The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 25 April 2021
1 John 3:16-24
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.
The readings and traditions that surround this particular Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, would have me comment on the office and particularities of being a shepherd. It is, however, the last part of the reading from Acts that grabs my attention this day, “it has become the cornerstone.” The use of stone is known from ancient times, and the why of that gives new meaning, to me at least, about what Peter is trying to say about Jesus in his teaching in Jerusalem.
I had always thought that the import of a cornerstone was the support that was afforded to the structure. That may have been, but there was something even more important that was given – placement and orientation. The where of the building and the attitude of the building were fixed at a point. Other items were added to fix the building in a particular context. Foundation deposits, offerings to the gods, and other symbolic items were added to give meaning to the structure and its placement. In some cultures a human being was buried under this point in the building adding to the symbolic gestures afforded to the cornerstone. It becomes the central point at which the building is understood.
The First Reading: Acts 4:5-12
The rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
`the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.'
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
If there is any subtext in Luke’s writing, one is Jesus’ teaching not to fear. It is the greeting that is given by divine messengers to the characters in the Nativity, and it is the message here as well. Having just healed a crippled beggar, the apostles are hauled before the religious authorities to answer for their actions. It is not fear that obstructs Peter’s witness, but a determination that the healing is an example of the orientation and structure (see Background above) that Jesus provides as his followers seek to do God’s will in the world. Peter has the temerity to honor Jesus’ name even above that, as the only name given for salvation. That is faith in spite of fear, in the face of power, and a witness to who and what Jesus is.
Breaking open Acts:
1. When have you gone beyond social niceties to do good for someone?
2. What was at risk when you did it?
3. How does Jesus orient your life?
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.’
Shepherd and host, these are the metaphors and images that are used to depict the God who cares for Israel. As we move from the shepherd image to the host image the psalm moves third person descriptions of God to the second person prayer to God. The role of shepherd is an odd one in that it seems to be a combination of the most ordinary aspects of life (the young one who is relegated to tending for the flock) to the most exotic (kingship seen as being a shepherd/caregiver). The leadership/shepherd image is seen throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. You might want to check out these two images: I Kings 22:17-18, or Jeremiah 23:1-4.
Then, there is the forgotten side – God as host, God setting the table, God providing abundance. Although even these images can be applied to the shepherd, they can also expand beyond them. There is a eucharistic aspect to be seen here, although that is through purely Christian eyes. Like the Eucharist, the psalmist sees beyond the abundance of the food, and lays hold of the grace, mercy, and goodness that we receive at the hand of God.
Breaking open Psalm 23:
1. Where has God been a shepherd in your life?
2. Where has God been a host in your life?
3. When have you done this for others?
Second Reading: I John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
The message in this section of I John is “love.” If we think this is overly sweet and unrelated to the reality of life, the author quickly sets us straight. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” What is important to remember her is that this love that is directed to the other in need, is done in the context of our connection to Jesus. The belief and relationship that we have with Jesus makes possible to connections of love that we have with others. It sets up a habitation, if you will, within which we become God’s agent and hands. In this habitation, Christ dwells with us and we with Christ. If all reminds us of the great commandment: Love of God, neighbor, and self.
Breaking open I John:
1. Whom do you love in your life?
2. Whom do you care for in your life?
3. Who might be added to this community?
The Gospel: St. John 10:11-18
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
If you want to immerse yourself in this text in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, it will do you well to begin with the verses that immediately precede it, (John 10: 1-10). Why is this helpful? The descriptions that precede describe the role and responsibilities of being a shepherd. If you are a priest or pastor, a community leader or authority, you have been described as a shepherd at various points in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, we ought to inform ourselves first as to the role we have in life, and then if we are going to follow Jesus, we can go on to see how he describes his role as shepherd. If becomes very real very quickly. “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The flock that he describes is expansive and not restrictive. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” If we are to lead, guide, and protect in our society, then we must be willing to give completely of ourselves, to any in any kind of need – not just to our own, but to any. This is a word from the good shepherd that is especially applicable to our time and our circumstances. Jesus talks about the voluntary nature of his gift – he lays it down totally on his own, words for our churches today.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. In what ways are you a shepherd?
2. Who is your flock?
3. What can you give up, lay down?
General Idea: On being a shepherd.
How to 1: Orienting your life to God, and pointing the way (First Reading)
How to 2: Being a host, providing abundance (Psalm)
How to 3: Providing a message of love (Second Reading)
How to 4: Not being a thief, being a shepherd (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller