The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 12 May 2019

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

Background: The Image of the Good Shepherd

One of the most popular Christian images is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, found in numerous churches either as a stained glass or painted image, or as a piece of statuary. Its acceptance as a Christian image may be due to its prior popularity as a Greek image, the criophoros (the ram bearer), which was associated with Hermes and the sacrifice of a ram. It became a very common image and representation of Jesus in early Christian art, sometimes serving as a veiled depiction of Jesus, when Christianity was illicit. It is found in catacombs throughout Rome. Often Jesus is depicted as holding a lamb on his shoulders. 

First Reading: 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.

It might be helpful for you to read the “connective tissue” that joins Paul’s conversion with his initial ministry. What we see is the gradual transition of Paul, and his beginning maturation in the faith. It seems difficult to jump from last Sunday’s conversion to this Sunday’s activity without realizing that which happened in between. You can review this material here: Acts 9:19b – 35. Luke suddenly looks back at Peter, and has Peter replicate certain miracles of Jesus, (later he will do the same for Paul). Commentators see this transition as moving the reader from one crucial event, the conversion of Paul, to another crucial event, the conversion of Cornelius, the incorporation of Gentiles into the church. 

In the Petrine healing, which is our text today, we begin to see Luke’s agendum regarding Gentiles, he translates Tabitha’s name from the Aramaic into Greek, Dorcas. A woman is lifted up for the good works that she has performed in her life time. The actions about her death are filled with connective symbols. She is washed (an allusion to baptism?), and laid out in an upper room (a reference to theupper room?) There is a community already existing here, disciples who know of Peter’s whereabouts and women who mourn and remember the works of Tabitha. What is interesting here is the way this healing is modeled after the raising of the daughter of Jairus (see Matthew 9:23-25or Mark 5:40-41). The bystanders are dismissed by Peter and sent from the room, and then the dead woman is commanded to rise. Even the command is redolent of Jesus command, Tabitha qumi vs. Talitha koum. Luke is true to the intent he announces in the first verses of Acts, “In the first book,Theophilus,I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught.” 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How is your life like Tabitha’s?
  2. Where could you be more like Tabitha?
  3. How is Peter like Jesus?

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.

That God should be seen in the guise of a shepherd in this psalm is not a surprise feature, but rather a common comparison in the religions of the Levant. It is more than a surface comparison, but relies on contexts, and acts that would have been recognized by hearer or reader. The actions are quite faithful to those expected of a shepherd – lying down, taking the sheep to calm waters, the food evident in green pastures. In verse three, however, our translation does not display the depth of the action. It is not the soul that is revived but rather life itself. That action is underscored in the following verse, where death is left powerless in the presence of the Shepherd. 

What follows are the signs of an abundant and happy life, a table filled with goodness, an anointing with oil, and an ever-filled cup of wine. All of this is set in the presence of God who comforts and protects. The psalmist expands the notion of abundance into theological ideas – mercy and goodness, God’s gifts. All of life will see the presence of these gifts.

Breaking open Psalm 23:
  1. Is this your favorite psalm?
  2. Why?
  3. What can the shepherd teach you in this psalm?


Second Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

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!

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."

What precedes this scene is the sealing of the 144,000, a sign of the Church as the new Israel (the number being a multiple of twelve). This sealing takes place on earth, while the gathering of the multitude from every nation takes place in the heavenly throne room. The most potent of these symbols is that these people are gathered from all the nations of the earth, a completion of the movement of the Church from being a Jewish communion to one that includes everyone as well. (It would be wrong of us to conclude, however, that Judaism was exclusive at this point in history. It had long appealed to and included non-Jews in the mix, as we know from the Pentecost story). 

In some sense this pericope with its hymns and heavenly vision is a definition of a notion that appears to us in the first hymn, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”Salvation is a gift to those who have come out of the “great ordeal.” What the great ordeal is, we do not know. Was it the existential experience of the soul, or the persecution of Christians by the Roman state, or was it a generalized idea, reminding the reading of the ordeal of freed Israel in the trials of the wilderness? The final hymn seems to be a restatement of Second Isaiahwith its defeat of hunger and thirst. Salvation comes in the midst of life itself and is the gift of the one who sits upon the throne. It is mystagogy at its best.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. What do you understand by the word “salvation”?
  2. How has Jesus saved you?
  3. Have you saved others?

The Gospel: 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."

John locates Jesus at several festivals of Judaism, here at the Feast of the Dedication, which we know as Hanukkah. The festival lasted for an octave (eight days) which celebrated the rededication of the Temple following the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid rulers. Jesus chooses a place in the east portico which would have protected him from the cold winter winds which would have blown in from the eastern desert. The scene centers on a crucial question, “Are you the Messiah?” It prefigures the question that will be asked of him in his trial before Caiaphas. Jesus answers their question by acknowledging that he has been sent by God the Father. This is not understood, so Jesus has to go to lengths so that the questioners might understand his language and context. He uses shepherd language to describe who his is and what his mission is. It is quite simple: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”Once again we see the abundance that we first witnessed in the 23rdPsalm.

There is a connection here with the idea present in the reading from Revelation – the sheep that ae gathered from every land and tribe, and that are then under the care and guidance of the Shepherd. The sheep, the people, are given to the Christ so that they might be brought in safety to the Father’s hand again. This is the language of relationship, “The Father and I are one.” The thought then follows that we are one in Christ.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How do you describe Jesus?
  2. How do you describe your relationship with him?
  3. How are you related to other believers?

Central Idea:               Being Sheep

First step:                    Hearing Jesus’ voice (the development of Peter and Gentiles) (Acts)

Second step:                Jesus knows his own (a demonstration of who it is that Jesus knows) (Revelation)

Third step:                  They follow me (demonstrated by Dorcas/Tabitha) (Acts)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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