A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter:
The scriptures during Easter mostly focus on messages of Christ’s triumphant new life and victory over death. So it might surprise us that the Fourth Sunday of Easter, every year, the Sunday that is called Jubilate Sunday – Jubilation Sunday, “shout for joy” Sunday – has also been designated the Good Shepherd Sunday.
It might surprise us just because – well, what’s our first image of a “shepherd”? Is it “triumphant”? Is it “heroic” or “mighty”? What about “brave & strong”’? I’m guessing it is not. There is not a single high school football team, for instance, that calls itself the mighty mighty shepherds.
Actually, there are two high schools in Sweet Grass County, Montana, which call their teams the Sheepherders. Evidently some of the residents of Sweet Grass County, Montana, actually ARE sheepherders, who know something about the day-to-day demands of that way of life. They know that sheepherders have what it takes to prevail in sporting contests against, for instance, the local Bobcats, Copperheads, and even Park Rangers. [nb: learned this on the internet]
That’s not how most of us think of shepherds. When we think of shepherds, and particularly when we think of “the Good Shepherd,” our mental images run to gentleness, tenderness, and kindness; to pastoral images of nurturing and sheltering; to those green pastures and still waters of the 23rd Psalm.
These are some of the most appealing images we have of God, or of Christ. Here is a picture of God restoring souls, comforting the fearful, following us with mercy and goodness, nurturing God’s people and giving them rest. What an inviting God this is, a God we can relax and be ourselves with!
The tender image of the Good Shepherd is one of the ways we have of making concrete and vivid what we mean when we say “God is love” – which is scriptural, and meaningful, but enormous, and abstract, and not how our minds work. A good shepherd, watching over a flock of sheep, finding them food and water, and protecting them from falling off cliffs or being eaten by wolves, we can picture that, we can feel that.
We love this image of the Good Shepherd. But perhaps, on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, on this Jubilation Sunday, on this Sunday that is three weeks after the first Sunday of Easter, on this Sunday that purposely reminds us that after three days of death Jesus rose triumphantly in the power of new life, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we could set alongside our comforting, placid image of the pastoral Good Shepherd a much more ancient image. A more militant image. An image of a Good Shepherd with more “fight” in it. An image more like the icon of the resurrection we would see at the front of an Eastern Orthodox church. An image of the Good Shepherd as mighty hero, a Jesus who walks right up to the gates of death, breaks down those bars and locks, does hand to hand combat with the forces of death, grabs Adam and Eve by the hand and hauls them up out of their tombs and raises them to new life.
If this were a scene in a movie, the audience would be leaping to their feet, hollering and shouting “yes!” and pumping their fists in the air. Exuberantly. Jubilantly!
That ancient image may not be what comes to mind first for us when we think of the Good Shepherd, but it is almost certainly what came to mind first for the earliest Christians. They would have understood why Jesus gives this long speech right before he raises Lazarus from the dead. And right after he has cured a man who was born blind. They would have understood that Jesus is telling everyone that he is the hero who will defeat the forces of darkness and the forces of death. He will do that by laying down his own life. By “trampling down death by death,” as our Eastern orthodox brothers and sisters in faith sing on Easter morning, “and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
This “trampling down death by death” is what the Apostles Creed, the one we often recite as our affirmation of faith, means by those words “he descended to hell.” A lot of us don’t like those words, they sound wrong to us. But that ancient line refers to that same ancient image of Christ “trampling down death by death.” Those early Christians would have pictured Jesus “descending to hell” to batter down its gates and smash its locks and defeat those wolves, Satan and the demons and their evil power of death, and to free the people death had held captive. Shouting for joy, letting loose with a whoop of victory, would be an entirely appropriate response to that victory.
This militant image of a courageous Good Shepherd who has already won the epic battle of life against death by laying down his own life was vital for the early Christians. Vital especially because they often found themselves on the front lines of a real battle. They were proclaiming good news, a God of love and justice and new life, and they felt the backlash from that. The often violent backlash of the same empire that had crucified Jesus.
In fact, down through the centuries, Christians have described the church that is still in the world as the “church militant.” The church militant is the church that is still going toe-to-toe against injustice and still grappling with the forces of death. The “church triumphant,” on the other hand, are all those faithful of every time and place who have joined the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, who have gained their eternal rest.
We don’t use that language of the church militant and the church triumphant that much these days. Maybe because we’ve slowly begun to realize that, if a world of peace and justice is our mission and our vision, we may need some less violent images to lead us there. We may need to draw our courage from a different set of mental pictures. That Good Shepherd of green pastures. Because we still need the courage. There are still battles to be fought – to fall back on that imagery – against the life-limiting forces that still operate in our world. We still need to work against the grinding forces of poverty and hunger, the exhausting force of homelessness, the literally death-dealing forces of addiction, of abuse, of disease, and the metaphorically death-dealing forces of bigotry and ignorance and indifference. Christians still need heroism.
Even when we think we’re far behind the front lines of such life and death battles. Because the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and because in the midst of life we are in death. So even those of us who think of our lives as more about green pastures and still waters can expect sometimes, suddenly, shockingly to find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death – even, in the shadow of the cross.
Maybe that is why the church reminds us, every year, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, that one of the things it means to be Christians, to be followers of Christ, is that we have nothing to fear. No matter what we are facing. Whatever power the opponents of life seem to have, it is no match for that of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and has already fought and won the decisive battle, and has taken that life up again, and shared that good news and its power with us. When we say we serve a risen savior, this is exactly what we mean.
And that’s why, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the church reminds us, wherever we are and whatever we are facing, to have courage, and to shout for joy. Jubilate Deo. Alleluia! Amen.
A beautiful rendition of Jubilate Deo by the Fairfield County Children’s Choir.
Images: “Pink Dogwood Tree, Spring,” (cropped), by ForestWander, CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Good Shepherd,” Henry Ossawa Tanner, public domain; 11th century mosaic depicting the Resurrection and Harrowing of Hell, Hosios Loukas monastery, public domain