Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Sheep Sunday! Every year on this Sunday, the lectionary doles out a reading from John 10–and, as the reader will quickly realize, the dominant metaphor of John 10 is sheep. Last year, Jesus was concerned with those who were not among his sheep because they did not believe. Next year, our text will pick up where today’s leaves off in verse 11, with the famous, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” But today, Jesus is concerned about the flock’s ability to recognize the shepherd.
The imagery of Jesus as shepherd and the faithful as sheep is to Christianity what apple pie is to America. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps that is why most preachers I know–myself included–let out an audible groan whenever this Sunday comes around. What more is there to say about Jesus the Good Shepherd, anyway?
And yet, here we are…
For starters, I suggest steering clear of an agriculture lesson. Most folks have already heard the truth about sheep: they’re ornery, smelly, dirty, dim-witted, like to get into trouble, and would rather follow each other than their shepherd. We know the truth about goats too: they’re creative, agile, intelligent, and they have a built-in defense mechanism–horns! Yes, there’s a metaphor in there that could be mashed and patted out into a sermon, but I am convinced that there’s a more important word here that the faithful need to hear.
Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
By itself, this phrase sounds nice–comforting, in fact. But while it can be difficult to catch, this week’s Gospel lesson is actually the second part of a larger story that started at the end of chapter 9, which we heard way back on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Remember that? Jesus heals a man from physical and spiritual blindness, which causes the Pharisees to ask if Jesus was insinuating that they, too, were spiritually blind.
Here, we get Jesus’ answer to their question.
Jesus speaks of abundant life to emphasize the fact that our lives of faith aren’t simply about having sins forgiven or getting our celestial tickets punched. It’s also about our lives right here, right now!
Remember the man in chapter 9? For him, abundant life means sight. It means freedom from his socioeconomic station in life. And the healing that Jesus provided meant abundant life now–in the moment!
I think the word that our people need to hear from us is that the salvation made known to us in Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd is not an other-worldly, enigmatic thought experiment. It’s tangible, and it’s here among us, making itself known right before our eyes!
You know your community better than I do, so what would it look like to hold out examples of where abundant life is making itself known in your community–among your people?
Here in the living of these Easter Days, I’m reminded of Athanasius of Alexandria’s short but incredibly profound book, “On the Incarnation.” He writes this about God’s revelation in Jesus: “[The revelation of God] is in every dimension–above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”
The salvation that Jesus invites us into is not some distant notion or cosmic future. It’s a concrete invitation to discover life more abundantly; to discover God in the world around us!
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.