Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
This is a mystery beyond human comprehension, yet the history of Christian art is filled with compelling representations of this image. My personal favorite is a Trinitarian image in the magnificent basilica of St-Denis on the outskirts of Paris, a medieval structure that houses the tombs of countless members of French royalty. Here God the Father is depicted on His throne in heaven, holding in His arms a Lamb behind which stands a Cross and above which hovers a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The image presents the unity of the Trinity in a way that, for me, no amount of verbiage can equal.
We cannot explain the Trinity, yet we can visualize it in many ways that speak directly to our hearts of faith. We attempt many analogies to explain the Trinity and we find the flaws in all of them. Yet here today we have the incredible mystery of God the Father, the Lord Who is the Psalmist’s Shepherd, alongside Jesus Himself, Who is laying bold claim to being the Good Shepherd Who knows His sheep and is known by them. And no one can snatch the sheep away from Jesus or from the Father’s hand because, as Jesus claims at the end of today’s Gospel, “The Father and I are One.”
Yet in the very next verse after our reading ends, John tells us that those who heard these words from Jesus “took up stones again to stone Him.” Unbelief remains fierce. To be completely fair, this claim of Jesus could easily have been understood by those hearing Him as utter blasphemy. It would have taken a significant leap of faith to concede that Jesus’ claim of union with the Father could be substantiated. The church fathers spent a great deal of time, thought, energy and blood trying to fathom this mystery before the Council of Chalcedon came up with a “definition” deemed “definitive.” Earlier in this chapter of our Gospel reading we have some who, on hearing Jesus’ words, said that He had a demon and was insane. Others said, “These are not the sayings of one demon-possessed; a demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?” These were the observers who saw what John calls the “signs” that attested to Jesus’ claims and that inspired belief in some alongside rejection in others. The specific point of reference was the healing of the man born blind recounted in the previous chapter.
But let’s back up a bit further and look at the broad sweep of our lectionary readings for today. Returning to the best known of all psalms, what does it mean to us to have the Lord God Almighty as our Shepherd? For starters, it means that we will lack nothing: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want!” That is a rather comprehensive statement with which we as materialistic and hopelessly acquisitive 21st century Americans might be inclined to take issue. Yet again and again we realize its truth. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 84:11, “The LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD gives grace and glory; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” And as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:19, “my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
The keys here are “good things” and “all your needs.” It is not at all hard to be genuinely satisfied with the things that God provides for us, even when we find ourselves wishing for more. Often it can be absolutely jaw-dropping to see what He provides, because as Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20, our God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” But remember that God generally provides through human intermediaries; yes, He might yet drop down manna from heaven or cover the ground with quails, but He has other rather more practical ways of meeting our needs or, more importantly for us today, of meeting the needs of others through us.
Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 5:8, “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Imagine the difference if we were to concern ourselves more with how to help “God our Shepherd” care for His sheep than with how He might be caring for us! Then “I shall not want” would have an amazing reciprocity that would supply the needs of everyone, and God would still be the One to get the credit. If, instead, we sit by and wait for God to produce green pastures and still waters, we may wonder at times whether God is somehow impotent when the fault lies with our passivity.
There are three magnificent truths in Psalm 23 that are wholly independent of human initiative:
One is fearing no evil when walking through the valley of the shadow of death; a second is knowing that God’s goodness and lovingkindness will follow us all the days of our lives; and a third is knowing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This third truth is the one that should undergird the other two: death becomes nothing to be feared because, as the writer of the hymn “Jesus Lives and So Shall I” has said, “death is but our entrance into glory.” And this confidence is built on two incomparable realities: 1) God the Father’s fundamental goodness and lovingkindness are eternal, and 2) in the words of another great hymn, our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Indeed, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast” (I Cor. 5:7) as those whose robes are washed white in the Blood of the Lamb.
What is the key to unlocking the mysteries of Scripture that sometimes seem to elude us? For me, the answer is simple: compare Scripture with Scripture, and let God do the illuminating through His Holy Spirit. This is what we call “resonance:” allowing the light of God’s truth to shine from one passage to another one. We already have seen the resonance, for example, between Psalm 23 and John 10. The psalmist says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord, my Shepherd, forever.” What does Jesus say about that? He says, 28 “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Yes, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!
How can Jesus, the Good Shepherd, make such a bold claim? Again, because the key verse in all of this is verse 30: “The Father and I are one.” The Lord Who is my Shepherd is one with my Good Shepherd, Whose voice I know because, as Jesus said, 27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” This unity of the Father and the Son in procuring our eternal salvation is precisely what Paul is echoing in Ephesians chapter 1 when he writes, “In love (God) predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:4,5). That’s what God our Shepherd does because that’s Who He is: a God of love Whose will is rooted in His “kind intention.” Paul’s word for “kind intention,” εὐδοκία, is no doubt one way of saying “hesed,” lovingkindness, in Greek.
Isn’t this a blessed Sunday? What should be our response? Obviously at the top of the list should be offering our eternal thanks to God for Who He is and how He acts. What next? We could be like those who hearing Jesus’ words, choose to pick up stones. Or, being less aggressive persons, we could simply say “thank you” and wait it out until our “entrance into glory.” Or we could say this: O Lord, my God, You are my Shepherd, I shall not want. Lord Jesus, my Good Shepherd, I have heard Your voice; I will follow You. O Holy Spirit, You have brought into my heart the very lovingkindness of my Eternal God, and I will do the work You have put before me to share Your shepherding with a world that is characterized by poverty of spirit and great need. O Triune God, make me Your Shepherd now and forever until, passing through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me, and I am with You, and no one will ever be able to snatch me from Your arms of love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen