The Lectionary theme this week is “Powerful Witness”. And, our readings from both the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John both reflect on this in different ways.
In Acts 2, we see a community united under the guidance of the Apostles. They are enthusiastic about their newfound faith; and they share it in profound and moving ways. The boldness of their faith is a powerful witness that liberates their neighbors.
But in John 10 we see a community (from several decades later, actually). Here, they are metaphorically represented by the sheep huddled together under the care of the Shepherd. With the last of those who actually knew Jesus now gone. The people feel lost, exposed, and don’t know where to turn to find protection from the dangers that are all around them. They are looking inward. They are not looking outward any more. Their call to bear witness to the Gospel has been set aside.
But, at the end of this passage, Jesus says to them, “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be liberated, will go in and go out, and will find pastures. … I came to give life with joy and abundance.” They’re being reminded that because they have entered into the Shepherd’s flock, they are already liberated: They must go out, and they must find new pastures. The pasture is a place where they will find sustenance, and where they can be heard as the Gospel, which flourishes within them, breaks forth.
The community we see in John wants to sit passively under the protection of the Shepherd. But instead, they are told they aren’t going to be allowed to sit there in the sheepfold and be safe. They have to move, they have to leave and go forth. The Apostles may be gone, but the Gospel is still here; and will not allow them to be silent. And yes, the thief is coming to steal and slaughter and destroy (that is their intent). But Jesus is already here, and will instead give life with joy and abundance. The thieves were defeated before they ever got there.
Now, the Acts 2 church is young and open to radical change, to trying new things. But in John, we have a more mature community. The Acts 2 community is clearly a powerful witness to those around them; and we are told that the Johannine Community (the community in the book of John) will be as well. In both cases, the promises are there, and will be fulfilled. They shall both be powerful voices for liberation; perhaps (like in John) in spite of themselves; even with the Apostles now gone.
We see a movement between these two readings, from the enthusiasm of youth to a more mature, more cautious perspective, born of experience and the inevitable losses and disappointments that we all encounter in this life. With more maturity, we can better anticipate the struggles that lie ahead, but that also means we worry more, that those struggles will be too much for us.
A friend and fellow minister recently expressed his feelings about trying to make progress on the many social justice issues that he and all of us here, care about so deeply. I’ll summarize what he said…
“My experience has been that for most people it’s hard to stand up and publicly testify about issues such as gun violence, equal rights, war, poverty, etc. Most people lack the confidence, commitment or conviction it takes to stand up and speak out for justice on a regular basis. They don’t want to offend[. They don’t want to] come off as taking sides on an issue. It’s divisive and risky, even if you have the time. Still, there is always hope, and the struggle continues.”
His perspective is borne of hard experience, like that of the Community in John. They, and he, and we, all know how tough it is to be a witness at all, let alone a powerful one. You feel the resignation in my friend’s words: as he sees it, people just aren’t in it for the long haul, it’s too hard. It is hard. It is a struggle. But, the hope never leaves.
When we think of youthfulness, we think of people like those in Acts 2: enthusiasm, boldness, maybe a little craziness: a determination to share what we’ve found with the whole world, because it is so glorious, what we now know! Youth often doesn’t worry about the limitations, barriers and other issues that we (who have more life experience) feel must be considered. The young often aren’t as concerned about the magnitude of the challenge; or the risks, or the costs, or about offending others.
But the experience we [here] have all accumulated teaches us to lower our expectations. We aim lower because it reduces risk. It minimizes complications. And, as we get older, it often becomes more important to us to preserve the gains we’ve already made. And, we become more aware of how our words and our actions impact others. We become more sensitive to how much is at risk if we fail. What we already have also increases in its importance to us. At the same time, what we are hoping for becomes something we’ll get to, eventually; like me, planting the garden. But, now we realize it will not happen as soon as we once hoped. Preservation and perspective begin to trump passion; as it has in the Johannine Community.
But, should we be like them, and take a less risky path? Should we worry about preserving the ground we’ve already gained? (Well, you probably already know my answer on that…!)
The wisdom of the world says that we should take less risk as we get older, and that makes sense. After all, we have less energy, our health is probably not as good, we have less time to recover if something goes wrong.
We are less likely to change jobs. We start thinking more about downsizing and simplifying life. We often become less willing to take on major new challenges. And, the few among us who go against these trends are applauded for it; but rarely does their example encourage us to get out there and do it ourselves.
It doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, when the community in John retreats from the world, Jesus says to them “the sheep hear [my] voice. [I call my] own sheep by name and [lead] them out.” They don’t have a choice. They shall be called, and they shall go forth and they shall find those pastures! Huddling together to remain safe – as they define safe – is not an option. They don’t need a new leader to solve all their problems.
You see, the ground we gain, the wins we accomplish, are not ours. The problems and challenges we face are not ours. And, we already have a leader, in Jesus. We are here not for the win, or the loss, but for the journey. Wins or losses might end a journey in our minds, but not even death ends our journey with God. And Jesus will be with us every step of the way on that journey.
We are called to use the resources God has given us, as the well known parable of the servant who hid his bag of gold tells us. The point of that parable is that it matters not whether we fail, or whether we succeed, or how much return we provide on God’s investment in us. What matters is whether we’re willing to try. We don’t need to worry about whether we have the resources, or even whether we are using them wisely. Ultimately, they belong to God: our God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The Creator of All. Our God who provides abundantly for all of our needs.
We are called to witness, not to win. We are called to testify to the Gospel of Christ in our lives; in our individual lives, and in our life together as a community of faith here, before God. Our role in our life’s journey is to live our life well. We are called to love our God and to love our neighbor fully, without reservation. We are to listen carefully for the voice of the Shepherd. And, we are called to let God’s love shine through in all that we do. This is our powerful witness. And, it is that witness which will liberate others; helping them to overcome the darkness that is within and without, to become a member of the Family of God in whatever way God calls them to do so.
The events and changes we’ve witnessed in recent months all around us have been depressing, maybe frightening. At the same time, our readings this morning remind us that we are not called to huddle together in fear, waiting for someone else to come along and fix the problem. In fact, that is the problem: Jesus didn’t come to do the job for us; but to walk with us.
The shepherd is calling our names and is ready to lead us forth. And when we follow his voice, the coals within us will once again blaze up into a flame that all can see. We can rekindle our faith and enthusiasm, and we are doing so. We are again realizing that great things need to be done, and that we can do them; and in fact we must, and we will.
Our journey is not nearing its end. It has barely begun!
I truly hope and pray this truth bears fruit in all of us. God has great things in store for each of us, and for this congregation as a whole. Our witness is indeed powerful, and as long as we walk with God, it cannot be otherwise. Our journey is may be a struggle, but our Hope is already here; and always will be.
Peace, and Amen.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, May 7, 2017 (4th Sunday of the Easter Season).
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