The Fourth Sunday of Easter -Good Shepherd Acts 6:1-9, 7:2, 51-60, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:13-25, John 10:1-10
I am of that age where many of my peers are forming their adult lives. Marrying, starting careers, having children, moving and establishing lives somewhere, getting involved in a nonprofit and serving their neighbors, gaining new qualifications and growing.
This isn’t an easy time. Especially in this era of easy access to information and to the hidden inimacies of people’s personal lives. My friends are making decisions with a seeminly unprescidented level of scruitiny, exposed to so many voices who may not love them. These decisions will shape the rest of their lives, and the lives of others, particularly the children they are bringing into the world.
I am incredibly proud of the responsible attitude many of my friends have to these matters. They must be exhausted already just caring for a child, and on top of this they are often navigating decisions about education, hobbies, faith formation, and healthcare hoping that they can give their children a good upbringing. They have taken on the mantle of parenthood understanding that these decisions now, will shape these tiny lives in ways which cannot be fully known. They know that it is their children who will experience the consquences of today’s decisions.
This is one of the reasons we gather to baptise our children as a whole church fellowship, because we want to form in the sight of God a community who will help guide and protect these children and support their parents in their ministry of bringing their children up to follow Jesus.
But despite the best of our intentions those who we are responsible to care for and lead will eventually walk into a world in which we cannot protect them. It is an awesome responsibility, to bring someone into the faith, and we have no idea what will happen to those with whom we share the Gospel.
After Jesus rises from the dead, the first disciples go around proclaiming his resurrection and telling others that he is the Lord of all, the messiah whom God had promised, the redeemer of the whole of creation who had begun to reign, bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. Thousands of people had come into the newly born Church and they began a new way of life, caring for one another and worshipping together. As they grew, the Apostles saw that there needed to be a bit more oganisation to their common life and so they ordain seven Deacons to ensure that the vulnerable among them were cared for. Despite their newfound faith, it seems that it was difficult for the Hebrew believers to accept and treat as equals the Hellenist Christians. And so Stephen and six others are ordained to the order of Deacons so that the life of the Church can flourish and so the Apostles can continue in their ministry of preaching.
Stephen never appears in the Gospels and so it is likely that he is one of those converts to Christianity after Jesus has ascended. If he had been an eyewitness to Jesus it probably would have been mentioned. He has come into the faith through the Apostle’s preaching and is now ordained to serve the church. His ministry flourishes not only in the matter of the distribution of food, but also with miracles and signs, and proclamation of the Gospel. Through him the Apostle’s ministry is indeed expanded and many hear the good news and see signs of God’s power and love.
He is a loyal son of the Church, and thats the problem.
The authorities of the Synangogue seize him and put him on trial. They are so enraged at him that they stone him in what looks a lot like a mob lynching.
So often we strive to protect those who come after us from harm, especially from the harm of living out our values, the lives we have given them. This is true enough here in America as anywhere. We might think of migrant families who go to great lengths to keep their heads down, and assimilate as best they can into the communities to which they have moved.
But it is a turning point of the Book of Acts that this, one of the first followers of the Apostles, lays down his life for the faith. It would seem to be more just and more poetic if one of the Twelve is the first to be martyred. Perhaps it should have been Peter, who had been the leader of the Church in these early years. That would have been more fitting. Or John, the beloved disciple, who could show the world the depth of that love by suffering for Jesus.
No, how cruel it is that this spiritual child of the Apostles should be the one to inherit the crown of suffering.
This is not the future we hope for when we bring our children into the faith. We want them to inherit the benfits of God’s kingdom on earth: Forgiveness of sins, new life in the Holy Spirit, a place in God’s church where they can flourish and offer their lives and their gifts for the sake of the world, and then grow to a ripe old age and pass on surrounded by those they love.
Stephen’s life ends being spat upon by those who hated him and the doctrine he proclaimed.
How is this the abundant life which Jesus promised? Stephen’s death might make Jesus out to be a pretty terrible shepherd unable to protect his sheep, and those undershepherds whom Jesus has appointed look negligent and incompotent, as though their religious zeal has carried them away into some place of madness and delusion.
