The Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd 2014

Lessons – St. John 10:11-16

There is an old joke of a college professor trying to prove to his class that there is no God. He says, “I am going to give God five minutes to prove Himself by knocking my off of this podium.” Nothing happens until, with about 30 seconds left, a young Marine student steps up and knocks the professor off of the podium. When the professor asks, “What did you do that for?” The Marine replies, “God was busy so He sent me!”

I tell that story because some people mistakenly think of Jesus in this way. Not as a Marine knocking people out but as a kind of substitute or stand in for God. As such it is not necessary to believe in the miracles He performed or even in His divinity for that matter. His main purpose was to show us the ways of God. He is to be seen as a great moral teacher.

This was a prominent view of the liberal Protestantism of the late 19th century and it did not disappear in the 20th or 21st centuries. Some of you will remember an Episcopal Bishop who suggested that the Church jettison doctrines that don’t fit the scientific method in order to make it more palatable to modern man. “Why have people stumble over unimportant things like the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ when what we really need to learn is how to love one another? Of course we are to love one another except for those crazy fundamentalist types who believe in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ. We would prefer those folks to go somewhere else.” And so we did.

Such thinking betrays a deep misunderstanding of the Gospel lesson today and we can use this very lesson to respond to this misunderstanding. It seems like such a lovely, pastoral text, and it is, but we must not miss the context.

In the previous chapter Jesus is battling with the Pharisees. It is really a power struggle on their part. Jesus just healed a man born blind since birth and of all things He did it on the Sabbath. Who does Jesus think He is? The Pharisees try to get the man to renounce Jesus but he refuses to do so and so they excommunicate him. Jesus hears of the excommunication and finds the man. Jesus answers the unspoken question of “who does He think He is?” by stating that He is the Good Shepherd. This sounds like a comforting statement rather than a declaration, and in one sense it is. But it is also a radical confrontational claim and here is why I say that.

Jesus’ listeners would have known and loved Psalm 23 as much as we do today. But it is important to note that Hebrew Bible uses the Divine Name at the beginning of the Psalm. So while you and I say “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” the text literally says, “YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For Jesus to call Himself the Good Shepherd is actually a claim to be the God and Shepherd of whom David wrote. It is one of seven “I AM” statements through which Jesus claims to be Divine. And just in case they miss this point by the end of the chapter Jesus will declare that He and the Father are one and the leaders will take up stones to kill Him for what they believe to be blasphemy.

Jesus IS the Good Shepherd. While it is certainly true that Jesus was a good moral teacher who calls us to love one another, He is much more than that. Notice what evidence Jesus offers to prove that He is the voice that they need to follow. How can they know that He is the Good Shepherd? Jesus says,“The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He has come to make atonement for the sins of the world. He comes to grant us forgiveness because that is what we need and that is what cannot do for ourselves. The only One who can forgive us is God.

Here is the issue as I see it. I need more than a moral example because not knowing what to do is not my problem. I’m right there with Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.” As we say in the confession, I not only do the things I am not supposed to do, I don’t do the things that I know that I am supposed to do. The problem is not with my knower its with my doer. Its not a head problem it’s a heart problem and only God knows what is truly in my heart and only God can change it. I need a Good Shepherd. We need a Good Shepherd.

But lets take this a few steps further because He provides more than forgiveness. We also need a Good Shepherd for direction in our lives. I have read that sheep have a terrible sense of direction. Every know and then you will read of story of a family dog who was able to go hundreds of miles to find his family but you will never read such a thing about sheep. They are not able to find their way home once they are lost and evidently male sheep are particularly bad at it because they will not stop and ask for directions.

We as sheep being easily lost and it has very little to do with intelligence. At one point, while doing ministry at Florida State University, I counted something like 12 cults that were active on campus. These were not slick star studded cults like Scientology, these were outrageous groups and some were even frightening. One cult was centered around a little kid from India who claimed to be god in the flesh. But he got a little older and started hitting on his secretary and became materialistic and bought a fleets of cars. His mother got angry with him and took away his divinity and gave it to his brother. (And you thought your mom was powerful!) The strangest was a “church” from New Orleans that worshipped both Jesus and Satan. They would have a “black mass” on Saturday and a “white mass” on Sunday. Now you would think that university trained people would not be susceptible to cults like these, but some of them had quite a following. Why? Because sheep have a bad sense of direction and are easily lost.

