The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 11 May 2014

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
I Peter 2:19-25
St. John 10:1-10

Background: Shepherds
The images we encounter in the psalm for this day and in the Gospel for today are so entrenched in our religious psyche that it almost requires us to take some time at look at the details and decode the profession.  It is, and there is no intended smirk here, one of the oldest professions in the world, dating from around 3,000 BCE.  Originating in Asia and then moving into Europe, it becomes one of the most foundational parts of nomadic culture especially in the hill country of Palestine.  The story of Cain and Able (Genesis 4), although guised as a story/discourse on the way to make a proper sacrifice, is really an age-old story about the rancher and the farmer, a story told in our own culture in the West.  But there is more here, at least in the Cain and Able story and that is another pattern of the younger son replacing the eldest, but I digress. 

In nomadic and other shepherding cultures, usually the person least able to contribute to the family economy in a real way was the one sent to be the shepherd (the youngest, the oldest, the most frail, the most limited) and it is here that the use of the shepherd as a religious symbol both in Judaism and in Christianity is so interesting.  David is a shepherd (again the young supplanting the old), and Jesus is guised as a shepherd.  Perhaps it is this living “outside of society” that aids the association with Jesus.  For David, it may be something completely different, perhaps identification with the root culture of Israel.  Regardless, it is so firmly placed that doing an exegesis of the usage and symbol is useful and helpful.  That, today, is the work of the readings.

Acts 2:42-47

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

We have been benefiting from an on-going reading from Acts during this Eastertide, and here we have a summary about Christian community life.  It follows immediately after Peter’s sermon and its unbelievable results, “and about three thousand persons were baptized.”  The next few sentences (our pericope for today) describe what was in store for those who had been baptized.  We have the benefit of Luke looking back over time to see what had developed in the early Christian community.  First, there are “many signs and wonders being done by the apostles.”  I have mentioned in earlier blog posts how Luke has both Peter and then Paul participate in the kind of presence and miracles that Jesus performed.  Here it is not limited to them in particular, but generously extended to all of “the apostles.”  There is a discussion about common life, and the continued culture of Temple and of the Breaking of the Bread.  Whether Luke intends this as a Eucharistic reference is not clear.  It is interesting that my Roman Catholic commentators all agree that it is, and my more Protestant commentators see it as a sign of hospitality.  Can it not be both?  Such provisions for daily prayer, active ritual life, and the common meal were signs to others that this particular community had something to offer.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What behaviors and actions would distinguish your congregation?
  2. Are they evident to the community that lives around you?
  3. Do they add to your numbers?  Why not?

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.

Usually I go to Robert Alter to help me decipher the Psalms, but today I am going to listen to what Rolf A. Jacobson of Luther Seminary has to say.  His interests are the royal nature of the psalm, and its movement from the shepherd metaphor to that of the host.  You might want to look up I Kings 22:17-18 to see what the royal connection is.  This should not surprise us.  David was a shepherd, and David was the quintessence of kingship.  The other connection that is clear is that of hospitality which was more than just a nicety it the Ancient Near East.  Amongst nomads it was life itself.  It was that necessary dependence upon one another that is hinted at in Luke’s description of the early Church in Acts.  Here it is described as the result of what one would expect from the shepherding of the king, the care given to the sheep – Israel.  While these scenes appeal to a sweetness that we would like to see, I suspect both shepherding and kingship were difficult tasks.  It might be interesting to connect the difficulty of hospitality, kingship, shepherding, and life itself to what the Christians were living out in Acts.

Breaking open Psalm 23:
  1. What surprises you about this psalm?
  2. Have you learned anything new about this psalm?  What?
  3. What role does hospitality play in your church?

1 Peter 2:19-25

It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

"He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth."

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Readers and preachers would do well to read these verses in their whole context – a context that the framers of the Lectionary seemed to find embarrassing.  The verse that precedes our pericope makes sense of what follows, Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.”  The author’s purpose is not to discuss the institution of slavery, and neither is it Paul’s purpose in other contexts.  However, it needs mentioning here, because it serves as a stark reminder of the Christ who also suffered, and, I suspect, a Christian community that was beginning to suffer in an increasingly hostile setting.  So, our suffering must be like Christ’s – silent.  Many in our culture and in our churches would find that to be a difficult if not impossible dictum to follow.  People striving for freedom suffer – yes, but they continue to strive for freedom, sometimes noisily.

The quote from the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53:4-12) makes a poignant connection between the suffering community, the suffering of slaves, and the suffering of Jesus.  This suffering seems to serve as the subject of a (perhaps) hymn that is quoted in the closing verses of the pericope.  They form a statement of faith for those in the community who which to follow the experience of Jesus.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. How are you a slave?
  2. How have you made others suffering slaves?
  3. How is your suffering like that of Jesus? 
St. John 10:1-10

Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Here John continues to place Jesus at the significant festivals of Judaism, and in that context comment on what it is that Jesus is offering.  The preceding pericope is the Man Born Blind, in which Jesus not only heals, but in which we see the difficulties placed on this man by the religious authorities.  With that thought in mind, Jesus begins his discourse on the Good Shepherd.  In our own minds we need to be mindful, as perhaps Jesus was, of the excoriation that Ezekiel gives to the “Shepherds of Israel”, the priests who had ignored YHWH, (see Ezekiel 34:2ff.) In the readings from John, Jesus wants us to see at least two different sides of the difference he makes.  Jesus is the good shepherd because of a mutual knowledge of both sheep and shepherd – the voice, the word, is shared between them.  Other voices they do not follow.  The second comparison is the gate of the sheepfold itself.  Here Jesus is protection and in that protection gives life.  When the Christian community forgets about the life of its members and the community in which it thrives (see Acts, above) then it has forgotten its model in Jesus.  This is hard stuff for those who would lead the church of Christ.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Does Jesus know your voice – do you know his?
  2. What does his voice say to you?
  3. What is your response?

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 © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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