Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Sheep

My Sheep
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 21, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 10: 22-30
Revelation 7: 9-17 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

The last couple of weeks the Lectionary has done crazy things. It's been different. Normally, and by normally, I mean every week for three years, except for these few after Easter in the third year, and normally, it makes sense, there is an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm Reading, a Gospel Reading, and then an Epistle Reading, but in these weeks, there is no reading from the Old Testament, and there is no Epistle, instead they include a reading from Acts and a Reading from Revelation, which poses some problems. The last few weeks, I just let myself go with the Gospel reading and then choose my own Old Testament Passage to match it. And I did it all because Revelation is intimidating, and Acts is too. What is it about them that gives us pause? Maybe it's just me.
It could be, but I started thinking about it. Perhaps the problem that we have with Acts is that there is a challenge to us as disciples and as apostles. The passage from Acts for today, which I am just going to mention for illustration of the challenge, is one where Peter is raising a woman from the dead. It is hard enough to wrap your mind around Jesus raising people from the dead, hard enough to wrap your mind around Jesus being raised from the dead himself, but to have to acknowledge Peter, a disciple, having such ability is hard. Peter, who like us, doubts, messes up, denies, freaks out, speaks at the wrong time, squabbles with the other disciples over who is the greatest, the most loved, the best, etc., and like we saw last week, does crazy stuff like putting on clothes just to jump into the water.  just like us Peter has all the weaknesses of being human, being a sinner, and he is given the power of faith strong enough to raise the dead. That is a challenge. And then Revelation is the other, encapsulating two ideas we have trouble with. . . the future and the end. Both, either, give us pause, because they are unknowns, at least, and again a huge faith challenge, it seems to put it all, not just some, not just what is comfortable on the line. . . making it scary stuff. Shakespeare said it best. . . in the mouth of Hamlet:

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.

Maybe not just after death, but certainly in the future, certainly undiscovered, certainly the frightening openness of the unknown. So for the last few weeks, I flew to the known of the Gospels, but this morning, I feel called to venture a bit into that undiscovered country, perhaps the Psalm for today, being completely familiar, gives me enough support, hope, faith, and comfort, that I can walk into this Valley of the Shadow of the unknown, without minimal fear, knowing that God art with me. So here goes.  Revelation 7:9-17 

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11     And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15     For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16     They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17     for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [1]

The President of Union Seminary, Brian Blount, who was a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary for years, before taking the appointment at Union, during my second year there. We were blessed to have him speak to our New Testament class when we talked about Revelation, and it so happened at the time that he was writing an extensive commentary on Revelation, that would come out a few years later. It's an amazing book, and it takes much of the fear away from the book of Revelation because he simplifies it to the simple message of the importance of steadfast witness that Christ is Lord, and ties it not so much to a fanciful future event, but to the 1st century situation of early Christians amidst the persecutions within the Roman Empire. Basically being a Christian was a crime, punishable by death. He includes a fascinating letter from a Roman Governor to the emperor Trajan, he writes:

I have never been present at the interrogation of Christians. Therefore, I do not know how far such investigations should be pushed, and what sort of punishments are appropriate. I have also been uncertain as to whether age makes any difference, or whether the very young are dealt with in the same way as adults, whether repentance. . . or renunciation of Christianity is sufficient, or whether the accused are still considered criminals because they were once Christians even if they later renounced it, and whether persons are to be punished simply for the name "Christian" even if no criminal act has been committed, or whether only crimes associated with the name are to be punished.
In the meantime, I have handled those who have been denounced to me as Christians as follows: I have asked them whether they were Christians. Those who responded affirmatively I have asked a second and third time, under threat of death penalty. If they persisted. . . in their confession, I had them executed. 

Trajan's response is equally harsh: 

You have chosen the right way with regard to the cases of those who have been accused before you as Christians. Nothing exists that can be considered a universal norm for such cases. Christians should not be sought out. But if they are accused and handed over, they are to be punished, but only if they do not deny being Christians and demonstrate it by the appropriate act, i.e. the worship of our gods. Even if one is suspect because of past conduct, he or she is to be acquitted in view of repentance.

