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You are what you eat

June 6th, 2013 No comments

“You are what you eat” (John 6:31-71)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
February 3, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Well, dear friends, Katherine and I leave for Elkhart for four months today, and we will miss you greatly. I’ve had several weeks to think about this morning, and I think I probably spent about as much time pondering what kind of message and which text with which to leave you all as I did actually preparing the sermon this morning. I wanted to find just the perfect text, you see.

So I got to thinking about how Elkhart and the nearby town of Goshen are major Mennonite religious centers. So I was thinking about Bible passages that speak of going to major religious centers. Well, Bethel was a major religious center, and the nearby town of Gilgal appears to have been a sort of training camp for prophets.

So I thought about reading Amos 4, “Come to Bethel – and sin; to Gilgal – and multiply transgression.” Now Amos meant that ironically, but then I thought that you all might get the wrong message and wonder what on earth we were going to be doing with our sabbatical anyway.

So then I thought about passages that talk about going away and returning, since we’re going away for four months, and then returning. I thought of the parable of the prodigal son, where the younger son takes his share of the inheritance and runs off to a distant land to blow it all on riotous living. But that sounded just as bad as Amos! And I really started to worry about what exactly was going to happen on this sabbatical we had planned!

Well, then I thought about some of Jesus’ parables about a man who leaves his household to return at an unspecified time, saying, “Therefore, keep watch, because you know neither the day nor the hour.” That sounded like a lot of fun, except you know both the day and the hour of our return, Sunday, May 26 at 9:30am. So that defeats the whole purpose.

Well, finally I listened to Katherine, who had been saying all along, “Leave the congregation with a blessing and encouragement.” So I thought, what better way to leave a blessing than with a story about food, and John 6 is all about food from the beginning to the end: feeding the multitudes, God’s provision of manna in the wilderness for the Israelites, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Beautiful, encouraging words. Perfect.

Now I do have to ask you to suspend your skepticism, because I know that our Gospel reading for this morning does not seem to end on an encouraging word. Many of Jesus’ disciples said, “This teaching is hard; who can accept it.” And they went away back to their old lives and no longer walked with him. So very sad.

These weren’t the crowds. They weren’t casual window shoppers who were “just doing some religious browsing” but not necessarily interested in buying. They had bought in. These were Jesus’ own disciples, committed to following him, and they turned back to their old lives. Believers who lost their faith. One would even betray him. So sad indeed. Hardly an uplifting message with which to leave you all.

It’s especially sad, I think, because we all know people who have lost their faith. It’s like when Jesus told the parable of the sower and the four soils, and some seed fell on rocky ground, where it didn’t have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had so little soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.

French writer Georges Bernanos once said, “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses.’ We merely cease to shape our lives by it.” Whether or not you agree with that, it’s sad because we all know people who have ceased to shape their lives by faith. I know I have family and friends who have started strong, active in the life of the church, maybe even grew up in the church, going to Sunday School and Wednesday night every week, but then, for any reason among many, just withered away.

John tells us that many of Jesus’ own disciples turned back, back to their old lives, and no longer walked with him. They’d seen the signs, the deeds of power. They’d seen the water turning into vintage wine. They’d seen the sick restored to health. They’d seen the invalid for 38 years getting up and walking just like that. Five loaves and two fish feed the thousands. Walking on water. They had seen the signs!

And they had heard the wonderful words of hope and life as well: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . All who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Wonderful, beautiful words.

And they were drawn to Jesus. Who wouldn’t be? He was a mighty prophet, a powerful preacher. They loved his charismatic personality.

But as so often happens when we get drawn in by a personality and not the substance behind it, the commitment can run a mile wide and an inch deep. The roots have no depth, and many soon began to wither.

A few weeks ago, Katherine and I were in our old high school, helping out with a scholars’ bowl meet there, and I got to looking for a bit at some of the old pictures up on the wall there, and I remembered old friends, old classmates, people I’d grown up with, gone to church with.

And then I remembered, clear as day, a picture of my catechism class taken eleven years ago – eleven of us juniors. Of those eleven, nine decided to declare their allegiance to Jesus Christ by being baptized upon confession of faith. And of those nine, only four remain active in the life of Christ’s body, the church. It’s like a Ken Burns documentary solemnly panning across picture as face after face fades into the background as faith ceases to shape their lives.

Only four. So very sad. Of course there are lots of reasons why a person might turn back to the old life, stop shaping their lives by the all-consuming faithfulness of Jesus, and slowly fade from the picture. Sometimes it’s just as simple as something that someone said, or the bickering that often makes us look like the Pharisees that made Jesus sigh. Sometimes it’s intellectual difficulties – questions no one ever allowed us to ask, or when we did, everyone tried to avert their eyes.

Sometimes it’s tragedy. Cancer strikes down a loved one in the prime of life. Victims of unspeakable abuse and violence before our very eyes, and we just wonder how there could ever be a God. Some folks get jaded by the hypocrisy, imperfections, and limitations of the very human church, little-by-little.

Perhaps a feeling of being judged or alienated for a choice made. An unbending church, unwilling to try new things pushes many away (“we’ve never done it that way before.”). Sometimes it’s just too difficult, too demanding, too consuming. But I wonder if most often, we just slowly fade out of the picture, attend less as we get all consumed and wrapped up in work or family or stuff or entertainment, or just enjoying a weekend off – just living life in and of itself. And little-by-little, those smiling faces fade from the picture.

It’s so sad when disciples turn back and no longer walk with Jesus.

The beautiful bread of life sermon was rolling along just great that day that so many turned back, but then Jesus begins to tell the crowd that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh.

Now in the Jewish scriptures, any consumption of human flesh was a sign of utter depravity, an clear sign that the people had completely abandoned God and God’s ways. So the Jewish Bible scholars listening in, their ears perk up when they hear that. “Surely he misspoke. How can he say he’ll give us his flesh?! Um, what was that, Jesus? Can you say that again?”

Well, Jesus is happy to say that again, and more: “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Now not only was the consumption of human flesh a sign of utter human depravity for the Jews, any drinking of any blood whatsoever was considered an absolute abomination by any good Jew.