And lest you think that is just true for worldly students who are trying to figure out who they are, consider the thousands of Christians who fall for the trickery of the health and wealth preachers, or all of the wonderful folks who have fallen for the bizarre teachings of Mormonism. Did you kjnow hat one of their leaders taught that the One we worship as God is really Adam in a glorified state. He live now with many wives and with those wives has spirit children who come to earth to inhabit the bodies of Mormon Children. And yet in spite of such comic book theology, according to the US News and World Report, they are the fastest growing faith group in American History. It is projected that they will be 3 times the size of the Anglican Communion by 2080[i]. The plain truth is that sheep get lost easily.

The way not to get lost is really quite easy. The way not to get lost is to stay as close to the Shepherd as you possibly can. Then, even if you are in the strangest of strange territories, if you are with the Shepherd, by definition you are not lost.

Second, sheep need protection. They need protection from predators. Sheep don’t really have any good defensive equipment. They have no tusks or claws or canine teeth, and when they are frightened, instead of running away they herd together, which for large predators makes them an all you can eat buffet.

Being one of those crazy fundamentalist types who believes in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I choose to be consistently crazy and also believe in the powers of darkness. I think that when the Bible tells us Jesus was tempted of the devil that He truly was. While we should not go around like Flip Wilson saying “the devil made me do it,” we are wise to understand that we wrestle with principalities and powers in heavenly places. And the ONLY reason that does scare me spitless is because I have a Good Shepherd. He defeated the devil on the Mount of Temptation, He defeated him again on Mount Calvary and defeated him again when Jesus walked out of that tomb. Nothing can separate us from His love, not even principalities or powers.

Sheep also need protection from themselves. When they are heavy with fleece, and stumble and roll on their backs, they frequently are not able to get up. The English call it a “cast sheep.” One shepherd described his experience with it. “Again and again I would spend hours searching for a single sheep that was missing … As soon as I reached the cast ewe, my very first impulse was to pick it up … I would hold her erect, rubbing her limbs to restore the circulation to her legs. When the sheep started to walk again, she often stumbled, staggered and collapsed. Little by little the sheep would regain its equilibrium. It would start to walk steadily and surely. By and by it would dash away to rejoin the others, set free from its fears and frustrations, given another chance to live a little longer. All of this pageantry is conveyed to my heart and mind when I repeat the simple statement, ‘He restoreth my soul!’” (Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm).

All of us have experiences in life where we get ourselves into situations where we cannot right ourselves and we need the help of the Lord. At times the Good Shepherd helps us directly and at other times He uses priests and therapists and fellow parishioners to act as under shepherds to get us back up on our feet. Who can’t relate to the stumbling and staggering and taking time to regain our equilibrium? There is no shame in that. God has made us as we are and we are sheep who need His protection and help. We should welcome it in whatever form it comes.

Third, sheep need nourishment. As you can imagine Israel is not like Tennessee with all of its green pastures. There is a significant amount of barren wilderness in that land and so it would be very easy for a sheep to starve to death if the shepherd did not know where the pastures were. Also sheep cannot distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous plants and so the shepherd needs to guard what they eat. When you put those two factors together you see how much the sheep really do depend on the shepherd to provide their nourishment.

As Anglicans, when we think of spiritual nourishment we immediately think of Word and Sacrament. We see how dependent upon the Good Shepherd we are to provide what we need for He is the heavenly Manna that feeds us through the Scriptures and the breaking of Bread. Left to our own devices we either would starve spiritually, or we would eat the poisonous foods of the world and end up spiritually harming ourselves. We need the Shepherd to show us where and what to eat but it is our responsibility to follow where He leads.

I find it interesting that the Church in the Book of Acts met daily for Word and Sacrament. We read that daily they continued in the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. When they prayed “give us this day our daily bread”, they likely had in mind more than physical bread. They saw Word and Sacrament as spiritually essential as daily food.

