20 April 2007

Homily for Good Shepherd Sunday - 2007

[Today's homily is the result of what Pastor Randy Asburry and I call a tag-team effort between the two of us. Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; John 10:11-16]

Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Our Christian faith is founded not on seeing, but on hearing. Remember what Jesus told Thomas last week: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). We can also remember what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Why is this? Because our faith receives and holds on to things eternal. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). That’s how it goes with all the articles of the Christian Creed.

No one could use their normal, physical sight to see that the Son of Mary was also the Eternal Son of God, begotten of His Father from eternity. Rather, we learn and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, not by sight, but by hearing His Word. No one could use their normal, physical sight to see that the Man hanging dead on the tree of the cross was not just another victim of ancient Rome’s harsh system of justice and execution. No one could use their normal, physical sight to see that this beaten, bloody Man was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Instead, we learn and believe what Jesus has done, not by sight, but by hearing His Word.

And, dear friends, it’s no different when we come to the Third Article of the Creed. Here we confess: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Notice that we do not say, “I see one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” No, we can not use our normal, physical sight to see the Church. Even the Church is an object of faith that comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

In fact, if you rely on your eyes, your normal, physical sight, to see the Church as she appears today – which is not much different than the way she has always appeared – you will be sorely disappointed. What you see will be a train-wreck and a disaster: a church fractured in the name of hundreds of competing denominations, each claiming to have a corner on the market of God’s Truth; a church tainted and sullied by the sins of her priests and pastors, as we have seen so painfully and so often in recent years; a church that too often seems to resemble a loose lady of the night rather than the pure, virgin Bride of Christ, because she lusts for the approval of men rather than the approval of God. I could go on, but I think you get the point. If we go first and foremost by what we see, then we can only see a Church that is neither one, nor holy, nor catholic, or apostolic!

But, again, remember what Jesus said last week: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Remember what He tells us today: “[My sheep] will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”

I know nothing about sheep – as you know—but I’ve been told that sheep are not stupid; they just cannot see well. Sheep are so short-sighted that they mostly look down to the ground or to the sheep in front of them so that they know which way to go. Sheep must rely on their hearing more than on their sight as they follow their shepherd.

The same holds true for the flock of God called the Church. We can use our eyes only to a certain extent, but we are very short-sighted. Thus we rely on our ears first and foremost to hear our Shepherd and discern His Church. We rely primarily on our ears as we discern the unity of Jesus’ Church. As our Good Shepherd says, “They will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”

Martin Luther caught the message of this verse. He was asked to prepare a document that would present the Lutheran confession of the Gospel to a council of the Roman Church. His document was named the Smalcald Articles. The Lutheran Church recognizes this as more than Luther’s private opinion; it is her confession of faith too. In the Smalcald Articles Luther addressed the claim of the Roman Church that it and it alone was THE one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Here’s what Luther wrote and what Lutherans after him have confessed:

“We do not agree with them that they are the Church. They are not the Church. Nor will we listen to those things that, under the name of Church, they command or forbid. Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray, “I believe in one holy Christian Church.” This holiness does not come from albs, tonsures, long gowns, and other ceremonies they made up without Holy Scripture, but from God’s Word and true faith” (SA III:XII:1-3).

Wow! Did you hear what our Confession says about the Church? She is not to be identified merely as this denomination or that one. If Rome cannot claim the title of “THE Church,” then neither do we Lutherans presume to claim that. God forbid!

Instead, the Church is holy believers, the little sheep who hear the voice of their Good Shepherd. They hear and follow the voice that says to them: “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” They hear the voice of Jesus when He says, “I laid down My life for you so that you might belong to me forever. I washed you from your sin in the still and living water of Baptism. I lead you to the green pastures of My forgiveness, where you can lie down and rest in My tender mercy spoken to you. I also spread a Table before you in the presence of your enemies. Here in My presence, My cup of life and salvation, goodness and mercy overflows for you.”

Here’s where you will find the oneness and the holiness of Jesus’ Church. She is holy because in Baptism our Good Shepherd has washed away her sin. She is holy because our Good Shepherd continually speaks His forgiveness in words of Absolution that wipe away guilt and shame. She is holy because our Good Shepherd removes from her the garments stained by sins and doubts and unbelief and puts on her the robe of His righteousness, the righteousness that comes from His Body and Blood.

So, don’t look to the stuff you can see to find the holiness of the Church—things like how pastors dress to conduct the Divine Service, or how poor or rich the Church seems to be, or how well the sheep behave. Yes, there are things you can see, and, yes, seeing more unity and holiness would certainly be a great blessing for the Church and the world. However, the true holiness and oneness of the Church come from the Good Shepherd Himself. Good Shepherd Jesus gives His holiness and oneness to His Church, and we receive it by faith that hears the word of Christ.

