A Promise of Peace
After a long life of bachelorhood, C. S. Lewis met the love of his life and settled into a romantic marriage. Laughing at this unexpected twist of events, he wrote to a friend, “It’s funny having at 59 the sort of happiness most men have in their twenties…Thou has kept the good wine till now.” But that happiness wouldn’t last. A short time before their marriage, his beloved came down with terminal cancer. She died within months. Lewis went through a long stretch of grief, even despair at times, and when he came through it he had this to say: “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 [God] shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”
Today is the second Sunday in Paschaltide, and we’ve been dwelling on the implications of the Resurrection. Christ has risen from the dead. He’s trampled down death-by-death and promised us eternal life. But what does this mean for us now? Last week, we heard how our Lord revealed Himself to Doubting Thomas, but only after making him wait for a short while. And so, we can relate with Thomas, for we too are living in a sort of ‘waiting time.’ Christ has risen, but the world looks about the same after Easter as it did before Easter. Christ has risen, but we can’t always feel him. Death is conquered, but it certainly seems real enough in the meantime. Sometimes, the suffering of here and now feels so near and the resurrection feels so distant. But last week’s gospel reminded us that God will reveal Himself in His time, that we have a little while now to wait and trust, and have to spend the here and now wanting God and reaching to Him.
This week takes us a further step. God gives us one more hint into how to live now in this post-Resurrection season, this time of waiting that we’re in. He tells us that He is the Good Shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15-16).
We’ve all heard this promise and seen the paintings of the Good Shepherd holding his sheep on his shoulders reminding us that we’re not alone. But the promise that God makes here takes even more weight when we read it in the light of all the pain and suffering we go through. What does this say to a person who does feel alone? I’m sure C. S. Lewis believed this about God through most of his life, but what about when his wife died? If we’re really going to take to heart what the scriptures promise us, then we have to get real, and wrestle with them a little. How does this apply to my life?
If you flip back a page or two in the scriptures, you can see what was going on when Christ told us he was the Good Shepherd. He and the disciples were standing in a crowd of people, and had just been talking about the nature of suffering.
In the beginning of the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Christ and his disciples came across a man who was blind from his birth. The disciples asked Him, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” This is a philosophical question. They could have put it this way: Why do we suffer? Or, in Harold Kushner’s words, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The disciples looked at the pain of the man on the ground, and they wanted a justification. Was it the blind man’s fault? Was it his parents? Was it just chance and bad luck? That’s the normal that we respond to suffering. We want to blame it on someone. When we see someone less fortunate then ourselves we figure they must have deserved it. Or if we find ourselves suffering, we might blame ourselves, or our parents, or maybe even God. But we all want to know why.
What’s interesting here is that Christ doesn’t give a very satisfying answer. He tells them, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” There’s a lot that you can draw from this, but it still leaves you scratching your chin. And if you read all the scriptures, you’ll find that there are a lot of different answers to the problem of suffering, and none of them are fully satisfactory. Maybe the best answer came from God when He responded to Job’s cries. Job asked God “Why,” and God simply responded, “Gird your loins like a man, for I will demand of you, and you must answer me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:3). Job wanted answers but God simply gave him more questions. Perhaps it wasn’t answers that Job needed after all. Maybe he needed humility, or trust, or simply to be heard. God knows.
The Resurrected Christ doesn’t tell us why we have to suffer, but He isn’t silent either.
He tells us that He is the Good Shepherd.
You remember Psalm 23. It’s never a bad time to turn back to it.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Have you ever realized how challenging this psalm is? It’s sentimental and comforting, but also a little provoking.
“I shall not want.”
If that doesn’t challenge you then you’re not listening. Aren’t we always wanting? The Hebrew word here is חָסֵר (HA-SER), which helps to explain it a little, but doesn’t make it easier. חָסֵר (HA-SER) means “to need nothing, to lack nothing,” and so Psalm 23 is a bold challenge to our entire way of living.
