Scripture encourages us to stick together, to live in community, to form bonds of affection and partnerships in ministry. Jesus sends the disciples off in pairs; the apostles gather together after the crucifixion for comfort and security; and the people of God are often referred to as a household or a flock.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, we immerse ourselves in this image, reveling in the comforting notion that we are all in this together and that our ultimate safety rests in being gathered together under the gentle guardianship of the Good Shepherd himself. Our Episcopal theology even states that Communion is not Communion unless at least two people are present: the body of Christ is by definition a corporate body. As a theological reflection that I read suggested, the Christian faith isn't personal and Scripture never says it is: believers are always part of a community. And that's a good thing, because we already know from popular culture, "Don't go out there alone." Our life as church is a communal life, a life where the priority is the health of the whole body rather than individual cells. Our abiding motivation should be, not "What's in it for me?", but "What's best for the Church?" That can be a challenge, as Scripture makes clear over and over.
The brief, idyllic period of Christianity that chapter two of Acts describes is one of communal living in the extreme. The three thousand people who were converted by Peter's Pentecost sermon had all things in common and shared all their resources. They spent their days in the temple and took care of those in need. And the community of believers grew, day by day. Surely, if this had continued, the whole world would have become Christian within a generation, private property would have become obsolete, and the Kingdom of God would have been fully inaugurated.
But this ideal didn't last very long. Just a couple of chapters in people started holding back their resources; the authorities started to persecute them; and conflicts developed within the community. Nevertheless, the church even today looks back on that beginning as the purest form of our faith, and in our baptismal covenant we promise to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. Those activities continue to form the basis of all that we do as church, the body of Christ, the flock of the good shepherd.
I am always surprised by this Gospel passage, with its abrupt shift of images, from Jesus as the shepherd to Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold. You have to imagine an open-air corral, big enough to hold several flocks, with no door but simply a gap in the wall. As night falls all the shepherds in the area bring their sheep to the corral, and then they set up camp in the gap, literally placing their bodies between the sheep and any danger outside, and of course ensuring that no sheep goes out there alone. When morning comes, each shepherd gives the distinctive call that his flock recognizes as his, and the flock follows him out to the green pastures and still waters for another day of abundant life.
What does abundant life look like? I know what it doesn't look like.
- Abundant life doesn't mean going bankrupt paying for treatment of a life-threatening illness.
- Abundant life doesn't mean living in fear that you will be denied government services or healthcare because of who you are.
- Abundant life doesn't mean being publicly shamed because your parents couldn't pay your lunch money.
- Abundant life doesn't mean losing your job and going into debt because you couldn't pay bail for a trivial offense of which you weren't convicted.
- Abundant life doesn't mean watching your child starve to death while people across the world, across the continent, or across the city live in luxury.
We who are privileged have a lot of work to do, to ensure that all our neighbors have a chance to experience abundant life.
But the ability to enjoy abundant life doesn't always depend on your physical state or circumstances. When I visited a remote corner of South Sudan four years ago I got to know people who suffered from malaria, who had lost children, who lived in daily apprehension of terrorist raids, and who were the most grateful and joyful Christians I have ever met. They lived life in its abundance despite facing challenges that would utterly crush most of us.
And so it can be for us, when we see our legislators passing measures that will make poor people poorer, sick people sicker, marginalized people more oppressed and minorities demonized. Even in the midst of discouragement and outrage, life in its abundance is present when we follow the one who laid down his life for us as the shepherd lays down his body for the sheep. When we devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, when we create community and share resources, when we eat our food with glad and generous hearts, we will be able to claim life in its abundance. We will never have to go out there alone, because our shepherd will always be there ahead of us, leading the way.
The first letter of Peter addresses a situation where the community of faith is being abused and persecuted, and yet they are called to rejoice because they are in the care of the shepherd of their souls. They can choose their response to injustice and persecution, a response for dignity, compassion, and life.
The great civil rights leader Howard Thurman told the story of taking his young daughters to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he had grown up. They walked from the church to the river where baptisms traditionally took place, and on the way they passed a white public school with a playground. His daughters wanted to play on the swings, and he had to tell them they couldn't, because only white children could play there. And then he said this: "It takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida - it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are two very important little girls."*
Jesus said, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." The good shepherd leads us out into an uncertain and perilous world, and we get to choose, even in the valley of the shadow, we get to choose: to live abundantly, to break the bread and enjoy the fellowship and care for our neighbors, and to praise God always with glad and generous hearts.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
May 7, 2017 The fourth Sunday of Easter
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
* Howard Thurman, "With Head and Heart: the Autobiography of Howard Thurman" (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1979), 97