St. John the Evangelist Church Notting Hill 17 April 2016
Revd Bello Mahilum
Pilgrim's Progress is one of the greatest books by John Bunyan. It is one of the most translated books outside the Bible. Bunyan gives a beautiful climactic moment when the pilgrim arrives at the hill where his bag is going to fall off - the burden. You see, he was looking for a celestial city. But he got a shock. You never get to the celestial city without going through Calvary. One can never go to the celestial city without going to the cross. So the burden falls off. And here's what he says: I saw three shining ones: the angel of dawn, the angel of day break and the angel of dusk. It's an allegory. The angel of dawn says, "thy sins be forgiven thee". The angel of day break takes the new robe and the sandals and puts it on him. The angel of dusk gives a scroll and put a mark on the forehead to move on towards the celestial city. The first, the spiritual, the second, the physical and the third is the scroll, the intellectual to guide him all the way to the celestial city. God is complete in what he gave you and me. God forgives you. He robes you. He guides you towards the celestial city. What a brilliant allegorical description: the angel of dawn, the angel of day break and the angel of dusk. To guide you, to give you the wisdom, to lead you to his eternal presence. This is not the end of my sermon yet.
We have heard in our first reading from the Acts, the story of Tabitha, who was raised by Peter from the dead. She was described as devoted to good works and acts of charity. The community in Joppa lost one of its pillars. They stood together, using all the tools and spiritual resources available to them - weeping together, hoping together and celebrating together. The emphasis of this text is not on return from death, but upon a community honing all its spiritual strength and resources passionately upon life and wholeness. Let's us ask ourselves this question. Do we have those marks of a healing community in today's individualistic culture?
Today's vision from the Revelation to John clearly lets us know that pain and suffering will be part of any Christian life. Suffering has always been part of the Christian story, and we are not immune. The question is what is the Christian message that amidst sufferings, in the end, we will be victorious? For John, ultimate Christian victory comes in death. This claim is extraordinary to hear during the days of Eastertide when we proclaim again and again exactly what the death of Christ means for Christians. Dying and rising with Christ is how we become victors. Joining the great multitude in John's vision, we too recognise our shepherd in "the Lamb at the centre of the throne" who will guide us to springs of living water, where "God will wipe every tear from" our eyes.
The setting of our gospel this Sunday is the Festival of Dedication. This festival commemorated the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans in 164 BCE, after its desecration by Antiochus IV, when he erected therein an image of Zeus. This feast, best known by its Hebrew term Hanukka (which means "dedication"), is of course still celebrated in Jewish communities.
We can picture how Jesus was fully engaged with his own people talking with them about what was their deepest concern in life. It is not surprising that the Jews demanded an answer from their question to him. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly". Were the parables they used to hear from Jesus too cryptic that mere human comprehension is beyond their grasp? In response, Jesus says, "the works I do in my Father's name testify to me". However, some Jews who do not "believe" the testimony of Jesus's works, "because you do not belong to my sheep".
It is worth noticing how Jesus plays with words to the Jews that his works constitute public evidence that he bears the mantle of the Messiah. The imagery of the shepherd is a powerful messianic image in Israel's collective memory. John portrays Jesus as the good shepherd, the authentic bearer of God's caring authority. When Jesus says to his critics "You do not belong to my sheep," he implies that they are wicked. They cannot see the truth of his testimony because they follow the wicked shepherd, wicked leaders.
Jesus says that the sheep of his fold hear his voice. It is the unity of hearing and doing that binds the sheep of Jesus' fold to him. In that unity, the disciples' relationship to Jesus is similar to Jesus' relationship to the Father. Jesus rewards their faithfulness with "eternal life." The disciples of Jesus' flock will be immortal because of their dedication to Jesus. Jesus says, "No one will snatch them out of my hand.” It is an image of salvation under the protective hands of Jesus.
As long as we live, the pilgrim who is each one of us who lives in a broken world but can still strive towards healing and wholeness. We might be beaten but not broken. Suffering and pain are an integral part of our dying and rising with Jesus. Finally, Jesus the "Good Shepherd" will take us by the hand leading us into God's eternal presence forever, like Bunyan’s pilgrim.