The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 3 May 2020

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

I’ve made a change here, moving the Collect from the end of our study to a point at the beginning so that we might begin our study in prayer.

The Collect

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.

Background: Ancient shepherds

Sheep with their valuable milk, meat and wool became the impetus for one of the oldest professions, that of shepherding. It originated around 5,000 years ago in Asia Minor. Throughout the Levant it emerged along with the culture of the nomads who first circulated in this region. The requirements of keeping sheep meant that someone in either tribe or family would need to be dedicated to following the flock from pasture to pasture, and thus farmers soon separated themselves from the shepherd (see Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel). The shepherd followed the flock, protected it, and then led it to market or to shearing.

If they were not a part of the family (usually one of the youngest) then they might be hired (see John 10:12), which made them a valuable part of the economy. They lived apart from society, males without children. They lived in small cabins, but not in the lowlands which would have been used for growing grains. Usually they were found in the hills and mountainous areas. The shepherd’s crook developed into the crozier, the staff of office that a Bishop or Abbot would use. 

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.

This reading not only describes what are the essentials of Christian life (the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers), but also their common life and their sharing of worldly essentials. One wonders if this common life wasn’t what led to the development of ascetic life in the early Church. The former hallmarks are mentioned in the Episcopal rite at the Renewal of Baptismal vows. 

Celebrant:     Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 
People             I will, with God's help.

If we look at the essentials, we see both dialogue but also communal life and common concerns. In Eucharistic Prayer D, in the Book of Common Prayer, one can see the combination of the “breaking of the bread”, and “the prayers” in the full context of the mass (the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship. This is what the Risen One calls us to: gathering (difficult in this time), learning, praying and eating – all for the sake of the community.

Breaking open Acts:

1.     What do you share in common with others?
2.     Where, other than in church, do you break the bread?
3.     Who is in your prayers?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

1      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.

There are two important themes, or images that this psalm employs – that of the shepherd, but also that of hospitality. Both are significant features of nomadic life and culture that are at the root of Israeli life. The first three verses inform us about YHWH in the guise of the shepherd, guiding, providing, and protecting. The latter verses form a prayer spoken to YHWH, asking for what the psalmist has already honored – guidance, protection, provision, and healing. 

Shepherding although a humble but necessary task (see Background above) was also seen as a metaphor for kingship. All the tasks of the shepherd were those that befit a king or a queen. Thus the David story combines those aspects beautifully. Here in the psalm God is the Shepherd King – who encompasses all of human need. 

Breaking open Psalm 23:

1.     Who are other shepherds in your life?
2.     Whom do you shepherd?
3.     What is the role of hospitality in your life?

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.

This must have been written at a time of deep trouble, and thus is especially good for us in this difficult time. The author speaks about suffering, both deserved and undeserved, and then offers the example of Jesus in his own suffering. He quotes Isaiah 53, where the prophet gives the example of the Suffering Servant. What society expects when one suffers is not what is recommended, but an opposite course of action. The wounds become healing, going astray is countered with being led. God is the shepherd and guardian.

Breaking open I Peter:

1.     Where do you see suffering in the world?
2.     Where in your life are you suffering?
3.     What do you do about it?

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.”

If you would like to seriously study this Shepherd Discourse, our reading for today, you might want to take some time a read through the ninth chapter, in order to review Jesus’ discourse on disciples and teachers, with the healing of the man born blind as a metaphor. The image of the shepherd and the sheep is used by Jesus as a way of developing his argument and teaching on disciples and teachers. The lesson on the shepherd is addressed to the Pharisees. In this lesson we meet the thief and the shepherd. The scene is set in a sheepfold, and the thief does not enter by means of the gate, just like those guys who leap over the gates to the subway. A helpful image of this character of the “robber” can be seen in Ezekiel 34:2-8. The proper entry is made by the shepherd, whom the gatekeeper recognizes. The shepherd then leads and guides the sheep.

What follows next is the important image of the voice. It calls to mind so many other references of the word, the ru’ah, the spirit. It is the voice that creates and the voice that continues to identify, lead, and protect. We understand that in the recent Gospel reading in which the Magdalene hears and recognizes the voice of Jesus. This voice interplay also indicates the relationship that the shepherd (Jesus) has with the sheep (the disciples, those who follow him). 

What follows is interpretation about those “who came before me” (thieves and robbers – the pharisees and other religious leaders), about the gate (Jesus himself), and the purpose of the story, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What a ripe Sunday for preaching.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1.     Where do you hear Jesus’ voice?
2.     Where do you think he is leading you?
3.     How do you follow him?

General Idea:              Life in the sheepfold

Image 1:                       A place of guidance, protection, and hospitality (Psalm)

Image 2:                       A place of living with suffering – dealing with these times (Second Reading)

Image 3:                       A place for hearing the voice (Gospel)

Image 4:                       A place for a community gathered around the essentials (First Reading)

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller


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