4th Sunday of Easter
April 17, 2016
John 10: 22-30 You can click on this link to open the reading in Oremus Bible Browser.
“Jesus, tender shepherd hear me/ bless thy little lamb tonight./Through the darkness be thou near me/keep me safe til morning light.” I can still hear my baby brother’s voice saying his bedtime prayers, although he’s now 6’7” tall and approaching 60 years old. It was his every night routine. This morning’s readings not only bring back the memory, I think they reinforce the theology of that baby’s prayer.
“No one will be able to snatch them out of my hand,” says Jesus. What an amazing promise. That means that once you have been gathered into Jesus’ flock, you are always part of Jesus’ flock. That means that no matter what happens to you, no matter the disasters that befall you, no matter the doubts that assail you or the questions that plague you, you are part of Jesus’ flock forever. It’s only your own lack of trust in God’s promises in Jesus Christ that can separate you from God’s love and care. And that’s only because if you don’t trust, you don’t realize the grace that is granted you, and you don’t live in the confidence of the promises extended to you.
Jesus’ statement “you don’t believe because you are not part of my flock,” seems to imply that some people are just lucky, that God zapped them into Jesus’ flock and some are just not so lucky. The question of how much of faith is up to us and how much is clearly God’s work has been a theological controversy since the earliest Christian writings about faith. In the Reformed tradition, the doctrine of predestination says that God has chosen who will believe before the creation of the world. It suggests that some people will never come to faith. Some early Christian theologians said that humans have a free will to follow God’s invitation and choose to believe and obey God’s commands. Martin Luther says that our will to believe is not really free, that our self-centered hearts will always lead us to favor our own desires and that it’s only by God’s grace that we are included in God’s family and forgiven for our failures to follow God’s will for us. We all have our own questions and experience about coming to faith, our own process and that of people around us. How much of our decision to believe was up to us, and how much was plainly God’s call and invitation? When we ask the questions which this reading provokes, we are doing theology. We are grappling with the same questions, and the controversy that has continued over the centuries includes us. You have become a room full of theologians.
And in the grappling with the theological questions of faith and why some get it and some seem not to, why some find the comfort that they need and some turn away, I find these stories immensely comforting. Some Sundays it’s hard to decide what to preach on because all the readings provide such rich material for a message. So this week, there’s the sweet story of Tabitha, who devoted her skills to providing for people who were without resources, and how Peter was so moved to pray for her return to the community that loved and appreciated her so much. His prayer was answered, and God gave her back to those who needed her.
And then there are those who have come through great tribulation and have been gathered into their final rest with the Lamb. The promise is that their suffering is finally over and God will wipe away their tears. All of us have our tribulations, our times when we think we can’t go on, and we need to know that there will be a day when heartbreak can no longer touch us. This is the passage that sustained me at the end of my mother’s suffering, and I can barely read it dry eyed.
All these readings tell us that we are safe in the darkness, because our Shepherd’s promises are trustworthy and true. We are gathered here this morning because we need to hear these promises as we go out into the world to meet the suffering and accusations of our own hearts and of the world around us. We need to know that our questions about faith and belief are a way to do our own theology, and the way to dig deeper into God’s invitation to grace.
God’s love was strong enough to raise Jesus to new life, and that the same love has invited us to be part of God’s family and share in God’s work of love in the world. You may wander, but you cannot be lost, because Jesus will not let you go. You are safe until the morning when you wake up in Jesus’ arms. Amen.