If Jesus’ disciples were Mennonites, you can imagine them averting their eyes by taking a sudden peculiar interest in studying their sandals, if you know what I mean. But you don’t have to be a good Jew for your stomach to lurch a bit when you hear this. Ah, Jesus, can’t we talk about something else? This is giving me the heebie jeebies

But Jesus would not talk about something else. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” It’s like one of those awkward moments when senile uncle Frank starts talking much too frankly about his bodily functions at Christmas dinner, or a political rally where the candidate starts going down an absurd rabbit trail of gaffe after gaffe, and the supporters on the platform behind are doing everything humanly possible to conceal their utter shock and horror about what their candidate has said. Well, it doesn’t matter if it’s your candidate or not, you just want it to stop. Oh please, make it stop!

But Jesus just won’t stop. Five times he talks about consuming his flesh and his blood. Either Jesus is completely oblivious to good social convention, or he is trying to say something important.

Now you and I obviously know that he isn’t talking about depravity for disciples or cannibalism for Christ. It’s kind of like the time when he told Nicodemus that if you wanna see the kingdom, you must be born again, and poor old Nicodemus, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the mechanics of a grown man re-entering the womb to be born again. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”

Maybe his disciples misunderstood him, like the Jewish authorities misunderstood him. Maybe they thought he meant literally eating his flesh and literally drinking his blood, like Nicodemus thought he was talking about literally being born a second time. Sounds like a good plot for a sketch comedy show.

His disciples often misunderstood him. In fact, if you read through the gospels, you’ll find that they very rarely actually did understand what he was saying. He would tell them a parable, and they’d be left scratching their heads. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed? Or he’d tell them that he’d be crucified. Oh, not you, Lord, not the Messiah. Don’t talk like that. Or he’d say totally backward stuff like, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the persecuted.” Yeah, right. We’re still baffled by the things he says.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”? For centuries many Christians have misunderstood Jesus’ words, assuming with the Jewish authorities that he was speaking of some magical, literal consumption. Maybe the disciples misunderstood him, took him literally, missed the metaphor, got offended, and turned back.

But, you know, hardly anyone ever turned away from Jesus because they misunderstood him. Even old flabbergasted Nicodemus stayed with him. A good number of the Jewish authorities who misunderstood him came around to believing (John 11:45). His disciples misunderstood just about every day, but they became his witnesses throughout the world. Sometimes he was more attractive when he was misunderstood. No, no, I think most of his disciples fully understood him when he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

I think they knew what it meant to consume Jesus – for Jesus to abide in them, and what it meant to abide in Jesus – to be consumed by Jesus. I think they knew he was talking about an all-consuming life, totally consuming Jesus, his life, his words, his death, his resurrection, his lordship, his way, his hope and promise.

I think they knew that Jesus was talking about drinking him so deeply that his blood begins coursing through our veins, about digesting his words into our life. I think they knew that Jesus was talking about a life so consumed by Jesus that we become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

In John, faith is never a noun, never a doctrine, never a belief, but always a verb, an active relationship, a risky trust that shapes our lives so much that it’s as if Jesus’ own flesh and blood become the shape of our lives.

Following Jesus through every storm in life. Following Jesus even when it’s not popular or pleasurable; even when it means standing out as a peculiar people. Following Jesus before and beyond any other authority. Following Jesus even when his road leads to a cross. Following Jesus even if it means losing one’s life.

And friends, that is a hard teaching, and few can accept it. Many turned back. It’s so hard to accept Jesus’ difficult teachings.

“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” My gracious, how does one even begin to live as though worldly possessions mean absolutely nothing?

“There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Yeeouch, who could accept that?!

“Sell everything you own and give it to the poor; then come, follow me.” Really, Jesus? Can’t I keep a few things? My car, I need my car. And my phone, surely you wouldn’t ask me to give up my phone!

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Whatever happened to sweet by and by? Who wants to carry around the instrument of their own death?

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who grievously harm you.” Yes, but what about those who want to hurt my family or my friends? What about those who want to take away my way of life?

“Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” From the heart? Ignore, sure. Avoid, no problem. Pretend it didn’t happen, well, I am a Mennonite after all. Act nice, can do. But forgive from the heart? What is more difficult than to truly forgive someone from the heart?

These are hard teachings, my friends. So hard I’m surprised more haven’t given up and stopped following the all-consuming way of Jesus. I’m surprised there are still so many in the picture of faith. Sometimes I’m surprised I myself haven’t turned back. Because it is hard to accept. Why haven’t you turned back yet? Why hasn’t your face faded from the picture?

Even Jesus wondered that. “Do you also wish to go away?” Why are you still here?

Now part of what turned people away was when Jesus said, “Whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the manna that your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Jews understood manna from heaven as a metaphor for the word of God. Jesus’ flesh and blood is the true bread of heaven, the Word become flesh.

“Do you also wish to go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Where else can you go to find such beautiful, wonderful words? What else could possibly give us the faith, the hope, the love, the joy, and the peace that we have found in Christ.

In a world caught in a cyclone of violence, where else can we find such words of peace? In a world searching for security in presidents or laws or guns or economies, where else can we find such words of hope. In a world longing for truth and joining Pilate in giving up on whether it even exists, friends, Jesus is the Truth. Where can we go to hear such words to turn the world? Where else can we find such words to give us an identity, a purpose, a calling. Who else has the words that can transform us? Who else has the words of eternal life?

This past week I heard about Jack, who grew up in a horribly abusive home in Wichita. As he grew up, he got torn up by anger and frustration and an out-of-control life. He coped the only way anyone ever showed him: drugs, alcohol, lovers’ bodies.

One day, he just happened into a church. A plain, simple, small church, quite quaint, maybe even a little dull by anyone’s standards. And within two weeks, he was freed from all the anger, the cycle of self-destruction, the path that was running at breakneck speed toward a major catastrophe. Who else has the words of eternal life?

One of my friends started going to church a few years ago, and he said that within a matter of months, he had let go of anger that had been consuming his life. He had let go of worry and the constant grind of resentment. Who else has the words of eternal life?

Jesus said there were two paths to life: a broad path, an easy path, that slowly slopes down the gentle hills to the valley below. But that path opens into a wide desert whose only promise is death. The other path is narrow and hard and few take it. It is a steep and jagged path, with many perils and pitfalls. Many turn back. Only those who choose to persist and endure, and at each hairpin turn at the sheer cliff, trust the path, only those will rejoice on the mountaintop. I like to think that at least some of those who turned back eventually found the narrow path again.

We have that choice every day: continue along the path of hard teachings that leads to life? Or turn back, coasting down the mountain to the deserts of death. Jesus offers his own life for ours. May we choose his all-consuming life, his flesh and blood, the true bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life, this day, and forever more.

Friends, may that bread nourish you. May you taste and see through all the difficulties and uncertainties that the Lord is good. May the flesh and blood of Christ become your own flesh and your own blood. May you digest Christ into every organ, every ligament and tissue and cell in your body and every corner of your life. Where else can you go? What else can you do? He has the words of eternal life.

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Getting in Line

April 18th, 2012 No comments

“Getting in Line” (Mark 8:27-38)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 11, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Opening Our Eyes
When we were in Israel and Palestine, on our last day before going to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Philippi, clear north of Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Patty, our leader, said to us, “Here begins the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering.” Here Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and here Jesus speaks for the first time about his death, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” Here our minds move from human thoughts to divine thoughts. Here our eyes begin to open to who Jesus truly is, and who we are called to be.

It’s like what happened in the village called Bethsaida, just before Jesus went on to Caesarea Philippi. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up, and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus had to lay his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time, and then he could see clearly. At Caesaea Philippi, Jesus’ disciples begin to see, though not yet clearly.

So they’re on their way into town, walking along, and Jesus says to them, with a twinkle in his eye, “Who do people say that I am?” Well, James and John are an eager pair, so they pipe up, “Some say John the Baptist.” And Andrew adds, “some say Elijah.” Thaddeus isn’t one of the more famous among them, but he speaks up, “Others say Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

And Jesus says, “But you all, who do you all say that I am?” Well, Peter’s only been quiet so far because he knows this question is coming, and his hand is the first to go up in the air: “You are the Messiah, the Christ,” he boldly declares.

Now the way we usually tell it, Peter adds some more and goes on to say, “You are the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus claps him on the back and says to him, “Peter, I’m going to build my church on you and the gates of hades will not stand against it. And I’m going to give you the keys to my kingdom.”

A great story! I could tell it all day – my namesake is even doing fairly well for himself!

Adventures in Missing the Point
Except that’s how Matthew tells it. Mark has something else for us to see and hear. The way Mark tells it, Jesus asks his disciples, as in Matthew, “But who do you all say that I am.”

Peter’s response is a little different. “You are the Messiah,” he says. The “Son of the living God” part is missing. Indeed it seems as though Peter was missing something, because in Mark – and most English translations miss this – in Mark, Jesus doesn’t just warn his disciples, he rebukes them so they won’t repeat what Peter just said.

Why such a rebuke? What did Peter miss? It sounds like a pretty good answer to me. “Who am I?” “You are the Messiah!” How could Peter give the right answer and still get busted for it? What wasn’t he seeing yet?

In college, one of my computer science classes was called Data Structures and Algorithms. And one of the units in this class was calculating the runtime for a particular algorithm. One day the professor put an algorithm up on the board and asked us what the runtime would be. Well, I’d done my homework and I’d seen something like this before, and I immediately piped up with what looked like to me to be a pretty obvious answer. And the professor got a big old grin and looked right at me, and with far more enthusiasm than I would have liked, said, “WRONG!” And he grinned as he pointed to a part of the algorithm I hadn’t seen.

Well, that was my last class of the day, but for Peter, it was all just beginning. What Peter hears next strikes like a death knell. “The Son of Man must suffer. . . and be rejected. . .and be killed.” In other words, “WRONG!” Peter, who had been so sure that the answer was so obvious, realizes his vision is yet blurred, and sinks back into confusion. His expectations are shattered. All he can do is rebuke Jesus (!) for talking such nonsense. Messiahs rule and save people from suffering! They don’t suffer and get killed!

And Jesus responds with some of the most striking words in Scripture, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But doesn’t Peter’s objection make sense, at least a little bit? Peter has left his family fishing business. He has left his home. He later even says to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you.” Here Peter has staked his whole future on the hope that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

And so far, everything has looked good. There have been signs of God’s kingdom everywhere around Jesus’ life and work. Peter has watched with amazement as Jesus “bursts onto the scene proclaiming the Kingdom of God and doing mighty works: he casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, calms the sea and the wind, walks on water, and twice multiplies bread . . . Jesus. . . looks very much like a . . . superhero who exercises the power of God to subdue the forces of evil.”1

“Who do you all say that I am?” The answer seemed obvious to Peter: “You are the Messiah.” But when Jesus responded, it shattered his expectations for the Kingdom of God. Shouldn’t faith provide us with some protection from suffering, some security for life, some triumph of justice? Not suffering, rejection, and death!

But Jesus responds to such a blurred mindset, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind on human things and not on divine things.” Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is technically correct, but his vision, though coming is yet blurred. His mind is stuck on human ideas about Messiahs. Peter expects a great and powerful Messiah who will march on Jerusalem to claim his rightful crown and usher in a glorious new age in which his followers will be great and greatly rewarded for the hard work and will sit in honor at his left and at his right. But what kind of kingdom, what kind of age will a suffering Messiah bring, and what will it mean for his followers? Peter cannot yet see clearly.

“Take up your cross”
You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, we had Katherine’s friend from college in Winnipeg and her friend’s husband visiting here in Kansas and staying with us for a few days. One day as we were eating lunch, her husband told us about one of his cousins named Alfred, who is a missionary in Paraguay in a drug-ridden community.

Well, one night a couple of years ago, a young man, thinking that the missionary, Alfred, and his family were gone, broke into the house to rob the place. But the family was home at the time, and Afred was still awake. And this young intruder panicked and stabbed Alfred seven times before fleeing.

Alfred was taken to the hospital, and miraculously, he survived. Meanwhile, the assailant was apprehended and put in prison. Now, Alfred’s daughter was severely traumatized by the ordeal – just imagine trying to sleep again at night after the safety of your home has been so severely and violently violated.

But after Alfred had recuperated, he and his daughter went to visit the young man in prison, and his daughter gave him a small gift as a sign of forgiveness. This young man was so moved by that expression of love that he decided to give his life to Jesus, right there in the prison. A couple of months ago when he was released, Alfred was there waiting for him.

Jesus said to the crowd and to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Indeed, what can they give in return for their life.” Alfred and his daughter accepted Christ’s cross and followed him to the prison and found new life and a glimpse of this suffering Messiah’s kingdom.

