Sermon preached at St Stephen's Lewisham
Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18
Last Sunday we heard about the religion of the pagan Roman Empire in which Jesus Christ was born, put to death on Good Friday and rose from the dead on the first Easter Day.
The pagans managed somehow to combine taking their "religion" very seriously, with its "gods many and lords many" and its frequent public holy days of obligation with a deep-seated doubt as to whether in fact it was all true.
Most of them, in other words, took a lot of trouble to do what the pagan priests told them to do, providing it didn't interfere too much with the fun and games of their lifestyle.
But if you'd asked them "Is there really a team of gods and godesses up there (or out there) behaving in the way the legends suggest?" they would have shaken their heads dubiously and said "Well, I suppose there may be, but I rather doubt it; still, it's best for us if everyone plays safe, isn't it?" However there was one thing they did believe in quite strongly - something that we today would call "fortune" or "destiny.
Rather in the way that people nowadays turn up the horoscopes in the newspaper to read up "What the Stars Foretell" and take what they say quite seriously to the extent of modifying their behaviour towards others or changing their plans just to be on the safe side; or consulting fortune tellers to discover what the future has in store for them.
Even so, the citizens of the first century Roman empire were always trotting off the local Oracle as it was called, to consult the "seer" (literally the "see-er", the person who claimed to see clearly what was going to happen, the clair-voyant) in order to help them decide how they should conduct their lives.
Well, the seers make themselves a reasonable living by telling their clients what they wanted to hear. Whether their advice turned out to be sound or not, of course, varied a great deal, and much of time the seers played safe by saying things that were so ambiguous that they could claim that their client had misunderstood their advice when things turned out badly for those clients who came to grief after following it.
The point is that they supplied the deep-seated desire which people have always had, to believe that their life is not just meaningless, not just a matter of blind chance or luck, but is actually shaped or moulded or directed by forces "out there who control the fortunes of every man, woman and child. Call these forces "fates", "gods", "lords of this or that" or what you will, there must nevertheless be true that: "There's a divinity doth shape our ends, Rough-hew them how we will" It was into this world that the God of the Jews, the one and only true God who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, had suddenly stepped. At least this was what the new religious sect who were called Christians, Christ-ians, were said to be insisting.
And that, of course was exactly what the Christians like St John and St Peter and St Paul were saying.
Born a man, born of a virgin in an obscure province called Judaea at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, this person called Jesus Christ was, they insisted, none other than God himself.
He had been put to death under the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate; he had returned from the dead on the third day; and (so they proclaimed) by these events which took place in March or April in the year 30AD by our reckoning, had changed once and for all the relationship between God and man. God, through Christ had "overcome death and opened up for us the gate of everlasting life" and "reconciled the world to himself." In other words, Jesus Christ had given man a hope for the future. All over the Roman Empire the news spread like wildfire that what everyone had been searching for in vain to get from the oracles and the seers was freely available to anyone who would believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
It's a bit hard for you and me who have been brought up in this faith to realise how perfectly this all fitted in with what people had been searching for unsuccessfully for so many years.
So let's read again what St John wrote to his fellow-believers in answer to the questions which up till then they had been asking the seers: "Who am I really?; and "What is going to happen to me?"; and "What shall become of me?" This is what St John says in reply to these three questions: "My dear people, we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like [Jesus Christ] because we shall see him as he really is." That, in a nutshell, sums up the Christian faith.
Because "in Christ" God has made us his children and "with Christ" we have both "died to sin" and been "raised to life eternal". We are no longer like lost orphans of the storm wondering "who are we really?" and "does anyone love us?" For God, in Christ has "begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead", as St Peter puts it.
It's true, of course, as St John points out, that we don't know all the answers about our future, those things that the seers and horoscopes claimed to tell their clients.
But that surely is a small price to pay in uncertainty for the certainty of the hope offered to us by God in Jesus Christ: for as John says, "we do know that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is." St John was one of those who could claim to have "seen him as he really is". As Jesus beloved disciple he had witnessed not only his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension but also his transfiguration on the mountainside early one morning when the veil, so to speak, was pulled aside for a few seconds so that Peter and James and John caught a fleeting glimpse of Jesus "as he really is".
But it wasn't only about their final destiny that John wanted to tell his readers and hearers. He could tell them what they are here and now. For he had also heard and remembered the words of Jesus which he recorded in the Gospel reading this morning "I am the good shepherd ... I know my own sheep and they know me ... I lay down my life for the sheep ... all those who listen to me will be one flock under one shepherd ... I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full." There is so much more that could be said about Jesus that John himself tells us at the end of his Gospel "I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that should be written".
But the core of it all lies here in the mystery which we Christians celebrate at Easter and on every subsequent First Day of the Week, Sunday, in commemoration of Easter.
We come together and we continue to celebrate the Lord Jesus' death and resurrection "until he comes again" As the partakers of his sacred Body and Blood under the form of bread and wine, we then "go forth into the world in the power of his Spirit to live and work to his praise and glory" We are the sheep whom he has bought with his own blood. So we know for certain what the pagans longed to find out but never discovered. We have the answers to those two questions they asked the seers in vain: "Who am I?"; and "What does the future hold for me?" The answers to those questions which we find by faith in Jesus are of course what John wrote to his readers: "Who am I?" - you are God's child and fellow heir with his Son, Jesus Christ" "What shall become of me?" - you will become like him in every possible way!
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