Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Sermon Easter 4 2016

Acts 9.36-43
Revelation 7.9-17
John 10.22-30
Last week I went to see a famous sculpture of the Good Shepherd in the Vatican Museums. This is an outstanding work of Christian art from the 3rd or 4th Century, and I’m pleased that I finally got to see it - the last time I went to the Vatican Museums, 28 years ago, the particular section it was in was closed for restoration.
Photographs don’t really do this sculpture justice, although I’ve included one of mine in the news sheet this week. Walking around the Good Shepherd you can see how the sculptor has managed to convey strength, poise and calm stillness. The Shepherd has big strong hands and a firm grip, holding the sheep securely by its front and back legs. The sheep looks frightened and fidgety but it isn’t going anywhere except on the shoulders of the shepherd.
The Shepherd’s head is raised, turned towards the sheep. The lips slightly opened. He appears to be speaking, words of reassurance. It’s alright, I’ve got hold of you. Trust me. I believe whoever sculpted this had in mind the words we heard in today’s gospel reading: “My sheep hear my voice… No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
This sculpture wasn’t originally free standing, as we see it today, but was originally part of a frieze of figures along the front of a sarcophagus, a funeral monument. There are many examples of such sarcophagi in the Vatican Museums from those early centuries of Christianity. They feature many images: Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Christ multiplying the bread and fishes, changing water into wine at Cana, the raising of Lazarus: but the most common figure is the Good Shepherd carrying the sheep.
The fact that this is a funeral figure suggests to me that the sculptor also had in mind the beautiful words from the 23rd Psalm that we heard this morning, 

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me”.
We might call this art na├»ve, but it is fresh, beautiful and full of faith. Those early Christians speak to us through the monuments they left behind. In the face of death, they believed and trusted in the Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice… No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
And death in the Roman Empire was always close at hand, especially if you were a Christian. Before the conversion of Constantine in 310 being a follower of Jesus was very risky. Periodic persecutions resulted in the arrest, torture and public execution of countless people, adults and children, just because of their faith.
The Book of Revelation, that we heard part of this morning, was probably written against the background of Nero’s persecution around the year 64. He found it convenient to blame the Christians for a great fire that had burned down part of Rome, and thousands were put to death in cruel spectacles as public entertainment. But to the eye of faith these helpless victims were the citizens of heaven. In John’s vision in Revelation they are the “great multitude… standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
Being a Christian in Rome was not a comfortable or safe option. But it was Christians in those circumstances who produced the beautiful image of Christ the Good Shepherd, promising his sheep eternal life, and holding on tight, making sure that no-one can snatch them out of his hand.
And why is it that no-one can snatch his sheep out of Jesus’ hands? Jesus tells us it is because he and the Father are one, and the Father is greater than anyone.
In today’s reading Jesus was speaking to the Jews, and by that John means the religious authorities, at the festival of the Dedication. This commemorated the rededication of he temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by a foreign invader in the 3rd Century BC. The festival of Dedication celebrated the temple as a visible sign of God’s presence among his people. Access to God was guaranteed through the building where God was present to hear prayers and to forgive. In a figurative sense, God and the temple were one because God identified himself with that visible building.
But Jesus says that there is another and surer way to God, and that is himself. He and the Father are one, not by a temporary identification that can be undone, but by nature. Temples can be destroyed and desecrated, as had already happened. But Jesus as God’s Son remains for ever, and whoever comes to him comes to the Father also, and can be sure of being held securely, and saved for eternal life, because no-one is greater than the Father, and no-one can snatch the sheep out of his hands.
We in Western Europe in the 21st Century are in a fortunate position. We are unlikely to face actual persecution for our faith. But other forms of adversity are bound to come our way. Serious illness affecting us or people we love. The loss of jobs or homes. Debt and financial hardship. Troubles in family and relationships. There will be times when it seems as though everything is coming at us at once, and we wonder how we will cope.
And then, of course, sooner or later we will all face the business of dying and death. But nothing worse can happen to us than happened to those who were persecuted and killed for their faith, the great multitude standing before the throne of God and the Lamb. Nothing worse can happen to us than happened to the early Christians who left behind the beautiful image of the Good Shepherd, whose voice speaks to us as it spoke to them, who holds us securely in his hands just as he held them.
For them, and for us, what matters above all is a living relationship with Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Jesus, who is himself the way, the truth and the life, opens for us a sure and certain way to the Father, and nothing in life or death can snatch us out of his hands. Jesus is both fully human, one with us in life and death, and fully Divine, the Son who is one with the Father from all ages, and therefore is able to give eternal life to whoever he chooses.

When the storms of life are about us, when death is at last approaching, his presence will not fail us. He speaks to us, and to all who are drawn to him. When we follow him we are following in the one sure way to the Father, the path to union with God in whom is eternal life. And that hope will hold us in the darkest night and the toughest times. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

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