holy cross sermon for the fourth sunday of easter, april 25, 2015

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 In today’s Gospel lesson, the Lord tells the apostles that he is the “good shepherd”. The idea of the good shepherd has been a very popular one in the Christian imagination, almost from the very beginning. There are very ancient murals and mosaics from the catacombs depicting the Lord in this way. Indeed many of the ancient Romans saw a reflection, however pale, of Christ in the myth of Orpheus; and many scholars and art historians have noticed strong affinities between the iconography of Christ and of Orpheus. In at least one fourth century mural from the catacombs, the Lord is depicted AS Orpheus.

 Its little wonder. In mythology, Orpheus was a great poet and singer. So enticing was his voice that even wild animals were tamed at the sound of it, and would follow him with docility.  Perhaps the greatest part of the Orpheus myth was the story of his descent into Hades in search of his wife Eurydice, who had been bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus is said to have secured Eurydice’s release from the dead by the power of his singing; but he lost her again because he failed to obey the condition laid down by the gods that he not look back at her until they had again reached the land of the living.

 Its no wonder that at the dawn of Roman Christianity, in the Church’s earliest days, pagans who converted to faith in Christ discerned something Orphic in the Gospel narratives. In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, for example, the Lord introduces the figure of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold, and he says, “The sheep hear [the Shepherd’s] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn. 10.3-4).

 The Lord is here referring to the experience of spiritual awakening and illumination. Jesus is saying that those who belong to him, those who are on the side of love, as he is love; those whose hearts are open, as his heart is open; those who find themselves awakened to the thirst for God – they recognize in Jesus, in his person, the object of their most profound desire. “Cor ad cor loquitur” – “heart speaking to heart” – or as the Psalmist puts it, deep calling to deep in the thundering of God’s cataracts (Ps. 42.7).

 Christ’s song entices those whose hearts are open, those who have made their hearts vulnerable to the wounding of love. We know the voice of the Lord to be the call of love because of what Jesus goes on to say in today’s reading: “I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10.11). As he says elsewhere – a verse we all know well – there is no greater love than “that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13).

 After Jesus is betrayed, as he stands before Pilate, as he is about to lay down his life for his friends, he returns to the theme of his own hearing his voice. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, and Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn. 18.38). And Pilate, in a moment of world-weary and hard-hearted cynicism, asks that famous rhetorical question, a question that echoes down the corridors of our own self-consciousness: “What is truth?”

 The devotees of Orpheus knew better than Pilate. The story of Orpheus’ pursuit of Eurydice into the land of the dead speaks of a fundamental intuition in the heart of man: that the hold of death over the beloved devastates love’s peace – that love rages against the power of death, love’s most bitter enemy. But an air of melancholy hangs over the story of Orpheus, because he fails; in the end he loses Eurydice forever. Orpheus was under the power of the gods, and the power of the gods proved stronger than Orpheus’ love for Eurydice.

 But when Christ descends to the dead in search of his Bride, in search of humanity, he descends there as the Lord of Lords, the one “to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey” (BCP prayer at Unction), the one who startles the nations, and at whose voice kings shut their mouths (cf. Isaiah 52.15). Unlike Orpheus, Christ is not compelled by the power of the gods, but rather announces that their dominion has been destroyed by the power of the Father’s love, the victory of Christ crucified.[1]

 This is what the Lord is talking about in today’s Gospel reading: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

 Finally, it must be said, that unlike the story of Orpheus, which was mere myth, the Gospel is true. It is about a man, a person. It is about Jesus Christ, who is real, who really died, and really rose; who is alive forever, and who calls to our hearts. This is why it is so important to cultivate prayer, to practice prayer daily. Because prayer is the language of the heart, the place in which we listen for the Lord’s voice; as the Lord revealed to the Seer of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him…” (Rev. 3.20).

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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