Here is the text of the sermon LCM Peer Minister Luther Rinehart preached today for Campus Ministry Sunday.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and this year’s lectionary brings us a gospel reading which seems a bit out of place. In the midst of this Easter season of joy and new life, we take some time to look back to the more difficult and frightening winter time before Jesus’ crucifixion. In a way, we are like the disciples who, in the uncertain days after the resurrection, might have looked back on their time with Jesus to try to understand the meaning of what Jesus had been and done, to discern what they might have been missing before.
We find Jesus in the temple, surrounded by a frustrated crowd of people, desperate for Jesus to relieve their suspense, and to declare his purpose openly. It is a tragic situation for both Jesus and the crowd, as the people cry out in longing for clarity, and as Jesus once again faces misunderstanding, rejection, and the threat of death, since immediately following this reading, the crowd will take up stones and attempt to stone Jesus for the perceived blasphemy of his words “The Father and I are one.”
Today’s gospel serves to remind us of the God who is present with us, and cares for us, even in times when we are confronted by a world of danger and doubt, when we feel held in suspense, not knowing if the path we are following will turn out for the best. It is good to remember, even in the safety and celebration of the resurrection, that Jesus the good shepherd, like any shepherd, tends his flock not only in spring time, but even in the dangerous, difficult winter. This Jesus will hold on to us forever, and no one and nothing will snatch us out of his hand.
We learn at the opening of the reading that Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the Dedication, which we also know as Hanukkah. This festival celebrates God’s unexpected act of bringing light and the freedom to worship, in the midst of a time of great suspense, uncertainty, and fear in Jewish history. Just such freedom, to draw near to God even in the midst of fear, has been given to us in Jesus, who is with us both in the dark times, and in the light.
Today, we have an opportunity to examine the times when we feel like lost sheep, and to recognize the many great and good works which Jesus continues to do every day in testimony to his love for us: at the font, at the table, and in our community. But how do we recognize Christ’s presence? The many works that Jesus does in our lives do bear witness to him. But they are not like the works which the disciples saw. Jesus is present with us, but not in the same way that he was present to the disciples. When Jesus spoke to the crowd in the temple, God’s work of redemption and reconciliation had not yet been completed. But now, God’s work in Jesus is completed. In God’s most perfect self-revelation on the cross, Christ reconciled the world to himself, such that now no suffering or fear or doubt is beyond God’s grace.
Of all the danger and suspense we face in life, among the most serious and the most harmful is certainly our own sinfulness. Our continual turning away from God, and turning away from each other, would seem to be the deepest, most insurmountable obstacle to life in God as God intended. But even this we do not need to fear, because it has been entirely blotted out by the cross and the resurrection.
Now not only are we reconciled to God, but also we have received the witness of the Holy Spirit, who testifies to the truth of Jesus Christ. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the moment when the Holy Spirit burst in upon the first believers, fulfilling Jesus’ promise to send an Advocate who would lead us into the truth. This gift of the Holy Spirit is the greatest testimony of all, and without it we would have no hope of believing. It is in this way that God shows us who God is and what God does. It is the Holy Spirit’s testimony which assures us that Jesus in the messiah, and that we belong to him. This testimony is what is promised to us, indeed, inscribed on us through God’s word and the waters of baptism. It becomes part of our identity, drawing us into belonging so directly and so deeply that we need no plainer testimony.
There is a deep connection between believing and belonging. Jesus’ words to the crowd reflect this fact, that believing in Jesus comes only through the enfolding grace of the Holy Spirit. It becomes part of our very being. Believing is not something we choose. It is not even something we do. It is something we are.
Thus we can be confident that Jesus the Good Shepherd will keep us, guide us, and protect us, but what makes him the good shepherd, indeed the best shepherd, is that he values his sheep more than anything else. “What my Father has given me is greater than all else.” In these words, Jesus proclaims his ultimate, all-surpassing concern for his people.
“What my Father has given me is greater than all else.” There is another translation of this verse which has slightly different meaning. It reads “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all else.” But there is a sense in which these two interpretations reflect the same idea. They both direct our attention toward what is truly valuable. The Father, who is indeed greater than all else, has given us to live in communion with Christ and with each other. When we value the Father, we also value the Son. When we value the Son, we also value all those whom the Father has given to the Son, those to whom the Son was sent to love and serve. Since we live in Christ, we too receive these two greatest gifts, the gift of the Father, and the gift of one another. Having received one another in communion with Christ, we are called to value one another as Christ values us, that is, as greater than anything else. We are called to treat each and every person as individually the greatest good to which we could devote ourselves, valued in themselves, in the way that Jesus knows them.
To this end, we trust in the Holy Spirit, and pray:
O God, you love us even in the deepest peril. Give us grace to love as we are loved, for the sake of your son Jesus Christ. Amen.