So if the first Church looked to the Shepherd every day to provide spiritual food for them, it is curious to me that many today think that they need it only on occasion, only if it is convenient and only if the meal lasts an hour or less? I don’t exactly know when Christians started seeing what we are doing here today as optional but it does not match the model set for us by the early Church.

Jesus takes this analogy of sheep and Shepherd a step further. He says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This takes the relationship that we are invited to have with Christ beyond that of simply sheep and Shepherd. It is possible for a shepherd to see sheep as nothing more than a source of food and income but this statement is a picture of an intimate relationship. It is mindboggling to hear that He compares the relationship that what we are to have with Him with the kind of relationship that He has with His heavenly Father.

This movement to an intimate relationship is the same shift we can see in Psalm 23 when we get to the part of having a banquet set for us and being anointed with oil and our cup running over. In that culture guests were anointed with oil to cleanse them of the dust and dirt of their journey and it was such an honor to be invited to the banquet that their hearts overflowed.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd not only cares and provides for us but also He invites us into an intimate relationship with Him. He ministers to us and even honors us as He invites us through this Eucharist to feast at His banquet and be united with Him. This should cause our hearts to overflow. Then, as is so beautifully put in modern translations, we can say with David, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.” AMEN.


Doubt vs Unbelief


Lessons – Acts 3:12-26; Psalm 118:19-24; 1 John 5:1-6; St. John 20:19-31

In the Anglican world this Sunday has two names. The first is “Low Sunday” because there is inevitably a marked difference between the size of the congregation on Easter and the size of the congregation on the Second Sunday of Easter. The second name is “Thomas Sunday” because all around the world Anglicans will be considering this text that gave Thomas his famous name, “Doubting Thomas”. A skeptical interpretation of this passage would be that it is given to us kind of like a buggy man story to warn us not to go down the same road that Thomas did, but that is both a simplistic reading of this passage and a failure to understand the role of doubt in the Christian life. If you look more closely at the passage you will realize that Jesus did not one time rebuke or correct Thomas for his doubts and so this story is hardly a warning to us. Jesus met Thomas where he was and took him to the next level, ridding him of his doubts. This is in stark contrast to the rebukes that Jesus gave the Pharisees when they expressed their unbelief and He called them white washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones. So there must be a difference to the Lord between doubt like Thomas expressed and unbelief like the Pharisees expressed. A 19th century Scottish scholar captured the difference in this quote. “Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness’”

This is a distinction that is important to comprehend. The Scottish scholar was not just playing with words when he made a distinction between doubt and unbelief and it is critical to our understanding of this passage. You may recall a couple of years ago when the story broke about Mother Theresa expressing doubt in her letters. The media jumped on this like it was a gotcha story; here we have this woman that is on the fast track to being declared a saint in the Roman Church and yet she has doubts. But when I saw the story, rather than lessening Mother Theresa’s image, it was an encouragement to me. I have times of discouragement and doubt and frankly there are days when I wished that I had chosen any other profession than the priesthood but those times pass, just as they did for Thomas. And inspired by the witness of the saints, I get on with my work, just as Mother Theresa and Thomas got on with theirs.

The quote from the Scottish scholar said that doubt is looking for the light while unbelief is content with darkness. I think that captures Thomas well. If he had unbelief and was content with the darkness, he would have told the disciples they were crazy and then he would have left the room. He even could have thrown his lot in with the unbelievers who were busy bribing the guards and coming up with excuses why the tomb was found empty. But look what he did. After expressing his doubt, he stayed with the fledgling church and was with the brethren when Jesus appeared and gave him what he needed to dispel his doubts.

I can easily believe that most of you have wrestled with doubt at one time or another and perhaps some of you are right in the middle of it now. I hope that what I have said to this point will remove any false guilt about it but then the next question occurs and that is what to do about our doubts. Here we can take more lessons from Thomas.

