Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday 17th April 2016 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

Theme                  The Lamb will be our 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 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
                        John 10:22-30

In some ways this week's sermon writes itself: shepherding or pastoral care is a pervasive theme through all readings!

Resurrections apart from the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ were not common occurrences in the first century AD, but they did happen. In Acts 9:36-43 we are told about the death and resurrection of Tabitha. The way Luke tells the story, significant emphasis is put on Tabitha's worthy life as a kind of justification for her receiving this special blessing. Given that earlier in the chapter we have been told about Saul/Paul being soundly converted through a special intervention, a most undeserved intervention because of his persecution of Christians, we can scarcely develop a doctrine of salvation by good works from the story of Tabitha! Instead we look at the effects of the miracle (indeed, miracles through chapter 9): 'many believed in the Lord' (v. 42, see also vss. 31, 35). Tabitha was a person whose good deeds made her known to many. Her resurrection became news which spread widely and led to new conversions to the Lord.

Nevertheless a minor theme here is the work of Peter as a shepherd of the flock of Christ: he responds to need, he prays for the one in need, and he does a work of healing.

Our psalm is undoubtedly the most popular and well-known psalm of all, 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'! But it is about the Lord. 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.

As we approach our epistle reading, Revelation 7:9-17, it might be worth pausing to think about grieving in the congregation! Psalm 23 and this epistle reading are popular choices for funeral services. Could the very act of reading either or both connect with grief which is present in our service. A consoling acknowledgement that this might be so could be worth making.

The vision in Revelation 7 is extraordinary. John the visionary sees a vast multitude, described prior to verse 9 as 'one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel' (v. 4) and in v. 9 described as 'a great multitude ... from all tribes and peoples and languages.' This is Revelation's way of describing the full extent of the people of God, Jews and Gentiles, Israel and the rest of the nations. Here the multitude has a special characteristic, 'These are those who have come out of the great ordeal' (v. 14). Revelation is written out of  and into a context of intense opposition to Christians. Intense opposition to Christians is not the universal experience of Christians today, but it is the appalling experience of many Christians, including Christians in countries such as Syria and Iraq when long-standing Christian communities are being devastated.

Many things can be said from this inspiring vision, for example, about worship, response to opposition, the throne of God, and the christology of Revelation (here repeating a theme, God and the Lamb are worshipped together). Under the theme given above, special attention falls on verses 16 and 17: the Lamb is the shepherd of the suffering saints. With more than a few resonances with Psalm 23, these verses inspire hope. One day suffering will be no more, neither will there be sorrow. Instead life will be pleasant, nourished by 'springs of the water of life.'

John 10 begins with the famous claim of Jesus that 'I am the good shepherd.' Our reading, John 10:22-30 initially appears to have 'moved on' from the theme of 'shepherd' as Jesus is relentlessly pursued on the question of whether he is the Messiah or not. In passing we might recall interconnections in the Old Testament re 'shepherd' (or shepherd-king) and 'messiah' (i.e. the Lord's coming anointed one). Jesus' response takes his questioners back to the matter of his being the good shepherd, v. 26. They do not believe (in him) because they do not belong to his sheep. An implication here is that they would believe in him if they were one of his sheep, that is, if they recognised or could see his value to them as their shepherd, they would see further into who he really is.

Jesus then says a few things about the character of the sheep who belong to him: they listen (rather than question) and follow the one who knows them - a knowing which is the knowledge of a caring, loving guide for their lives who (as Jesus goes onto say) will protect them and keep them in his flock.

Then, perhaps unexpectedly, Jesus moves from talking about his role as shepherd to making a theological claim which turns the world of theology upside down: 'The Father and I are one' (v. 30).

John's whole Gospel turns on this claim, on this great insight into who Jesus really is. Jesus is more than a servant (sent by the Father), more than a son (who does the Father's will), more than a prophet (who speaks words given by the Father), more than a teacher ... The servant is one with the Master, the son one with the Father, the prophet one with the source of his words, the teacher one with the origin of his teaching. 'The Father and I are one.'

The Messiah or Christ, in Johannine understanding, is not a subordinate or subservient role in the great plan of salvation. The Messiah comes from God as God; God comes to us as the Christ, the Son of God. Christian theology from henceforth will engage with the paradox of the servant/son who is both subordinate to God and one with God the Father. The Christian movement will part dramatically from its earthly mother, Judaism.

In the season of Easter, this gospel passage invites us to reflect on an implication of the resurrection: when we talk about God raising Jesus from the dead, we are also talking about God being God for whom death cannot be a greater power. In a sense, what John 10:30 means is that the resurrection must take place, for God is not God if subject to a greater power.

In turn, the Godness of God which is confirmed through the resurrection validates the promise Jesus the good shepherd makes here about his sheep not being snatched away: neither shepherd nor sheep are subject to another power, together they form the imperishable flock of God.

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