In this Easter Season we get to know Simon Peter the fisherman better, and we see the Lord Jesus at work. Today we experience a scene in the life and ministry of Jesus that takes place before the crucifixion and resurrection, and John the Gospeler drops us into a conflict between religious authorities and Jesus--at the holy time of Hanukkah and in the holiest place on earth for Jesus' fellow Jews.
We're also dropped into an Easter scene: the story of Simon Peter raising the dead--and hanging out with unclean people among the living.
Who is this Jesus to us and to whom does he send his first disciples? To whom are we sent, and how are we to live among them?
The evangelist and Gospeler Luke tells us in his second book, the book that records some of the acts of the apostles of Jesus, that Simon Peter was out and about at the seaport of Joppa near Jerusalem. There was a disciple whose name was Tabitha or Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She fell ill and died.
Her friends treated her lifeless body with prayerful respect, bathing and dressing her body, but not anointing her for burial. Instead, these widows and saintly disciples sent two men to ask Simon Peter to hurry there.
Tabitha, Dorcas, the beloved and fruitful disciple, is raised up by Simon Peter and restored to her friends. News spreads quickly; of course, and many people who had not had the opportunity to believe in the Lord Jesus now come to belief. Meanwhile, we are told, Simon Peter stays in the house of Simon the tanner, a man whose vocation of working with the bodies of animals would have made him unclean. He was not unclean in the eyes of Simon Peter, disciple of the Risen Lord, obviously.
I am reminded of a ministry in Tijuana called Dorcas House. It's a ministry on the part of the people of St. Paul's Cathedral and other Episcopal congregations in the Diocese of San Diego, a ministry to children whose parents are in jail. It is a fruitful ministry named for this energetic, hands-on disciple from the first century who was empowered to continue in ministry. I am reminded by those who minister in Dorcas House, Tijuana, that they see nothing unclean about the children with whom they minister. Thanks be to God, who raises us up!
In our Gospel reading today we are plunged into a crisis--an identity crisis for Jesus--or at least for those who gather around him at the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem at Hanukkah.
Who is this Jesus, and what is he up to? In John's Gospel he has been revealing himself as God's light in the world. His healing ministry has included opening the eyes of the blind. And now he comes to a particular holy place and time. His detractors taunt him and demand to know just who he thinks he is. "You would know who I am," Jesus says, "if you had ears to hear and eyes to see." Jesus has been demonstrating who he is through his works of ministry; he has been revealing who he is and that he is Lord of Life among them. "But you don't believe," he says, "because you don't recognize the voice of the shepherd among you."
I wonder if we tend to think of the image of the shepherd as an image of Jesus on a grassy hillside surrounded by fluffy white sheep. Here we see a sharper image: Jesus is the Lord who is the Shepherd of the Twenty-third Psalm: "When you recite the psalm, 'the Lord is my shepherd,' Jesus says, "you are addressing me. The Father and I are one, I am the Good Shepherd."
This freaks out his detractors, of course. Some of them have already decided that he was demon-possessed. There was a division among the people as to who he is. Now, to many of them, he is a blasphemer.
Jesus had already taught that as opposed to false shepherds who were thieves and bandits, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
And now come the words, "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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
The people around Jesus have a decision to make:
Do they hear the voice of Jesus to be the voice of the Shepherd who is the one who revives our souls and guides us along right pathways for his Name's sake?
Is this the one who accompanies us in our life's journey and is with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death?
Is it Jesus who is with us, comforting and strengthening us, inviting us to table with him, anointing us not for burial but for ministry?
Is Jesus the Holy One whose goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, promising that you and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever?
Who is this Jesus? Is he the Lamb at the center of the throne who is and will be our Shepherd, guiding us "to springs of waters of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes"?
Are we among the lost sheep to whom the risen Jesus calls?
We know the answer. We recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd who is one with God and who speaks in the name of God. We know that no one can take us away from his love. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And there is more Good News: This Good Shepherd equips and empowers us to minister among the widows and orphans, among the lost sheep who are being saved, among the children of Tijuana who hear the voice and feel the embrace of love at Dorcas House.
We are privileged to help open the gate of the sheepfold to others who are hearing the Easter voice of the Risen Shepherd.
"What my Father has given me," he says, "is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
His detractors took up stones again to kill him for blasphemy. He walked through them and continued in his ministry.
That ministry would soon take him to the house of Mary and Martha, where he calls Lazarus back from death--even at the cost of his own life.
And so this Easter Season we witness around us the power of the resurrection of our Lord, raising us up, calling Dorcas and Lazarus and you and me to share in the ministry of the Risen Christ.
Today listen for the voice of our Shepherd, calling us away from deadly things, empowering and equipping us to raise up others who long to know the power of his forgiving love. Let's show ourselves to be alive in Christ, raising up others in the joy of our risen Lord.
Let us pray. Holy God, your Son Jesus is the Good Shepherd who sends us out to proclaim the Good News in word and in deed. May we today hear his voice and know him who calls us each by name, and then send us out with gladness and singleness of heart that all peoples and races and tongues may hear his voice and see you at work in the world and come to know you in heavenly ways, you who live and reign with the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.