Throughout the season of Easter the Church proclaims excerpts from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts details the extraordinary events that followed after the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and how the revelation of the Lord Jesus was transformed from an encounter with the earthly body of his human nature to an encounter with his life and presence in the Church.
You see, the Church bears the life and presence of the Lord Jesus into the world- this is the purpose of the Church. What is the Church? The Church is the extension or the continuation of the Incarnation in the world, in space and time. On a practical, day to day level, this means that the Church continues the mission of the Lord Jesus. In other words, we Christians should be doing the kinds of things that the Lord Jesus did. Therefore, if we are unsure as to what the Church, indeed this parish, should be doing, we should pay careful attention to the descriptions of what the Lord Jesus did as they are presented in the Gospels.
We Christians don’t have to invent things for the Church to do or make up causes for the Church to align itself with- what the Lord Jesus did, his mission, sets our agenda and determines our actions.
Today’s excerpt from the Book of Acts presents the Apostle Paul and his friend Barnabas on mission- what are they up to? They are inviting people to know Christ and share a relationship with him in the Church.
This is the perennial task of Christians in every age of the Church’s life. It is not a mission that belongs simply to an elite corps of elites. Nor is it a mission that can be delegated away to a caste of ministerial professionals. All Christians are expected to do what Paul and Barnabas are doing- invite people to know Christ and share a relationship with him in the Church. As God in Christ went out into the world so now the Church must go out into the world. The Church is not a private clubhouse or a religious discussion group that remains sequestered behind closed doors. The Church is a missionary movement.
Each generation must come to know Christ for the first time and come to know him from Christians who already have a relationship with him. God has no grandchildren. God only has children. Faith in the Lord Jesus and sharing his life in the Church is not akin to an ethnic identity that is simply passed on through the accidents of our birth. We become the children of God by coming to know Christ and giving our lives over to him.
People do not come to know Christ by osmosis. People come to know Christ because disciples like Paul or Barnabas are intentional in their efforts to introduce Christ to others. If this does not happen, the Church falters in its mission and the Church diminishes. Maintaining faith themed institutions is not enough and recent history has forcefully demonstrated that faith themed institutions will fail if they are not supported by bold, creative, intentional efforts to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a relationship with him in the Church.
The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation presents human history from God’s perspective, this is why the descriptions of things in the Book of Revelation are so strange, even frightening. God sees things differently than how we see things. The Book of Revelation is making this point to us.
The Book of Revelation has a particular and beautiful description of God in Christ, of the Lord Jesus- he is the Lamb of God.
What does this mean? Many Christians think that the Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God because they imagine him to be sweet or gentle. Thinking of the Lord Jesus this way is comforting to many people, but it isn’t what the scriptures or our prayers intend when they identify the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Christ is the Lamb of God because he makes his life a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that affords us a relationship with God. The Lamb is a reference to the lambs that were sacrificed in the temple of Jerusalem. The purpose of the sacrifice of these lambs was to afford the Israelites a relationship with the God. The Book of Revelation is saying that Christ the Lord now fulfills this purpose.
We receive the sacrifice of the Lamb of God whenever we participate in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ, the Lamb of God, who offers us his life so that we might have a relationship with God. We do not, in the Eucharist, receive merely a symbol of Christ, but Christ’s very life. Nor is the Eucharist merely a symbol of the community’s values or self expression- the Eucharist is the life of the Lord Jesus, given to us so that we might have through his sacrifice, a relationship with God.
In his Gospel, Christ the Lord speaks of his identity and mission as a shepherd, insisting that his sheep, know who he is, and knowing who he is, follow him.
It is likely that few, if any of us, here today have much if any real life experience with shepherds or sheep, especially the shepherds of the first century culture that the Lord Jesus knew.
Most likely, if we do have an image of shepherds, it is a romanticized understanding of rolling green pastures underneath quiet, friendly skies.
This has little or anything to do with what the Lord Jesus is referring to, when he claims the identity and mission of a shepherd or identifies his followers as being his sheep.
Christ is employing an image of God, as God describes himself in the Old Testament as the shepherd of his people, the Israelites. If you look into the Old Testament at the image of God as shepherd, you will discover that God declares himself to be the true shepherd of Israel over against false shepherds who rather than leading the people to God, are leading the people away from God.
These false shepherds can be false gods or false religions, or they can be political, cultural, economic or religious leaders who rather than leading people to God, offer them empty promises regarding the attainment of wealth, pleasure, power and honors.
False shepherds make attractive promises, but they ultimately lead people to destruction and despair.
Christ the Lord is saying that he is God, the true shepherd, and his intention to is guide and protect his people from false shepherds. We should listen to Christ, and our relationship with him will show itself in our willingness to do so.
Listening to Christ means that we are willing to hear what he has to tell us, even when what he has to say is difficult to believe or hard to understand. Listening to Christ means learning from him what he wants us to be and to do.
Listening to Christ opens us can be off putting, even frightening, because he will more often than not, insist that we change, change our minds, our way of thinking and acting. Listening to Christ opens us up to the very real possibility that he will ask us to do things that will change our way of life. Being willing to listen to Christ and being willing to change our way of life is what it means to be his disciple. It is how a disciple demonstrates that they truly know Christ and follow him.
Sheep that would not listen to their shepherd were in danger of being lost. Sheep that listened to false shepherds were in danger of being destroyed. What do we risk when we will not listen to the Lord who is our shepherd?