The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2015
I John 3:16-24
St. John 10:11-18
Background: Good Shepherd Sunday
After the Vatican II reforms, and the wide acceptance of the Roman Ordo, specifically the Three-Year Lectionary that was quickly adopted by Episcopalians and Lutherans, the theme of the Good Shepherd moved from the Second Sunday after Easter to (in the new calendar) the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The readings that center on the shepherd images of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, give background to the name.
For most of us, however, we are at such a remove from rural life, specifically that of the sheepfold, and the tasks of the shepherd, that it is difficult to plumb the depths of these images. Too many stained glass windows have sentimentalized the image of shepherd and flock for us that the realities of this kind of life and its ramifications for our own living, are sometimes unattainable. There are two ways to go here. One would be to look at the role the shepherd played in the ancient near east, sometimes operating at the fringes of society, if not being outcast from society. Yet these individuals were an important part of the agricultural economy. David spent his time as a shepherd, and it is a role that is often connected with kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The other tack would be to explore all the symbolic content that the shepherd figure offers, not only in Israel and in the Jesus story, but in the ancient near east as well. What may be received by most modern worshippers as “cute” might be turned into something more profound and engaging. What does it mean to be the “Lamb of God”, and how might we understanding the arresting images of the Lamb in Revelation? Here is something for lector, preacher, and people to explore.
The day after they had arrested Peter and John for teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
`The stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
The subthemes in these stories are about power and authority. The question is often asked, “By whose authority do you do these things?” To this theme, Luke adds the consideration of the power of the name of Jesus. In the third chapter, Peter says, “And by faith in his name, this man, whom you see and know, his name has made strong, and the faith that comes through it has given him this perfect health, in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3:16). In this pericope, we see two men, of little means and education, who speak with boldness and authority. It is they who bear the Name, and it is they who invoke its power. Peter is quick to answer the inquiries of the religious authorities, but his response is noted as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Luke sees the authority of both Name and Spirit. Peter always sees such questions as an opportunity to proclaim the resurrection, and the salvation and forgiveness that come with it. If you would like to read a stunning description of what such preaching might entail, see John Dally’s Chapter, “The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God is Accompanied by Healing”, in his book, Choosing the Kingdom – Missional Preaching for the Household of God:
“As we learn more about Jesus’s original context, however, we begin to realize that the healing he enjoins his followers to offer is part and parcel of a larger missional plan for proclaiming the kingdom of God present on earth.”
Peter is being cast in the role of Jesus, by Luke, who wants his readers to see in Peter’s and later Paul’s actions the active ministry of Jesus. Luke has Peter preach, but his actions of healing were probably more powerful and profound to those who witnessed them. Such touched lives offer a different evidence of authority and power.
Breaking open Acts:
- What power does the Name of Jesus have in your life?
- How might you heal as Peter does?
- How might you proclaim as Peter does?
Psalm 23 Dominus regit me
The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those
who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Here we have an excellent example of the shepherd image being used to describe God. A quick point might be that this among other images of everyday life is applicable in describing God’s presence among us. Perhaps that is why this is such a powerful and beloved psalm. There are hazards in this psalm in addition to the green pastures and the still waters. “He revives my soul”, is probably better translated with “he gives me back my life (nephesh – “life breath”). This is followed by another hazardous image, that of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We all are walking in hazardous places, and we all are accompanied by a God, who like a shepherd protects us by walking with us. What follows in the verses that follow is what is engendered in us by God’s presence, “I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.”
The remaining verses leave the pastoral image behind, and we are seated at table, luxuriating in anointings of oil, and a cup brimming with joy. The presence in harm is also the presence in all of life, both good and bad, “all the days of my life.”
Breaking open Psalm 23:
- What is your valley of the shadow of death?
- How does God keep you safe in that valley?
- How do you luxuriate in God’s love for you?
1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
The author sees two necessary things, belief in the power of the Name (see the commentary on Acts, above) and the love of one another. What are we talking about here? This is an ethic, “love one another”, that is accompanied by a theological point – belief in the Name. These form the major themes in the latter part of this Epistle. Jesus serves as the example of this behavior, and indeed the fulfillment of it. By his actions we are all included in grace, and are sent out to be examples of it in our own lives as well. The author says it well, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” This might prove to be a difficult ethic.
Breaking open I John:
- How does the church follow the example of Jesus’ love?
- How does it not?
- How does this play out in your own life?
St. John 10:11-18
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
This text from John uses the images of the sheep and the shepherd that revolve around kingship and authority. Many roles are portrayed here, but chief among them is that of the shepherd as the ultimate protector who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus, as in the second lesson (above) becomes the example of authority in action, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” So it is not only wind and wave that Jesus commands but the realities of life and death also. There is also a quick and decisive look back at the One who gives this authority by means of “this command from my Father.” So not only is Jesus talking about protection, and salvation, but access as well. In the previous pericopes, Jesus describes himself as not only the Shepherd, but the Gate of the Sheepfold as well. All of this meditation on Jesus as Shepherd, Gate, and Life-giver is preceded by healing – a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. So it is not only about authority and power, but also about God’s presence with us. These readings have an amazing sense of unity.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- If Jesus is a gate in your life, to what does the gate lead?
- Has anyone laid down their life for you? Who and why?
- Has Jesus healed you? How?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller