O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Collect for the 4th Sunday of Easter
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In our day of automated responses and the reduction of the human person to an anonymous statistical probability, it is essential to remember the deeply personal nature of the Christian Faith. There is nothing anonymous about the Christian. We are all known to God even as God has become known to us in the person, the life lived in our midst, of Jesus Christ.
To be a Christian means total commitment to the personal dimension of being. This means practicing relationship as restored by Christ, because personhood in its deepest sense is about relationships. When we proclaim the Creed, for instance, we are not merely giving lip service to a collection of sterile formulae. We are speaking of an experience, the experience of a personal relationship: firstly revealed to us by God in Trinity, and secondly our own experience of living with the neighbor and our self as part of the Creation. Only in this way, through being a community of holy relationships, can the Church become its true self: Christ's Living Body of Holy Love.
Jesus tells us of this relationship in the Gospel quite frequently. Perhaps one of the most moving expressions of his complete commitment to relationship is found in the passage read on this Sunday from the Gospel according to John. Here, Christ speaks of us as individuals in relationship to him, and through him, in direct relationship with God the Father. This is the basis of all true "religion," for religio is a Latin word, one of whose primary meanings is to be bound in relationship. It is for such religion, and not institutions and systems, that humanity thirsts.
Christ tells those who seek a public declaration of his being the Messiah that this is not the point of his ministry. He does nothing for self-glorification or aggrandizement. Rather, he has come to the world to love it into communion with the Father, and only those committed to this truth may hear his voice and follow. When a person truly hears Christ's voice, accepting the claim that Christ has on our heart and will, that person follows him--imperfectly, of course, but following him all the same because in Christ there is the fullness, the restoration of real relationship with God, the neighbor, and the authentic self as part of a redeemed Creation. Here alone do we find this totality of Love, in the Shepherd who is also one of the sheep and uniquely able to serve as well as lead.
But this is never an abstraction. It must be lived out day by day in a costly specificity. This same Sunday we read of the death of Tabitha in the Book of Acts. Here is a story about the complete primacy of relationship. A woman has died, but she is not simply another anonymous person: she is a loving and faithful disciple of Christ Jesus. The others around her do not take her death "in their stride." It is is a grievous thing, an assault on all parts of the Body, and a response by the Body is required.
They urgently summon St. Peter to be with them, and in a remarkable detail, they bring examples of Tabitha's handiwork to him in their mourning. Her very individual nature, her gift and stamp of uniqueness, is brought forth, recalled, cherished. They weep from love, and they call the Apostle to be with them in this sorrowing love before God. He, in turn, calls upon God to show that death has no final victory over Christians and is answered in Tabitha's being raised from the dead. The universality of Christ's triumph over death is here directly connected to the specificity of a particular person's meaning and value. The costly nature of Love--God's and ours--is revealed and reaffirmed.
This same significance is found in the reading from the Revelation to John, where the enormity of worship in the Heavenly Liturgy is suddenly connected to the specificity of the lives of the holy martyrs who have individually suffered for the Gospel. Each person's life, his or her struggles, his or her gift, is revealed to be part of an unseen network--visible only to those whose eyes are illuminated by a loving faith--a network that gives dignity to the human person not from accumulating power or possessions or place, but by the relationship we have to Christ who is in continual communion with the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit.
Christ ends the passage read from the Holy Gospel this day with these words: "What my Father has given to me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
These are not words of sterile doctrine. They are a revelation of the primacy of eternal communion between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There can be no faith, no true service, without personal relationship, and all such relations between persons find meaning and permanence in the eternal love of the Trinity.
This is "greater than all else"in faith. It is the salt giving savor to the disciple. There can be no actual Christianity without it. It is into this communion that each Christian is baptized, and it from this communion that each of us must serve God and others. No ideology, no institution, no system is worth such love: only another person. It is for this reason that all so-called theologies of an "impersonal God" are not only irrelevant but ultimately evil. They open the door to a practice of impersonalization, a legitimizing of objectifying the Other in a way that our God never permits or showed forth in Christ life of utterly personal love.
Christ Jesus gave all for us. God has offered up everything so that we might have access, participation in the Divine Love itself. This is what it means to "follow where he leads," and only those who truly hear his voice will receive this testimony in joy and humility.
We know we have become worthy of the name "Christian" when we see another person as a person, not an object. When we do not first ask how much she or he will cost us in terms of time or effort, but how that person may be part of our worship of God, how serving the Other will make us complete, sharers in the eternal communion of true persons in the love of God--then we are Christians in the fullest sense of this word. And each Eucharist is renewal in that message and a re-commitment to this truth.