Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter: The Greatest Story – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 8 May 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Acts Ch 9: v 36– end; John Ch 10: v 22– 30)

The story goes that (long ago) the Queen Mother and her daughter were having a small argument. The Queen mother, in exasperation said: “Just who do you think you are?”. The reply came back: “The Queen, mummy, the Queen!”

That desire to understand and interpret is what human beings do. No doubt the Platinum Jubilee of our Queen will generate many articles to recall and explain the significance of it all.

Understanding and interpreting is what the followers of Jesus did too in order to make sense of his death and resurrection. You can well imagine that the events of the last days in the earthly life of Jesus and then his glorious resurrection were subject to analysis and interpretation by his disciples and supporters so that they came to an understanding of the significance of all that had happened. Some written documents and an oral tradition would have flourished though now we no longer have access to these, relying almost entirely on the gospels. These records would have kept alive the responses of the disciples and the gospel accounts enable us to distinguish some of the themes of importance.

If we look at what the disciples seem to have thought in the days leading up to the arrest of Jesus then we can see that there was an expectation that God would take action. Perhaps, they might have thought, the longed for “Day of the Lord” would take place – indeed this was a highly likely expectation. James and John make a play for the chief ministerial appointments in the new administration. What does this show? That the disciples saw the kingdom in terms of an earthly rule.

Peter vowed that he would never deny Jesus but would stick with him whatever happened. But the apparent triumph of the powers and authorities lined up against Jesus was too much for Peter who all too soon said, when challenged, that he had never heard of Jesus. What does this reveal? That at heart Peter expected Jesus to triumph over his foes. You might say that Peter was foolhardy in his protestation of support and that he made it, in part, because he never expected the situation of Jesus crucified to arrive. Indeed, when Jesus predicts his death just after Peter has revealed his flash of inspiration at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, it is Peter who affirms an understanding of Messiahship which excludes any concept of the Messiah laying down his life.

This expectation of the imminent inauguration of the kingdom might even have given Judas a motivation for his betrayal of Jesus. We could speculate that Judas thought that God would never let his son be captured and put to death. By leading the soldiers and Sanhedrin officials to the place where Jesus was, Judas may have thought that he would be giving God the opportunity to take immediate action and so bring in the Day of the Lord. When he saw what instead had come about, he took his own life in despair.

As for the death of Jesus itself, the disciples would have been well aware of the verse from the Torah “cursed is he who hangs on a tree”.

So if we look at the lead up to the death and resurrection of Jesus from the perspective of the disciples and their expectations, what we have is an assumption that God will take action; of the beginning of God’s kingdom; of Jesus at its head assisted by his loyal followers.

Then we have that expectation totally shattered by the arrest and trial of Jesus leading to a death which the OT described as being cursed by God.

And then comes the resurrection.

The disciples have to understand, interpret, explain this sequence of events which was so much at odds with everything they had thought was going to happen. The resurrection showed that Jesus was not cursed by God at all, but approved, vindicated, justified. It meant that all that Jesus had said and done was authenticated. The disciples looked to the Law and the Prophets to find indications of God’s plan and rejoiced as verses from the OT danced with a new meaning as they found resonances with Jesus’ life and death. You will remember the story of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to the two travelling to Emmaus. The risen Christ explains how OT prophecies indicated that the Messiah must suffer and die. This new understanding was taken up by those early followers as they preached and taught and gained new disciples for the fledgling Christian movement.

The answer to the question “Why did Jesus die?” was not “because he had sinned or disobeyed God” – quite the contrary: “He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth” writes St. Peter, and continues: “He entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” We can see that his wounds bring us healing and that he died to free us from the consequences of our sins. And certainly St. Peter was well aware of the need for forgiveness. So, the resurrection life of Jesus brings us new life and the promise of resurrection. Thus it was that the disciples, led by the Holy Spirit, reworked their understanding of Jesus to take account of his death and resurrection and to understand its meaning.

It is that meaning and understanding which is presented to us in the pages of the New Testament and especially through the insight of the gospels. In today’s Gospel reading St. John records that Jesus said of his followers “My own sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my care.” You can imagine John meditating on such insights and putting them into his gospel so that we may know the truth and be guided by it.

While all four gospels have some verses about Jesus being like a shepherd, it is St. John who gives us the most lengthy passage describing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image beloved down the centuries, the inspiration of untold works of art and various hymns and poems. For us too Jesus is the Good shepherd who guides us and leads us to everlasting life. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is on the path before us and saves us from the ultimate danger of the finality of death so that we share with him in the resurrection, the greatest of Easter themes.