Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
1 John 3:16-24
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on April 26, 2015.
In 1940, Anglican author and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Problem of Pain, which addresses the question of suffering: How do we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world of pain? –a question I’ve been asking myself and God more frequently ever since I learned about the massive earthquake that has claimed more than 2,000 lives. Lewis offers an intellectual defense of God’s justice and righteousness in the midst of evil in the world. The theological term for this defense of God, this attempt to answer the problem of evil is theodicy (which means God’s righteousness). Lewis and many other theologians have articulated several philosophical theodicies throughout the centuries. However, Lewis revisits this question of suffering twenty years later after losing his beloved wife to cancer. In his later book A Grief Observed, he vents and explores his grief and, although he already understands the righteousness of God intellectually, he struggles to understand God’s righteousness emotionally and spiritually. He boldly accuses God of being a “Cosmic Sadist” and seriously wonders whether God is a veterinarian or a vivisector. He brings these audacious questions to God in prayer and instead of receiving philosophical arguments that reaffirm his belief in God’s righteousness, he experiences God’s pastoral response to his questions which invite him to experience God as a good and loving Shepherd. He experiences a pastoral theodicy.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. However, he does not say this out of nowhere. He says this in response to a bold question that his disciples ask. And their question is about the origin and cause of suffering. In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples walk by a man blind from birth and the disciples ask their rabbi, “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Although their question is severely limited by their cultural understanding of illness and infirmity, they are essentially asking Jesus, “Why is there suffering here? What is the cause?”
If any of us had the chance to sit and have a meal with Jesus, I am sure that many of us would want to ask him about suffering, in one way or another, “Why do you allow it? Why is the world set up this way? Why me? Why them?” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is most clearly divine, and so here we have the disciples asking the divine Christ to explain to them the origin of suffering. The response is worth paying attention to. Christ invites them out of their finite and limited categories of understanding and encourages them to see suffering not as the result of sin but rather as an urgent call for them to bring healing wherever and however they can. Jesus then punctuates his response by miraculously healing the blind man. After a kerfuffle with the religious authorities, Jesus then launches into the Good Shepherd discourse, inviting his listeners to experience him as a caring Pastor, not necessarily providing all the answers but being present in the midst of difficulty, frustration, confusion and pain. Jesus does not offer a philosophical theodicy but invites his listeners to experience a pastoral theodicy, to experience God’s pastoral response to their struggle and their questions.
We get the word “pastor” from the word “shepherd,” an image used throughout scripture to describe God’s care for God’s people. The most famous use of the shepherd image is of course Psalm 23, a psalm which emphasizes God’s pastoral presence in the midst of suffering and confusion: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Jesus reiterates this pastoral presence in the midst of danger when he describes the hired hand who runs away as soon he sees the wolf coming. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand, remains present in the face of danger and distress. The Good Shepherd protects his flock from the violence of the wolf, even if that means laying down his life. The Shepherd’s pastoral presence is self-sacrificial and self-giving.
The disciples asked Jesus a question about suffering and instead of receiving a philosophical defense of God’s righteousness; they receive a pastoral theodicy, an invitation to experience the pastoral presence of the Good Shepherd in the midst of suffering and confusion. Several years later, as today’s reading from Acts shows, the disciples demonstrate this same pastoral presence to a man born lame by healing him and then inviting him and the onlookers to experience Christ as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, the Good Shepherd who received the violence of the wolves and then transformed it through his forgiveness.
The invitation to us in these readings is to be a pastoral presence to one another in the midst of difficulty and distress, in the presence of violent wolves and even in the shadow of death. When I was a chaplain at the San Francisco General Hospital, my supervisor encouraged us to practice a “non-judgmental ministry of presence.” In order to do this, he said that we needed to travel the longest journey that a person ever takes, which is only 18 inches, from the head to the heart. When we confronted suffering in the hospital patients, some of us were inclined to offer them our philosophical theodicies. We quickly realized how impotent these were in the face of lifelong sickness, severe mental illness and impending death. They could offer no comfort to those who were ill or to family members who were experiencing great loss. They needed a theodicy that spoke to their heart, not to their head. They needed a pastoral theodicy that listened to their questions and frustrations, not a philosophical theodicy that fed them unhelpful answers.
I remember visiting a patient who initially seemed to want to have an intellectual debate with me about God. He asked me pointedly why I thought God allowed suffering and disease. I was tempted to offer some answer as I had done with patients in the past, but I had a sense that none of my answers would have satisfied him (just as my past answers probably didn’t satisfy the others), so I said, “That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. You should ask God that question.” He responded with silence and then confessed, “I have not been on my knees before God in a while.” He then shared that he was about to have surgery due to an infection in his jawbone and was actually quite scared and nervous about it. I assured him, “God still cares for you and loves you deeply whether or not you’ve been on your knees. God is on his knees for you.” He told me that he really needed to hear that and then opened up even more, sharing his hopes and fears. I then knelt beside his bed and we prayed together. Instead of a philosophical theodicy that would have kept us in our heads, we experienced a pastoral theodicy that connected us to each other’s hearts. And we both experienced the pastoral presence of the Good Shepherd in the midst of his fears.
Again, the invitation in these readings is to be a pastoral presence to one another in the midst of fear and distress. The invitation is, in the words of First John, to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” To love not by philosophizing but by remaining present in the face of struggle and to bring others into the pastoral presence of the divine Good Shepherd, who remains with us, even to the point of laying down his life.
Like the disciples, we learn best how to be a pastoral presence to one another by experiencing the pastoral presence of our divine Good Shepherd. We can do this by bringing our questions and frustrations about suffering to God in prayer. According to First John, “we have boldness before God.” We have boldness to bring our questions to God in prayer and to expect a divine pastoral response, not a philosophical argument but a pastoral response that comforts us and forms us to be an effective pastoral presence to one another.
Towards the end of his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I lay these questions [of suffering] before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” Lewis experienced a pastoral theodicy and in the process began to realize the impotence of his philosophical theodicies. He then wrote, “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”
By abiding in the Good Shepherd, we can learn to let go of our need to box in and contain God with our finite boundaries. “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” We can learn to deal with the fear and confusion that is underneath our questions and bring that fear and confusion to God in prayer no matter how violent or wolf-like they might be. The Good Shepherd remains present even when we are the wolves. The Good Shepherd responds pastorally to our fear and anger and transforms us through his love and forgiveness so that we might be that same self-giving and pastoral presence to one another. So that even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil for the pastoral presence of the Good Shepherd is with us, always. Amen.