Jesus knows that only those who follow him to the cross will be able to see clearly who he is and what his kingdom looks like. If his disciples stop before getting to the cross, they will have only a blurry, distorted understanding of Jesus. Other miracle workers, other exorcists, other authoritative teachers, other political leaders have come and gone. In Mark’s gospel, no human being knows who Jesus truly is until he dies on the cross, and then it is one of his executioners, a centurion, who realizes, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Only at the cross can anyone truly see who Jesus is, as the suffering Son of God who gives and gives and gives even his life to wrest the many from Satan’s grip.

And only in denying ourselves, Jesus says, in taking up the cross, and following after the path Jesus has cut do we find the freed and abundant life of Jesus. Yes, it does mean leaving aside human thoughts of security, even survival, and even our ideas about justice. And it does mean facing a ghastly death, if necessary. But you see, Jesus foretold not only his suffering, rejection, and death, but also his resurrection. “The cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.”2

Saying Yes to God
When we take up the cross of Christ, we not only accept suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; we also join Jesus in trusting God’s ultimate vindication. We join Jesus in living a life not of retaliation but of costly, redemptive love. We join Jesus in forgiving even those who do us the most harm. We join Jesus in placing ourselves completely into the hands of God. We join Jesus in proclaiming the good news.

Because we join with Jesus, we find perseverance in renouncing selfish sinful passions and preoccupations. Because we join with Jesus, we experience fellowship in his body and blood across racial and ethnic lines, and whatever walls previously divided us.

Because we are joined with Jesus in the cross, we find reconciliation with God. Because we are joined with Jesus in carrying his cross, we are also joined with Jesus in experiencing resurrection life both now already and in the everlasting age to come.

This is the sort of Kingdom this suffering Messiah brings. Paul once famously said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me!”

These, friends, are “the most precious things in all creation: the priceless pearl.”3 We can’t purchase it. Indeed, what can we give in return for our life? But we can receive it, and we can find that there are unending stores of it. We can have it. We can yield to the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and accept the cross of Christ. We can be followers, not by our own power, but by God’s. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Do we love God so much that we will follow him?”4

The night he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Because when we join Jesus in accepting the cross, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace, and we can join Jesus in saying yes to God and yielding our will to God’s will, no matter what the cost.

If you have denied yourself, if you’ve given up human thoughts to seek after divine thoughts, if you’ve identified yourself with Jesus by taking up your cross, then the cross you take up isn’t exactly yours. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, you are realizing that the truest, fullest life, the true goal of all human striving, is not your life but his. We don’t go seeking for our “true self” as the teachers of this age opine.

It’s not really about living life as an ascetic, and it’s certainly not about senseless suffering; it’s about denying one’s self as the “controlling center”5 and seeking first Christ and his kingdom as our center and chief loyalties, and receiving our “self” from him. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. Selfish human thoughts become transformed into the divine thoughts of costly love, joyful obedience, and unimaginable reward in glory. If we take up his cross upon our own shoulders, he will carry its weight.

Shortly, you will be invited to come forward, to offer your commitment to Christ, your commitment to God’s covenant, your acceptance of Christ’s cross, and in so doing, you will receive a symbolic new name, a new identity, a new self in Christ Jesus. Who do you say that I am? You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, who suffered and was rejected and killed, and rose again in glory. Truly it is no longer we who live, but this Christ who lives within us and who promises us new life in him.

Notes
1. Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 75.
2. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 211.
3. David F. Wells, “Holiness: Sacrifice (Mark 8:31-38)” in Christian Century (March 8, 2000), 271).
4. Ibid.
5. Geddert, 205.

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Signing On to the Way of the Cross

April 18th, 2012 No comments

“Signing On to the Way of the Cross” Mark 1:9-15
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
February 26, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Since the very beginning, God has been deeply committed to humanity and creation, though it has often come at a great cost to God. Out of deep love, God promised to never again bring such great devastation to the earth through the waters of a flood, even though humanity would continue to be corrupted by sin, to give in to violence, and to disobey the ways that God longs for humanity to follow; even though God appointed judges and rulers and sent prophets to remind people of the ways of God’s kingdom. And when the people still refused to give their lives and their hearts to God and to follow in the ways of the kingdom, God decided to finally “tear open the heavens and come down”1 through the sending of the Son.

And the Son is a sign of just how deep God’s commitment to humanity truly is, for the sending of the Son is the most costly thing that God has ever done. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he hears the Spirit speaking directly to him, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And one can almost hear an echo of God’s words to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt-offering.”2 Only this time, there will be no ram sent to take the place of the Beloved Son.

The sending of the Son is costly to God and it is costly to Jesus, who has promised through the sign of the baptismal waters to obediently follow God’s ways even though it will cost him his life. Yet the descending of the Spirit as a dove upon, and even into3 Jesus following his baptism in the Jordan, is a sign that God’s presence is with the Beloved Son from the very beginning of his ministry, that all that the Son does and teaches shows the true nature of the Father, and that Jesus will not be left forsaken by God’s presence despite all that is yet to come.

Even when Jesus is driven out into the wilderness and tempted by Satan and the wild powers of this world, God’s presence was with him through the angels sent to minister to him. One can assume that this was not the end of Jesus’ temptations, as he did enter fully into our humanness, but throughout his ministry, God’s Spirit was present within him.
Following Jesus’ temptation, he came to Galilee, after John (the one sent to prepare the way) was arrested, or better translated, after John was “handed over” and will go the way of suffering and death. Later, Jesus will also be “handed over” and himself go the way of costly suffering and death. And later still, Jesus’ disciples will be “handed over” themselves, and many will come to a similar end as their teacher and savior.4

John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus by preaching and baptizing. “Now he is preparing Jesus’ way by going that way himself. The way is the way of [costly] obedience even in the face of rejection[, suffering,] and death.”5 This is the way of the cross. Just as John, the forerunner of the Messiah has gone, so also will be the way of the Messiah.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus knows what is yet to come, where his path will eventually take him, yet he will not be deterred from the purpose for which he was sent: to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, which has finally come near and has begun to break into the world.6 And this is the good news: because of God’s deep love for and commitment to humanity and creation, God’s kingdom has finally drawn near. We know that we will experience God’s kingdom fully when Christ comes again and redeems creation, but even now, we can see and witness the many ways that God’s kingdom is already breaking into creation. This is not something we wait for only in the afterlife when we have been resurrected with our Savior. God’s kingdom is now; it is “not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place, the new light is shining; now is the kingdom, now is the day.”7 And because God’s kingdom is now coming into the world, all who encounter Jesus are called to repent, to turn from the ways of this world, and to turn instead to follow Jesus and the Way of the kingdom. And this is exactly what Jesus calls his followers to do: because God’s kingdom is come into the world, all are called to repent and believe this good news.

