Monthly Archives: May 2014

Can I Get a Witness? – Sermon on Luke 24:44-53

Artwork from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What do The Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Dusty Springfield, and Marvin Gaye (with the Supremes singing back-up vocals) all have in common? At some point over the span of a year, they all recorded “Can I Get A Witness?” – a gospel-style hit that got its start in 1963. While the song didn’t have remarkable lyrics, and the melody only consists of about three notes, it put Marvin Gaye on the Billboard 100 top songs list. The hook that inspired such popularity was the refrain that sounded like a revival preacher’s chant, repeated over and over: “Can I get a witness?” In other words, can anybody out there affirm that I’m telling the truth? Are you with me here? Can I get an Amen? Will you say it with me, over and over? Can I get a witness?

As Jesus talked with his followers in the days after the resurrection, he found himself repeating the same words over and over for them, too. As we heard a moment ago, in the story from Acts, they still didn’t fully understand how his reign was supposed to work. “Okay, Lord, we get it that you had to die, and be raised from the dead to prove that even death has no power greater than yours. We get it that you came to offer forgiveness of sins. That’s great. But now that you’ve done all that, isn’t it about time for you to overthrow the corrupt Roman oppressors? Can we get on with the revolt, Lord? Isn’t it time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples were still trying to make Jesus into a military hero. They still didn’t understand that Jesus had come to save the whole world. Time was growing short. Jesus knew he would not be with them much longer. But the only way to help them see the truth was to tell them again and again, over and over. So, just as he had done before, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus started at the beginning.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44)

Last week, as we witnessed our confirmands declaring their faith, and as we welcomed them into the full life of the church, we recited the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed is organized around God’s identity as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the central part of that creed focuses on the work of Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception through his ascension and heavenly reign. As often as we say those words, I wonder if we really pay attention to the mystery they describe. I wonder if we realize how each element of the life of Jesus affirms both his divine and human natures, how each phrase we repeat when we say, “I believe” connects the earthly life of Jesus to everything that had come before, and everything that would follow. That narrow band of time when Jesus walked on earth was the turning point of salvation history, and this final moment Jesus shares with his disciples falls into a similar pattern: a narrow band between what was, and what will be.

First, Jesus repeats what he has been telling them – and us – all along: since the beginning of creation, God’s plan has been clear. Jesus is the culmination of the whole story up to now. Every bit of his life and ministry is the answer to Old Testament questions, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. It all comes down to this: Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

Like the disciples, we might say, “Yes, Lord. So what now? Now that you have topped every miracle in the history of God’s people, now that you have even defeated death itself, what are you going to do now? Are you finally going to restore the kingdom?”

But Jesus lifts up his hands as Moses did when he blessed Joshua as the one who would lead God’s people into the promised land. He lifts up his hands in blessing, as Elijah did when his successor, Elisha, asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit. Jesus lifts up his hands, with the marks of the nails still showing, and he blesses his followers. Then he says, in effect, “It’s up to you. You are going to be my witnesses.” And he’s gone.

I don’t know about you, but if I had been standing there, looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds, my gut reaction would probably have been something like, “Wait a minute! What?! How can we possibly do that?” Just like Thomas in last week’s reading, when he blurted out, “We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?” I would be dumbfounded. How could Jesus expect so much of me, when I am so clueless?

But that isn’t what the disciples did.

Instead, “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (vv 52-53).

Every time I read this passage, I wonder about the transformation that happened to the disciples between Easter morning and the ascension. They have become completely different people. This is even more amazing when you realize that in this version of the ascension, Luke still has us gathered with the disciples on Easter night, not 40 days later, as we find in the Acts version of the story (Acts 1:3). We have scarcely made it back to the room where the disciples have gathered, we have only just heard Cleopas and his friend, who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We have barely just seen Jesus reappear in our midst and ask for a piece of fish to prove he isn’t a ghost.

Now I know this version of the story doesn’t agree with the other gospels, or even Luke’s own later writing, and scholars can’t agree on why Luke might have collapsed all the events between the resurrection and the ascension into less than 24 hours. To me, it isn’t really the timeframe that matters. It’s what happens to the disciples, those followers of Jesus who were scared out of their wits on Easter morning, and here we find them worshiping Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually blessing God in the temple. They had already lost Jesus once, on the cross. And their sorrow at his death is completely understandable. But now, when they lose him a second time, they rejoice! What happened to them in the meantime?

They became witnesses.

They knew they had seen God.

