Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Good Shepherd's double-edged sword

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-10, 1 John 3:1-10, John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”


Collect of the Day

O God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Three weeks after Easter Sunday and we’re still talking about him. Of course, this is his church, so we never stop talking about Jesus. After all, if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be here.

This Sunday, in particular, we talk about him as “the good shepherd.” Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we observe what has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

The Good Shepherd is a comfortable, familiar image of Jesus, even for those who live in areas where shepherding is not a common occupation. 

A sermon on Jesus the Good Shepherd might not be such a challenge except for one unavoidable factor. In our liturgical tradition, we don’t get to pick the biblical texts from which we preach. They are chosen for us, appointed texts for each Sunday of the year, systematically laid out for us in a three-year cycle in the lectionary. For this particular Sunday, over that three-year period, Jesus’s discourse on the Good Shepherd in John 10 is broken up into three different parts, seemingly with three different emphases if each one is taken in isolation.

It might appear, at first glance, that the emphasis for this year would be church unity, “one flock, one shepherd,” but that would be anachronistic. We have to consider the wider context if we want to understand what Jesus means by this and everything else he is saying and to whom he is saying it.

We take great comfort in hearing Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

But these words are a double-edged sword when we consider to whom they were originally spoken. To get the big picture, you have to go back to chapter 9. There, John provides a rather lengthy account of Jesus healing a man born blind, the man being subsequently reviled and persecuted by the Pharisees, and Jesus declaring, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

To which the Pharisees respond, “Are we also blind?”

Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

That is how chapter 9 ends. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus still speaking, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”

The “you” to whom he is speaking is the very same “you” who asked him, “Are we also blind?”

This entire discourse is directed to the Pharisees—and they take no comfort from Jesus’s words, especially when he presents himself as “the good shepherd” in contrast to how he characterizes them.

“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

To the Pharisees who, behaving quite unlike shepherds, had been persecuting those, like the man born blind, whom they should have been protecting as members of their flock, Jesus says, “You are a bunch of hired hands. You don’t care for the sheep. You not only abandon them to the wolf. You even go so far as to throw them to the wolf.”

Gregory the Great describes these pious phonies very well. “There are some who love earthly possessions more than the sheep and do not deserve the name of a shepherd,” he writes. “He is called a hireling and not a shepherd because he does not pasture the Lord’s sheep out of his deep love for them but for a temporal reward. That person is a hireling who holds the place of a shepherd but does not seek to profit souls. He is eager for earthly advantages, rejoices in the honor of preferment, feeds on temporal gain and enjoys the deference offered him by other people.”

How many times does Jesus say as much about the Pharisees? Again, they are his primary audience here. To us, his words bring comfort. To them, they brought judgment.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Not only will I protect my own from the wolf, Jesus says. I will throw myself to the wolf and give my life that the sheep may live—and not only these sheep that you now see, but others, as well. Lost sheep waiting to be found, longing to be welcomed home into the one flock under the one shepherd.

These words are all the more powerful when you realize Jesus speaks them to the very people who will demand he be put to death, proving all the more that they are false shepherds, blind guides, hypocrites, and hirelings who care not for the sheep, but for their own self- preservation.

To these, his enemies, the good shepherd will surrender himself for the sake of his beloved sheep.

“For the sake of his flock,” writes Basil of Seleucia, “the shepherd was sacrificed as though he were a sheep. He did not refuse death. He did not destroy his executioners as he had the power to do, for his passion was not forced on him. He laid down his life for his sheep of his own free will. ‘I have the power to lay it down,’ he said, ‘and I have the power to take it up again.’ By his passion he made atonement for our evil passions, by his death he cured our death, by his tomb he robbed the tomb, by the nails that pierced his flesh he destroyed the foundations of hell.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Taste and see

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Third Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Micah 4:1-5, 1 John 1:1-2:2, Luke 24:36-49

 “And as they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, ‘Peace to you!’” (Luke 24:36)


Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you gave your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly living: Give us grace thankfully to receive his inestimable benefits, and daily to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


“The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only,” writes Scott Hoezee.  “We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge.  We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness.  No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.”

That’s why, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are still talking about it or, rather, talking about him . . . and don’t be surprised when, as we talk about him, he shows up.

“As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’”

To borrow from one of my old seminary professors, who probably borrowed it from someone else, do you know the difference between Christianity and every other religion?

Our founder is alive!

Confucius is dead. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead.

Jesus Christ is standing among us, right now!

Ignatius of Antioch

“I myself am convinced and believe,” says Ignatius of Antioch, “that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. When he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, ‘Take hold of me. Touch me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ They immediately touched him. They were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason, they despised death itself and proved its victors.”

The disciples then could see and touch and feel. They could even share food with him—not just here but also in the immediately preceding account of the travelers on the road to Emmaus when, upon entering their home, Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread. There is also John’s account at the end of his Gospel with Jesus sharing a breakfast of broiled fish with his disciples.