Never again will Jesus explicitly call for people to repent and believe, yet this is what Jesus’ entire ministry is about. Jesus will obediently follow the Way of God’s kingdom and will continue to call people to respond to its offer and its costly demands. Every time Jesus encounters other people, he will, in one way or another, call each of them to repent and believe. We see this right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: immediately after his baptism and temptation, he goes on to call a group of disciples to come and follow him.8

Our worship throughout this season of Lent will focus on the theme “Where do I sign?” which will provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God and to ponder God’s invitation to sign on to the Way of new life in Christ. We know from our Scripture readings this morning9 that God has already “signed on” and is deeply committed to humanity, though it will come as a great cost to God. We know that in his life here on earth, Jesus “signed on” and was deeply committed to living a life of obedience to God and the kingdom, though it would cost him his life.

Throughout our lives we sign many different commitments. We sign our rental agreements or mortgage contracts, that we promise to pay the price in full. We sign up for credit card offers. We sign a marriage license and promise our love and fidelity to our spouse for our lifetime. We sign a contract when we begin a new job. The youth are asked to sign a document before each service trip that they will behave in such a way that is representative of Christ, rather than engaging in destructive behaviors. Many of you will sign up to bring baked goods or to volunteer for the MCC Relief Sale.

Yet the most important decision we will make is whether or not to “sign on” to give our hearts to Jesus and to follow his Way of obedience to God and to the kingdom. We formally sign on for this lifelong commitment when we are baptized into the church, yet it is also a decision we make every day: Will I continue to turn from the ways of this world and to turn towards God and follow the Way of Jesus?
This is not a journey we take on our own, however. When we decide to be baptized, we commit ourselves to give and receive counsel within the church, to walk with fellow believers, to ask each other to share about our faith journeys and ask “What is going well for you? Where are you encountering God? Where are you struggling? How can I pray for you?”

And just as it was for Jesus following his own baptism, when we commit our whole selves to following after Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters into us and begins to transform us, so that we can be faithful ambassadors for Christ. We do not remain slaves to Sin, but instead become slaves to Christ and to the good news, not by our own doing, but by the very power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet just as it was with Jesus who entered into our humanness, we too still find ourselves tempted and tested by the powers of Satan and of this world. For though God’s kingdom is coming into the world and we have committed our lives to living obediently, we still live within a world that has yet to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. It is as though we have one foot in God’s kingdom and one foot yet in this world. So when we find ourselves tempted and tested, God’s presence is still with us, through the “angels” of fellow believers, of prayer, of immersing ourselves in God’s Word. Jesus’ promise to us is that he will never leave nor forsake us, especially not in times of hardship and temptation.

Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news continues to beckon and invite us. We can “sign on” to repent and believe and follow in the Way of Jesus. For he has prepared the way for us as his followers to live in the Way that is obedient to God. Jesus calls all of us to repent, to turn from following the rulers and powers and ways of this world, and to turn instead to Jesus, to God’s good news, and to follow the way of the cross.

Signing on to Jesus is costly for us. “Saying yes to Jesus does not guarantee a life of unmitigated blessings. To follow Jesus is to begin a life of costly discipleship; there are rewards, but there are also costs.”10 Jesus will later tell his followers in the same breath that they will experience the hundredfold reward as well as persecution all for the sake of the good news.11

It is not an easy road that we are “signing on” to, for the way of the cross is foolish to the “wisdom” of this world. Many will not understand why our allegiance is not to any political party or country, nor why we do not place our trust or hope in any political ruler to save the world. Many will not understand why we do not give in to the consumerism of the culture around us and lay up for ourselves treasure in the possessions of this world. Many will not understand why we do not place our own happiness first, but instead give of ourselves for our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when we do not always agree or see eye to eye. For just as Jesus chose the self-giving and very costly way of the cross, so too are we to completely devote our lives to the Way of God’s kingdom and to give of ourselves for the sake of our fellow brothers and sisters for whom Christ died to save.

Many of us have already committed ourselves to the Way of the cross through the baptism covenant. Some of you are taking catechism in preparation for baptism and a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus. Others of you have yet to make this decision. Yet each of us, regardless of where we are in our journey, have daily decisions on how we best will follow Jesus in our lives. So here at the beginning of Lent, regardless of your age or whether you have been baptized or not, I invite all of us to prayerfully consider the ways that we can commit ourselves to follow after Jesus. Each of you were given a Lenten Commitment sheet at the beginning of the service with ways that you can “sign on” to continue your walk with God, perhaps through prayer, or a renewal of your baptismal commitment, or through reading the Gospels and being reminded of the way that Jesus lived and calls of each to live in response.

The life of discipleship is costly, but it is God who paid the ultimate price, and who has empowered and invited us to follow after Jesus. So the question I invite each of us to ask ourselves is, “How will I sign on to follow the way of the cross?”

Notes:
1. Isaiah 64:1
2. Genesis 22:2
3. A more literal reading of the Greek “eis.”
4. From Timothy J. Geddert’s Commentary Mark from the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.
5. Geddert, Mark.
6. Jesus himself proclaims this as the purpose for which he was sent in Luke 4:43.
7. Lyrics from song “Here in this place” by Marty Haugen.
8. Ideas from Geddert, Mark.
9. Mark 1:9-15 and Genesis 9:8-17.
10. Geddert, Mark.
11. See Mark 10:28-30.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Come and See

February 23rd, 2012 No comments

“Come and See” (John 1:35-51)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
February 12, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Come and See

Jesus calls to all people, “Come and see! Follow me!” No transcript is available for this sermon; enjoy the audio!

For where your treasure is. . .