When Luke says they worshipped Jesus as he ascended, he doesn’t use that word lightly. In fact, this is the only time in Luke’s entire gospel when the disciples worship Jesus. These were good Jewish kids, remember. They knew that first commandment backwards and forwards. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7) They knew that only God deserved their worship, their praise, their adoration. So when Luke says, “they worshipped Jesus” he’s really saying, “they finally knew Jesus was God.”

This new understanding that Jesus is God required a completely new understanding of who the disciples had become. Not only did the disciples become aware that God was redeeming all of Creation through Jesus, they also realized they had a role to play in that redemptive work. “You are going to be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. You are going to show the world what you now know to be true.

“But how can we possibly do that?” you may be wondering. Well, notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Go do witnessing.” He said, “You will be my witnesses.”

God is not asking you to add more things to your To Do list. God is asking you to make a new To Be list. Not that you need more items to check off, but that each item on your To Be list makes you more like Jesus.

So, instead of going to more Bible studies or reading more chapters and verses each day, Christ calls us to be more hungry for the Word of God.

Instead of signing up for more projects, participating in more programs, and doing more work, Christ calls us to be more aware of the needs we see around us.

Instead of attending more prayer circles or reading more devotional books, Christ calls us to be more present with God, and more attentive to God’s still, small voice throughout the activities and routines of our day.

Instead of doing more work for the church, serving on more committees, teaching more classes, organizing more events, Christ invites us to be more of who God created us to be.

Instead of doing more for Christ, we are to be more like Christ.

And that is our witness.

But we cannot be witnesses on our own. In fact, we can’t be Christ’s witnesses under our own power at all. If we depended on our own strength and will, we would only be witnessing to ourselves, not Christ.

Jesus told his followers they would be “clothed with power from on high.” In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate that initial baptism in the Holy Spirit that came like a mighty rushing wind on Pentecost. The same power that Luke ascribes to God, Jesus, and the Spirit throughout his Gospel becomes evident in the lives of the apostles in Luke’s second book, Acts. Remember last week that I told you, “becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work.”

This is the central theme of Ascension: Jesus has completed his work on earth. Now it’s our turn. He leaves, but not without saying a proper Goodbye. He leaves, but not without reassuring us that this is not the end, but the beginning. Just as our confirmands last week affirmed that they are at the beginning of a life of faith and faithfulness, so the church is at the beginning of a new age of ministry.

Christ calls us to live into our faith, willing to share good news, certainly, but aware that our very lives are the witness we bear. How we live shows Jesus to others. We have not been given this grace to keep it locked up inside this building, despite the sign on the front door that says, “do not open this door.” Despite the stained glass windows that prevent us from seeing out into our community unless we go outside, we are called to be witnesses. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are witnesses to what we now know: that Jesus is the Son of God, who calls us to repentance and forgives our sins.

So the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God. Isn’t than an interesting way to put it, “blessing” God? Jesus had blessed them as he left their sight. Now they were blessing God in the temple, as they waited to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. That narrow band of time, the bridge between what was and what will be, has come to completion. What lies ahead is the Kingdom of God, in which we all participate, to which we all belong. As our lives bear witness to this good news, we are called to receive Christ’s blessing, to accept the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, changing us as it did those first disciples. And we are called to worship Jesus, the only Son of the Living God.

Can I get a witness?

Confirmed! – Sermon on John 14:1-14

What troubles your heart these days?

There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars popping up all over the globe, crime rising here at home, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.

I grew up in a fundamentalist church. We were convinced we had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved. We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. We had the Rapture and the Second Coming all figured out. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.

We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table in the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed.

We had answers.

The disciples had questions.

We were full of assurance.

The disciples were full of fear.

We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion.

Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”

We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out.

The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”

As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer, and said, …

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.And you know the way to the place where I am going.”Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. John 14:1-14

It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of confirming young people in their faith. In fact, many of us heard these very words read on Thursday, as we gathered here to remember our friend Joleen, sorrowing in our loss while rejoicing in the hope of resurrection.

But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.

So here we are, a couple thousand years later, about to confirm these young people as Christ-followers, welcoming them as full members in the Body of Christ we call the church. What better words can we hear than the ones Jesus spoke to his close friends that night?

These words are rich, and they give us many ideas to ponder. Let’s focus on just two: the verse that gets quoted the most, and one that often gets overlooked.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

This year, Pastor Ric Jacobsen from Oakwood UMC and I combined our confirmation classes and taught them together as one group. We encouraged the students to be thoughtful and honest as they answered the questions of the Baptismal Covenant, in preparation for today. As we talked together about faith, we pondered Creation, and the Sin that quickly followed. We discussed what it means to Renounce evil, to Repent of our sins, to Ask Forgiveness, to Confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, to Discern God’s will, and to lead a Holy Life. We talked about Grace, that love we don’t deserve, and we took a closer look at John Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace, the grace God offered us before we even knew we needed it. We recognized justifying grace as the work Christ did for us on the cross, and we began a journey toward sanctifying grace as we practiced the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, worship, and service. For the confirmation students, the question “who are we following?” never even came up. We all knew from the beginning that the faith we were exploring was Christian faith.

Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. They were still caught up in the history of Judaism, thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my fundamentalist childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out. They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end like this, with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Did we make a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?

So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”

Can’t you just see Jesus, shaking his head? “Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth, remember? The Word was made flesh – that’s me, buddy. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the only way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”

At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and me only, or else!” – but was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun. Thomas must have been paying attention, for we know that a week after the resurrection, he declared, “My Lord and my God.”

And that is what these confirmands are about to do. Over the past few months, they have each explored what it means to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They have followed John Wesley’s four-part path to discernment, examining the Word of God in scripture, exploring the traditions of the faith as it has been handed down through generations of believers, using their gifts of intellect and reason to think through the questions that only faith can answer, and finally seeking a true experience of faith, as they reach the point when they can say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.”

As Samantha wrote in her confirmation paper:
God has a plan for everyone and I’m ready to commit to his plan for me. … There will always be times when I make mistakes because living a Holy Life isn’t just about being perfect and not making any mistakes but I will continue to do the best I can. John Wesley believed that each of us were given the grace of God to move on toward Christian perfection.”

Each of these students recognizes that accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. Hunter wrote, “I am ready to publicly say I am a Christian. I am on the journey. Christ helps me go on the right path.” And Kyle added, “I will always continue my journey toward Jesus Christ because there is always room to grown further in my faith.”

Kyle also expanded on that Wesleyan idea of experience as a way to know God’s will for the whole Body of Christ. He wrote, “Experience means to live together in a Christian community that helps each other, like guides for life in Christ.” And Christina explains the idea of church even further: “Church is not a specific “place.” Church is where you talk about God and the Bible and everything that happened within the Bible [with other people]. You need to have people to bounce your ideas off of, and a church is a group of people, not an actual building.”

Each of these confirmation students have found Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They are ready to latch onto the promise Jesus offers, to be present with them through the Holy Spirit, as they grow deeper in faith, stronger in their love for God and neighbor, and more and more like Jesus. They are ready to become, as Peter wrote, “living stones, a royal priesthood,God’s own people,” in order that they may join us in proclaiming the mighty acts of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” Peter quotes the prophet Hosea (1 Peter 2:10). As full members of the body of Christ, these confirmands are ready to participate in the life of the church with their presence, their prayers, their spiritual gifts, their service, and their witness. Which brings us to that other verse, the one that we often skip over on our way to asking for the things we want “in Jesus’ name.”

Jesus tells his friends, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

As we welcome these young people into faith, we need to remember with them that becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to continue that ministry, until all the world has been introduced to God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ. We are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love. Accepting Jesus as Savior is only the beginning of eternal life. Living into the grace we have received, we grow into a more and more holy life.

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people,” Peter writes. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” But it doesn’t stop there. We have been given a purpose, a reason to keep moving forward on our journey toward Christ-likeness. Why are we here, in this place at this time, as Christ’s church? “in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Thanks be to God.

Finding the Gate – Sermon on John 10:1-10

The man who had been born blind walked a few paces behind Jesus. He was still getting used to being able to see – and there was so much to see! He’d spent his whole life depending on smell and touch and hearing just to know what was within reach, but now, he could see far down the road and up into the heavens, and it was almost too much for him. As he heard a familiar sound, his head snapped around to find its source – Oh! That loud music came from that tiny thing? That’s a bird? Putting together what things looked like with their familiar sounds or textures was exhausting, and exhilarating at the same time.

The whole world seemed new. He wanted to laugh out loud, but thought better of it. Those Pharisees were still pretty angry. He knew he should have been upset that they had thrown him out of the synagogue, but all he could do was grin as he looked around,

and looked …

…and looked,

feasting his new eyes on everything in sight. He could see! For the first time in his life, he was physically able to see. He brushed a piece of dried mud from the side of his face. Must have missed that bit when he had obediently gone to wash the mud from his eyes in the pool of Siloam. It had been such a simple thing to do, but what a ruckus it had caused.

