Sentence: There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12)
Good shepherd of the sheep,
by whom the lost are sought
and guided into the fold;
feed us and we shall be satisfied,
heal us and we shall be whole,
and lead us that we may be with you,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 John 3:16-24
Jesus the Good Shepherd is a recurring post Easter theme in the lectionary but note that the gospel readings for the equivalent Sundays across the cycle are different each year, while taken from the same 'Good Shepherd' discourse of Jesus in John 10. (Psalm 23 remains the same each year).
We continue to read stories in Acts of people being healed in the name of the risen Jesus and through the same power of God which raised Jesus from the dead (10).
Peter speaks 'filled with the Holy Spirit' (8). The work of the Holy Spirit is a strong theme in Luke's writings. It is another way of speaking about the continuing presence of Jesus in the church and ongoing availability of the power of God at work in Jesus now at work in his followers.
Verses 10 and 11 mark a distinctive point in the early Christians' understanding of Jesus. He was not another rabbi or renegade politician. Rejected in death, in risen life Jesus is the cornerstone of God's new people - those who recognise and believe in Jesus as the true Messiah from God for Israel. Consequently Peter can declare 'There is salvation in no one else ...' (12).
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 John 3:16-24
Through the past weeks of reading this epistle we have seen that John is writing both to strengthen true Christian belief and practice as well as to refute false teaching. In today's reading this twinned approach continues as the writer strengthens conviction about what Christian practice looks like in, well, practice but with a sense that the false teachers are pushing a different line (see 19-22).
Nailed down here, underlined and emboldened is the necessity of the simple Christian action of loving others (16, 17, 18, 23). What is taught here - especially verse 16 - is coherent with what Jesus himself taught by word and deed in John 10 (the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep) and 13 (the master serves the servants and sets them an example for how they are to love one another).
The summary of the teaching on love is straightforward: love involves treating others as more important than ourselves (16), love involves practical action (18) meeting the needs of the needy (17).
Less straightforward is the object of Christian love, as taught here, that we are to love 'one another (23), that is 'a brother or sister [in Christ]' (17). Of course it is a minimal requirement that Christians love other Christians, but do not the gospels other than John point to a maximal requirement to love 'neighbour' where 'neighbour' includes 'enemy'?
Naturally we are tempted to jump to the conclusion that John's church has become hopelessly inward looking and has completely lost sight of the wider world which God calls Christians to love and to reach out to with a mission of proclamation and practical action.
Now we cannot completely dismiss that possibility but the more likely scenario, recalling the influence of false teachers who have almost certainly led a schismatic group out of the Johannine church (2:19), is that John is speaking to the desperate situation of the church he addresses, a church tempted to think that being Christian is consistent with loving those who are easy to love in the church (such as the brothers and sisters who agree with me!).
To this church John says 'No. You must love all the believers, both the easy-to-love ones and the hard-to-love ones.' And he goes further, pointing out that this is not an optional exercise. If we claim to love God then we will love those God loves. God, we recall, does not love the easy people and reject the hard people!
In other words, we cannot deduce from what is said about loving other Christians what John's views are on loving those who are not Christians. That question is not in John's sight as he writes this letter (and the gospel).
With all this in mind, we can then reflect on verses 19-22 which seem a little odd in the midst of teaching about loving others. But John's point here presumably responds to an issue connected with loving or not loving others. In some measure the confidence and assurance of the Christians he writes to (as they face the prospect of judgment) seems to have been affected. Stand tall, John writes, if you love one another and lay down your lives for one another then you can stand before God without fear.
Jesus is the 'good shepherd' but what does 'good' mean here? One commentator suggests 'noble' as a better word than 'good' (The New Oxford Annotated Bible 4th Edition) noting that 'noble' in the original time of composition would have conveyed the idea of an heroic soldier who dies for the benefit of the city and receives from the city posthumous honour. But 'noble' (in my view) is decreasingly a word in common usage.
Can we do better? We could perhaps go directly to 'heroic': the heroic shepherd would then be analogous to the heroic soldiers whose memory we commemorate and celebrate on ANZAC Day (25 April for overseas readers; 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the original ANZAC troop landings at Gallipoli). Jesus, as the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, was certainly heroic.
Another possibility, noting the contrast Jesus makes with the 'hired hand' (12-13), is to think of 'good' as 'faithful' or 'dedicated'. As the faithful shepherd, Jesus sticks to the task given him by the Father and does not runaway from it. As the dedicated shepherd, Jesus chooses to gift his life for his sheep (18).
Bearing in mind the relationship between John's Gospel and 1 John, and noting the difficulties the Johannine church faced in respect of false teaching and secession by schismatics, we can read these words of Jesus as an implied criticism both of the leaders of Israel in Jesus' day (more hired hands than good shepherds) and of the secessionist leaders in the Johannine church (who may have acted both as 'hired hands' when they left their posts as appointed elders of the church, and as 'wolves' when subsequently they sought to draw more people away from the church.
We can understand readily the ways in which Jesus is the good/noble/faithful/dedicated shepherd as they affect us (11,14-15) but what does verse 16 refer to? Who are the 'other sheep'?
The simplest answer is that the mission of Jesus is to the fold of the Gentiles as well as the fold of the Jews. When Jesus says 'there will be one flock, one shepherd' (16) he speaks consistently with his pray in John 17 that his followers might be one (11, 20, 22).
Why, oh why do we have so many denominations?