I am the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
So far in Easter we have looked at the careful descriptions of those first moments when the tomb, where Jesus’ body was laid, was found empty, and of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples when were locked in a room by themselves, and he showed them his hands and his side. This morning we step back a little to look at the cosmic significance of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here are three questions that are readings deal with today: i) Is God is a Good Shepherd? ii) If so, what does that mean for us in our suffering? And, iii) how does this relate to the Resurrection of Jesus?
So first: Is God a Good Shepherd?
Whether we believe in God or not, at the very core of every human being is a foundational question that is being answered by us in a particular way all the time by our actions – is life, existence, you could say, Being itself, something that is good or something that is bad.
Every one of us suffers, it is the nature of living and being in this fallen world. How do we respond to this fact?
An example of an extreme modern response to the experience of suffering is the perpetrators of school massacres – some have left their reasons in writing in chilling terms, describing how no human being deserves to live – they are fighting in their minds against existence itself – against being, they have clearly chosen to reject what is behind all being – the God who says, I am. The Isis ideology is like this – they hate life and even say they enjoy death for as many others as possible and for themselves. These are extreme examples, yet the fundamental question is, is Being, is God, good or bad? [Jordon Peterson lectures]
In the daily readings in Deuteronomy this past week, Moses sums up the experience of Israel as they came out of Egypt as he prepares to die. Moses tells how God’s people repeatedly came to the same conclusion when they experienced suffering: “you murmured in your tents and said: ‘Because the Lord hated us he has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt… to destroy us.”
At the heart of their experience was a continual question, should we trust God or not? Does God have a good will towards us or not? And I suspect it is the experience of every one of us when we are confronted by the experience of some profound unexpected suffering: a threat to our health or the health of a loved one, the collapse of our world view, the betrayal by someone close or a community we were a part of. It leaves us in unchartered territory and it can be devastating – leaving us uncertain about what to trust in, and even behind that, is God there? and if so, is God good or evil, for us or against us? or if God is powerless then He is certainly irrelevant.
How do we respond when bad things happen? Do we do we grow in bitterness and resentment or do we mature in our understanding of who God is and grow in wisdom and love?
In my own conversion in my late 20’s I remember having a profound change of attitude about the basic goodness of society. Knowing my own soul better, and the possibilities and capacity of the human soul for depravity, I began to see the incredible grace that must be behind the structures of society that we do have – of course they can always be improved – but there is so much good that it is miraculous. (Think for a moment of how much grace is manifested in the cooperation necessary to enable a plane to fly and to have a busy airport work well?)
If we are living in a state of resentment and bitterness because of our suffering or the suffering of others, seeing only what is evil and not what is right, is it not a kind of distrust in the goodness of God, and of his Providential ordering of all things? But given that there is such suffering in the world, how can we know that God is good? How can we not respond with the Israelites, “The Lord has brought us forth…to destroy us?”
In today’s Gospel [St John 10:11-16], Jesus ties his own death to proof that God is for us, not against us, in this life of suffering:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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.
Well maybe we think – laying down your life for me, is that proof? Why not just stop all this suffering I’m experiencing? You’ve got the power, and you say you’re good? What is with that?
Well there are 15 answers to that question gathered up over the centuries by the wisest minds, but I’m not going to speak of them now (see below this sermon for the “Pastoral Consolations”). But it comes down to the basic question that every one of us must answer in our souls at the deepest level – do we see God as for us or against us? Is God good or evil? Or if we’re unsure if God exists, we still ask the question deep within us – is being, is existence itself, a good thing or a bad thing?
The Good News in today’s Gospel is that Jesus has died for us, in our place, accepting the punishing effects of sin for us, and he tells us this is His Father’s will. If we believe that, we cannot say that God is unaware of our suffering or uncaring about it, he entered into Creation, bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might find relief. [1 Pet 2:25]
Second question: What does it mean for us if we believe that God is good?
It means we relate to the suffering that comes upon us in a new way.
DEARLY beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation. [It may not be God directly willing our suffering, but since God has power to stop it, but chooses to allow it, then he thinks we can bear it and grow from it, if we believe God is good.] And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity; or else it be sent unto you to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if you truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God’s mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake, and render unto him humble thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.
Do we believe this? Does it give us comfort? It is saying that regardless of the source of the suffering – our own way of life, or the ills of the society we live in (maybe some toxic pollution), or some other unknown reason, we believe that God is good and that a greater good will come out of any suffering if we bear it in faith.
This is not Stoicism: accept your fate, that’s just the way it is. Rather, it is an active belief that God is a Good Shepherd, overseeing all things, and so our suffering is redemptive for ourselves and for others around us if borne in faith. It is even one of the ways we are transformed and perfected in this world. No pain, no gain!
And God also shows us that he does not want us to stay in suffering. He came also to heal, and he calls on us to be involved in the relief of suffering. And so we have a great respect for medicine and we will also bring before him our wounds this morning, of body and soul, seeking His healing power and trusting fully to God the timing and the degree of relief that we receive.
We can also suffer for doing what is right. In the Epistle for today [1 Peter 2:19-25], Peter says,
This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
We have been called to suffer for doing good! It takes a lot of work, to fight against injustice in society, it can cause suffering to do the right thing when it brings a backlash, it causes a lot of suffering within us to fight against the evil inclinations in our own soul and to choose only what is good. But it is even the way we are transformed and perfected in this world. No pain, no gain!