Even his parents had been brought in, to confirm that he had, in fact, been born without sight. The religious leaders didn’t know what to do with him, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with the man who had made him see. The man who had been blind was glad that his healer had come looking for him, after all that ugliness at the synagogue. He wanted to say “Thank you for giving me my sight,” but what he actually said was, “Lord, I believe.” Now he knew that seeing was believing, but even more, that believing was seeing. As he followed Jesus, he could hear the Pharisees arguing again. “You don’t think we’re blind to the truth, do you?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered them with a riddle. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” They looked confused, but Jesus kept feeding them riddles. The man who could now see smiled as he listened. He knew what the Pharisees did not. He knew this was the Lord, the Chosen One, the Messiah. Jesus continued …

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:1-10)

Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Sunday we call “Good Shepherd” Sunday. The gospel focus for this particular Sunday is always the tenth chapter of John, but each year, the lectionary cycle gives us a different part of this chapter to consider. This year, we get to look at Jesus as the gate for the sheep, offering the only way in and out of the sheepfold.

But to understand the images Jesus uses in these first ten verses, we need remember how they fit into the larger story. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t just start talking about sheep out of the blue one day. His words about sheep and shepherds were directed toward his close followers and his critics, the religious leaders of the day. Jesus told these riddles about sheep and shepherds and thieves and strangers to explain how giving sight to a man, who had never before seen anything in his entire life, showed the huge difference between true believers and false prophets. To make his point, Jesus drew on one of the most common images in scripture: sheep following their shepherd.

Sheep are mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible, more than any other animal. Sheep were important as sources of wool, milk, and meat, and throughout the Bible, sheep served as symbols for God’s people. God is portrayed as the shepherd of his chosen flock in the prophetic words of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and most famously in the 23rd Psalm, which we read earlier in the service. Why sheep? Well, they do share certain characteristics with people, especially people who claim to be set apart, belonging to one Good Shepherd.

  1. Sheep are followers. They will follow another sheep, even to slaughter, or over a cliff. Lambs are conditioned from birth to follow older sheep. Following isn’t something sheep have to think about, it’s an instinct. They can be trained to follow a distinctive call, or a unique melody played on a pipe. A sheep can learn to recognize its own name and come when it is called. Sheep will follow a shepherd they know well, but they are more inclined to follow other sheep.
  2. Sheep remember faces. They recognize faces of other sheep, and even of humans who work with them regularly. Sheep remember who treats them well, and even more, they remember who handles them harshly. Sheep will allow a gentle shepherd to come close, but they will balk and run from a person who has handled them roughly in the past.
  3. Sheep find safety in numbers. Since predators attack the outliers, sheep stick closely together. When grazing, sheep will keep at least 4-5 other sheep in view. They are very social animals, and the instinct to flock is strong.
  4. Sheep rarely walk in a straight line. By tracking first to one side and then to the other, they can always see what’s behind them. They can spot danger from up to 1500 yards away, but they have trouble finding a half-open gate without help.
  5. Sheep are surprisingly dirty animals. Lambs may look cute and fluffy on greeting cards, but the reality of adult sheep is that all kinds of mud and yuck get stuck in their wool, clumping together in nasty lumps. Good shepherds know the value of Woolite just before shearing time.

It’s not a very flattering picture, when you think about the people of God being compared to sheep. But there it is. We tend to follow each other more instinctively than we follow our Good Shepherd, even when we’ve been trained to recognize our own name and God’s distinctive call to us. We tend to remember old hurts and grudges, and we run away from potential encounters with those who have hurt us in the past. We tend to stick together with the same 4-5 people we know best, keeping them in our sights and huddling together when we sense an attack coming our way. We spend a lot of time looking behind us, making it hard to walk a straight line. And we can spot a distant threat more easily than an open gate in front of us. Finally, we attract dirt, and we let it clump up and cling to us. Isaiah was right when he wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned to our own way,and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And yet, God claims us as his own. He knows each of us by name, and calls us into abundant life, leading us to safe pasture and sweet water.

But if we look closely at what Jesus is saying, we see that his riddles aren’t really about sheep. Jesus is talking about recognizing the shepherd. Remember that he just gave sight to a man who had never seen, and yet that man recognized him as God’s Messiah while the Pharisees, who should have recognized the One they’d been waiting for, were blind to God’s power working among them. Now, Jesus explains his miracle by comparing these respected religious leaders to thieves and bandits who only want to steal and destroy. By refusing to accept Jesus as God’s own Son, the Messiah for whom they claim to hope, the Pharisees threaten God’s people, stealing their hope, destroying their trust in God alone, who is the Good Shepherd.

And Jesus says he is the Gate, the way to safety and green pasture. The Pharisees who deny Jesus as the way are no better than thieves trying to climb over the wall of a sheepfold, instead of entering through the gate.