Seeing, touching, feeling, eating. What more proof did they need? This is no ghost; no disembodied spirit. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the man they saw die on a cross three days earlier. But here he is alive, standing among them, inviting them to see his wounds, to touch him, to feel him, and share a meal with them.

But that was then, and this is now. How do we know that he is here among us today?

“The truth is,” writes Hoezee, “that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with ‘Peace be with you’ is another matter . . .).  We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.”

Recall Jesus’s words to Thomas last week, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Augustine would say, “What a tremendous favor grace has done us! We have neither seen nor touched, and we have believed.”

But is it all invisible to us? Do we not also have some visible, tangible, even edible sign of Christ’s presence in our midst?

Don’t ever make the mistake of overlooking the significance of food in the biblical story. From the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, it was food that gave life, and food that brough about the fall. Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, brought Abraham bread and wine. The Israelites ate the Passover meal as they prepared to leave Egypt and then received manna while in the wilderness. 

Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. He ate the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his death and instituted the meal that we have continued down through the ages as the sign and symbol of his presence among us.

It comes as no surprise that the Emmaus travelers recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread; no surprise that the definitive proof of his resurrection was his partaking of a piece of broiled fish.

Our faith is not in some nebulous ghostly presence. Our hope is not an eternity as disembodied spirits.

Our faith is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen bodily from the dead, “the firstfuits,” as Paul says, “of those who have fallen asleep.”

Yes, because he is truly risen, death is not a permanent state. Those who fall asleep in Christ will also awake in his presence.

Our hope is eternity in the presence of Christ, sharing with him the victory that is the resurrection—all of us being renewed and restored in every way: spirit, soul, and body!

We come to the table and that faith is so real we can touch and feel it.

We come to the table and that hope is so close we can taste it.

Whenever I teach the kids about communion, I try to keep it simple—as simple as so great a mystery can be, of course.

I tell them the bread is Jesus’s body, the cup is Jesus’ blood, and when we eat the bread and drink the cup, Jesus is with us.

As the Psalmist says, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 11, 2021

The center of the wide circumference

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Second Sunday of Eastertide (Thomas Sunday/Quasimodo), 11 April 2021

Texts: Isaiah 26:1-9, 19; 1 John 5:1-5, John 20:19-31

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


Collect of the Day

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Thomas C. Oden
1931 - 2016

“We are searching for the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience,” wrote the late Thomas Oden in his classic work, After Modernity . . . What? I may have told you Oden’s story, or some of it, before. He was hardly a model of orthodoxy when he started out as a theologian. In fact, he was very much into theological fads during the heyday of theological fads, the 1960’s and early 1970’s. But then, something happened. He started reading the Church Fathers. He started getting in touch with the classical faith—and he came to realize that everything he needed to know about Christianity he could learn from the writings of the first five centuries of the undivided Church. So, it became his goal as a theologian, he often liked to say, “to make no new contribution to theology.”

You can understand, then, why he would say, “Suppose the prophets  were right, that God's will is revealed through historical events, and hence that God's will is finally knowable only at the conclusion of the drama of history. Theology would then be intent on trying to understand, if possible the anticipated end of the process, beyond all current historical alienations, finitude, blindness, and sin.”

Indeed, searching for “the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience” is not going to lead you to anything new. Rather, it is going to lead you to that end that makes all things new.

Suppose that Isaiah was right when he said, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

Now, don’t just suppose the prophet is right. Believe he is right. Have faith that the Word of God is accurate—and that will lead you right to the center.

“What is the center?” Oden asks. “Resurrection,” he affirms, “as interpersonal meeting with the living Christ. Not resurrection as idea or past event but resurrection as a currently experienced interpersonal encounter. This is why interpersonal meeting has been the central feature of Christian theology from its inception.”

It is, of course, another man named Thomas, one who knew Jesus personally, who drives this point home so very succinctly. The hardcore skeptic—“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”—becomes the humble and devoted believer—“My Lord and my God!”

But must one see to believe? Jesus acknowledges that Thomas believes because he has seen. But then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Believing without seeing—without having the benefit of the Risen Christ in bodily form standing right in front of you, pointing to his wounds and saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side.”—that is taking faith to the next level.

Not even Thomas would have that benefit forever. Yet, he carried the Gospel all the way to India, and there gave his life for his Lord and his God.

“We today must learn to think historically in the Hebraic sense if we are to make sense of this central proclamation of Christianity,” Oden says. “Seen in this frame of reference, the resurrection is so decisive that the importance of all other theological issues pales beside it. It focuses on nothing less than the final revelation of the will of God in history.”

It should be obvious but, in a day when even people who flout their clergy credentials say otherwise, it needs to be shouted from the mountaintops. 

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing else even comes close.

“The earliest church,” Oden continues, “reasoned in this way: In Jesus' resurrection the end is already present, in an anticipated sense. Thus the will of God is finally revealed. So to participate in Christ is already to share in the events of the last days. It all made reasonable sense, seen from within the assumptions of Jewish historical reasoning, transformed by a living encounter with the resurrected Jesus.”

