Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sunday 11 May 2014 Fourth Sunday of Easter or Third Sunday after Easter

Theme                  Jesus the Good Shepherd

Sentence             Shine forth from your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved (Psalm 80:1, 3) [NZPB, p. 597]

Collect                  We praise you, God,
                                That the light of Christ shines in our darkness
                                And is never overcome;
                                Show us the way we must go to eternal day;
          Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [NZPB, p. 598] 


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


Acts 2:42-47

There is now no doubt in my mind that Luke at certain points in his history of the fledgling Christian movement sets out a vision for how the church should be at its best, in its life together (e.g. here) and in its work engaging the world in God directed mission (e.g. Acts 11, 13). (This is not to say that Luke invented these ideal moments. We can well believe that the early church did have an amazing moment or two of wonderful, harmonious, radical outpouring of love for one another. Such moments happen - I have been privileged myself to experience one or two - and I am sure Luke reports to us what happened. But he does so in a way which quietly implies to his readers through the generations: this is what church should look like!)

Lest we beat up on ourselves for falling short today of the vision painted here, let's note all the things which remain at the core of church life. Verse 42 continues to this day through ministry of Word and Sacrament in our services of Holy Communion = Holy Fellowship (including our fellowship over a cuppa afterwards) in which we hear the apostles' teaching, break bread and pray together.

What can be harder to find today are 'many wonders and signs' (43). Except in monasteries and in some exceptional Christian communities it seems impossible to find churches where the believers have 'all things in common' let alone selling all possessions and distributing to the poor (44-45). However all around the world the church remains at the forefront of charitable works for the benefit of the poor. Thankfully Christians from a global perspective are being 'added to [our] number those who [are] being saved' (47) but in the Western world it is rare for this to be the experience of all local churches.

In verse 46 we have a slight interpretational issue around 'they broke bread at home' (or 'they broke bread from house to house'). Is this a reference to breaking bread in imitation of the Last Supper or a reference to shared hospitality (noting 'at their food with glad and generous hearts') or both?

I suggest the reference is both to shared hospitality and to the Lord's Supper. The impression we then get from verse 46 is the early believers going to the Temple to pray and praise (as they were used to doing and as they remained very welcome to do) but going to each other's homes to share hospitality together both in the usual way of shared meals and in particular acts of celebrating the risen Lord's presence with them through remembering his death for their sakes (a new custom, and one not welcomed by the Temple).

Psalm 23

It might be worth pondering why this psalm is the most popular of all. What is in this psalm which leads to its wide and warm reception? What sentiments are in the psalm which give it a timeless appeal? Likely our answers will include the way in which the psalm speaks of life which has its good days and bad, its green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death, sparks hope of better days to come, and offers a rich vision of overflowing provision for our needs. In passing we might note that the language used by the psalmist has a poetic quality so that the style of the poem captures our attention in every generation as much as the substance of its content. It is almost impossible to translate this poem badly!

Nevertheless we could speak to this psalm in a way which makes it 'all about us'. We should not miss the central point of the psalm: the good life in the long run of life which is promised depends entirely on  who our shepherd is, the Lord.

1 Peter 2:19-25

Arguments rage (or sputter) about 'what happened on the cross, that is, what was God doing in and through the crucifixion of Jesus' with various 'theologies of the cross' being proposes. In this passage we effectively have two theologies set out.

(1) Jesus set an example: on the cross, Christ suffered 'leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps' (21). The prelude to this statement (19-20) sets out the value of enduring suffering but it is a pity that the lectionary which tends to follow a policy of omitting embarrassing verses omits the starting point for this exhortation: how slaves should behave (18). The follow up to the statement (23) sets out some details of Christ's suffering: 'when he was abused ... when he suffered ...'. Perhaps the most important thing each Christian can do in every situation is to follow Christ as 'he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly' (23).

(2) Jesus bore our sins: as Christ suffered on the cross (setting us an example) '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' (24). On the one hand this is very good news: by bearing our sins, Christ sets us free and heals us - good news for those who feel trapped by sins, burdened by the weight of them, and wounded and hurt by them (if not by the sins of others against us). On the other hand, these verses give no direct clues as to how we are set free and healed: is it through Christ taking on himself the punishment we are due for these sins (Isaiah 53:5)? Is Christ made sin so that we might be unmade as sinners and reconciled to God (see 1 Corinthians 5:20-21)?

An indirect clue is given through the words 'by his wounds you have been healed (24) which cite Isaiah 53:5 and thus take us to the passage known as one of the 'songs of the suffering servant', Isaiah 53:5-12. Here I do not have time to discuss that passage but reflection on it could form part of preparing to preach on this passage in 1 Peter.

Finally, note verse 25 which connects with the theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd in both Psalm and Gospel readings.

John 10:1-10

Why, so soon after Easter, are we contemplating Jesus the good shepherd (10:11) in  passage occurring before the death of Jesus according to John's Gospel? One answer lies in the last verse of our epistle reading: the apostles connected the work of Jesus in dying and rising to new life to his role as great pastor/shepherd of the church/flock of God - see also 1 Peter 5:4; Hebrews 13:20; Revelation 7:17 (Christ the sacrificial Lamb becomes the shepherd).

The interpretive key to the passage lies in the unusual 'I am' statement in verse 7 and 9: 'I am the gate (for the sheep)'. This is explained in the next phrase in verse 9, 'Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture'. Jesus is the unique agent or broker of salvation and nurture. (In Kiwi terms we might explore the image of a stock agent who has an exclusive contract with the farmer to take his sheep to a new farm with better (i.e. 'abundant', see v. 10) pasture).

With this image established the verses before and after the statement 'I am the gate' can be understood as Jesus in competition with false claimants to be 'shepherds'. Likely John has in mind here the competing claims of rabbis in the first century as the future of Judaism post the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was being worked out. But we should not exclude the claims of teachers of various philosophies in the Greek and Roman worlds which collided with Judaism and nascent Christianity around the Mediterranean. In the background is talk among the prophets of false and true shepherds for God's people (see especially Ezekiel 34:11-16).

Note the way in which John blithely mixes together his metaphors. In verse 3 the gatekeeper is separate to the shepherd (one might even think of John the Baptist as the gatekeeper) but by verse 7 and 9 the shepherd and the gate itself are fused together in the one person of Jesus!

Finally, this exposition of the Shepherd leads to a beautiful summation of the good news of Jesus Christ:

'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly' (10).

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