No one will be left behind – 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd – April 21, 2024

Preacher: Phil Schmidt

April 21, 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd

In the early 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention of Alabama carried out an unusual mathematical calculation. The Home Mission Board devised a formula which calculated how many people in Alabama were destined for eternal damnation. This estimation was supposed to be an internal guide for determining where missionary activity should be focused. But someone gave this inside information to a reporter of the Birmingham News, and the newspaper published a page one article which proclaimed:

“More than 1.86 million people in Alabama, 46.1% of the state’s population, will be damned to hell if they don’t have a born-again experience professing Jesus Christ as their Savior, according to a report by Southern Baptist researchers.”

This research divides up the population according to county, and estimates how many souls can be regarded as “unsaved” within a given county and also within a given denomination. It was assumed that nearly all Southern Baptists have a so-called “saving faith”.. All non-Christians – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and others who do not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – are categorically heading toward the inferno. Roman Catholics also seem to be in a desperate situation. Among the denominations, the estimates vary. Some Protestants are close to salvation, others are more of a challenge. According to this Alabama research, only a percentage of Episcopalians or Lutherans have a clear path to heaven.

This research illustrates that there are many millions of Christians who believe that eternal damnation awaits unconverted sinners, unbelievers and nominal Christians. Not just Southern Baptists, but many denominations and religions world-wide, divide up humanity into two groups: true believers, who are saved and unbelievers who are damned.

It is this sharp division of humanity into two groups, the saved and the damned, which has been a source of hostility.  As one Biblical scholar pointed out:

Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil, is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God.

To believe that God wants millions of people to suffer eternal torment is one of the most hideous beliefs imaginable. This belief that God allegedly uses eternal hell fire as a means of justice has had a corrupting effect on the human spirit. People who divide humanity into the saved and the damned are endorsing the belief that some people are not fully valid human beings, that some people live useless lives, because God will reject them permanently as irredeemable.

If there is one thing which the Bible reveals with clarity, it is the unconditional love and the unending patience of God. Additionally, the Bible proclaims that there is one God, which means that there is one humanity. Every person is a creation in the image of God, which means that every person is part of humanity.  Humanity cannot be divided into human and sub-human, into useful and useless, because God cannot write off any human being as worthless or as hopelessly lost.

This brings us to the theme of the 4th Sunday of Easter: the Good Shepherd. In the gospel reading we heard the words of Jesus:

I am the good shepherd. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.

All people are destined to be one flock under one shepherd.

The early church saw a connection between Easter and Jesus as the Good Shepherd who descended into the “valley of the shadow of death” on behalf of all people.

 There was an English writer and Christian thinker by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He has become well-known for his fictional priest detective Father Brown.  He once wrote a parable about a man who ended up in hell:

A man who was entirely careless of spiritual things died and went to hell. His business agent went down to the gates of hell to see if there was any chance of bringing him back.  But, though he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars never yielded. His priest went also and argued: ‘He was not really a bad fellow, let him out, please!’ The gates remained shut.

Finally, his mother came, she did not beg for his release. Quietly, she said to Satan, ‘Let me in.’ Immediately the great doors swung open upon their hinges. For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned.

This parable is a reflection of Good shepherd imagery.

In the original formulation of the Apostles’ Creed the church confesses that Jesus died and descended into “hell”, a translation of the Greek word “hades”, which means the “realm of the dead”, which was visualized as an underground prison.  According to biblical imagery, humanity is imprisoned in mortality. The word “sin” means that each person is incarcerated in a lethal solitary confinement, from which no one can escape by human effort.

God entered into our incarceration by becoming one of us at Bethlehem. He entered our isolation chamber of death by dying on the cross at Jerusalem. God became our Good Shepherd by entering into that place of total inaccessibility which has been called hell.

Josef Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, describes how the descent into hell can be understood:

Christ has descended into the inaccessible depths of our abandonment. It means that even in our final night, in which no word can reach us, in which we are all like crying, abandoned children, there is a voice which calls us, a hand which takes and leads us. The isolated loneliness of death has been penetrated ever since He entered into this final night. Hell has been overcome ever since love infiltrated the realm of death, and the no- man’s-land of loneliness has been occupied by him.

The words of Ratzinger are reminiscent of Psalm 23:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.

In icons of Orthodox Churches there are depictions of this ancient image of the resurrected Lord descending into the realm of the dead.  The early Christians visualized Christ breaking open the gates of hell and grabbing Adam by the wrist, pulling him up out of the prison of death. Adam represents all people who have ever lived. Adam is a Hebrew word; grammatically it is a collective plural which can be translated “humanity”. Jesus grasping Adam by the wrist represents the grace which grabs hold of us and pulls us into life, regardless of whether or not we have the strength or the will to grab hold of Jesus. This wrist-grabbing Jesus indicates that the resurrection of the dead is an act of pure grace.

There are ancient liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church which celebrate Jesus descending into the prison of death and putting Adam, the representative of humanity, on his shoulders and carrying him home, as a shepherd would carry a lamb:

Adam fell into the depths of hell; but being God and Merciful by nature, you (Jesus) went looking for him, carried him on your shoulders and resurrected him with You.

Since Adam represents all of humanity, this means that all of humanity is destined for resurrection. In the realm of the dead, no one will be left behind.

As Paul wrote in 1. Corinthians 15: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” One of the most exciting features of Easter is that it reveals an all-encompassing resurrection of the dead. The apostle Paul makes clear that either all people will be resurrected from the dead or no one. It is all or nothing. As he wrote: if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. But because Christ is risen, all will rise with him.

Today’s gospel reading confirms that humanity, even in death, is a unity which cannot be divided into saved and lost. As Jesus says:

I am the good shepherd…And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Because there is one shepherd who died for all, humanity is one flock.

In this context, I have to think of something trivial. One of the most prominent football players in Germany is Rudi Völler. A music band celebrated him with a song proclaiming: “Es gibt nur ein’ Rudi Völler” (there is only one Rudi Völler), using the melody “Guantanamera” (what we call in German an Ohrwurm). There was a time when this acclamation could be heard everywhere. For example, with a youth group I visited a church in a small village in Eastern Germany. The young people of this village gathered one evening for a dance party. They kept singing over and over again, for no apparent reason: “Es gibt nur ein’ Rudi Völler.”

It would be more appropriate to compose a song celebrating Jesus as the one Good Shepherd”, because one day all people will be united in singing: “There is only one Good Shepherd” (Es gibt nur einen guten Hirten). Since there is one Good Shepherd, there is one flock, one humanity.  No person, alive or dead, will be left abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death.  As one theologian proclaimed, using Good Shepherd imagery:

“There is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life…This promise outlasts our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”

Because of this promise, every single human life is holy and should be treated with respect. Every act or word of selfless love has eternal significance. Every moment of life is precious. Let us therefore serve the Lord with joy, confidence and reverence. Amen.