You see, the Church is one and holy because her Shepherd, Her Good Shepherd, is one – only one Savior who went to the cross, died and rose again to forgive our sins and give us life with Him. He has only one washing by which sins are removed and we are reborn; only one Gospel word to forgive and heal our sin-sick souls; only one Table from which He serves His one meal of Body and Blood to His people for their forgiveness, their life, and their salvation.

So, my fellow sheep, when you are tempted to be discouraged about the Church in general, or even in our congregation in particular, just close your eyes and open your ears. Or you could do as Luther once suggested: take your eyeballs out and put them in your ears!

After all, when you hear the voice of your Good Shepherd Jesus, you are in the Church that is truly one, truly holy, truly catholic, and truly apostolic. Yes, we sheep are short-sighted sinners, but our Good Shepherd’s voice bestows His holiness and His oneness. As Jesus says, “They will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Amen.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Some people's faith, like that of the original Apostles, is based upon seeing as well as hearing. Saul of Tarsus comes to mind.

Here's what I wrote yesterday on Rev. Cwirla's blog on this very subject:

I know a Jew, Hyman Schwartz, who saw Jesus.

Hy had lung cancer and couldn't sleep lying down, so he sat in front of a card table stacked high with pillows and leaned his head into that. He was also in a wheelchair, unable to walk because the fluid his lungs weren't exhaling was accumulating around his ankles. He had them wrapped in ace bandages to prevent swelling.

One morning he awoke at dawn because the sun, streaming in through the east window, had struck his eyes. As he sat up, he saw a figure standing before him, in silhouette, wearing a long robe with a hood.

Hy was alarmed because he didn't know how an intruder could have gotten into his 3rd floor Brooklyn flat, with every window double locked and the front door triple bolted.

"What do you want?" Hy managed to croak.

"Take off your rags," replied the Stranger, motioning toward the ace bandages, "and stand up and walk."

Hy knew he couldn't stand up, but fearing the Man must have a gun, he unwrapped his ankles anyway and -- got up.

He noticed that his bladder was full and asked permission to go the bathroom. It was granted. He went in and came out -- to find nobody there but his wife, still peacefully asleep in the bed.

He shook her awake, "Roz, Roz, look at me! I'm walking!" And he told her the whole thing.

For the moment she was less impressed by his walking than by the urgent need to ascertain whether the Stranger were still in the apartment. So they walked together through every room in the house. Nobody but their grown daughter, who had come to visit and who was asleep in her bedroom. All the windows were still locked, the front door was still locked, too.

They awoke their daughter, Gloria, and sent her home on the very next flight to ask me what had happened. (I think I was the only Christian of their acquaintance.)

I said, "Give me until tomorrow to say anything." Gloria left my house, passing the refrigerator, where the kids had posted a picture of Jesus.

"That's who it was!" Gloria informed me. "And don't even try to tell me anything different!"

Not that I was going to.

I called her father that night and asked what HE thought it meant. He said, "I think it means Somebody upstairs loves me."

That opinion was much reinforced when I read to him the story of the paralytic, to whom Jesus had said words uncannily like those Hy had heard.

So Hy and Roz and Gloria all became Christians. When Hy died, Roz said, "Now he has taken off his rags [his body] and has stood up and is walking."

Come to think of it, I know another Jew who told me Jesus appeared to her one night "and when I looked into His eyes, I knew He was not the enemy of our people I had always been taught He was." She became a Christian.

So I conclude He does still help our unbelief just as He helped Thomas. Blessed are those who do NOT see and yet believe, yes. But also blessed are those who do see and believe.

Christ is Risen!


wm cwirla said...

It is oft forgotten that the Church is an article of faith. "We believe in ...one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Thank you for this reminder, lest the sheep of the Good Shepherd be scandalized by the apparent messiness of His flock.

From St. John Chrysostom, whom I quoted on my blog the other day:

For this is of faith, to receive things not seen; since, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." ( Heb. 11:1) And here He pronounces blessed not the disciples only, but those also who after them should believe. "Yet," says some one, "the disciples saw and believed." Yes, but they sought nothing of the kind, but from the proof of the napkins, they straightway received the word concerning the Resurrection, and before they saw the body, exhibited all faith. When therefore any one in the present day say, "I would that I had lived in those times, and had seen Christ working miracles," let them reflect, that, "Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed."

St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on St. John, Homily 87)

Past Elder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Past Elder said...

Thank you for another excellent sermon. This one particularly helpful to me, who as a veteran of one church body's internal wars is not always OK in face of the message of the Book of Concord which changed my life, and the latter day Pietism wanting to junk all that for a TV style "evangelism", and the crowd that takes Vatican II for Lutherans to be the historical faith and practice of the church, all in the same synod.

Cleaned up the typos from the deleted post!