May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
I am amazed at how often the topics that we talk about in Sunday school or Bible study or other meetings, whether formal or informal, connect with the scripture that we hear during our Sunday morning worship. Right now in adult Sunday school, we are watching and discussing a video series on the history of Lutherans in America. Last week the lesson focused on the earliest Lutherans to this land, the Dutch, Scandinavians and then Germans, who were among the colonists in this land. This week, we are spending time with the second wave of immigrants, from 1840 to 1920, those who were part of that large influx of people coming to settle here. One thing that stood out to me about today's lesson is that the majority of people and pastors who established churches here during those years were part of the “pietism” movement.
Pietism began in the 1600s in Germany, and it was a reaction to formalism and intellectualism that were prevalent in that place and time. Instead of settling on the formality of High Church that was the signature of the state church of the day, and having little to no connection with everyday life, pietism focused on Bible study – opening up the scripture and delving into its meaning. It also focused on personal religious experiences, since Christians are called to live differently than others are. Pietists have tended to get a bad rap over the years – these were the Lutherans who took things a little too far, forbidding people to smoke, drink, dance or play cards. But, as I said before, if it was not for the pietists of Germany during those early years of immigration to our country, the Lutheran Church may not have had the strong beginning that it did.
Jesus claims that he is our Good Shepherd. On this Fourth Sunday after Easter, we are reminded of the basis for our relationship with him. We are part of God's flock, often times wandering mindlessly or getting into things that we shouldn't, but always belonging to God, the creator of all. Jesus is the Good Shepherd; he describes this as a very close, personal relationship that begins with knowing: “I know my own and my own know me…” That foundation for our relationship sets the stage for what Jesus willingly does as our Good Shepherd: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus says other things here that liken the Christian life with being part of God's flock, but this is the important part I want to lift up today. Unlike the Chief Priest, Pharisees and other religious leaders (including the King) who have an earthly responsibility to care for God's flock, Jesus is the Good shepherd. And it isn't only that he showers goodness upon us; he is the Good Shepherd because he is good at being our shepherd, committing his very life to shepherding us, even to laying down that life.
As we sort of, “live into” this relationship we have with the Good Shepherd – to know him as he knows us – we develop what is most commonly known as, “faith.” Faith is the point where we take the knowledge that we know in our heads and incorporate it into what we do and what we say. Our second lesson compliments our Gospel very well this morning in this matter - more than anything else, living a life of faith means learning to love as Jesus loved and still loves us and the whole world; being a sheep in God's flock with Jesus as our shepherd means abiding in the presence of love. As we hear it in verse 18 of our second lesson, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Learning from the Good Shepherd to love means that we take account of our lives and our actions and we ask ourselves how loving they are. It means that the way that we act reflects the fact that we know the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd knows us!
And that brings me back to those Pietists. Their very faith was built around the fact that Jesus' love and grace makes a difference in how we are to live. There are moral standards to be kept! And not only that, but we are expected to be part of Jesus' mission to bring other sheep into the fold, so that there may be one flock and everyone may have one shepherd! And so, these Lutherans came from Germany during those days in the 1800s and braved a new, strange world. Some of them founded Capital University! Others kept going west, settling in Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota – founding other churches and schools along the way. They not only struggled to survive harsh elements, but they struggled to be faithful sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd. Their faith made a difference in the way that they live so much that they risked all that they had in order to BE the church in their new homeland, and to live out their call to faithfully follow the Good Shepherd.
For them, the relationship between faith and works was a close, intimate one. Twentieth century reformed theologian GC Berkouwer writes the following about this issue: “Faith is not a competitor of love and good works but rather a sponsor, and gives foundation to them because it acknowledges the grace of God. Again and again, and for this reason, Luther pointed out the deep significance of the first commandment (you shall have no other gods) and accounted all works performed outside its sphere as nothing. All one's works must promote the welfare of one's neighbor, since in his faith each has all the possession he requires and can therefore freely and lovingly devote his entire life to the service of his fellowman.” In other words, (just as is stated in our second lesson) believing in Jesus and loving one another are not two separate commandments, but one command.
Now as I said, the Pietists not only used this very teaching to structure their lives as the church in order to love the world around them, but they also used it to structure their lives. While I am not sure a Christian person has to refrain from dancing or card playing in order to be faithful, I do fully believe that our faith should impact everything from the way we raise our children to the way we vote in elections! Stewardship at its core is the teaching that our faith influences how we spend the financial resources God has placed into our wallets! Christian families are to seek guidance in community with others in the flock for identifying our spiritual gifts, and using them to share the love of the Good Shepherd with others. And being concerned with social justice means to seek understanding of how our everyday lives sometimes negatively affect others, and to strive to bring about change that helps those who may suffer in this world to experience the joy that our creator intended for all of us.
I may not agree with all that the Pietists stood for, but I admire the fact that they lived out a close connection between faith and works, between knowing/being known by the Good Shepherd and loving in truth and in action. We are part of God's flock, and we have a close relationship with the Good Shepherd, thanks to our baptisms. As such, we are to take seriously the command to love on another just as Jesus loves us and commands us; let us not be those who make no connection between our faith and our life, but may we truly abide in the presence of Jesus, so that the source of our eternal life and joy may also be the source of our Christian lives every day. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.