The Fourth Sunday of Easter - 21 April 2013

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
St. John 10:22-30

Background:  Sources in Acts
A great deal of energy and scholarship has been expended in attempting to determine the sources of and development of the Gospels.  If we are to honor the tradition that Luke was responsible not only for the Gospel but the Acts of the Apostles as well, this kind of inquiry can give us some idea of how the Acts of the Apostles comes to us.  One source that undergirds most Biblical literature is that of oral tradition along with possible written sources as well.  We get some clues from the introductory verses in Luke, where the author states: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,” Thus we have several “compilers” who remain unidentified, as well as “eyewitnesses”, presumably some of the apostles or their followers. It seems clear that one source is the individual who accompanied Paul on his several journeys, perhaps the individual who is responsible for the “we” passages in Acts.  One source that is not evident is the collection of letters that Paul wrote to several of the churches.  There are no quotations from this source.  Some who hold that Acts was written very late, after 94 CE, also see a source in Josephus, the Jewish historian.  His works, The Wars of the Jews (ca. 80 CE) or Antiquities of the Jews (ca. 94 CE) are possible sources for some of the content in Acts.

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

In this section, which is devoted to how the Gospel is received and acted upon in Judea and Samaria, we have a collection of stories about Peter’s ministry in Palestine.  There is a rationale for this collection presented in 9:31: “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”  There is also another purpose for Luke, and that is to show Peter as active in the same manner that Jesus was active.  This same device will be used with Paul as well, in later chapters.  Here Peter is seen as the actor in two stories, the first of which is the healing of Aeneas, followed by this pericope, the raising of Tabitha.  The very name of the person gives us a clue not only of the world in which Peter (and Paul) were working, but also of the direction of the church in these days.  Tabitha (in Aramaic) or Dorcas (in Greek) means “Gazelle”, and indicates the complex community in which these traditions emerge.  She is characterized as a true follow of Jesus, notable in her actions –“she was devoted to good works and to charity.”  All the actions bear an uncanny resemblance to the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43).  That, however, is Luke’s purpose in showing a faithful Peter doing the acts that Jesus would have done.  The final comment about Peter staying with a tanner also heightens the Jewish/Gentile mission.  It would have been forbidden to associate with a tanner, and in this way Peter points to the ministry to the gentiles.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What might have been Tabitha’s “good works and charity”?
  2. What are yours?
  3. How is Peter like Jesus in this reading?

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.

This psalm is so embedded in our consciousness that we might want to look at it from the eyes of Ezekiel (34:11-16), who writes in a similar vein:

For thus says the Lord GOD: Look! I myself will search for my sheep and examine them. As a shepherd examines his flock while he himself is among his scattered sheep, so will I examine my sheep. I will deliver them from every place where they were scattered on the day of dark clouds. I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from the lands; I will bring them back to their own country and pasture them upon the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and every inhabited place in the land. In good pastures I will pasture them; on the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down on good grazing ground; in rich pastures they will be pastured on the mountains of Israel. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest—oracle of the Lord GOD. The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal; but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd them in judgment.
The global picture that Ezekiel paints for us helps pierce the sentimentality that has been attached to the 23rd Psalm.  There are theological points evident in Ezekiel, and thus highlighted in the psalm.  That God is the shepherd, is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures, and serves as evidence of care giving and leadership.  Beyond the tender and loving manner in which the sheep are treated there is an opinion about where God leads us.  It is not just to green pastures, and waters (food and drink) but also along “right pathways”, in other words, along the way of righteousness and of a good and proper relationship with God.  Other subthemes are the theme of hospitality (the shepherd sets the table) and in the presence of enemies (the guest is protected, or perhaps this is a shadow of the Passover Meal eaten in the presence of enemies before the Flight from Egypt).  Themes of healing and joy are mixed in the oil – a joyful anointing at a banquet, or a healing salve at the time of injury.  Finally the closing verses are a comment on the goodness of the covenant, not the gratitude that comes with having good things.

Breaking open Psalm 23
  1. Did the reading from Ezekiel help you to better understand the psalm?  If so, how?
  2. How do you use this psalm?
  3. How else might it be used in your devotional life?

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Then 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 that 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.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Some day you must go to Ravenna, Italy.  There you will find the jeweled churches of San Vitale, Galla Placida, St’Apollonare in Classe and St’Apollonare Nuovo.  In the latter you will see a procession of Saints that wends its way around the clerestory of the nave of the church, thus illustrating the reading from Revelation.  Here the Divine wishes us to see the faithful who have endured suffering and trouble, and are garbed with white and adorned with a palm branch of victory.  These faithful are shown to us to encourage the reader to persevere in the difficulties of the time.  God will have the victory – “"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  This phrase is repeated at two other incidents in Revelation: the victory over the dragon (Rev. 12:10) and over Babylon (Rev. 19:1).  The hymns bear a similarity to one another, and the latter vision in this hymn bears some semblance to the visions of Isaiah.  The mention of the “water of life” is surely a baptismal reference, underscoring that the “great multitude” represents the true body of Christ – surviving the trials of the time.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. What trials do you think that the faithful endured?
  2. What are the trials of your time?
  3. How does your faith help you in dealing with your time?

St. John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."

With this reading we leave the Resurrection Appearances and turn to a text that was chosen to amplify the themes of this “Good Shepherd” Sunday.  The incident takes place in the portico of Solomon, on the east side of the temple – shielded from the cold prevailing winds.  The Festival of Dedication takes place in December, which we know as Hanukkah, a remembrance of the relighting of the temple lights following the defeat of the Seleucid kings and the rededication of the Temple.  Such a setting would put the reader in mind of an earlier messiah – namely the Maccabees, who saved the Jews from the cruelties of the Hellenistic overlords.  Thus the question comes up, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus evades the implications of their question (cf. John 8:25) and is concerned with their having a correct view of who and what he was.  In calling up the images of Shepherd (an ancient view of God) and of the sheep, Jesus seeks to have them know his true purpose.  It is all about relationship (my sheep hear my voice – I give them eternal life.)  The final comment, “The Father and I are one” is the last straw.  In the verse following our pericope, the Jews pick up stones with which to stone him.  The symbols in this pericope are telling: Light, Rededication, Protection, Revelation, The Shepherd and the Sheep, and Unity.  It poses questions and associations that naturally follow the resurrection.  What does all of this mean?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What kind of answer were the Jews expecting?
  2. What is the gist of Jesus’ answer?
  3. What do you expect?

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.


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