First, is to simply admit it. Dr. Phil always says that you can’t fix what you don’t own and Thomas is a great example of that. He was not being antagonistic, or trying to destroy their faith, he was just being honest with the brethren where he was in his journey. If he had kept his mouth shut about his doubts and hypocritically went along with the crowd, look at what he would have missed. He would have missed this entire interaction with Jesus that moved him beyond his doubts. Look what we would have missed. We would not have this great story showing Jesus’ love and compassion in ministering to Thomas’ needs and giving us hope that He will do the same for us.

Let me clarify a point however. There is a vast difference between expressing doubt and trumpeting unbelief that is masquerading as doubt. When I was attending seminary at Sewanee one of the professors was being vague about the physical resurrection of Jesus and one of the students called him on it. So the professor said, “Let me be more clear; Jesus is a bag of bones lying in the ground somewhere outside the walls of Jerusalem.” With that kind of unbelief, if he had an ounce of integrity, he would have resigned from a Christian institution but he also embodied the pride that nearly always accompanies unbelief. He looked at people like you and me, who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, as simpletons who have accepted a Sunday school story. He gloried in his darkness and that is vastly difference from expressing doubt so that you can move further into the light. So come to your priest, or to your small group or tell Jesus directly but admit it.

The next step is to be open to the answer when it comes. I’m sure that by now most if not all of you have seen the story of the Scottish woman who sang for Britain Has Talent. The video of it on You Tube has had over 20 million hits. For those of you who haven’t seen it, this is the story of a 47-year-old Scottish woman who as one writer said has the eyebrows of a Caesar, the shoulders of a body guard and walks like a line backer. When she walked on the stage some in the audience started booing and when Simon asked her age he rolled his eyes. Then she opened her mouth to sing and out came the sound of an angel. Mouths dropped open and applause started to build and by the time she finished the song everyone was on their feet. She faced an entire room of doubters, she gave them an “aha” moment and they all became instant converts.

Jesus gave Thomas an “aha” moment in letting him touch His hands and His side. Thomas became and instant convert and responded, “My Lord and my God.” But Thomas’ heart had to be open to Jesus’ proof because it is possible to have the proof and still not believe. You will recall how God showed His hand time and time again to Pharaoh but Pharaoh, because he had hardened his heart, would not believe and accept the authority of YHWH. And I think that is often the true reason why some, even when given proof, refuse to believe. Because if they do then it means that they must accept Jesus’ authority, as Thomas did when he said, “My Lord and My God” and as a consequence are no longer be in charge of their own lives. For some it is easier to deny the proof than it is to bend the knee. So you have to keep your heart open to God after you admit to Him your doubts.

A third thing that we see in Thomas and even in the others is that their doubts did not paralyze them rather they kept moving. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps faith awake and moving.” Why does faith need to be kept awake and moving? Because faith that is not awake and moving is asleep or maybe even dead.

Before coming to Smyrna, I interviewed in a little church at the foot of Monteagle. After we went through all of the typical interview questions, including where I see myself in 5 years, they asked if I had any questions of them. I said that I did and I asked them where they saw themselves as a parish in 5 years. The Senior Warden said that if they had grew too much over the next 5 years that he would be gone because he preferred a small intimate church. That of course was my red flag not to accept the call because I would be fighting the Senior Warden to do what I was called to do and that would be suicide, so I declined their call. Would it surprise you at all to learn that they are even smaller now than they were when I interviewed with them? Of course not, because they stopped moving.

There was a silly song we sang in my high school in Scotland. “Oh McTavish is dead and his brother don’t know I, his brother is dead and McTavish don’t know it and both of them dead and in the same bed and neither one knows that the other is dead.” Well I have known churches, like the one I just described, that died a long time ago, but like with McTavish, there is no one alive enough to know that they are dead. That is why we need to keep our faith moving.

The answer is to keep moving in spite of the doubts. That is what Mother Theresa did. That is what the Apostles did. Listen to this line from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19  Go therefore and  make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So they are seeing a resurrected Jesus, they are worshipping Him and still some doubted. Even knowing that, Jesus goes on to give them the Great Commission and they keep moving and go on to obey that Commission. Thomas goes all the way to India where he was martyred in Madras.