How much of our life is shaped by wanting, by anxiety and stress? It’s our nature to worry, really, and just about everything. Some might be better then others, but most of the time, it’s just a matter of covering up our anxiety, or, in modern lingo, “managing the anxiety”. Whether someone comes across as cool or not, the anxiety is there. In some ways, anxiety is one of the biggest influences in the entire history of humanity. If no one feared anything, or wanted, there’d be no reason to envy your neighbor or to take something that doesn’t belong to you or even to start a fight or a war. All of this comes out of anxiety, and most of all, wanting. But this is why our Lord’s promise to be our Good Shepherd is so profound.
If we really trust our lives to Him then His promise is this: we really won’t lack anything. If you have God, then you have everything.
It’s challenging, but it’s also truth.
Christ is the Good Shepherd. That means, as a wise man has often said to me, “Everything is going to be okay.” Of course, it won’t be easy. At some point or another, we’ll loose most of the things we’re attached to. We’ll lose even the people we love most. Life will slip between our fingers, and that hurts. But in the end, if we accept our Lord as our Shepherd then we’ll look back and see that we truly didn’t want anything. If you have Christ, you have it all.
Why is it so critical to go to Church?
I heard a wonderful answer to this the other day. “We go to Church because we’re messed up and we need help.” If you want a place without hypocrites and sinners, where you can just get along with nice, pious people (preferably of your own social class or with the same interests and hobbies) and to have a grand ol’ time, then you’ll always be disappointed by church. That’s what social clubs are for. We aren’t here in this room because we’re morally upright people, just doing our Christian duty. We’re here because we desperately need God.
It’s simple. If you take a potted plant and put it in a closet it’s going to shrivel up. If you put it in the sunlight the plant will bloom. We’re no different. When you’re living away from God – away from His sacraments, His body, His forgiveness and energy – then you’re living in the dark, and there’s no life there. Without God, we’re only half living – like wisps of air. And you can see this more and more by just looking out the window – at the epidemic of drug addiction, pornography, greed, envy, bitterness and most of all, despair. It’s not hard to see what happens to a society when we lose interest in God. The worst atrocities of history weren’t committed by evil villains. They were committed by very ordinary people (just ask the Germans). It’s easy to say ‘I’m a good person and can live a good life without God,’ but in the end our decision does change everything, though we often don’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s not enough to be ordinary. We have to become saints.
That’s easy to say but not so easy to live out, and we can’t beat ourselves up. When you fall, then that’s your chance to become humble, and then you’re even closer to God then before. “We’re in process,” as Bishop John likes to say. But what it really comes down to is this: submitting yourself to Christ.
Will you allow Him to be your shepherd?
If that’s your goal every day, then you can be sure in the end, that you really never lacked anything. God doesn’t ask us to understand Him, but He asks us to trust, and if we do, He’ll take us where we need to go.
Sheep aren’t always the most flattering metaphor for humans. They aren’t that smart. They’re rather dumb actually, and they’re also not the cleanest animals. But there’s something very beautiful about the connection between sheep and their shepherd. I encountered this when I lived in Greece. The shepherds there didn’t keep their sheep in pens but they roamed about through the countryside. In fact, this is such a common part of life that it’s normal for a highway to be blocked by a herd of sheep slowly meandering across the road and always a rather unconcerned shepherd in the middle. The way the sheep and shepherd are able to stick together like this is pretty neat. They have a way of calling out to each other. The shepherd knows the voice of each of his sheep and the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. When a single sheep bays out, the shepherd comes to that sheep, and when the shepherd calls, the sheep follow.
Are you listening for the voice of God?
Have you spent enough time with God so that when He calls, you can recognize His voice?
The Resurrected Christ doesn’t tell us why we must suffer, but He does promise us that He is the Good Shepherd.
When He first appeared to the disciples after rising from the grave, He didn’t promise them an easy going, but He promised them peace. “Peace be unto you,” were His first words. And so peace is the promise to those who follow Him.
When C. S. Lewis cried out in his suffering for answers, he didn’t get an answer. Instead, he was given “a special sort of ‘no answer.’ “It is not the locked door,” he writes, “It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though [God] shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”
“Peace be unto you.”
Christ is the Good Shepherd. Trust God, and it’ll all be okay.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen