Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Easter, Good Shepherd

  Acts 9: 36-40; Rev. 7: 9-17

The “so what?” question about Easter moves us this week first to the great vision of St. John the Seer, the multitudes of the heavenly choir gathered around the Throne and around the Lamb, singing praises, and the reminder that Christian Life in Easter is eschatological and doxological.  (Eschatological—having to do with the Eschaton, the finish line, the goal.  And to say that we are an “eschatological” people is to say that while we are still in one frame of reference running the race, in the Truth of God in Easter we are already across the finish line.  And  doxological, that the victorious life is one full of praise and thanksgiving.  We appear to be here, citizens of this world, this reality, but John sees the truth. We are already there, already in worship and endless song.)

And so our series through Easter: Christian life, discipleship, stewardship.   The modern calendar moves the observance of  “Good Shepherd Sunday” from the Third Easter Sunday to the Fourth, and it occurred to me with our reading from John 10 this morning that for many on our first visit to this beautiful old church the very first image that we might have noticed, and so something of the way that we of St. Andrew’s introduce ourselves to those who first come through those Hampton Street doors, is that of the Good Shepherd of the Sheep, the lovely stained-glass window in our Narthex.  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.” 

To remind ourselves of the story of the window:  the young rector Harry Briggs Heald, who passed from this life to the next suddenly and unexpectedly in 1924, at the age of 45, after just three years of ministry at St. Andrew’s-- known for his care and love especially for the families and children of the congregation, a good pastor.  And following his death and as a tribute to his ministry the children and families of the Sunday School sponsored that window through their special offerings.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  A tender thought for us, perhaps as we see that image and look beyond it, to see and remember and to refresh in our thoughts and our hearts every day, the love of Jesus.  

My sermon theme, in some sort of a series, through these weeks of Easter, as I’ve said that I want to bring us in various ways to reflect on what we really are talking about when we talk about when we talk about being “disciples” of Jesus, or when we describe what we mean when we use the sometimes scary term, “Christian stewardship,” has been centered on that  affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  About the Easter reality of Jesus, who died for us on the cross, who rose from the dead, who revealed himself to his chosen witnesses, who reveals himself to us even today, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Easter on the one hand, and on the other hand, us.  And to ask about what difference it makes.  Because you would think it would make a difference.

You would think so, for people who believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, for people saw him for themselves directly, as we are reading in the Bible stories in this season,  or for people who have been prepared by the goodness of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit to believe the testimony of those witnesses, who saw as we say with the eyes of faith.  In Word and Sacrament and in the quiet of our prayer.  People who believe, who know, that Jesus is alive.  People who believe and know that he will in fact come again to set things in perfect order.  That he has better things in mind for us than we can ask for or imagine.  You would think that it would make a pretty noticeable difference.  That for people who believe that Jesus is alive, life would be approached in a different way than would be the case for people who didn’t believe that.  That doesn’t mean that everything would look different.  Believers and non-believers would most of the time live in the same neighborhoods and work in the same jobs and so on.  We all put our pants on one leg at a time.  But it would be hard to imagine that at least some things wouldn’t be different—and probably some important things.  People will say that there is something essentially counter-cultural about Christian faith and life, though how that works exactly isn’t always that easy to see.  Culture and faith wind around each other in complicated ways for each of us.

The story in Acts 9 this morning of Tabitha or Dorcas (her Hebrew name and her Greek name)  is a glimpse into the first moments of the new reality of Easter.  She is a woman of Christian faith, a disciple, perhaps even one of the many women who followed along with Jesus and the Twelve during the years of Christ’s earthly ministry.   Joppa or “Jaffa” an ancient port city, modern Tell Aviv, and in a region through which Jesus must have travelled many times.  And she’s a believer.  Tabitha believes in the resurrection of the body.  She is a “disciple,” one who has seen the Lord Jesus risen from the dead either with her own eyes or with the eyes of faith.  And as a result, as Luke tells us here at the beginning of the reading this morning, “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

