today. The charcoal fire on the beach where Jesus has prepared a hot breakfast of fish and bread…for fishermen who’ve been fishing all night without catching… Till they hear and heed his word and cast their nets yet again…filling their nets to overflowing…

Jesus doesn’t ask for an apology… as he welcomes Peter back into leadership… But Peter and everyone else understands why Jesus asks three times… and re-commissions three times…

Peter will indeed go on to glorify God… in his life and in his death… as he lays down his life many times over for Jesus… Peter will become an excellent disciple and role model for many. Yet Peter is never intended to be the only role model we have for discipleship.

Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples who stayed close by Jesus even at the cross… the same women who also went to the tomb early on the third day… don’t need to be asked three times if they love Jesus… Nor does the un-named disciple walking behind Peter and Jesus as they walk the beach… The other disciple of whom Peter asks Jesus – ‘what about him?’ The disciple church tradition says is the apostle and gospel writer, John… (The author of the gospel never names himself. But he does let us know – )

Following Jesus without having to be told is the preferential path… And we’re all still invited to get our picture taken with Jesus, as beloved disciples who follow without having to be told… And…

The Lord our shepherd is still the one we follow… As He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death… Prepares a table of abundant life for us amidst all the world’s troubles and turmoils… Our cup of salvation runneth over, as we follow him – taking just a very quick glance behind us to be reassured – surely goodness and mercy are still there, following us all the days of our life…

As we lay down our lives  – and

Take up our lives again with Jesus and one another –

Following our risen Lord… all the way home to the house of the Lord…

Where we will dwell together in the love of Jesus…

Blessed to be the sheep of his pasture.

Blessed to be shepherds-in-training…

Blessed to be a blessing for Jesus…

As we walk with him… all the days of our life…

Thanks be to God. Amen.