Wednesday, April 14, 2021

April 25, 2021 - 4th Sunday of Easter Season

    Biblical Words                  [713]

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18.

The risen Lord is the Good Shepherd, giving his life for his sheep and known to them by his Name.

The fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s Sunday.  (“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd.)  The Psalm reading is always “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the Gospel reading is always from John 10, the chapter about the Good Shepherd. 

Acts 4:5-12.  

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a later moment in the story of Peter and John’s healing of the lame man in the Jerusalem temple. 

After the healing and Peter’s speech had caused a disturbance, the officials arrested Peter and John and held them over for a hearing the next day.  The opening of the reading emphasizes the officials who conducted the inquisition:  rulers, elders, and scribes.  Specifically identified are members of the high priestly families of Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, with two otherwise unknown members of their clan, John and Alexander. 

It seems clear that the reciter of this narrative assembles here most of the officials who were involved in condemning Jesus. 

Peter’s Spirit-inspired speech focuses on the Name by which the healing was accomplished:  the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  This Jesus, Peter accuses his judges, “you crucified,” but “God raised from the dead.” 

To witness to this resurrection, which is the cause of all the wonder and disturbance, is the whole task of the disciples in this stage of the sacred history.  Peter goes on to cite the scripture (Psalms 118:22) that was fulfilled by the fantastic reversal produced by Jesus’ resurrection:  the stone that “you” rejected has become the cornerstone. 

This speech by Peter, unlike the earlier ones, does not conclude with an offer of forgiveness to the rulers.  There is, however, a further declaration about the name of Jesus:  “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (verse 12).  An event has occurred which trumps all other religious pretenses on the human scene! 

The tone of exclusiveness is beginning to appear here.  It is clear in many places that the new salvation initiated by Jesus’ resurrection was for many peoples.  That inclusiveness is not being denied here, but a firm condition is established:  the salvation is available for those who call on the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

A movement that creates social groups soon acquires conditions for inclusion, such as avowing a specific Master’s name.  And the Jesus movement, eventually to become many churches, begins with the Name.

Psalm 23.  

The Psalm reading is the most famous psalm of trust in the Scriptures.  It presents the Lord as the unfailing shepherd. 

The speaker in the psalm can be understood in many ways:   as an ordinary individual, as a king needing God’s care-taking, or as Israel relying on his only true Lord.  Early Christians could read the “shepherd” as the risen Jesus because in the Greek version (made by Judeans in Egypt) “Yahweh” was translated as “the Lord.” 

Listen to it again, in the rendering (of the Hebrew text) of the New Jerusalem Bible translation. 

Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 
In grassy meadows he lets me lie. 
By tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit. 
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name. 
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I would fear no danger, for you are at my side. 
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.

And now the imagery shifts from the shepherd and the sheep to that of a magnificent lord hosting his faithful servant and keeping him secure from his enemies. 

You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over. 
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life. 
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come. 

[Note:  the anointing in verse 5 is not related to the Anointed One, the Messiah.  It is a different verb entirely, dashan, to refresh.  The Greek. also, is not related to "christ."] 

I John 3:16-24.  

The Epistle reading continues last week’s reading.  It begins with a declaration that links it directly to this week’s reading about the Good Shepherd:  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (verse 16, NRSV). 

But short of giving up one’s life, what are the signs of mutual love within the community?  The passage gives us one unqualified negative criterion, one sure way of identifying a failure of love. 

How does [can] God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (verse 17).  

Possession of the world’s goods is a trust that God provides to us.  Our good fortune is the means God provides for assisting the very needy.  The brother or sister in need is our responsibility, even to the extent of laying down one’s own life. 

The following verses (19-22) speak of our “hearts” condemning or reassuring us, which is to say of having a conscience, with the needy around us as its litmus test. 

Near its end, this passage too speaks of the name of Jesus Christ as the essential requirement – “commandment” – for those who mutually abide in the Lord:  “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (verses 23-24). 

As this writer understands the life of this “fellowship” (koinonia, see 1:3), only through Jesus’ name does true love for each other become possible – such love as supplies the needs of brothers and sisters. 

Only in this name does the mutual abiding of Lord and servant in each other become possible. 

John 10:11-18.  

The Gospel reading is the central portion of the Good Shepherd chapter in the Gospel According to John.  The Good Shepherd is committed to the sheep with a completeness not found in a hired worker.  He lays down his life for the sheep. 

On a simple level, this means an owner-shepherd risks his life against wild animals, thieves, and dangerous precipices to protect his sheep.  In this Gospel, as the latter part of the passage (verses 17-18) indicates, it refers to Jesus laying down his life in the crucifixion. 

Jesus also says that he can “take it up again,” that is, take up his life again by means of the resurrection.  The Good Shepherd has power over life and death, and he is directed by God (“I have received this command from my Father”) to exercise this power on behalf of the sheep.  These sheep too will not be lost or be in want. 

There is a mutuality of knowing between the Shepherd and the sheep.  “I know my own and my own know me…”  Here the meaning of the sheep knowing the Shepherd is to know Jesus’ name, to know how to call on the Shepherd correctly and be saved from harm. 

This mutual knowledge of Shepherd and sheep leads to a somewhat strange statement – about other sheep.  The Shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (verse 16). 

This is a reference to non-Judean peoples who will become sheep of this Shepherd, though in another fold.  Those nations (“gentiles”) will be brought in, and they will listen to his voice.  The outcome of this will be a higher unity of all believers:  “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” 

 If Jesus, as risen Lord, had only actual sheep to deal with, he would certainly have better success at getting them to form one flock than he has in fact had with a vast number of human believers over the centuries.  However, the resurrection makes all things new, and under God the possibility of a new and Spirit-guided start is ever available to those who know Jesus’ name. 


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