Easter 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
I’m sure you are all familiar with the old phrase describing a villain or other mischief-maker who disguises himself so as to move freely among those whom he hopes to rob or injure: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. So disguised, a wolf can move into the midst of a flock, and then attack and slaughter almost at his leisure. So much for a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But what about a sheep in sheep’s clothing — that is, a sheep in its natural coat of wool, just being a sheep without any pretense of being anything other than a sheep? What does it mean just to be who you are, like one of those actors whose names appear at the end credits of a movie or TV show with the words, “And as himself...” What does it mean to be a sheep in sheep’s clothing?
Well, for one thing, it means to be easily identified as such; and not only easily, but honestly, with no pretense or fraud. Such was the manner in which Jesus came among us — as exactly who he was, as himself, with no pretense, not in disguise — as I noted a few weeks ago, not just as “God in human vesture,” but as an actual, real-live, flesh-and-blood human being — but also God with us, Emmanuel, the Word made Flesh, the Messiah appearing in Messiah’s clothing, exactly as the prophets had foretold, doing just as they said he would.
We behold him this morning in the gospel taking a stroll in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. And the leaders of the people gather around him, demanding that he no longer keep them in suspense but tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds with some exasperation, no doubt, that he isn’t hiding anything, that he has made himself manifest as the Son of God his Father, plainly in his manner and in his works, the Messiah in Messiah’s clothing. And what is more, he tells them that the reason they do not recognize or believe in him is that they are not his sheep. In one sense, he is saying, it takes one to know one. In short, one must be among the flock of his sheep to recognize the Lamb of God. Such are those who belong to the Shepherd who is himself a Lamb; who hear his voice, who know him as he knows them, and who follow him into eternal life from which no wolf or thief — however dressed or disguised — can snatch them.
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We catch two glimpses of some of these sheep in our other Scripture readings this morning. First, in the Acts of the Apostles, we meet Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa, who made tunics and clothing for the people of her community. This passage is particularly touching for me, as it was used as one of the readings at the funeral of our departed sister-in-Christ Monica Stewart, whose hand was put to work making vestments and paraments for the altar here at Saint James Church. Unlike Monica, who rests in peace and awaits the final resurrection, Tabitha experienced an early raising from the dead, when the apostle Peter called her by name, and the people of Joppa rejoiced and many came to believe in the Lord.
The second glimpse of the flock of Christ is more spectacular, a vision not of the here and now, but of the great there and then of the kingdom of God. And this is not just a single seamstress, or even a select group, but a great multitude that no one can number. It is an international assembly, standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb their Shepherd, robed in white. These are sheep in sheep’s clothing — for they are the ones who are clothed with his clothing, for they have shared with the Lamb in their sacrifice, dressed in robes washed in his blood.
For recall that in John’s vision the Lamb of God is no sweet fluffy stuffed animal. This is a Lamb that has the marks of slaughter upon him; for he is none other than the Christ, who died, and yes, who was raised, still bearing upon him the marks of his passion — the wounded hands and feet and side, and the steady brow marked with the wounds of the crown of thorns, and his back with the marks of the whip and the flail.
This sheep’s clothing is not pretty — as Isaiah had said of the suffering Messiah, he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; without any form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. Such is the appearance of the Lamb of God, the great Shepherd of the sheep — and his sheep are clothed as he is in robes they have washed in his blood, in the blood of the Lamb, the blood of their own martyrdom joined with his.
Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (6:5) It is as if to say, if you want to be a sheep of his pasture you need to be dressed as a sheep — and he will then know you and you will know him. Does this mean the blood of martyrdom? No indeed — although we know that the martyrs rejoice in the presence of God because they so perfectly join themselves to the sufferings of their Lord and Savior. But each of us at our baptism is also joined into the death of Christ our Lord — through water if not through blood. As the evangelist John also testified, it was water as well as blood that come from the spear-wound in our Savior’s side, and we are washed in that water, the water of baptism from that wound. It prefigures salvation through baptism into his name, into his death, so that we might rise with him.
Moreover, we have the example of people before us like Tabitha, known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa — a hard-working woman who loved the church and served by making tunics and clothing; and was herself clothed with good works and acts of charity. Perhaps the only blood she shed for the church was when she pricked her finger as she was sewing vestments. And yet she is among the blessèd, even given a foretaste of the resurrection by being called back to life by the apostle Peter. It is not that her good works earn her salvation, but that they reveal she has been saved — she is clothed with the works that show her as she truly is, a sheep of Christ’s flock — wearing not a disguise, but a uniform.
So too may we be clothed with works of generosity and charity, the uniform of the sheep of God’s pasture; let us do God’s will with busy hands and loving hearts. As Jesus was known by the works he did in his Father’s name — works that testified to him being who he was — so too may we be clothed in grace and in the works of generosity, so to be recognized by our Lord as sheep of his flock. By our baptism into his Name, attested by our ministry and work to his honor and glory alone, by our being clothed upon with grace that comes from him, the Lamb of God, who alone makes us worthy to be sheep of his flock; to him be glory for ever and ever. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.