Because that’s what happens.  Some simple clues about what “discipleship” and “stewardship” begin to look like, at least in very general terms.  Tabitha’s “good works and acts of charity,” and I think the verb here is important.  “She was devoted” to this work,  this way of life. That’s of course a word we use about prayer, and worship.  As we talk about our devotional life.  She’s not just busy.  She’s not just someone who likes to be involved in committee-work or community service.  This is her devotional activity, her prayer and worship, the spiritual expression of her heart.  What we talk about when we pray “no only with our lips but in our lives.”   As the Cross of Good Friday is interpreted though the Empty Tomb, as the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus is offered for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the mind and heart and spirit and for the love of the whole world.  As the eyes of the believer are lifted to the horizon no longer in despair and hopelessness but in eager anticipation, the heart overflows with love and prayer and thanksgiving, with a generosity that is not simply practical and affectionate, but that is now deeply rooted in the Holy Spirit.  Tabitha’s life, and memories of Maundy Thursday, of Jesus kneeling before his friends and washing their feet.  Perhaps Tabitha was one of the women in the background of that scene and heard him speak his last command now not a hard rule to follow and obey but as a song to sing in their hearts.  “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

And then we move on in the reading to see the power of Peter’s remarkable prayer.  If you’ve seen Jesus, if you’ve been a witness of Easter, if you know deep down and through and through that he is in charge, at the Right Hand of the Father, ruling heaven and earth, coming again—well, then: why be tentative?  Peter doesn’t pray and then cross his fingers.  It’s all one.   “Tabitha, get up!”  Wow.  And the power that Jesus demonstrated, that Peter had seen first hand and that Tabitha had seen and known personally and that we have seen flow from Jesus in the gospel-- in the raising of Lazarus and in the healing of the daughter of the Widow and the servant of the Roman soldier, that power now in the life of Christ’s Body the Church.  “Tabitha.  Get up.”  And Tabitha is revived, renewed, refreshed, healed.  Reborn!  Unexpected, perhaps, and yet entirely expected.   Since Easter, everything is different.   And it all keeps moving forward.  It keeps happening.  Tabitha herself now even more a kind of evangelist not simply by her words and deeds but simply that she is alive.  Many see her, or even just hear about her, and then themselves come to  believe in the Lord.   A reminder that from now on, Christian people, witnesses of the Risen Lord, things are going to be way different from the way they were before.  “Death is conquered, we are free; Christ has won the victory.”

And so again we would move from Acts chapter 9 to Acts chapter 29.  To the part that moves on from Peter and Tabitha and Paul and Barnabas and Luke and begins to tell our story.  Our story.  Christians in Acts 29 are different and counter-cultural  because they believe and act with confidence in the reality that Jesus is alive and already in charge.  That’s how we carry the story forward.  That the strife is o’er, the victory is won.  What this word “stewardship” that I keep circling around is all about.  If we don’t keep coming back to this we’ll never get there.  That the one who was the ruler of this world, the one who came to his power through sin and who ruled this broken world in darkness, by an ethic of fear, whose hallmarks were selfishness and greed and lust and violence and sickness and death—he has suffered his last and decisive defeat; his day is over; his forces are in retreat.   Right now—right now, in our midst, even here in Pittsburgh, in Highland Park, in our neighborhoods and our families, in our community and our church, Jesus is clearing the field of the enemy, building his church—his church.  And the thing about Christians like Tabitha and Peter in Chapter 9 and all the characters of Chapter 29 is that they are joining in that triumphant Easter procession,  not timidly or tentatively, but confidently--living already in that new reality.  The Easter light is dawn at the horizon, but for the witnesses, for those who believe in the resurrection of the body,  it is already high noon, full day.  Tabitha was “devoted—devoted  to good works and charity,” because that is how the New Jerusalem of God is.  That is how we live now.

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