February 17th, 2012 No comments

“For where your treasure is…” (Luke 16:1-13)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
January 29, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Mennonite New Testament scholar, Mary Schertz, upon reflecting on this parable of the Unjust Steward says, “The parable of the shifty steward in Luke 16 was a delight to my friends and me in our coming-of-age years. Any adult defending a ‘one right answer’ approach to biblical interpretation had to be prepared to take on a barrage of questions about this parable from avid teenagers.”1

Her point is a valid one, as people can’t even seem to agree on a title for this parable, let alone an explanation. Is this the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward? Was this man a scoundrel, a conniving, greedy thief? Or did he act wisely, having earned the praise of his master? Does the master represent Jesus or simply a wealthy landowner of the first century? Does Jesus commend the actions of one who acts in such an underhanded way?

Each commentary that I read in preparation for this morning seemed to offer a different interpretation from the others. In fact, some readers even wonder if Luke wasn’t sure what to do with this story, as it seems as though he continued to tack on saying after saying of Jesus to the end of this parable in an effort to make sense of it.

It is a rare sermon indeed that is told on the parable of the unrighteous manager. It is rarer still that we hear it as a Sunday School or Wednesday evening lesson, for no one quite seems to know what to do with this parable of Jesus.

Well, one day, Jesus was talking to the crowds who had gathered around him to hear him preach. He had just finished talking to the Pharisees and the scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ practice of eating with tax-collectors and sinners, and he had told them three little stories about the lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons2. But after finishing with these stories, he turns to his disciples, and the crowds and Pharisees fade into the background, as Jesus begins to tell his disciples this story:

There once was a rich master, a wealthy landowner, who had a manager, which was a common practice of the day. The master was most likely an absentee landlord who had hired someone else, this manager or steward, to be in charge of his property and who would be responsible for collecting rent from the tenants who farmed the land. Now this steward would not have necessarily been considered a wealthy man in comparison to the landowner, but he certainly did not live in want either. And, as an added benefit of his comfortable position, when he collected the debts from those who farmed the land, the steward would most likely tack on a little extra for himself to the bill, as his “commission” if you would.

Now it comes to the master’s attention that this steward that he has hired to oversee his land and his accounts had been squandering his property. It would appear that Wall Street excess, greedy lending practices, and the wealthy 1% are not common only to our own day, but that lust for possessions and wishing to build bigger and better storehouses and mansions to store all of the latest gadgets and things were also common in Jesus’ day.

So when the master hears about the steward squandering his property, he grows suspicious and angry and calls this steward in to talk with him and says, “What is this I hear about you? I’m giving you your pink slip. Clear out your office, and turn in your books because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

And the steward is fired; he has now lost his job, his livelihood, his position of status, his cushy lifestyle.

“What shall I do?” he despairs. “How can I possibly hope to compete with the day laborers who have worked most of their lives and who know how to work the fields? My own hands have never held a shovel of a hoe; they’re much too soft and well-manicured. Who would hire me when compared to the muscled, skilled, lower-class workers who have done this for years? They were built for this, but not me!

But what other option do I have besides seeking employment as a day laborer? I am too ashamed to beg. I don’t want to miss meals or catch any strange diseases from the other beggars. No doubt this option would lead to an early grave! What will I do, now that my master is taking my position away from me?”

And he sits and he thinks and the wheels begin to turn, for he knows that he is fighting for his very livelihood and lifestyle. And he thinks for a time, and suddenly the light bulb turns on, and he says to himself, “Ah, I know what I will do. If I’m going to be fired, I am going to ensure a way that I can be welcomed into the homes of others so that I may continue to be taken care of.” Now perhaps the steward was hoping to be welcomed into the homes of the tenant farmers, after they see how kindly he will treat them by reducing their debts; he’s scratched their backs, now they should turn around and scratch his. Or perhaps the steward was hoping to get another job once the other wealthy landowners see how cleverly he acts in trying circumstances and what good public relation skills he has.

Regardless, the steward is acting in such a way that, no matter what happens, he will be well taken care of. He will either get his old job back, or get a new job as a steward with someone else, or he will be welcomed into the homes of those whose backs he has just scratched, whose debts he has just reduced. He is a quick thinker, that one. So he quickly calls his master’s debtors to come and see him, one by one, for they have no idea yet that this man has been fired and that he is acting of his own accord. The debtors still believe that he is acting under the orders of the wealthy landowner.

And the steward calls one of the debtors in, and asks, “How much do you owe my master?” To which the debtor replies, “100 jugs of olive oil.” The crafty steward says to the debtor, “You’ve been a good renter, always quick to pay back your debts. Sit down, take your bill, cross out 100 and make it 50.” A move that any debtor can appreciate; his bill seems much more manageable now that it has been cut in half. No doubt the debtor is elated as he leaves, and will go off singing the praise of the master who would treat him so kindly.

And the steward calls in another debtor and asks him the same question, “How much do you owe?” To which the debtor replies, “100 containers of wheat.” And the steward again tells the debtor to reduce the debt, “Sit down, take your bill, cross out 100 and make it 80.” And so on, and so forth, the steward continues to call in the debtors one by one and tells them to reduce their debts.

Now some scholars have speculated whether the steward was simply removing the interest that the debtors owed the master, which might account for the differing amounts by which the debts were reduced.

Or perhaps the steward was simply removing his own cut of the profit, the portion that he would have been paid from the rent.

Regardless, the master hears what the steward has done, and the master is left with a choice. If he cares about the money that he has lost, if it was indeed interest that was owed to him, he can call in the debtors and inform them that the steward was acting of his own accord and that the debts still stand as they originally were: 100 jugs of olive oil and 100 containers of wheat. But of course, this option would leave the now elated debtors breathing threats and murder against their master, which may have ended in a worker’s strike, a revolt, or worse.

OR the master can leave the canceled debts as they are and reap the benefit of having his debtors praise him for being such a generous and kind landlord. The steward has played his cards well.

Faced with this choice, the master once again calls the steward in to talk with him. “Well done, you shrewd and clever servant, for you have come up with a way to make me look good with the tenants who farm my land, as well as devised a scheme that will save your own hide and allow you to remain in luxury.”

And it appears that the steward is reinstated to his post, although Jesus doesn’t say. At the very least, he has earned a good recommendation from his master as one who has good public relation skills and who acts cleverly under trying circumstances.

And this is the parable that Jesus tells his disciples. He had just finished telling the Pharisees and the scribes who had gathered these three, lovely, gentle parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons); stories that we have grown up hearing ourselves that communicate God’s deep love for all humankind.

But this story that Jesus tells directly afterward, to his disciples, to those who have already committed their lives to following him, is not nearly as lovely or gentle or clear as those that he just finished telling the Pharisees.