He said that it was the thief who came to kill and destroy. He said that he came that we may have life, abundant life.
The stoning of Stephen is just not what we have in mind in a world where Jesus is king.
The Psalmist tells us that God will prepare a table in the presence of their enemies, that God will make peace between people and keep them safe. If that’s not what the Kingdom of God is, what exactly has he promised?
And why would we be baptised into this faith, which can get people excluded, or persecuted, or killed?
This is a great mystery, a mystery hovering somewhere in the middle of our faith. It’s a mystery drenched in the blood of thousands who have suffered for the risen one, who have renounced all that they had a lived lives of simplicity and service. Who have been ordained when they could have been powerful in the world. Who have withheld themselves from indulging in all the opportunities available to them and chosen to be obedient to their faith.
It is the faith which makes Stephen not only a distributor of food to those who lack, but also a preacher and miracle worker, ready to proclaim to even those who hate him that Jesus is the messiah, the savior of all people.
It is the faith which may make us who worship together today do things which will dissapoint our parents, or harm our 401ks, or ruin our careers, or infuriate our children.
It is the faith in a risen, living savior who leads us as a shepherd leads the sheep.
For the sheep know the voice of the sheperd and will follow wherever the shepherd leads.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Where will he lead them?
To abundant life.
But that abundant life is so often not reached by the route we would think to take. If we could get there under our own initiative there’d be no need for a shepherd. And I suppose we also wouldn’t be sheep. But sheep need protecting and guiding, for they live in a world of foxes and wolves and thieves who will devour them. Jesus calls himself the shepherd of the sheep and insodoing names the truth of what we are – helpless and easily overcome without someone to help us.
And he intensifies this relationship, too.
His sheep know his voice and will follow.
They will follow him to that abundant life, yes. But they can’t help but follow him to the court of the Synagogue, and they can’t help but proclaim his word, and they can’t help but announce his kingdom to the cost of their own lives. This is the kind of sheep Jesus has ransomed. He is with them, and they are with him, and nothing can seperate them from one another.
This is a profound mystery. That those who come into this faith, to follow Jesus, may find themselves a long way from where they thought they’d be. They may suffer injustice for the sake of their Shepherd, and follow in his way not returning violence for violence but enduring it confident that the one who rose from the dead will raise them with him in the consumation of his kingdom.
But in this between-time, as the Gospel goes forth, it will also be opposed entirely for the same reasons that Jesus was opposed. St Peter is not naive when he tells the church to honor the emperor and be subject to governmental authority. For it was obedience to government authority which resulted in Jesus’ death. But this is the path on which Jesus leads his sheep, that by being shown to be innocent they might endure suffering like he did, and if they endure injustice then they may also share in his resurrection.
The promise of abundant life can be experienced here, now, sometimes. In the early days of the church they lived by sharing everything in common so that there was no needy person among them. But that was a foretaste of a kingdom still to come, and as the Hebrews opposed Jesus, the world opposed the Church and brought violence against her. But those who know Jesus, know that there is a future to come where all these injustices will be righted, and they will continue to follow their shepherd because they cannot live any other way.
He has healed us. He has forgiven us. And we have been brought back to the one who loves us, when we were his enemies.
Next week we were supposed to be celebrating Confirmations with Bishop Julian, where he acts as an undershepherd of Jesus by lanying hands on those ready to profess their faith as adults and praying for a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit, that they may continue to walk in his ways and follow his voice. This ministry is a public declaration of faith in the risen Christ, and expresses that the candidate believes the faith as handed down from the time of the Apostles. The Bishop hears their declaration of faith and affirms it, so that the confirmand can be confident that they have rightly understood the doctrine of the church and are now empowered to go into the world and proclaim by word and deed the saving death of Christ.
But when we bring people forward to make such a solemn profession of faith, we have no way of knowing the outcome. Jesus is the shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and those who are called to the ordained ministry participate in that work, but beneath the very sensible and understandable ceremonies and teachings of the Christian faith, lies a hidden mystery that means our lives of faith will rarely turn out how we plan.
We are sheep. And we hear the voice of the Shepherd. And we go where he leads.