Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2018.
There have been not a few Sundays when in commenting about the Collect of the Day, I pointed out how old and ancient the Collect was. We have Collects in our Anglican tradition as old and venerable as any of the historic Christian traditions. It is not uncommon for us to be able to say that such and such Collect is, say, one thousand four hundred years old. So because I have in the pointed out such facts in the past, I feel a bit of responsibility to report that our Collect for this week is not one of those. It is all of about thirty nine years old, because it came with the new revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1979. My gosh, it is younger than I am.
Nonetheless, despite its brevity, it is a Collect soaked in the Sacred Scriptures. Of course it corresponds directly with our passage from Saint John. Jesus tells His disciples bluntly, “I am the good shepherd.” This is one of the seven statements by Jesus that are called His “I am statements.” These have that name because they follow the same form—I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth, and the life; I am the true vine; I am the door of the sheep; and I am the good shepherd.
All of these I am statements are an echo of how God spoke to Moses at the Burning Bush: “Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” Throughout religious history, there seems to be a small, still voice that speaks—a voice of profound presence, of authority, of creativity—a voice that tells us who we are, a voice that teaches and guides, a voice that beckons us toward what He would have us do. It is this voice that has spoken through the prophets.
Jesus provides His teachings on “I am” to disciples who are devout Jews, themselves soaked in the imagery of a “shepherd,” which is resonant throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course it is in the 23rd Psalm—our Good Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us besides still waters, reviving our soul. In the centuries before the Incarnation of Christ, the People of God sang, “We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand,” a verse from the 95th Psalm which has carried over into daily Morning Prayer for Christians for two thousand years.
Still deeper were they soaked in the image of the Shepherd through the Book of Ezekiel. This book of oracles, of prophetic preaching, was enormously influential from its inception, influencing other prophetic books as well as the New Testament Book of Revelation. It is from Ezekiel that we have the image of the four evangelists and their allegorical faces—Matthew the angel, Mark the lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle. It was probably published during the exile, or Babylonian captivity. And its primary themes include the defiling effect of sin by the people of God and God’s subsequent abandonment. That of course is a pattern the disciples of Jesus recognized in themselves—how sin leads to feelings of abandonment by God—how sin crucified Jesus, and Jesus had died and, it seemed, left them. How to understand the paradox of how a crucified Jesus remains with them and all His disciples by means of His glorified body—how despite death there was eternal life—drove the disciples into the scriptures with new eyes of faith and with ears attuned to Christ’s word of peace.
In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel are four oracles about shepherds, one after another. We heard the first one, the description of evil shepherds. The second describes the nation’s restoration with God as the true shepherd. The third again has to do with evil shepherds, and the final part predicts restoration under a new Davidic shepherd. Let me read portions of that fourth part:
“I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. . . .I will make with them a covenant of peace . . . And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. . . . And they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.”
Through this passage and the others, the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophet Ezekiel. And ears still ringing with the voice of Christ crucified and resurrection, speaking peace to them, heard the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophet. Their love for Jesus deepened when they did. They heeded His voice. They knew they were the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Our hope also grows in this way. Despite the distortions of a fallen world surrounding us, and even the distortions of our own sinful ways, the voice of our shepherd calls to us. He makes known to us His grace, His love—that our lives are always in His hands. He died for us, and rose to eternal life for us—so that we with confidence can die daily to our sin, and rise by Him, with Him, and in Him. Rise to receive the bread of angels, the food of heaven—given for our sake to actually make Him present again. Amen.
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