“God’s Beckoning Grace”
Ezekiel 34:11-17 and Acts 2:42-47
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says. (Ezekiel 34:11-17 – CEB)
42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 – CEB)
Last week we heard Second Isaiah’s promise of deliverance to Israelite exiles in Babylon. This week, we’re listening to Ezekiel offer similar words of comfort to Israelite exiles in Babylon several generations later. The prophet speaks of God as a shepherd gathering those who have been scattered and returning them home.
The image of God as shepherd isn’t new for Israel. Since the days of David, the people had been reciting a psalm that began, “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” Both Psalm 23 and Ezekiel’s prophecy employ and rely on concrete and earthy images. Ezekiel adds emphasis by moving from the nebulous language of “clouds and thick darkness” to describe exile, to the language of “fertile highlands…riverbeds…[and] green pastures” to describe home.
A couple of things stand out here. For one, we hear in Ezekiel’s message an intentional connection between the One who delivers and the land itself to which the people will be delivered. Restoration and the well-being of the people are intimately tied to the earth. So, how the people relate to and care for the earth mirrors the way they understand, relate to, and love both God and each other.
Secondly, when the prophet refers to God leading the people to fertile highlands, riverbeds, and pastures, he’s saying that God will act directly on them as a shepherd acts on a flock.
Once Ezekiel reminds Israel that God acts on them, and on their behalf, they can begin to expand their understanding of the various ways God acts. It’s a positive theological evolution to begin to imagine the physical Creation as a part of the incarnation of God. As the people mature into this, they begin to see all things as truly holy. And the deeper the people progress in their relationship with God, the less God has to act on them, the less God has to herd them. Instead, within the mutuality of relationship, God invites them, and walks with them.
As the God of grace, God doesn’t force us in a given direction; God beckons us. And if we use the language of beckoning as much as the language of guiding, how might that re-shape the way we understand, relate to, love, and even “believe in” God?
The language of beckoning implies an awakening within the those being beckoned. We recognize within ourselves what is good, and holy, and true. We find ourselves noticing and even seeking places of abundance, places where cooperation between the people and the earth yield not only ample food, clothing, and shelter, but spiritual abundance as well.
Some indigenous spiritualities include references to “thin places.” The people described the veil between the physical and spiritual realms as thin, when they experienced the deep holiness of the world and of their place in it. And isn’t that the message of Resurrection? Easter is God’s decisive action on Jesus. And through Jesus, the Creation itself becomes a continuously thin place through which God works and may be experienced.
In the Acts passage, Luke says, “God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.” Through the power of Resurrection, God is deepening God’s presence in the world by acting through the beloved community.
The apostles in Jerusalem live in a posture of radical openness to God. And they do that by living not just ‘in community,’ but communally. The share meals, pray together, pool their resources, and even sell personal property for the benefit of those in need. Being held, they hold nothing back. So, in giving all, they only deepen their trust in and love for God. And through the apostles’ faithfulness, God transforms the community into a thin place in which people recognize that they’re not only ones on whom and through whom God acts. They can also become ones who, through their own self-emptying love, act in concert with God’s grace.
They set a high bar. It’s full-on mi casa es su casa—my house is your house. But that’s precisely how we embody the unity that Jesus speaks of when he says, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one.” (John 17:21 and 23a)
The point of our faith tradition is to live in such a way that we demonstrate the love with which we are loved. And we can’t create that love. We simply open ourselves to love and make room for it to act through us.
When you think back on your life and recognize those times when you have been loved without judgment or expectation, those are thin moments when you can say, I was in the presence of God. And when you think back on your life and recognize those equally thin times when you loved without judgment or expectation, you can say, God was present through me.
It’s usually in the simplest acts that we are loved by God and through which God loves others. To share prayer, food, work, and care is to live in Christ-centered community. It is to know and to love Jesus. And it’s the kind of thing that transforms the inevitable challenges we face into experiences of God’s veil-thinning power of Resurrection.
The Christian Education ministry team recently drafted a vision statement for its own work. The statement reads:
In a congregation committed to loving all people as God loves us, the Christian Education Ministry Team helps to create and nurture safe, Christ-centered spaces where, individually and collectively:
· We explore our longing for and experience of God through study, spiritual formation, fellowship, play, and service.
· We remind one another that the beauty of God is reflected in the world and in each other.
To me, this statement expresses a prophetic and Holy-Spirited response to the beckoning grace of God in Christ. It declares a desire for and commitment to the kind of intentional community Luke describes in Acts. And I would say that the goal is to help this congregation to continue becoming a thin place, a place where God’s presence is real and opens us to the holiness and beauty that is inherent in all that God creates and loves.
I trust that God is beckoning us to be that kind of community in a culture that is growing increasingly bitter, exclusive, and not only tolerant of but worshipful toward violence and the means of violence.
Now, a congregation that humbly opens itself and joyfully commits itself to being a community through which God acts will never be the biggest or wealthiest church around. A community like that has a very different definition of abundance than prosperity gospel churches. Nonetheless, that community will be a place through which people genuinely experience God beckoning them into the boundless expanse of grace.
That place will be one of “fertile land [and] green pastures.”
A place of “gladness and simplicity.”
A place that “demonstrate[s] God’s goodness to everyone.”
A place where exile has ended and Resurrection has begun.