Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 17, 2016                

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Easter 4C

Jill Duffield lectionaryThere is so much beautiful imagery to be had this Sunday.

There is Psalm 23, one known by heart by so many, one remembered read at funerals, memorial services and baptisms. There is the heavenly worship of Revelation 7, the powerful if sometimes fraught language of the blood of the lamb. I know we Presbyterians shy away from those bloody hymns but sometimes there is nothing like them to get us in touch with total reliance on God’s grace. I keep a few hymnals from other traditions on my shelf and pull them down when I need a visceral reminder that my redemption is all gift and one that cost God dearly. Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? Or, Redeemed – how I love to proclaim it! Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb; Redeemed thro’ his infinite mercy, his child, and forever, I am. There are times I don’t want theological nuance, I want feel-it-in-my-gut-assurance.

But if streams of living water and garments cleansed in blood aren’t where you want to go this Sunday, then there is the audacious story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead amid crying and lamentation just outside the door. What places of despair are we requested to go without delay? Have we gotten up and gone? John’s Gospel has its drama, too. There is the give-and-take of Pharisees and Jesus, the Q-and-A, the demand to tell it plain and Jesus’ it’s-as-plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face response. There is the unqualified promise that once we belong to God we are in God’s hands forever. No matter where you go on this fourth Sunday of Easter, you will find yourself in a land of tangible, evocative imagery coupled with transcendent mystery.

These texts make me think of the magical realism of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Lines between the here and now and the hereafter are blurred; past, present and future meld together; the heavenly breaks into the earthy and vice versa; even the stark contrast between life and death is blurred. What is plain and what is obscured and who can tell the difference? Nothing is quite like it seems – that carpenter’s boy out of Nazareth performs miracles, robes washed in blood turn white, the dead get up and walk – and as impossible as it all seems, those who see and hear, know with the utmost certainty that the impossible is real and True.

Tell us plainly, we still demand. And Jesus says, “I have, I do, I am. Don’t you hear me calling your name? Follow, see the works that bear witness to who I am and know that the Father and I are one.”

So, pick a text or two and point to the works that point to Jesus, the Messiah. Wallow in the imagery for a while. Hold in tension the ordinary and the extraordinary. Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd. Rejoice in hearing him speak your name and dare to consider following. Contemplate the grace you’ve experienced in your life and in the life of your community. Does that grace testify to Jesus? Tell you plainly who he is? Demonstrate the goodness and mercy of our God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death? Or are we hoping for something else? Something different? Something easier to believe than a slaughtered Lamb who saves the world? Something less threatening than every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages joining together? Something less messy or embodied or bloody? A little lighter on the gore and a lot heavier on the measurable glory? Perhaps a path without smelly, recalcitrant, prone-to-wander sheep.

Resist the urge to deviate from the strangeness of these texts and instead pick a text or two and live in the mystery – the odd, freaky, mystery of a Messiah, fully human, fully divine, slaughtered Lamb who saves and shows us the lengths God will go for the love of disobedient, not-too-smart, prone-to-get-lost sheep.

The magicians Penn and Teller were interviewed on “Morning Edition” last August and Penn tried to explain the power in telling the truth about the odd things they do on stage. He says:

And I became fascinated by: How much of this still holds up when you tell the truth? How much of showbiz holds up when you tell the truth? How much can you think about De Niro playing Travis Bickle before “Taxi Driver” dissolves?

Turns out “Taxi Driver” doesn’t dissolve. If I sit next to you and I write on the screen every time De Niro goes on, as Travis Bickle, “This is really De Niro. He doesn’t really drive a taxi. He doesn’t really care about Jodi Foster,” somehow the art kind of takes over.

He says of art earlier in the interview, “You want the visceral and the intellectual to collide with as much velocity as possible. You want your guts to say, ‘We’re going to die,’ and you want your mind to say, ‘If everybody died on this roller coaster, there’s no way they could make money.’ And you want those two to collide hard.”

In other words, the impossible and the possible have to dwell together so that the audience is enveloped in a mystery, something that transcends explanation and yet is unequivocally true. There are things that telling plain can’t contain. All we can do is watch and listen and believe the impossible that is right before us, fearlessness even in the valley of death, Dorcas holding Peter’s hand, garments washed in blood made white, every tribe singing in unison, the slaughtered Lamb victorious on the heavenly throne, all beyond our understanding and yet undeniably real.

This is a Sunday to name the works of the Messiah in Scripture and in our lives and allow the visceral and the intellectual to collide hard so that all we are left to do is rest in the mystery for a while. Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and share what you hear. Tell of Christ’s works, the ones you’ve experienced and let the gospel take over.

This week:

  1. Notice how the verses appointed from John name the promise of eternal life and the verses in Revelation describe the fulfillment of the promise. How does this relate to the sentiment of assurance expressed in Psalm 23?
  2. Take a quick look through John’s Gospel. Who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and who doesn’t? Who are the sheep who hear? What do they have in common?
  3. What do you make of the Pharisees in these verses from John? Are they sincere in their request? Are they trying to set Jesus up? On what do you base your interpretation?
  4. How can we understand the sheep/shepherd imagery in our context? Are there other analogies you might consider that would express the relationship between sheep and shepherd?
  5. Are there occasions you remember hearing or reading Psalm 23 that are particularly meaningful for you? What does the imagery of Psalm 23 evoke in you?
  6. Take a look at images of “heavenly worship.” Choose an image to use in your personal devotions this week. Or choose a hymn based on Psalm 23 and use it as a daily prayer.

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