Saturday, April 24, 2010

Following Jesus the Shepherd

Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Our readings for today encourage us to see Jesus as both Crucified Lamb, as we read in Revelation, and as Shepherd, as we read in the Psalm and the Gospel. The image of God as shepherd is an ancient one, as God tried frequently to gather together the scattered members of the flock and keep them from straying away from faith in the One God.
Our beloved 23rd Psalm reminds us that God cares for us as a shepherd cares for the sheep, feeding and protecting them with an abundance of good things, even in the face of the enemy. The rod and the staff represent protections from predators like wolves that might prey on literal sheep, but also refer to the way God hopes to protect us from attack from those countless things that may harm us or lead us astray.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd whose sheep recognize his voice. Those who choose to hear and follow are rewarded with good things – eternal life. We remember that in John’s Gospel, eternal life has two meanings – a strong relationship with God in this life, and a place with God after death.
There is power in this statement, power that Jesus has demonstrated with signs of healing and restoration of life. This is divine power, and Jesus has it, because Jesus and God the Father are one and the same being. Those who choose to be members of Jesus’ flock will never lose their relationship with him, because God has the power to protect them from any one and any thing that might try to snatch them away. Following Jesus the shepherd can sometimes be easy. At others, it can cost us our life.
Written probably in the 80’s, the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the stories of the first generation of believers – followers of Jesus the Shepherd. The numbers of believers grew and grew, and the disciples were able to use divine power to perform healings. More and more believers gave of their time, talent and treasures to do ministry with those in need. Especially mentioned in our text today is Tabitha, who sewed beautiful clothing for widows. Apparently, she used her own money for the tunics she made for them, and she put a lot of love into each garment. She found it easy to follow Jesus the shepherd.
One day, however, Tabitha became ill and died. As it happened, Peter was in the next town. Perhaps he knew Tabitha, from his travels from town to town, preaching, teaching, and healing as the Holy Spirit gave him the power to do. When he heard of Tabitha’s death, he hurried right over. After praying, Peter said to her, “ Tabitha, get up.” And she opened her eyes and sat up. Peter took her outside to show to the friends gathered that she was indeed alive again.
The story continues with the comment that many more people came to believe in Jesus because of the raising of Tabitha from death. Why, I often wonder, did God allow her to return to life? To bring more people to faith, certainly. But, I also think that it was because God had more for her to do. She could teach many others about following Jesus the shepherd.
So many people became followers of Jesus that the Roman government became aware of the Jesus movement. Roman culture in the first century was pluralistic, accepting of many gods and many rituals. Judaism fit into the culture because YHWH was accepted as one god among many. Occasionally, the Jews got into trouble for their refusal to worship an emperor as God, but mostly, they were left alone.
Christians got into trouble more often because they were a new group and believed in some questionable-sounding practices, especially Holy Communion, which refers to eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. To an outsider, this sounded like cannibalism, and it sounded like a superstition that was not to be tolerated.
From the beginning, some believers were persecuted, arrested, tried, and killed for their faith in Jesus. In Acts Chapter 7, Stephen was stoned to death for his belief. In the 60’s Nero began a persecution of Christians, and in the 90’s it was Domitian who singled them out. Under his rule, people were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to Domitian and refer to him as Lord and Savior, which the Christians and Jews refused to do. People were arrested and punished, even martyred under Domitian’s reign. Following Jesus the Shepherd in those times was extremely difficult for those who caught the attention of Emperor Domitian.
It’s believed by most scholars that Revelation was written in the midst of Domitian’s persecution in the 90’s, as an encouragement to believers to stay faithful to Jesus, no matter what. John of Patmos relays God’s promise that those who suffer during the great ordeal of persecution will be cared for as a shepherd cares for the sheep. For those going through the ordeal and fear of persecution, the promise that no one could snatch them away from God’s hand was good news, and reason to hold fast to the faith and follow Jesus the shepherd.
Here in Citrus Springs, Florida, we are living in a time and place where there are no persecutions of Christians. We can safely worship, study the Bible, advertise in the newspapers, invite our friends to church events. We can, if we choose to, speak to others about how our faith in Jesus has helped us through the worst parts of our lives. We can explain to them how following Jesus the Shepherd makes a difference in our lives.
And we can help others. At Hope, the Piecemakers carry on the work of Tabitha and other women. These women make quilts, assemble kits and shoeboxes, and donate cash to send the kits and quilts to people in need.
Many – perhaps most – of Hope’s members give of their time and talent every week. To see how important these gifts are, I tried to list all the ways in which lay people give of their time and talent and treasure. On Sunday morning, people volunteer to be ushers, acolytes, greeters, choir, lay readers, assisting ministers, Sunday school teachers. People willingly provide refreshments. Dawn and one or two others sweep the leaves and sand off the entryway. Volunteer nursery staff watch our youngest members.
Volunteers staff the congregational council, committees, Men’s Club, and Women of the ELCA. Volunteers count the offering and deposit it into the bank, and Diane pays the bills. Some folks help in the office with folding and stuffing bulletins and newsletters. Stephen Ministers walk with us through our tough times. Volunteers mow the lawn, fix the toilets, and plant flowers. Volunteers teach adult Bible study. Volunteers take tapes of worship to the homebound folks, and visit those who are unable to get to worship. Volunteers make quilts, assemble kits and shoeboxes with items they or still other volunteers provide. Angel Food ministries offers a way for people to get quality food at low prices. Russ volunteers to take the cover plates from the Memorial Garden to have names and dates inscribed on them. I’ve probably missed something ….
Like thousands of other believers of her time, Tabitha used her time, talent, and treasure to help those in need. Followers of Jesus the Shepherd and the Crucified Lamb gave up their lives because their faith in Jesus was stronger than their fear.
The various ministries we all do continue the service they did in Jesus’ name. Your challenge for this week is to reflect on the ways in which you follow Jesus the Shepherd. Do you put your heart into the doing? Do you do those things because you enjoy doing them? Do you think about how God might have more for you to do, if you would open up your heart and offer up your willingness to serve? Does fear prevent you from following somewhere that the Shepherd might lead you?
I encourage you to trust in the Shepherd to guide and protect you, and provide many ways in which you may serve, using your own talents, time, and treasure. Even if you think you have nothing to offer, you can still smile and say, “Jesus loves you.”
Please pray with me. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, help us to follow wherever you lead us. Help us to serve with joy, offering up our selves to you with love and faithfulness. Amen