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Can You Believe It?

Reverend Philip Stringer

Acts 4:5-12

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to us now with your Holy Spirit -- through our worship -- through this meal -- and through this sermon -- that we may be filled with your endless love, now and forever. AMEN

Today is the fourth Sunday of the Easter season; a day traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on this Sunday we read passages that refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd -- an image that I think is hard for us to relate to in our culture. Few of us have spent very much time around sheep, and fewer still caring for them.

But the imagery of a shepherd meant a great deal to the people of ancient Palestine, because a shepherd literally dedicated his or her life to the well-being of the sheep. Sheep are high-maintenance animals, and to care for them is a full-time occupation.

The Taiwanese have as much trouble identifying with the imagery of a shepherd as do we. The Island is more than 90% mountain, so it simply isn’t practical to raise grazing animals like sheep and cows.

A little over 20 years ago I served as the pastor of Church the Good Shepherd, in Taipei. The Church of the Good Shepherd is a Taiwanese congregation that also includes English-speaking foreigners. When the congregation was established, they struggled to find the right Chinese words to express the meaning of “Good Shepherd.” What does that mean -- to be a shepherd? And what does it mean that he is “good?” That he does a good job, or that he is good in himself?

They finally settled on a name in Chinese that didn’t use the word, “good” at all.

“Mu Ai Ta,” means literally, “The Church of the Shepherd’s love.” That is what you need to hear in our Scripture texts today. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves you. When Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep,” you’re included. Jesus lays down his life in love for you.

And because God loves us, God is faithful to us. And we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my shepherd. Therefore, I am safe.”

“The Lord is my shepherd. Therefore, he lays down his life for me, and he takes it up again for me.”

God is faithful to us in love, not only watching over us, but drawing us forth into a new life and making us a new creation in God’s love.

I have a friend who knows about the struggle that goes on within us between the old sinful self that thrives on fear and the thirst for control, and the new self we are being made into in love, and he says to me: “Pray for my ongoing conversion.”

“Pray for my ongoing conversion.” That is what the Holy Spirit is about in us; converting our hearts to love.

Converting our hearts from death to life

from empty to full

from unholy to holy

God is making all things new in Jesus -- including me and you.

The Shepherd’s love for us is what makes all of life new and different. There is a different aim to a life in love -- a different purpose -- a different view -- and a different relationship to the world.

Last week we heard the story of Peter and John healing the crippled man at the gates of the Temple. The people were amazed, and Peter spoke to them saying that, “it is not by our own power or good works that he was healed. He was healed by the power of Jesus.”

This preaching in the Temple annoyed the religious authorities, so they arrested them and brought them before the leadership for trial.

Now consider the change that has taken place in Peter -- a change brought about by his faith in the power of Jesus’ love for him and all people.

In that time of confusion when Jesus had been arrested, Peter shrank away from Jesus, even though he had pledged his loyalty. When Jesus was brought before the High Priest and the other authorities, Peter timidly dared to enter the outer courtyard -- and when the mere SERVANTS of these leaders questioned Peter about his relationship with Jesus, he cowered before them and denied he even knew him.

Now, Peter is not confronted by servants but stands before the very men who had tried Jesus and handed him over to death. And we read, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit (spoke).” And he boldly proclaims to them the GOOD NEWS about Jesus.

His courage to speak does not come from anger or hatred so that he spews words of hatred and condemnation.

His boldness comes from the love of God welling up within him for the sake of the whole world. He speaks to the murderers of Jesus in words of love.

The power of God’s love at work in Peter’s heart moved him toward acts of love -- first for the crippled man, then for the people in the Temple and finally for the religious leaders themselves.

The power of God’s love is at work in our hearts, too, turning us from timid sheep, into loving shepherds who lay down their lives for others.

Have you noticed that people often define themselves by what they do? Ask someone what they do, and they will likely tell you, “I am a teacher.” or “I am a doctor.” “I am a student,” Or “I am a full-time parent to my kids.”

But God defines us differently -- not by what we do, but by how we are made. Because before we teach or doctor or study or parent -- we ARE children of God. God defines us by saying, “you are beautiful and beloved.”

The great, French philosopher, Descartes, is famous for his saying, “I think, therefore I am.”

One day, Descartes walked into a pub, and the waiter asked him, would you like something to drink?”

He said, “I think not.” poof-- he disappeared.

We say, “I think, therefore I am.” But the scriptures say something else. The Scriptures show us “God is, therefore, I am.”

The Lord IS . . . my shepherd. Therefore I AM . . . safe.

Jesus IS . . . the good shepherd who lays down his life for me. Therefore I AM , . . loved.

God IS . . . love -- and God loves me. There for I AM . . . precious.

The Holy Spirit of God IS . . . with me. Therefore, I AM a new creation and my life is filled with purpose.

That’s the good news. We are not what we were. We are no longer defined by what we do in sin. We are defined by grace.

And the grace of God wraps us into the wonderful and beautiful work of God’s Holy Spirit in the world. God is busy loving the world, and God draws us into participating in this through the conversion of our hearts -- so that we may give ourselves away for the sake of the world.

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

The love of God for us is not expressed in mere words. The love of God is known to us through action. Jesus Christ -- crucified and risen.

So also, love at work in us does not stir us to mere words, but to lives of loving service. We exist to give ourselves away in love.

That is hard. We are still learning to do it, of course -- the conversion of our hearts to love is ongoing. And as we love, we come to know God’s love for us in new ways.

God is calling you to a life of loving service. Do you view your work as loving service? That’s what God intends for you.

Do you view your schoolwork and study as an act of loving service, and preparation for loving service? That’s what God intends for you.

Do you view your relationship to your spouse or children or parents as an expression of loving service? That’s what God intends.

And as a congregation, are our activities rooted in furthering our conversion to a life of love? Do they generously communicate the love of God for all people?

Do we give our offerings as an act of love and thankfulness?

Whether individually or together, God intends our identity and our actions to be shaped by love.

The other day as I drove in Greensboro, I passed an apartment complex with a sign out front that read, “Stop looking and start living!”

St. John could have written that sign as a summary of our readings today. Love is known to us in action.

We can talk about the love of God. We can read about it, study it and ponder it. But one can never know love until one experiences it.

The love of God is at work in us.

Do we dare to believe it?

Do we dare to believe that God is making us into something new?

Do we dare to believe that God is filling us with holy love and power?

Do we dare to believe that everything we do can be an expression of love for others.

Do we dare to believe that we will know joy and truly live when we long to give ourselves away in love, just as Christ gave himself for us?

Do we dare believe that the presence of God is love in action?

Do you dare to believe it?

If so, please stand with me if you are able, and in trust and hope, let us confess our faith.



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