Do you ever feel, as I sometimes do, that we Episcopalians are not quite, let’s say, “in the mainstream?” Everyone else has finished singing their alleluias, put away their Easter baskets, and eaten all their chocolate bunnies. Easter is so last month. And yet, here we are, on the fourth week of Easter, with three to go.
I, for one, am glad we have seven weeks of Easter! We need it all! It takes a lifetime, let alone seven weeks, to begin to come to some understanding of what it means. Nowadays scientists speculate about the vastness of the universe, the newly discovered black hole in space, the planets so many light years away—and the God who created this also chose to put God’s son—a person who partakes of the same nature as this Creator—into a small town in a small country that was dominated by an oppressive empire--and to reveal that this son of God would rise from the cruelest death in history and assure us that all this had a message for us, a message that would bring us life.
During the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we’re focusing on how this has changed the lives we lead now that we’ve seen the resurrection. How do we, Christian people, live with this knowledge, day after day? Three of the readings we just heard present the image of a shepherd leading his sheep. As the Jews are gathered for a festival, Jesus reminds the people that those sheep know who their shepherd is. He assures them, as plainly as he ever said anywhere in any of the gospels, “The Father and I are one.” If you are one of those who recognize Jesus, you will get it. He will be your shepherd, and no one will snatch you out of this shepherd’s hand.
It must have recalled for all those with a tradition of the Scriptures, the psalm we read today, the best known of all of them, the most comforting words ever written, in which God assures God’s people that they will be cared for as a shepherd cares for his sheep. When the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want!
Have you ever seen a sheep? I grew up with those adorable pictures of Jesus holding a sweet little fluffy white lamb. But there were times in my life when I was in Ireland, and saw flocks of huge dirty sheep in the pasture—they were, let’s say, “weathered” by the rainy climate. My picture changed forever. I wonder if you remember seeing western movies, where cattle were being herded from here to there? The cattle herders and dogs were chasing after them—urging them on from behind. I’m told that if a shepherd were to get behind a flock of sheep, they’d all turn around so they’d be following him. So the image in this beautiful psalm is necessarily a shepherd—not a cowboy. We follow the shepherd, as Jesus is urging us to do. And our shepherd will care for us even if we too are “weathered.”
Later, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter finds himself the consultant, the helper, in fact a shepherd, to people who need help. This is interesting since we can remember that once Peter even denied knowing him. But thanks be to God, God can redeem flawed people and turn them into disciples. This is one of the reasons I so love to read about the life Peter led after the resurrection of Jesus. And now he’s Saint Peter!
He is asked to come to a woman named Tabitha, who is known for good works and charity. I have a special affinity for the scene he finds when he arrives. I belong to the quilters’ guild, an organization of women, mostly over 30—OK, 60—who share our craft, and frequently gather to work together. From this, a close fellowship arises, and frequently we donate charity quilts to children who find them comforting. If one quilter dies, we all mourn.
Perhaps those women expected Peter to just offer some words of comfort, but he astonishes them all by praying for Tabitha’s return to life—and thus persuading many people that this Jesus was the Lord indeed. By now, the fourth week of Easter, we are getting the clear message that death is not what we once imagined. It is not the eradication of life, but the beginning of something new. It’s not final. Tabitha comes back to life.
We begin to understand that the resurrection of Jesus is a miracle with a message to us that he has brought us the hope of a new life to come, whatever oppression we might experience here on earth. There’s no one who hasn’t faced the prospect of death without fear, but God has showed us time and time again that we are in God’s hands, and we are cared for. Of course “just how” is beyond our understanding. But we have only to trust in our shepherd, and he will make us to lie down in green pastures. So this is no time to stop singing alleluias—it’s time to remember what Jesus’ resurrection has brought to us, and to look for ways the resurrection has changed us. I wish you three more weeks of rejoicing in the message of the Easter season.