I have seen a number of people lose their faith over the years. Many times this happened because when they started to have doubts they came to a full stop. Often they were waiting for a feeling to return which is always a risky endeavor because feelings come and go on a whim. They stopped attending Church, they stopped reading their Bibles, they stopped saying their prayers and they ended up cutting themselves off from the Body and they died spiritually as surely as a hand would die that was cut off from its body. They should have kept moving rather than being controlled by their doubts and feelings. I read once of a young preacher that came to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the young preacher was in a spiritual crises because he felt that he had lost his faith. Wesley told him to keep preaching faith until it came back. He did and it did. So when you have doubts, keep moving.

I truly believe that a proper reading of this Gospel will show us that Thomas is not the Church’s version of Benedict Arnold. In fact just the opposite, Thomas is a real hero. But what makes him so appealing is that Thomas is everyman. Thomas is you and Thomas is me. Through his story God encourages us to let our doubts be the ants in the pants of our faith and like Thomas we are to move to the place where we confess Jesus as our Lord and our God and then follow Him no matter where it takes us and whatever the cost. Amen.




The Resurrection and Chocolate Easter Bunnies

Easter Bunny

One of my roles as Dean of the Tennessee Convocation is to interview clergy and churches in our state that want to join our Diocese to determine if they are a good fit for us and we for them. I recently interviewed a priest and asked him to tell me his story. He told me that he came fresh out of seminary all full of hope and energy and could not wait to tell people about Jesus. But he was placed by the Bishop in a parish to work under a seasoned priest who confided in this young curate that he did not believe that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead. It was a deflating blow to him and he wisely moved on as soon as possible because Curates rarely win battle with Rectors.

Sadly that is not the first time that I have heard such as story about both clergy and seminary professors. So it occurred to me if there are men in pulpits and seminaries that are confused or in doubt about the resurrection of Jesus then perhaps there are some in the pews who are equally uncertain.

And let’s be clear. The bodily resurrection of Jesus does not fall into the non-essentials category when it comes to our faith. St. Paul said that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we above all men are to be pitied. Why? Because if Jesus were still in a tomb then our beliefs, our very lives, would be based on a pipe dream. Others would be right to consider us pathetic.

I submit to you, that at least in part, there is doubt ABOUT Jesus resurrection because folks are not clear on WHY He was raised from the dead. So why was He raised from the dead?

He was raised from the dead for this….a chocolate Easter bunny. Or should I say He was raised from the dead for what this chocolate Easter bunny represents. And what this chocolate Easter bunny represents is all of our efforts to make life what we hope it would be, even what we need it to be, but in the end we fall short when we try it on our own. Let me illustrate what I mean.

First notice the packaging. It is bright and cheerful, and while you can’t see if from the pews, the little bunny even has a smile on his face. And like this little bunny we are conditioned to go through life to be bright and cheerful with a smile always on our faces. Especially here in the South we have been trained to make everything as sweet as this bunny. You can say anything about anybody you want as long as you end it with “And bless her heart.” Am I right?

But for how many of us is life really bright and cheerful and all smiles? We can look beautiful on the outside, be in our Easter best, and still be shattered on the inside. By the way, that is one of the reasons that we should not be judging one another. We have no idea what is going on behind the smiles or lack thereof in other people. The Scriptures call on us to believe the best of one another.

But as for us, we want to be bright and cheerful and happy and yet so often grief or fear or shame or anxiety or life in general robs us of these things.

I don’t mean to be whatever the Easter version of Scrooge is but let’s be real. If everything was as good as we pretend them to be then our heavenly Father would not have sent His Son to make atonement for the sins of the world. He came, as we heard from the prophet Isaiah, to remove the shroud of death from our lives, to wipe away the tears from our faces and to take away our disgrace. He was raised from the dead to take away our grief and our fear and our anxiety and our shame by making us right with God and right with each other. He was raised from the dead to replace our fake bunny smiles with true joy. Jesus said that He had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. It takes a resurrected Jesus to make that possible and I’m not ashamed to admit that I need that from Him.

