Harrowing Of Hell
April 21, 2024

Known and Loved

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

To watch the sermon click here.

 Last Sunday, Doyt preached a fine sermon on hope. He described Epiphany as being a community of hope and all of us as being people of hope. Being a people of hope means to be unreconciled to the suffering of the world, said Doyt. It means not to live in hopelessness that the forces of darkness are too large, too pervasive for us to affect. It means not living in apathy and despair. We are not without power to confront the darkness and we have our own role to play in bringing the Light of Christ into this broken world. Hope is a verb. It is not passive. Hope is active.

So I’d like to spend a few minutes with you reflecting on the communities of hope that gather around the Name of Jesus. After all, as John’s gospel says time and again, it is these communities for which Jesus gives his life. Our gospel reading this morning offers us a familiar image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and what such a community looks like. But just before the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, John offers us another image. Jesus says:

‘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: 7-10

Jesus’s description of himself as the Gate and as the Good Shepherd come immediately following a confrontation with the Pharisees where he has healed a man born blind from birth. In that confrontation, Jesus had said, “I am the light of the world.” So Jesus’s descriptions of himself as “the light of the world”’ “the gate” and the “Good Shepherd” need to be read together to get the full picture of who Jesus understands himself to be.

In the first story, when Jesus and his friends encountered a man had who had been born blind from birth, his friends question whose fault it was that this man had been blind from birth in the first place? Was it his fault for being a sinner or his parents’ fault for being sinners? I mean, it had to be someone’s fault, right? Blame must be assigned! But Jesus helped his friends reframe that. Sin isn’t about what you do or don’t do. Sin is about separation from God. To be a follower of Jesus, which really means to be a follower of God, means to shape your life after Jesus’ life, to allow Jesus’ life to become the pattern or the blueprint for your own life, that’s where salvation – which means nothing more – and nothing less – than health and wholeness – that’s where salvation lies. That’s where abundant life lies. To be out of that flow is where sin lies.

So Jesus gets down to business. He spits in the dirt, makes a mud pie, rubs it on the man’s eyes, and now, after a lifetime of blindness, the man can see. This of course outrages the Pharisees when they hear about it. How can this man Jesus, whom they consider to be a sinner himself because he didn’t meet their definition of righteousness, how could he perform the works of God?

Remember what the Pharisees problem was? Their self-righteousness, their arrogance, their assumption that they had all the answers, their assumption that they were right and everyone else was wrong, blinded them to seeing God at work in the world. Their arrogance and self-righteousness blinded them to the abundant life right in front of their eyes. They were the truly blind ones. The man born blind, on the other hand, he got it. He could see. The man said,” Lord, I believe.” And he received life and received it abundantly. For him, abundant life meant seeing after a lifetime of blindness. The turning point of his story was when he said, “Yes Lord, I believe. Yes, Lord, I trust. Yes, Lord, I want to follow.”  And then Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains”. In other words, as long as they arrogantly insist that they see, they actually remain blind, blind to the truth of the Light that has come into the world.

Immediately following this story comes Jesus’s description of himself as both the gate to the sheepfold and as the Good Shepherd. The arrogant, self-righteous Pharisees are like the thieves and bandits preying on the innocent sheep – their self-righteousness gets in the way of having life in abundance. It puts them outside the gate. But here’s the thing. The gate to the sheepfold is always ready to open for any sheep—not just ones who are already followers—any sheep who want to come in. For anyone who wants to trust, for anyone who wants to be a follower, the gate to the sheepfold is always open.

Life in abundance. For the blind man, it was having his eyes opened. Life abundant meant being able to see. For the Pharisees, it would have meant dropping the pretense of being all-knowing and acknowledging their need for deeper insight. What about for you? What would it look like to live life abundantly? Let me be clear about this. It won’t be the same for everyone. What is the same for everyone, though, is this: whatever abundant life looks like for you, the way to get there is through the gate. The gate to the sheepfold where you’ll be welcomed by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

So let’s circle back to the original question of what it means to be a people of hope living in a community of hope. The images of Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd are intensely relational. These images don’t mean anything without the presence of the sheep. That is, they don’t just reveal who Jesus is, they reveal who Jesus is in relation to the ones who follow him. The identity of Jesus and the identity of the community that gathers around him are completely linked. So what image of community life is being suggested here? First, let’s be clear that none of the ones who follow Jesus are shepherds themselves. In discussing this passage in class one day a seminary professor of mine said. “Friends, I hate to disappoint you, but none of you are called to be junior shepherds.” All righty then! Instead, the ones who gather around Jesus are called to understand themselves as members of the flock, the ones who share in the knowledge of the relationship between God and Jesus. Our relationship to Jesus is modeled on Jesus’s relationship to God. Listening to Jesus’s voice and following him is how the community receives abundant life. But most importantly, the community that gathers around Jesus understands itself through the gift of Jesus’s life for them. The gift of Jesus’s life holds together the images of gate and shepherd. Jesus can be both things. Through his death, he shows the way to life—that’s the gate image—and offers abundant life by the example of his love—that’s the shepherd image. It’s important here to say that Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, not just for his sheep. His gift is for everyone, completely inclusive, never exclusive.

So what does it mean for the church, this church, Epiphany Parish, to live as Jesus’s sheep? What does it mean to be followers of the Light of the world who is also the one who has laid down his life for the sheep? What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow? One thing for sure is that following Jesus is where hope lies. We can find the resiliency to move beyond despair and apathy to confront the forces of darkness and be light bearers in a confused and conflicted world.

I believe that our deepest desires as human beings are to know and be known and to love and be loved. Think about that for a minute. To know and be known, to love and be loved. Do those desires speak to your heart? “I know my own and my own know me,” says Jesus. My dear friends, you are known, and you are loved. In a culture that values individualism and secularism, where loneliness and isolation and anxiety and hopelessness leap out at us from our phone screens in every moment, the One who is the Light of the world, the one who is the Good Shepherd, offers us another way. He knows us and he loves us. He knows us and invites us to know our neighbors. He loves us and he gives us the courage to love even the ones who are hard to love. So we make sure that we do our part to keep the Christ Light burning even when things seem to be blacker than night. We make sure our doors are always open to everyone—even to the strangest looking sheep—and we make sure that all these sheep are fed and clothed. We make sure that we offer protection for the weakest among us from the bandits and thieves who might prey upon them.  Our great high calling is to be a community of hope in the Name of the Good Shepherd. Even in an age where hope seems hard to come by.