Shepherd of Souls
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, June 20, 2021
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing."
I GOD near or far? Is He impossibly high and remote, or intimately close and within you? Should we address Him in a familiar way or make only a formal relationship with God? Why is God invisible?
We mistake the nature of God’s Grace. Grace is important to Christianity, especially for the children of the Reformation. Grace, the unmerited favor of God, is given to us to save us, transform us, and give us faith in things we can’t see. Grace comes in the gifts of the indwelling Holy Spirit, in the Sacramental blessings, in our forgiveness from sin, and in our ability to love a God who’s invisible, and trust a Savior who lived long ago. God is invisible, perhaps, so that by faith in a God unseen we are counted worthy to receive further Grace.
But I believe the error we make in understanding God’s Grace is in thinking of it as a substance. I get the feeling we see Grace like butter, a pleasant yellow flavoring we spread on our food, scraped over dry toast to soften it up. This buttery Grace makes everything tasty. It’s an additive. Or else it’s like the sweetener we add to a drink that would otherwise be so bitter it’d make us pucker, like sugar crystals or the yellow, or pink or blue stuff we pour into ice tea. But Grace is not butter, margarine or NutraSweet.
Likewise, Grace is not an ability, a talent we’ve been granted like a skill developed from practice on a musical instrument. One Christian viewpoint is that this skill comes instantly by Grace, not by practice at all. The miracle of genius, of instantly knowing the sum of a long column of numbers, or the exact number of gum balls in the huge jar at the Fair, may be seen like innate abilities granted from on high like Grace. I think this may be in error.
God doesn’t send His blessings to us. God brings them with Himself. The Spiritual gifts of knowledge, wisdom, faith, healing, and a host of other divinely bestowed gifts and graces are not sent from the Holy Spirit in a ghostly package, opened by faith and used by the spiritually adept. The Spiritual gift is the Holy Spirit Himself.
Why do you think we were given Sacraments? The waters of Baptism touch you, get you wet, form a cross on your brow. The wafer is the Body of Christ that you crush between your teeth, and that little swallow of wine is also Jesus, the Son of God, entering your bloodstream. The Oil of Chrism, and that of Healing are stroked upon our foreheads with prayer that we might feel God’s touch on our skin. He doesn’t send His blessings, but brings them Himself.
With high and holy worship, the high and lofty words of biblical doctrines, or high liturgy and the holy Creeds, we might, I’m afraid, think that by such formality we can make God go away, if only to a safe distance. We fear intimacy with a Person who sees absolutely everything we are and all we have done and knows every flaw and cares deeply that we don’t. God feels better as a concept than as our conscience, and Grace as a substance is safer than Grace as the experience of the Holy, Almighty Creator of all things getting way inside our defenses.
A lot of churches try to make God immanent in the worship by holding up hands, singing rapturous songs while pondering love’s goodness, and building circular churches where everyone is close to the action. Everyone get up and greet one someone! For me, none of that makes God feel closer, and – for me – seems rather artificial and defeats the purpose. If our church instead causes God to be exalted, transcendent, which is only His due, do we grasp the fact that all this exaltation only makes Him draw nearer?
Why does God want to be close to us? Don’t we offend His senses? Can’t He hear our thoughts, thoughts that embarrass us, shame us, so that we can’t bear to think He’s listening in. What would a holy God want to be hanging out with us for? Yet it’s true. He doesn’t hold His nose, but enters human flesh, indwells us believers, gives us Himself to eat and to drink. This transcendent all powerful Being comes very near, even inside of us, for one reason alone.
He loves us so very much.
And His nearness is good for us. Like a shepherd of sheep, He is always needed. We’re not very good at goodness, and we wander off the pasture willfully. If we would finally realize His intentions for us are always only good, we’d sing with David that The Lord is my shepherd who leads me to calm waters, restores my soul, opens paths of righteousness through the valley of deathly shadows, even to a banquet table groaning with rich food and a chalice overflowing with the heady wine of His love. If after all that we still fear the shepherd’s staff, we’re really too stupid. He saves us from the cliff with one end of that staff, and spears the wolf with the other. We have a good God. It’s good to have Him near us.
If God is the Judge — and He is — that may scare us to be around Him. Like fearing the police who patrol our streets: if you’re doing nothing wrong, the men and women in blue are your friends. If you’re committing a crime, they are still your friends here to arrest you and stop you from doing more damage to yourself and to others. Your soul needs to be stopped from evil. They won’t kill you. Instead, you get a free ride in a patrol car. Free lodging, free food. And a chance to change. God is better than the justice system, and His holy angels are tougher than any cop. Some day you need to finally trust Him. Let that day be today. He is not out to mess with you. He is out to give you the only break you’ll ever get in this life or the next.
And He bought it at great cost to Himself.
Four centuries before Jesus, a prophet proclaimed, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. And it shall come to pass, that in all the land… two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them.” Zechariah13:7-9 Jesus quoted from this the night of His arrest. He speaks of judgment, and the greater number who will be lost.
His Judgment scares us, but what would we have? Anarchy? Mad Max at Thunderdome? A world where everyone does what is right in his own mind, perpetually? Man without God is evil: we scarcely know what that looks like outside of Auschwitz. And yet, even in Auschwitz, God was at work. The most heinous wars and inhumane acts ever done by people were done in godless societies; the People’s Republics where for no reason tens of millions died in the trackless wilderness of Siberia, the hills of western China, the jungles of Cambodia, and in the surgeries of Planned Parenthood. Without God we fall very far indeed.
I would say “Bring God near,” but you can’t make God do anything. You can, however, do things that He tells us will make Him come very, very close. Even in that terrible Psalm that speaks so clearly about His crucifixion, we find a verse that reads, “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Ps 22:3 When we praise Him, He is felt to be very near.
He promises to be with us always, and commands a pattern of actions that, through faith, guarantee us His Personal and intimate entry into us, many of them by sacramental means.
St. James says, “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble. Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you… Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” James 4:6-01
All we’re fighting with arbitrary doctrines and useless methods of keeping God at bay is ourselves. Through pride we do things to protect ourselves from what is good and right and necessary for us even to survive. Pride says, “I’m fine, thanks,” when we’re dying inside. Fine thanks. No need for God here. I don’t need forgiveness. What for? And I do believe, yes, and God is in His heaven where He belongs. I believe that, and so I get to go up there when I die. None of that holy roller stuff or superstitious Roman nonsense for me, thank you. I’m saved by grace. Good stuff, grace. I like it. Improves the flavor of everything.
But we say that when we’re starving. We’re crushed under the weight of our sins. We’re spiritually quadriplegic, really handicapped, paralyzed by our inability to do anything good in and of ourselves.
Of course, we are. We are sheep, aren’t we?
Real sheep need pastures, safety from predators, and shepherds to bring them in at night. Human sheep need Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the Sheep, who knows His own, and they know Him. When He finds us, lost and fearful, parted from the flock, He picks us up and carries us back, and He allows Himself to be joyful for finding little lost sheep like us.
And why? Because He loves us, even you, His sheep.
“For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:25
It is by our high and formal and holy worship that we beckon God to come near, to hover above His altar, to descend to us, and to lift us into His heavenly court, as angels and archangels sing forever their joyous praises, and with staggering steps we move toward Him, holding up expectant lips to receive Him into ourselves.
So come along and invite Him in, to come way inside, and to stay with you and in you forever.