Next when you take the packaging off the chocolate Easter bunny you discover that the packaging was deceiving. There is a lot less bunny here than the packaging leads you to believe. He was standing on an internal cardboard box and his ears don’t go all the way to the top of the box. At least he looked impressive from the outside and that’s what counts! Right?

For many of us, our packaging is a lie as well. I knew a priest who planted a church in Franklin, Tennessee and when I said that fundraising for a building must be easy for him in such an affluent community, he told me that I would be surprised how many times he has gone into million dollar homes that barely had any furniture in them. But at least they looked good from the road and that’s what counts. Right?

If we don’t hide behind external packaging like half empty homes, we hide behind degrees or titles or expertise. And that is nothing new. In His own day Jesus confronted those whose packaging was also a front. He rebuked those who loved their titles and places of honor and cared more for their reputations than they did for either God’s glory or for the needs of others. Jesus called them whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. I’m not sure things have changed very much.

At the root of this is pride. We want people to think that we are doing better than we truly are. We want people to consider us experts when in reality we don’t know as much as they think that we do. We want to give the impression that we can handle it, that we have it all together when in reality we really don’t have it all together. Those in the helping professions will tell you that you would be surprised to learn how many lives are teetering on the edge of chaos.

Jesus’ resurrection offers us a way out of this prideful trap. His resurrection was the crowning proof that His life of humility was the way of God. He demonstrated humility when He put aside His divine prerogatives to be born of a woman. He demonstrated humility when He loved the despised and rejected. He demonstrated humility when He washed His disciples’ feet. He demonstrated humility when He yielded to the Father’s will and offered Himself as an atonement for the sins of the world. It was not a role He played it was who He was. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

It is in following the example of Christ’s humility that we become free of prideful posturing. It is incredibly liberating to no longer concern yourself with the packaging.

Last week was the feast of Richard of Chichester in the 13th century. The Church made him Bishop against the wishes of the King and so the King barred him from the Bishop’s palace. So Richard spent two years walking barefoot around his diocese, doing the work of Christ and, like St. Paul, accepting the hospitality of his people. Even when the King gave him the privileges of the Bishop, he fasted often and slept on the floor to avoid the pride that can come with the office. It is through the resurrection power of Jesus that we are freed from the bondage of pride and we learn how fulfilling it is to take up the towel of a servant.

Where this bunny truly becomes an icon, for why we so desperately need Jesus to be raised from the dead, is in the taste test. You have had these cheep bunnies before. They start out good but the aftertaste is nasty. Why? Let’s look at the ingredients. Number one is “sugar.” No surprises there. That is why it has a good start. But next is “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and who doesn’t want some hydrogenated oil in their sweets? And thank the Lord it is only partially hydrogenated because if they had made it fully hydrogenated there is no telling what it would have become.

Next comes “whey” as in “Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet.” Frankly I don’t know what “whey” is except that it goes with “curds” and I heard on the news that “curds” have something to do with the fighting in Iraq, so this is all very confusing.

But here is the point. Did you notice anything missing? Wouldn’t you kind of hope that a chocolate Easter bunny would have some chocolate in it by now? So I turned to the front of the package and it reads “Hollow Milk Chocolate Flavored.”

How appropriate. This bunny is not milk chocolate, it is milk chocolate FLAVORED. And it is not just milk chocolate flavored it is “HOLLOW milk chocolate flavored.” Is that not a perfect description of so many lives today? When the season finale of Keeping Up With The Kardashians is the most watched show in the history of E television, “hollow milk chocolate flavored” may even be a compliment.

This goes deeper than trying to have bright packaging by seeking happy lives. It even goes deeper than pride fully portraying ourselves through deceptive packaging. Now we are down to the essence of who we are. When we get real quite and take an honest appraisal of ourselves we discover that we are not what we are called to be. When we go to places that we don’t like to go, we know that something is desperately wrong. The way the Bible puts it is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

But there is something deep within us that wants to be genuine at our core. And yet all that we are able to accomplish by our own efforts is to be hollow milk chocolate flavored. The Bible is very blunt here. It says that even our righteousness is like filthy rags before God. We need help to be forgiven; we need help to discover who we are supposed to be. That help comes through the resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul said, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above…For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

Notice something very important in his words. These are words not just of doctrine or belief. These are statements of your actual position in God. Listen again. You have died, your life is hidden with Christ and you have been raised with Him. This takes us from merely believing in the validity of the resurrection to living into Christ’s own resurrected life. It cannot be overstressed how we must take this beyond mere doctrine. Why? To paraphrase the Epistle of St. James, “So you believe in the resurrection of Jesus? You do well. So do the demons and they tremble.”