The Pharisees get God’s amazing grace. The disciples get the Bernie Madoff scandal. Is this really what we’re supposed to mimic as followers of Jesus?

You can just see the disciples turning to each other after this parable and quietly mouthing, “What?! What in the world is he trying to tell us this time? And we thought the one about the unjust judge was confusing…”3

And what do you suppose the tax-collectors turned disciples were thinking? “Okay, okay… Let me get this straight. You called us to repent of these greedy and self-serving ways of collecting taxes, but now you’re telling this story about a man who acts only to save his hide and continue living the cushy life of a rent collector? What are we supposed to do with this? We’re being a little hypocritical, aren’t we, Jesus?”

But before they can ponder even further what Jesus could have possibly meant by this parable, they would have heard him say, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves out of the wealth of injustice so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal dwellings.”4

As if this confusing parable wasn’t enough! Now he’s gone on to talk about making friends by means of unrighteous wealth! And you can just imagine Levi, an ex-tax collector, leaning over and whispering to Andrew, “It looks as though Jesus has been spending a little too much time celebrating at weddings in Cana, if you know what I mean…”

Then louder, to Jesus, “First you tell us that in order to experience salvation we need to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor. And what about the story you told us about the rich man who built up his barns and storehouses, yet lost it all because his treasures lay in the possessions of this world rather than the treasures of your kingdom?

But now you’re telling us to make friends by means of wealth, and unrighteous wealth at that? What, are we supposed to go play the slots and black jack and use this wealth to make friends? Are we supposed to go steal it from one of these wealthy landowners? Are we supposed to use the ill-gotten wealth that tax collectors and rent collectors tack on to the bills of the poor peasant farmers? Talk sense, Jesus! Are we supposed to seek after wealth or aren’t we? Doesn’t mimicking this scoundrel go against everything you’ve already taught us?”

Perhaps the disciples were so caught up in their confusion and questions over the meaning of this parable that they missed it when Jesus said to them, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”5 “I wish the children of light, I wish the people of God, I wish that those of you who have already committed your life to follow me, were as shrewd for the gospel and the way of the cross as those greedy, unrighteous stewards and landowners are for themselves and for accumulating the wealth of this world.”6

I wonder if this parable is functioning in a way similar to that of the unjust judge, where if some cruel and selfish judge could act in such a way that brings justice, how much more so will God seek for justice? So too, if the crafty, unjust steward would do everything possible to save his own hide and cushy lifestyle, how much more so should we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, be just as crafty, put forth just as much effort, and do everything within our power for the sake of the gospel?

It’s almost as if Jesus was saying to his disciples, “You are right to hear of God’s amazing grace that I told to the Pharisees, for God’s grace certainly abounds throughout creation. But you who have already received such grace should know that such grace is costly. Consider well the cost, for from those who have been given much, much will be expected. I have called you to take up your cross daily and follow after me, and I am willing to lay down my life for the sake of God’s good news. In what way will you follow me and put forth just as much passion, just as much cunning, just as much effort for the sake of God’s kingdom?

For you cannot serve both God and wealth.7 See how much the slaves of worldly wealth do to seek after their god? How much more should you, who are slaves to the good news of the one true God do to seek after and live for the gospel and the ways that I have taught you?”

From we who have been given much, much will be expected. Do we spend more of our efforts seeking after the ways and wealth of this world? Or do we spend more of our efforts seeking after God’s purposes and good news? Where does our treasure lie? Where is our heart?

We meet today for our annual meeting to pray together and discern where we as a congregation are headed, where our passions and energies are, and how we will best serve God together. How will what we discuss in our meeting reflect where our treasure and our heart is as a congregation?

And after we leave today, how will our lives reflect where our treasure and our heart is as a follower of Jesus? May we be just as clever and cunning as the children of this age in our living for the gospel and in our following the way of the cross. Our lives will reflect, one way or the other, where our heart truly is. The question is, how will our lives witness to where our treasure lies?

Notes:
1. Mary H. Schertz, “The Word: Shrewd Steward” from The Christian Century, September 4, 2007.
2. Perhaps better known as the Prodigal Son.
3. This was the Scripture passage preached the Sunday before this sermon, which accounts for this reference. The author acknowledges that the parable of the unjust judge appears after the parable of the unjust steward in Luke’s gospel.
4. Luke 16:9 (author’s translation from the Greek)
5. Luke 16:8 (NRSV)
6. Similar to what Thomas Long does with this verse in his sermon, “Making Friends.”
7. Luke 16:13 (NRSV).

Following the Good Shepherd

June 8th, 2011 No comments

Following the Good Shepherd” (John 12:1-11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 15, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Good Shepherd
Every year, my parents used to load up us boys in the van, and we’d drive to South Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle. If we got up early enough, we could go out with my uncle to chore the sheep. As we were walking out to the barn, the sheep would completely ignore our chatter until my uncle would start calling, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” And the timid-yet-gentle creatures would start making their way from the “pasture” to the barn, a little nervous to see us strangers. They came because they knew their shepherd’s voice and call. There was a familiarity to them in his step, in his face, and in his voice, and they trusted him

Little wonder that the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep is a favorite image of Jesus and his followers. Walls and picture Bibles and children’s postcards are adorned with pastoral images of Jesus with his gentle flock, and we cannot help but hear echoes of the ancient words of the famous 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Israel’s greatest king and Psalmist, after all, started out as a shepherd (David).

Thieves and Rebels
Jesus begins this famous chapter with a warning, most likely about those powers who are plotting against him. “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a rebel.” Now that is sort of an odd pairing: thief and rebel. One is stealthy – a subtle embezzler, a cat burglar. The other is a violent insurrectionist – what the Roman Empire might have called the terrorists of its day. . .

There is only one thief mentioned by name in John’s gospel: Judas Iscariot, who kept the common purse, but stole the money from it instead of giving it to the poor (John 12:4-6). And there is only one rebel mentioned by name in John’s gospel: At the time of Passover, the Jewish authorities would later ask for the release, not of Jesus, but of the insurrectionist and murderer named Barabbas. They had chosen their shepherd, and his path would ultimately lead to destruction.1

Judas and Barabbas, thieves and violent insurrectionists, are always trying to sneak into the sheepfold, it seems. Defrauding and exploitation of the poor on the one hand, and violence and insurrection on the other are always trying to find a home among God’s people, always trying to speak in soft tones to urge a few sheep to follow them off into the night. Surely those crowds gathered around Jesus – especially those Pharisees who were there – knew the prophet Ezekiel’s warning to the Judases and Barabbases of his day, the impostor shepherds of his own time:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with violence and harshness you have ruled them. . . My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (34:2-4, 6, NRSV).