Suffering is not something we shrink back from at all cost.
Finally, how does our suffering relate to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?
If we share in Jesus’ sufferings, he promises we will share in his Resurrection!
Of course, we can expect the promised Resurrection in the life to come. But if we share in Christ’s sufferings now, mindful of God, we will also experience a Resurrection now: a growth in courage, in a steadfastness of our soul, in patience, the infilling of our souls with love and compassion for others around us who are suffering. It is the cultivation of Christ-likeness, and it is truly victory over despair and death.
We put our trust in Jesus today, because in Him we see the goodness of God. We follow the way of Jesus today because he the Good Shepherd. And as we die with Him today, we will most surely rise with Him today and in the life to come.
THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING
The Pastoral Consolations
The experience of suffering has been reflected upon over many centuries by philosophers and theologians. It is considered by Jews and Christians to be a “problem” because of apparently conflicting revelations about God and the experience of believers. How can there be a God who is all powerful and all loving and yet there be evil and suffering in the world? Attempts to answer this question have led some seekers to conclude either that there is no God, that God is not all powerful or that God is not all good or it has led them to close their eyes to suffering in the world. All of these “solutions” as well as presenting their own problems are either in conflict with the self revelation of God in Scripture, or they are in conflict with the experience of Christians in their daily lives.
In the Church’s reflections on Scripture it has come up with what are called “pastoral consolations”. Each of these consolations provide some insight into the mystery of suffering. They will not by being shared eliminate suffering, but may help us to find meaning in the midst of our struggles. The consolations do not contradict our belief in the existence of God who is all powerful, and all loving and they do not minimize or ignore the very real suffering that is experienced. These consolations have been summarized by Thomas Oden in his book Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (1983). A concise summary of Oden’s summary follows:
- God does not directly will suffering.
“The evil that emerges as a result of sin and the suffering that is caused by it is indeed permitted by God, but it is far from God’s original intention or direct will for humanity.”
- The free will defense.
“When God chooses to give us the extraordinary gift of finite freedom, that carries with it the possibility of abuse.”
- God’s power can draw good out of any evil.
“Out of the abuses of our freedom, God still elicits goods that could not otherwise be elicited.” Often the good cannot be seen at present but requires faith that God knows what he is doing in history.
- Evil does not limit God’s power.
“Only an almighty God could permit alternative freedoms”. God does not stand back and allow all things in creation to deteriorate but shows steadfast love in works of redemption in the history of Israel, in coming into the world in Jesus Christ, and today by the Holy Spirit.
- The lessons of affliction.
Afflictions “can be occasions through which the conscience becomes awakened, the spirit becomes in time strengthened, the moral fibre toughened.” People can unexpectedly feel a deep bond of fellowship with suffering humanity everywhere.
- The cleansing and educative elements of suffering.
God’s “punishment” is “chastisement” – is cleansing, purifying, making chaste. Discipline is to be understood as “inner education” making us “more fully intelligent, stronger, more fit for mission”. “Suffering is not to be masochistically sought but neither is it to be compulsively avoided.”
- Individual suffering is socially rooted and socially redeemed.
Because human consciousness is formed in great part in interaction with others we are necessarily affected and formed by the good and bad within society. While this may seem unfair, the eyes of faith do not despair but trusts that there is a greater intention in allowing what evil does exist to exist.
- The values intrinsic to struggle.
“Opposition, tension and struggle are necessary to growth, development and healthy formation.” “Suffering is permitted for a greater good – the nurturing of responsible free moral agency.”
- Suffering may put goodness in bolder relief.
“Suffering is a creative dissonance or transitional discord within a larger, harmonious symphony of meaning. Evil and suffering are viewed as passing incongruities that are later resolved in a larger but as yet only partially perceived, concord.” “It may increase our capacity for joy”. By way of illustration, one can consider how the dull or dark portions of a tapestry could function to highlight with greater emphasis the bright colours.
- Proportional receptivity of the good.
“We can only receive God’s goodness in proportion to our receptivity to it. “Our imperfection, myopic vision and moral dullness” makes us unable to benefit from God’s incomparable goodness, and thus we experience suffering.
- Evil as a privation of the good.
“God judged it better to allow physical limitations, suffering, and pain to exist dependently, because he judged it better to work toward bringing good functioning out of dysfunction than not to permit any sort of dysfunction at all.”
- Is this world the best God could do?
Because God is all powerful he could make any number of worlds, but God is also all good – so the world we live in must be the best – when viewed not from an individual, family, society or nation but from the view of the cosmos.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ shows us that our God is a God who suffers (impassibly) with us and for us.
“The readiness of God to subject himself to the conditions of mortal life and to take suffering and evil on to himself to the point of the cross yields a more morally credible God than creationist belief elsewhere affords.”[B. Hebblethwaite]
In Jesus Christ God shows us dramatically that he is not distant or uninvolved or so transcendent that he is uninterested in the day to day struggles of an individual. By becoming incarnate (taking flesh), God shows faithfulness to his promises of salvation, that he is completely involved in our redemption as individuals, and that he does understand intimately what our human struggles are like with temptation and with human limitations and sufferings.
“We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15
“Although he was the Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Hebrews 5:8-9