Through the resurrection of Jesus, sin and death have been defeated. He offers us a life free of their control. Through the resurrection of Jesus we are made free and once made free we discover who we are, we find out why we are here, we live lives that are most authentic, and not hollow milk chocolate flavored lives.

What does it mean to live lives that are hidden in Christ? You will need to come back to hear and experience that over the next few weeks as we prepare for Pentecost. But know that just as Jesus made a decision to die on the cross for your sins, so you can make a decision TODAY to accept His resurrected life. As you come forward to receive His Body and His Blood, present yourself to Him as a living sacrifice. I mentioned Richard of Chichester earlier. He offered a simple and humble prayer that became a hymn of the Church and even became a pop song. It says it all and it is one that you can use today to invite the power of Christ’s resurrection into your life. Let us pray. “Day by day, dear Lord of thee three things I pray; to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.” Amen and Happy Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord has risen indeed. Alleluia.

Holy Saturday: Sabbath Rest


Lesson 1 Peter 4:1-11

For six days the Lord God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day He rested. Today is the Sabbath day and the One by whom and for whom all things were created now rests from His labors. The Lord God placed the first Adam in a garden. Today the second Adam is in His garden tomb. The parallels are so obvious that they almost demand that we meditate on the significance of this day. Allow me to suggest a few ideas.

First is the concept of the Sabbath rest. It is important enough to God that He would place it among the 10 Commandments and yet it seems to be the odd man out. The others are clearly about morality. No killing, no stealing, no adultery. But what does keeping a Sabbath have to do with morality?

We can see that it has everything to do with morality when we understand that a call to keep the Sabbath is a call to be a holy people, a call to live differently than those of the world. They believe that they are saved by their own efforts. We know that we are saved by faith in Christ. They live by bread alone but we are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. They trust in kings and chariots but we are to trust in the Lord our God. They live their lives by earthly desires but we are called to walk in the Spirit so that we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. The Sabbath, and keeping it holy, is a call to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood.

But the Sabbath is important for another reason and it is important to keep this in mind so that we do not become legalistic about keeping a certain day. The Sabbath is a foreshadowing of the day when our Lord will rest from His labors after He has fulfilled all righteousness. His Sabbath comes after He cried out “It is finished.” Because Christ rests from His labors on this day, we who are in Christ may rest from our labors, those labors by which we attempt to save ourselves. “For by grace are you saved through faith, it is a gift of God, not as a result of works, lest any man shall boast.” Keeping the Sabbath trains us to cease from our works righteousness and to rest in Him. On this day Jesus invites us to cease from our works righteousness and turn to Him alone for our salvation.

But second, this day is not just about rest. Listen to these words from 1 Peter 3, For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” Through the centuries the Church has interpreted these words to mean that during this time Christ descended to the dead and preached to those who were in prison or Hades. So while He rested from His labors, in terms of fulfilling all righteousness, He did not rest from loving and ministering to others.

This model of resting while working is the perfect model for us. There is a difference between rest and retirement. You rest so that you can continue to work. You retire so that you never have to work again. Spiritually speaking, retirement for the Christian comes in the next life, not in this one.

Sadly too many Christians think that once they have faith then that is all they need to do. They do not share their faith. They do not care for the widow and orphan. They do not visit the sick. They think that they own everything rather than understanding that they are merely stewards and that it all belongs to God. They ignore the words we just heard from the Epistle of Peter. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

But why should they do these things? They have their ticket to heaven, what more do they need? But contrast that thinking to what Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I really like how Peterson highlights the importance of doing good works in his paraphrase The Message. “He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.”