Judas and Barabbas
And Judas and Barabbas have been trying to gain entry to the sheepfold ever since, to steal and kill and destroy. And just think of how good Judas the embezzler and Barabbas the rebel are at what they do. Just think of how Judas’s advertisements for stuff – possessions, consumables – that surround us on TV and on the radio and on the Internet and along the Interstate keep seeping into the sheepfold with such friendly-sounding voices, saying, “It’s OK, come here. Follow me. You should have this. You deserve this. You need this, and you need it now. Boost your ego. It’ll make your life so much easier, happier.”

And of course, Judas’s hidden message is, “You don’t need to worry about the folks who can’t even afford any of this. . . just put them out of your mind.” I once ran into an economics professor who told me that the best thing I could do for our nation’s poor is to go shopping. Thieves speak ever so smoothly.

Or have you ever heard Barabbas the violent insurrectionist speaking to you? You know that rush of satisfaction and approval we all get when someone who willfully did something wrong finally gets what’s coming to them, or when that annoying, arrogant coworker or classmate finally gets the chewing out they deserve? Have you ever heard Barabbas telling you to respond to insult in kind? To shove back? To hit back because that’s the only think that’ll teach them a lesson?

Maybe you’ve heard Barabbas telling you that justice means an eye for an eye or a life for a life, perhaps whispering so convincingly in your ear that loving your enemies like God loves them has its limits, such as when your life, or your friends’ lives, or the well-being of your nation is threatened, and that you only have one option that will actually work, that you’ve gotta put down your cross and take up your sword if you wanna get anything done in this world.

Following the Good Shepherd’s Voice
But the Good shepherd’s sheep, Jesus says, they will not follow these smooth-talking, sinister strangers. They don’t know the voice of these strangers, and they scatter at the sight and sound of them. These sheep Jesus is talking about, you see, are to be smarter than what sheep are often maligned for being. They know whom to follow. They sense truth even amid all other voices and eagerly follow after it. The Good Shepherd enters by the gate, taking no shortcuts for the sake of expediency, and the sheep follow after him.

And do you notice how this Good Shepherd goes about his job? He doesn’t drive the sheep ahead of him. He doesn’t threaten them with loud shouts and furious gestures until they go where he wants them to. No, this shepherd calls his sheep by name. He leads them out of the safety of their fold and goes ahead of them into a dangerous world. And they follow because they’re his. They are never forced, but always have a choice. They must continually decide to follow, yet it’s almost like once they’re his sheep, their instincts are rewired in such a way (think work of the Holy Spirit) that they can hardly do anything but follow him (discipleship as rewired instincts!).

So when Jesus goes about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, we follow him as a part of that proclamation, because we’re his flock. When Jesus invites other sheep into his fold, we welcome them as our own and seek to welcome others. We follow Jesus as he sets about healing God’s children, freeing them from the grip of pain, despair, and the possessive spirits of the world. We follow Jesus as he heads up the mount of transfiguration and find ourselves transformed as well. We join him in his temple demonstration in revealing injustice. We follow him on his path of tremendous and costly love for the least lovable.

We follow him as he forgives those who come to him, and we even follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, because he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock. We freely yield to his call to follow him even as we bear our crosses to the hill of Golgotha, being conformed to a death like his, that we might also share in a resurrection like his. For he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lamb who was slain and rose again, he has gone ahead, left us a trail through the thorns and brambles to the hope of his kingdom and the safety of his fold.

The Gate for the Sheep
And this brings us to Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Again, we hear echoes from Ezekiel. In response to these impostor shepherds, God declares through the prophet:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and . . . will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture. . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . . I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. . . I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. I will make with them a covenant of peace (from 34:11-25, NRSV).

God responds to impostor shepherds by taking over the shepherd role to gather the sheep who are in exile back into the fold and passing that role on to the Messiah, that the sheep might be saved from such thieves and rebels and all the robbery, killing, and destruction they entail, and for something much greater.

Ancient sheepfolds were stone structures a few feet tall, with an opening for going in and coming out. The shepherd would lead the sheep into the fold for night for protection and lie down across the opening, becoming the door or gate, who keeps out all who would do harm to his flock.

Abundant Life!
Those who are the Good Shepherd’s sheep – those who respond to his call in faith – those who listen to his voice and come to him, enter into the safety and salvation of his fold. The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, is the one who is able to take it up again and lead them out of death as well.

This is how the sheep are saved into the sheepfold and into the flock. They don’t earn their way in by cashing in some sort of paycheck. They don’t try and sneak in over the wall. They hear their Shepherd’s gracious voice, and they trust him, and turning (aka repenting) from all the other sweet voices calling to them, they follow the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death and into their pastures of eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “Which shepherd will you follow? Whose voice will you hear, and whose will you flee? Those impostor shepherds, those Judases and Barabbases, those short-cut thieves and exploiters, those violent rebels and murderers? Or will you follow the Good Shepherd, who will lead you beside the still water, restore your soul, take you through the valley of the shadow of death, and raise you to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection?

The Good Shepherd promises his flock abundant life of freedom and good pasture, both in the age to come, and now already. We heard from the Acts reading about the abundance of life the early church enjoyed by following the call of the Good Shepherd, even in times of persecution – even in this overlapping of the ages, with the world still dominated by violence and fear. The Shepherd’s Way has that ring of abundant truth that goes “with the grain of the universe.” We too may have that same sort of abundance of life that Jesus had as we hear him call our name and follow, with the hope that we may also one day enjoy the same abundance of life that the Good Shepherd now has in glory.

May we also know the Good shepherd’s step, recognize his face, rejoice at his voice, and gladly follow when he calls, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” Amen.

Notes:
1 The Judeans mounted an insurrection against Rome in AD 66-70. It was brutally crushed. In several important manuscripts, Matthew draws out the contrast by calling Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice is then between Jesus Messiah and Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:17). The crowd chooses the insurrectionist Jesus. May we guide our minds and actions against following this false “Jesus” of violence and insurrection.