So in other words you are good, home free, off the hook if you deny being a Christian, and John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation is trying to convince people to not deny. Dr. Blount states that this is the context for the book of Revelation, and should be taken into account when reading the rest, that it can decipher much of the difficult language and symbolism. Now let us look at our passage from these eyes.
The first detail of the passage says, "there was a great multitude, that no one can count, that came from every nation, and they cry out in a loud voice, saying: and what they say is in verse like a hymn, a poetic statement, a memorable statement, the very statement of witness, singing it: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” our God, not the emperor of Rome, our God, not Jupiter, our God is salvation and nothing else. Such is the witness, seems so simple, but how hard. But look at how John of Patmos inspires people to be strong and stand firm. There is a great multitude, many, all kinds of people, so therefore you are not alone, there are others, and they can do it, so then so can you. . . quite a challenge, but there is comfort if not safety in being with a large group, not being all on your own. It helps us see that there is purpose, and that all is not lost. And the diversity of the group also seems to sing out that idea that the masses surpassing all other distinctions is a part of this, and John is inviting us to take part.
So then someone asks who all these people are, mentioning that they are all clothed in white, symbolizing purity, having been washed clean by the blood of the lamb. And the answer is that these are the people who came through the great ordeal. It appears that they came through the ordeal and remained faithful, and now they are here at the throne of God, and look at what it says here, look at what they now have:

15     For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16     They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17     for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [2]

Their shepherd. . . do you see the parallels? My main critique of the lectionary is that the four passages aren't always connected, that it is hard to use them together, but that isn't the case today.
This passage echoes the very wording of the 23rd psalm, and it recalls the language from John's gospel read for us this morning. In that Gospel reading, we get the unfolding and unpacking of the scene before when Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," but as I've pointed out in another sermon, that in that very passage, he claims to be the gate, the sheep, the lamb, and all the other characters at one time. So they ask him, Jesus tell us plainly, are you the messiah?" And he answers saying:

I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  30 The Father and I are one.” [3]  

My sheep, hear my voice, I know them, they follow me. I give them eternal life, they will never perish. I shall not want, I lie in green pastures, I get led to still waters, my soul is restored, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the great ordeal, an at the same time I am comforted, my cup runneth over, and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever. "The father and I are one."
Don't forget it, don't deny it, no matter what, because the rest is the illusion, the rest is the lie, continuing on from the garden, the rest is simply an ordeal, and no ordeal can separate us from the love of God, the shepherding of God, the truth of God, and the power of God, as long as we are sheep, and sheep remain faithful, sheep follow where the shepherd leads, where Christ leads because the father and he are one, and Christ led to the cross. Perhaps the real challenge and danger of The Book of Revelation has nothing to do with the future, but instead the present. We continue to live in a world where true discipleship is hard, where ordeals exist, where evil men set bombs at the finish lines at a marathon, faith challenging ordeals even at the end of grueling physical ordeals, where towns are destroyed because fertilizer plants blow up, where feelings of revenge are spurred and assuaged by 24 hours of manhunt news coverage, where the small seems big, and differences of opinion seem insurmountable, where relationships get broken for trifles, where misunderstanding triumphs daily, yes faithful discipleship is hard, because like in those Roman times the illusion seems real, the illusion that the only solutions to problems are secular, that our only safety, security, and salvation come in the hands of the emperor, or through tougher legislation, and a tightening of the leash, the loss of freedom, bowing down to other means, apparent to our eyes, and blind to the faith filled truth, yes discipleship is hard, because the illusion makes the valley of the shadow of death seem as dark as ever, but there is one who leads who is light enough to destroy any shadow, sheep enough to feel and empathize with our fear and pain, and shepherd enough to protect us, shield us, nourish us and lead us, many have followed, and John shows that, many of many different types, all nations, and we can be of that number. . . washed whiter than snow by his blood. God Give us the Strength, the faith, and the vision, to see through the illusion and follow our shepherd as his beloved sheep. May it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:9-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:15-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 10:25-30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.