The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
May 2-3, 2009
Text: John 10:11-18
Dear Friends in Christ,
Every year, shortly after Easter, we look at sheep. We have Good Shepherd Sunday. In an agrarian world it’s a good image. Farmers generally know a bit about sheep, even if they themselves don’t raise them. The image of sheep is a mixed image. Isaiah tells us: All we like sheep have gone astray. Sheep wander. On their own they do stupid things. Sheep are not able to take care of themselves. They need a shepherd. But today, the image of sheep and the Shepherd is not so natural. It has to be explained. For most people, a sheep is a soft, fluffy white stuffed animal that we sleep with. We see sheep and say, ah they’re so cute. Isn’t that nice that God calls us nice fluffy sheep. But of course, no it isn’t. God is insulting us. He’s calling us stupid. Sadly, for the most part, its true.
I’m gong to suggest that another animal image might be more appropriate. We are rats. Filthy, disease carrying rats. What does the image of the rat communicate to us? A rat is a person who betrays. That’s what we do. In our sin we betray God. God created us and has given immeasurable blessings. We owe God everything. We are obligated just by the fact of divine creation to serve God. We should give everything back to God because everything we have is from God. Yet, we are betraying rats, who rebel against God. We rebel against the very breath that was breathed into us.
But isn’t the image of sheep and shepherd intend to remind us that God is watching over us. Yes, and not just God generically, but rather Christ specifically. Christ is the Good Shepherd. Christ is the One who is with us until the end of the age. So we can speak of God being with us and that certainly is true. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray directly to God the Father. But we can also very specifically speak of Christ being the principle person of the Trinity who is with us. Through Word and Sacrament Christ is among us according to the flesh. But the comfort of the Shepherd does not change the fact that sheep love to wander. It doesn’t change the fact that the rat is perhaps the better image for today. We are sinners, we are betrayers. All we have to ask is simply, have I kept God first in my life. All sins really, at their root are violations of the First Commandment. All sins are a failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see that our lives have not been according to God’s will. When we compare our lives to the commandment we find that we are indeed wandering sheep - or dirty rats who betray our creator.
We must not underestimate the effects of sin upon our relationship with God. Sin is rebellion. It is the ultimate act of ingratitude toward the One who created us. It is indeed crucial that we understand ourselves as creature, that is the workmanship of a creator. We are carefully crafted. We are not the products of random chance. We are not chimps that learned to think. We are the creations of God, into whom God has breathed the Spirit of life. He has made us in the image of Himself. Because of this connectedness to God, we owe God everything. Sin shatters that relationship. It makes us enemies of God. It makes us incapable of serving God. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that our most righteous acts are unclean before God. This breech is not just for a time. It is for eternity. There is no earthly power that could change this situation.
Yet, in Christ, God would reclaim us. He would place His name upon us. He does that in Holy Baptism. In baptism, the old man, the man of sin, is drowned and the new man in Christ rises to life. Baptism drowns the dirty rat. So when we are baptized we become drowned rats. The rat is drowned and killed. Christ, in baptism, then raises us to life. But the old rat is really good swimmer, as they say. He’s drowned in baptism but keeps coming back. For this reason, baptism is not a one time event, but a continuous washing of regeneration. Baptism’s work of drowning the rat never stops.
The Church struggled to describe this situation for the first few centuries. Then came St. Augustine. Augustine was a brilliant man, though not right in every point. That is to be expected among fallen human beings. It was Augustine who came up with the language to express this situation. We are at the same time saints and sinners. We are at war within ourselves. The saint and sinner are in continuous battle. But Christ has not left us alone. He comes and daily drowns the old rat.
Things brings us back to the image of Christ as our Shepherd. He’s the one that drowns the rat. It is the power of His death and resurrection applied to us that makes us alive. For in this battle between the old Adam and the new man, the conclusion is forgone. Christ has defeated sin and death. That means He has defeated the old man in us. He has drowned the rat. This doesn’t happen by our power, but by Christ’s power. So it is indeed necessary that Christ is among us. And indeed, Christ is everywhere where He has placed His name. Thanks be to God the Father, that Christ has placed His Holy name upon each of us in the water of baptism. So long as we carry that name Christ is present among us. He is with us to guide us and lead forward in grace and blessing. He even leads sheep that love to wonder, turning them instead into drowned rats. That is rats drowned in the waters of baptism.
Today, many Christians wax sentimental. They like cozy and nostalgic images. And what could be more idyllic than a shepherd watching over His sheep in a wonderful, green, spring pasture. The problem, as any shepherd knows, is that isn’t so idyllic. Sheep wander away and get eaten by wolves. They sometime run from their shepherd. Sometimes, they need the shepherd to yank them back with his shepherd’s hook. The more you learn about sheep, the more they remind us of our popular impression of rats. Rat who betray. Rats who wallow in the filth of our sins. But Christ is there for rats too. He drowns them and raises them to true life in Him. So, what’s really so bad about being a rat - that is a rat drowned in the waters of baptism? For indeed, we are drowned in love. We are drowned so that we can be raised to life in Christ. That makes being a drowned rat a good thing. For drowned rats life forever.