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And history—all of history from the beginning to the present day to the end that will come on a day known only to God—makes no sense without it.

It made no sense to the disciples “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” They were meeting behind closed and locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” 

Jesus showed up and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then, it all made sense.

It made no sense for Thomas, who “was not with them when Jesus came,” to hear the other disciples saying, “We have seen the Lord.”

Eight days later, Jesus showed up again and he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put your hand out, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Then, it all made sense.

John calls it “the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” 

It is the faith expressed by Thomas when he said to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 

It is the faith that lives on beyond the testimony of those who have seen because Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This “wide circumference of Christian experience” has a very definite center—and that center holds together the entirety of history under the sovereign will and purpose of a loving, merciful, and gracious God.

The truth that never gets old and is always and everywhere making all things new:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 4, 2021

"He has risen. He is not here."

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Easter Sunday, 4 April 2021

Texts: Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Mark 16:1-8

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, who through you only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of our Lord's resurrection, may, by your life-giving Spirit, be delivered from sin and raised from death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

* * * * *

“Salvation is the great theme of Scripture,” writes the Reformed pastor Kevin DeYoung. “If we can plot the biblical storyline as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, then clearly it is that third act which dominates the pages of special revelation. Strictly speaking, the Bible details creation in two chapters (Genesis 1-2), the fall in one chapter (Genesis 3), and consummation in two chapters (Revelation 21-22). The other 1,184 chapters are about redemption.”

If that much of the Bible is devoted to that one theme, it should be beyond comprehension that so many, during various periods of history (and we must include the present among them) have read the Bible cover to cover and have somehow missed it. Ironically, the ones who have missed it seem to be the most prolific during the week leading up to Easter—the very time in which we are supposed to remember and recall the ordeal of the Passion, all the agony and sorrow our Lord endured in order to redeem us. In one article published this week, it was suggested that Jesus had doubts, even sinful doubts, about who he was and what he was to accomplish.* In another, the death and resurrection of Christ came in a distant second to the author’s favorite ideological agenda.

Kevin DeYoung’s article was the exception to the rule this week. So many others were just horrendous exercises in missing the point.

“There is a reason that all four Gospels culminate with the death and resurrection of Jesus,” DeYoung writes. “No other biography spends a third of its time detailing the subject’s last week. But the Gospels are not ordinary biographies. They tell the story of victory in defeat, of triumph through tragedy. Make no mistake: the point of Jesus’s life was to die, the point of his death was to rise again, and the point of his resurrection was to justify believing sinners (Rom. 4:25). Upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist announced, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). From even before his birth, the mission of the Christ was to save sinners. ‘You shall call his name Jesus,’ the angel told Joseph, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). No wonder Jesus understood his own mission as coming ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served,’ he told his disciples, ‘but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45).”

To the household of Cornelius, Peter, in our reading from Acts this morning, said, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It was true then. It is true now. It has always been the truth that turns sorrow to joy, despair to hope, and death to everlasting life.

“Do not be alarmed,” says the young man to the women who came to the tomb. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”

Crucified, dead, buried. Buried in this very tomb, the entrance sealed by a stone you thought could not be rolled away. 

Are you seeking Jesus? Well, ladies, you’ve come to the wrong place.

“He has risen; he is not here.”

Here is a place for the dead. You are seeking him who has defeated death. You are seeking him who is alive and will never die again. 

You are seeking him over whom death has no claim!

“He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

See with your own eyes that death could not hold him. The grave could not keep him. Hell could not defeat him.

“But,” don’t waste too much time here, “go, tell his disciples and Peter,” yes even Peter, that coward that denied him three times, because he still has work for him with Cornelius and a whole bunch of other people, “that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

With all the sorrow and agony of the last few days, maybe you forgot that little detail—but he did tell you, no less than three times, that he would die and, after three days, he would rise again.

“See the place where they laid him.”

You can see he is not here. He is on his way to Galilee. You will see him there. I know you are afraid now, but again, “Do not be alarmed.”

Go, tell his disciples. Go, tell the world. Go, announce the good news that, for every sinner, there is salvation in the name of him who died and rose again.

“We will not be Bible people,” DeYoung concludes, “or Jesus people, or gospel people—if we are not salvation-for-sinners people. Though some may call it a soterian gospel or an individualistic gospel, the unavoidable reality of Scripture is that at the heart of the message of the cross is the simple, wonderful, glorious good news that Christ saves sinners like you and me. And if this message, and all that took place to accomplish what it announces, represents the climax of redemptive history—indeed, if all of history is about redemption—then we are right to conclude that this soteriological emphasis must shape the sound of our preaching, the priority of our ministry, and the mission of the church. . . . The mercy of God is the theme of our song because the salvation of sinners is the story of Scripture. Let us sing it, say it, and savor it—this week and for eternity.”

Thanks be to God.


*Denny Burke has written a helpful response to the article in question.