Isn’t it ironic that those who hear about sheep recognizing their shepherd’s voice are the same ones who don’t recognize what Jesus is saying to them? Keep in mind that Jesus is not only talking to Pharisees, but to his own disciples. He’s talking to us. We have just as difficult a time as they did, when it comes to hearing Jesus clearly, and following where he leads us.

But he keeps calling us.

Modern day shepherds in the Middle East can be heard leading their sheep with a distinctive call. In his book, Shepherd Poems, Kenneth Bailey writes that a shepherd today could “lead over 200 sheep through a valley by walking slowly in front of them giving his ten second call roughly every 40 seconds.” (Kenneth Bailey, Shepherd Poems, 9.) That’s a lot of consistent, repetitive calling. Jesus keeps calling us, repeatedly, consistently, reminding us of where he is, and where he wants us to go. It is our awareness of that repetitive, consistent call that teaches us to recognize and follow our shepherd’s voice. We can only become aware of that gentle call by listening for it.

But it seems there are so many other sounds and noises clamoring for our attention, so many other voices calling out to us, claiming to offer us the things we need. Advertisers tell us that if we will only buy this car, or those clothes, or that food, or these things, we will have abundant life. And no matter how many cars or clothes or things we buy, no matter how much or what kind of food we eat, we are not satisfied. Because we listened to the wrong voice.

Shepherds start teaching lambs their own names as soon as they are born. God has called each of us by name. He has claimed us as his own. So how do we learn to hear Christ’s voice, to recognize that we are being called by name? It seems so hard to hear, just as it did for those Pharisees who didn’t recognize how God was working in their very midst.

So Jesus gives us another “figure of speech” – another riddle. He calls himself the gate. And to be sure we hear him this time, he says it twice: “I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Then he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

How do we enter into abundant life? This is where being a sheep pays off.

We enter through the true gate, following the true shepherd’s voice, not that of thieves or strangers. We learn to recognize our shepherd’s distinctive call by hearing it, repeatedly and frequently.

Many years ago, I sang on the stage of Carnegie Hall as part of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. We’d spend a week rehearsing a large work for choir and orchestra, then perform it before a packed house. It was a wonderful experience. In the Carnegie Hall gift shop, you can buy a T-shirt with a slogan that’s based on an old joke. It seems a musician from out of town arrived in New York with little more than his instrument and the clothes on his back. Determined to save every penny he could, he decided he couldn’t afford a taxi, but he also didn’t know how to get where he needed to go. So he flagged down a cab to ask directions. When the cabbie asked, “where to?” the musician said, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The cabbie took one look at the musician’s instrument and replied, “Practice, practice.”

That’s how we learn to recognize our shepherd’s voice. We practice listening for it. We include time for silent listening in our personal devotion time, seeking to hear God’s voice while ignoring the many other voices that compete for our attention. We practice listening together, as a community of faith, for what God is calling us to be and do.

Like good sheep, we value our place in the flock, sticking together, supporting each other in our journey toward Christ-likeness. It’s possible to be a believer in isolation, but to be a true follower of Jesus requires participating in this thing we call “church,” being an active member of the body of Christ. We don’t stray from the flock, putting ourselves at risk. We stick together.

When we get dirty – as all sheep do – we turn toward our shepherd to wash us clean. Through Christ’s sacrifice of himself for our sins, we are cleansed of all unrighteousness, all our filth is washed away. We have only to accept his grace to enter into the abundant life he came to give us.

But we cannot completely experience that abundant life until we share it. As sheep who know our shepherd’s voice, we also lead other sheep through the gate that stands open before us. By joining in Christ’s mission to bring abundant life to all of God’s children, we experience that life even more fully. This means engaging with those around us, to discover what is robbing them of life, and standing with them against those forces. It means realizing that abundant life is not some after-death future promise, but available right now to every one who will enter by the true gate, and it’s up to us to extend the invitation to any who have not yet heard it. It means realizing that abundant life starts when we repent of our sins, but it continues as we live into the grace that we have received, by sharing that grace. It means knowing that church is not a place we go to hear about abundant life, but the body of Christ that is sent out to heal a broken world, offering abundance to all we encounter.

Abundant life isn’t the goal. It is the result of following Jesus, who made the blind to see, the lame to walk, who fed the hungry and comforted those in sorrow, who offered his own life and then conquered death once and for all, so that we, his own dear sheep, could live with him in peace and safety.

Here is the gate. Will you go in? Christ is the gate. Will you show him to someone else? He came to give life in abundance. It’s more than you or I can keep to ourselves. Who do you know that needs more life? Christ is calling you by name, to enter the gate, and to lead another sheep into a life of abundance. Amen.