April 17, 2016
Our Scriptures today are filled with sheep and divine shepherding. So we could ruminate on what it means for Jesus to be our Good Shepherd. But instead I want to ask a different question: What does it means for us to be a Good Sheep?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be called a sheep. Someone who is a sheep is mindless and lacks agency; they can’t lead, they don’t have a thought of their own, they are easily manipulated by forces beyond them. Sheep are stupid. I’m not a sheep.
And yet. The people of God are likened to sheep from the Old Testament through the New. The one thing sheep do exceptionally well is follow. That’s how they get around; they follow the one in front. And following is an essential skill for a Christian. Because that is what Jesus calls people to do—to follow, to shape the trajectory of their lives around where Jesus is taking them.
So what did it mean to follow Jesus in that post-Easter time? What did it mean to be a Good Sheep?
In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we have a great example. Her name is Tabitha, which means gazelle. She was a Good Sheep.
Tabitha was a follower of Jesus. She lived in Joppa, one of the earliest Christian communities, during the time when those who actually knew and saw Jesus were still around and telling the story. Perhaps Tabitha was one of those who knew and followed Jesus before his death. Or perhaps she did not see but still believed in his resurrection. Regardless, she followed the Way of Jesus.
The author of Acts tells us that Tabitha did this by devoting herself to “good works and acts of charity.” What did she do? She operated a sewing circle among the community’s most vulnerable people—its widows. Tabitha and the widows sewed together. Perhaps she helped them start a little co-op, maybe with the help of a micro-loan. Maybe she was a widow herself. We only know that she was generous, and she was loving, and this was how she followed Jesus.
But Tabitha’s faithfulness did not prevent her from getting sick and dying. Now, before we go to the second part of this story in Acts, let’s just pause for a moment in Tabitha’s room with her friends, the women whom she loved and served. They have washed her body, and they have laid her out in a room upstairs. They have lovingly unfolded the tunics that she made with them, the handiwork so familiar to them. And they are passing these items around, they are telling her story, and they are weeping. They are wrapped in her memory and her legacy and in the love that she shared with them in the name of Jesus. The story could end there and it would be a fine example of early Christian following, early Christian faith. But it doesn’t end there.
Somewhere during Tabitha’s illness and her dying, someone calls for help. In the past they would have called for Jesus. Now they call for Peter, who is visiting a nearby town, where he is doing the things that Jesus did—preaching, teaching, healing.
Peter finally arrives at this upper room full of weeping widows, this room where Tabitha’s body has been laid out. I wonder if in this moment he remembers all the times he’d been with Jesus in situations like this. That time Jesus healed Peter’s own mother-in-law. That widow’s son. Lazarus of Bethany. And Jairus’s daughter – that time when Jesus said, Talitha cum, little girl get up. And she got up.
Peter asks the widows to step outside. He takes the dead woman’s hand and he says “Tabitha get up”.
And Tabitha, from the other side of this life, hears Jesus’ voice coming out of Peter’s mouth. And she follows—all the way back to her own upper room, her previous life, her beloved widows, her work.
Now I don’t think that the widows needed this miracle to believe in the power of Jesus. My guess is that they were likely followers themselves, perhaps thanks to the devotion of Tabitha. But this story of Tabitha’s return from the dead ultimately led many to believe in Jesus the Messiah, whose work continued through his followers – through his sheep.
Contrast this story with today’s Gospel. A different book, a different time, a different setting: the Gospel of John, during Jesus’ public ministry, with Jesus walking in the Temple. But again with the sheep.
This too is a vivid story – can’t you just see a couple of Temple visitors leaning against a pillar watching Jesus, nudging each other and saying, “Whadya think? Is he or isn’t he?”
“Is he or isn’t he? I don’t know, why don’t you ask him?”
“I’m not going to ask him, you ask him.”
“I’m not going to ask him, let’s get Michael”…
“Hey Jesus, don’t keep us in suspense! Tell us plainly: are you or aren’t you the Messiah?”
And Jesus essentially says, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. Because the ones who know the answer to that question only have to listen to my words and watch what I do, and it’s clear to them. They’re like sheep that know their master’s voice and follow it.
I think this can be familiar territory for us – we’d like to know definitively if all we’ve been told about Jesus is true, in a way that dispels all doubts. And what we’re given – the biblical words and stories of Jesus, people’s personal experiences of the love and activity of Jesus in their lives – these sometimes aren’t enough to lift the suspense. Is he or isn’t he – the messiah, the savior, God?
I don’t think that the faith that marks a follower of Jesus is the ability to puzzle out truth or to believe without proof. Instead I think it’s actually the ability to recognize—to listen and recognize God’s voice in what you’re hearing, to look and to recognize God’s work or God’s presence in what you’re seeing.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus tells his challengers at the Temple.
Faith works with the same information that doubt does. But doubt can teeter on the edge of following because it is not sure what it is looking at, what the consequences will be, what will happen if it’s wrong. Doubt can be a reason not to follow. But it doesn’t have to be.
Because often it is in the act of following that the ability to recognize the presence of Jesus – to see through the eyes of faith – fully develops.
Remember that when Jesus was calling his disciples, he didn’t ask them what their level of faith was; he asked them first to follow. The matter of faith would come up along the way. And recall that Peter and the other disciples followed a very long time before they could recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and even then they often got the meaning wrong. And even in that post Easter period of visitation, his followers often couldn’t recognize Jesus immediately until he did something like break bread or serve breakfast or reveal his wounds.
The art of recognizing Jesus comes with the practice of following him. That’s why we bring our children to this place and this community and why we come ourselves—to learn the way of Jesus among us, so that they will be able to recognize him elsewhere and know what it means to follow.
We don’t know if Tabitha in her journey of faith ever asked “Is he or isn’t he the Messiah?” We just know that by the time she died she recognized that voice so well that she could follow it wherever it called her to go – out of this life and back into it again.
So the question for us today, is not really: is he or isn’t he—the Messiah, the savior, God?”
But rather, am I or am I not his follower, willing to be what Jesus calls me to be and go where Jesus calls me to go, with the burning hope that I will recognize him better along the way?
8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist
9:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist with music
10:00 a.m. Parish Forum & Kairos
10:15 a.m. worship.together
Holy Eucharist for families with young children
11:15 a.m. Choral Eucharist
Morning prayer is offered at 7:30 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Silent morning meditation is offered at 8:15 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Mid-week Eucharist is offered at 12:15 p.m. Wednesdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Compline is offered at 7:00 p.m. on 2nd & 4th Wednesdays, in the Church.
Choral Evensong is offered at 5:00 p.m. on 1st Sundays, in the Church.
We would love to have you join us.
This Episcopal church is located in the heart of the historic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, five blocks west of Germantown Avenue at the corner of St. Martin’s Lane and West Willow Grove Avenue.