The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 7 May 2017

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

Background: Shepherds

Perhaps an even older profession can be found in shepherding, having begun some 5,000 years ago in Asia Minor. We see the remains of their industry and culture as nomads in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. Sheep were prized for their milk, meat, and wool. Since the production of sheep relied on the ability to take them from pastureland to pastureland, the occupation of shepherd differed from that of the ancient farmer. Such duties were often given to the youth of a family. The geography of the Levant saw the lowlands and valleys as the place for growing crops, while the more rugged highlands were ideal for flocks of sheep.

The First Reading: 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.

It is interesting to speculate about how the social life of the early church evolved. Some may have been affected by the breakdown of society in Palestine with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, while the influx of gentiles and other social groups may have affected it as well. If the older communities were not supportive of this new community then something new needed to be formed – thus perhaps, we see the need for “things held in common.” The other aspect to this community is not only its social organization, but its liturgical life as well, seen in the meeting in the temple area (and later synagogues) and in the break of the bread.  This might be a good opportunity to for your parish or congregation to explore how it is “together” and what it does “together.”

Breaking open Acts:
1.          How does the church do this today?
2.          Is it adequate?
3.         How might it be better?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

     The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2      He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3      He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4      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.
5      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.
6      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.

Just as Luke describes common life in an emerging church, so the psalmist describes daily life among those who follow YHWH, here guised as a shepherd. All aspects of life are described in attractive metaphors that would have been recognizable to a nomadic people. Even the dark sides of life are addressed as well, for life in the hill country of Judea could have its own challenges and difficulties. It is not only the sites of life that are described here but tools as well. The rod, which protected, the oil that healed, are also mentioned as not only a healing part of life, but a luxuriant reality as well. All of this is encompassed in the long days that were the desire of any living person.

Breaking open the Psalm 23:
1.         How does God lead you into goodness?
2.         How has God protected you in dark times?
3.        What is the goal of your life?

The Second Reading: I 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.

The question is a difficult one, “How does one live in a society whose values are at counter purposes to one’s own values.” The author’s answer is simple, “Endurance.” This endurance is expected in the social norms of society – one puts up with the social expectations of slavery or of the household. Jesus is indicated as the example par excellence, in this regard. He endured in spite of his innocence. This act of obedience was done for our benefit, and so we can model our own lives in a similar manner. We are called to follow the shepherd.

Breaking open I Peter
  1. What do you have to endure in your life?
  2. How do you endure it?
  3. How do you help others to endure?

The Gospel: 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.”

It might be helpful to break up this pericope into some constituent parts, as I have done with the text above. In the parables that these sayings represent, Jesus talks about his role, the role of the leaders of Israel, and finally the people themselves at several different levels and points of view. Jesus follows in the footsteps of ancient prophets, Amos, and Hosea, to offer commentary on religious leadership and faithfulness to God. So the parable begins with the “thief and bandit” and ends with Jesus identity as both shepherd and sheep gate.

In the first collection of verses Jesus compares the shepherd to the thief and the shepherd. There is another role here as well – that of the gatekeeper who recognizes the shepherd. These images are also seen in the synoptic traditions. You may want to compare the following: Mark 13:34 (the Gatekeeper) and Luke 12:39 (the Thief). Is this a warning to the Pharisees and other leaders to be good gatekeepers? That is a possibility. The gate itself, however, will take on even more importance in the coming verses.

In the second collection of verses, we come to the themes of recognition and knowledge. You may wish to compare the descriptive material that is devoted to Joshua in Numbers 27:16-17. Here is a similar and ancient role that is devoted to the relationship to the sheep. Jesus definitely identifies with this role and the responsibility that surrounds it. In Mark (6:34) Jesus pities the people because they are like “sheep without a shepherd.”

In verse 6 we have a transitional statement that describes his desire to teach and the inability of the disciples to understand. Thus in the final collection Jesus explains what he means. He is (not only the shepherd, but) the gate. And to make clear his intentions in telling these parables he is clear about the role that has been abandoned by the religious leaders of Israel. As the gate, Jesus is the protector of the sheep, standing between the flock and any who might have intent to harm. However, the gate is also the approach to salvation, “I came that they may have life.”

You may wish to read through the final verses of the whole pericope (verses 11-18) in which Jesus further expounds on the role of the shepherd, and the theme of laying down one’s life. They may augment your understanding of these parables by listening to Jesus’ further elaborations.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What does it mean for Jesus to be “the gate” in your life?
2.     Who are the thieves in your life?
3.    How are you protected from these thieves?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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