Just as Jesus rested from fulfilling all righteousness but continued then, and continues now, to reach out to others with love and mercy, so we are called to do the same. We rest from the exhausting and impossible effort to save ourselves by accept the free gift of God’s salvation through Christ Jesus. But then we use the spiritual energy preserved from no longer trying to gain our salvation by works and use that power to love and serve others. In one of the post communion prayers we pray, “And now Father send us out to do the work that you have given us to do” and we pray that because we truly do believe that God has given us work to do. Otherwise at your baptism we would just hold you under for a few minutes longer and send you on to glory. Okay maybe not but you get the point. Since even in the grave, Jesus was doing the Father’s will, we need to also be about love and good deeds. What is interesting, going back to St. Paul’s words, is that these good deeds are ones that God has already prepared for us in advance. This tells me that we are not called to be generic do gooders but we are to discern what work God has prepared for us to do and then do it.

A third observation about Jesus’ time in His Sabbath rest was that it was a time of preparation. Easter is for most of us the pinnacle of the story but we must also not forget that other important events follow. Namely that Jesus would ascend to the Father as High Priest on our behalf and be given a Name that is above every name. That He would send the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost. That He will return in glory and when He returns His promise is that we will appear with Him in glory. This was a time of preparation for all that lay in store.

As we enter the Sabbath rest with Jesus we need to see it also as our time of preparation. The Bible gives us glimpses into what lay in store for us, but to be honest I don’t really understand many of them. We are told that we will judge the angels. Does that mean that we will get to play Judge Judy with angels? I don’t know. The Bible says that those who are faithful over a little will be given much. Much of what? I don’t know. The Bible speaks of us ruling the nations. Why will we still need nations and what does it mean to rule over them? Again, I don’t know.

But what does become clear when you begin to piece all of these images together is that this life is like boot camp, preparing us for the life to come that is beyond what we can even imagine. Perhaps that is why Jesus gave so many parables warning us about not showing up unprepared. The world’s philosophy is that you only go through life once so you had better grab all of the gusto that you can. But the Scriptures speak of a second life and therefore this life is not about grabbing but preparing. Listen again at St. Peter’s words to see how true that is. “The end is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

The last observation that I would make about Jesus and this day Sabbath rest was that it had to be for Him a time of quiet trust. At the moment of His death He cried out in trust, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” His body was dead but His spirit was not. He had obeyed His Father and completed the work that He had been given to do. There was nothing left to do. His body lay in death but His spirit trusted in His Father to keep His promise and raise Jesus from the dead and exalt Him on high. Jesus knew the Psalms. He knew the promise of God in Psalm 16. “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”

As an observant Jew He would have prayed Psalm 22 expressing both the pain of Good Friday and the hope of Easter.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

you are the one Israel praises.

In you our ancestors put their trust;

they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried out and were saved;

in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Jesus knew the Psalms so well because He not only prayed them but He embodied them. As always He is our perfect model here too. As we join Him in the Sabbath rest, we can follow Him a step further and enter into His quiet trust. A 17th century English cleric put it this way. “Enter into God’s unchangeableness by faith, take up your lodging in this sweet attribute….and shut the door behind you….” (John Flavel, The Righteous Man’s Refuge Vol 1, pg 629).

That is wonderful advice but as you do this you need to realize that there will be a lot of things knocking at the door wanting to get in. There will be a knock from Health, wondering how long you will be able to keep it. There will be a knock from Relationships, hoping that they won’t go sour. There will be a knock from Monies, warning that there are not enough of them to go around. Such cares of the world will be standing in line as far as you can see, knocking on your door. Whatever you do, don’t open it to them because all these things will inevitably let you down. Choose instead to live in quiet trust and keep the door shut behind you. The Psalmist reminds us, if we put our trust in Him, we will never be put to shame.

On this Holy Saturday, our Lord is in His Sabbath rest and He opens the door to each of us and invites us to join Him. He invites us to rest from our labors of works righteousness. He invites us to work as we rest. He invites us to use this time to prepare ourselves for the life to come when we will cease from all of our labors. He invites us to join Him in His quiet trust of the Father. My God give each of the grace to enter His rest with Him and shut the door behind us. Amen.