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This Week's Commentary
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 26, 2015Acts 4:5-12 | Psalm 23 | 1 John 3:16-24 | John 10:11-18
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
April 26, 2015
The discussion of Acts 3:11-19 on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015) is the literary setting for today’s reading. While that discussion affirms that for Luke the healing power of God was at work through the Spirit continuing the ministry of Jesus through the apostles, those comments also interpret as caricaturing many Jewish people in order to justify growing separation between Luke’s church and some traditional Jewish communities. This emphasis is the backstory for Acts 4:5-12 and its larger context, Acts 4:1-22.
In today’s reading, some Jewish officials are annoyed by Peter’s sermon (Acts 3:11-26). The officials bring the apostles before Jewish leaders who want to know the power by which the healing took place (Acts 4:6-7). Peter, in the Spirit, testifies that the healing took place by the name of Jesus, “whom you crucified” but whom “God raised from the dead.” Jesus, indeed, is the stone the builders rejected which God has now made the cornerstone” (Acts 4:8-11).
Peter then says something that continues to vex us. “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). The passage appears to put forward an exclusive view of salvation. To be sure, the ancient communities did not operate with issues and categories of exclusive salvation (only some will be saved) and universal/salvation (everyone will be saved) much discussed today. But this passage plays a role in that discussion.
Biblical interpreters in the progressive church run to the far corners of the earth to find exegetical explanations to make this statement say something more generous than what the text appears to say, namely that one must believe in Jesus to be saved. For example interpreters point out that Luke was not making a universal statement in the manner of doctrine or theology but was speaking contextually. Others note that the Greek word family sōdzō can be translated either “saved” or “healed.” The issue may not be salvation but healing.
However, I do not find such explanations historically plausible. In the end, do not think that preachers who want to believe in universal salvation can take up the axe of exegesis to cut down the tree of limited salvation in Acts 4:12. I think a preacher needs to make a theological argument against the text based on the preacher’s conviction concerning nature of God and the extent of God’s love. In my view, God is unconditional love. Such love saves all.
Of course, this raises the question, “What it means to be saved?” For Luke, “salvation” means being included in the eschatological Realm of God. While that Realm is partly manifest, especially through the church, it will come to final expression only after the apocalypse. Here again, a progressive preacher may need to offer an alternative view. For me, salvation is not apocalyptic but is the recognition that God is ever with us. We are never left alone. Our circumstances may not change, but in every circumstance we can be aware that God is present and offering us the fullest experience of wholeness available. We trust God for what might lie beyond this present world, both as individuals and as communities and cosmos.
This psalm appears today, obviously, because the shepherd theme resonates with the shepherd image in John 10:11-18. In the mind of the lectionary, the shepherding care of God in Psalm 23 is a template for Jesus the Good Shepherd in John 10:11-18.
The shepherd famously cares for the flock. Psalm 23 echoes many common shepherding practices that the psalmist attributes to God. In the Ancient Near East, the shepherd planned where the flock would go in order to find food and water; the shepherd would go through the field and pull out the weeds so the sheep would not get indigestion (green pastures, still waters). The shepherd located safe paths of travel from one pasture to another (right paths). The shepherd protected the sheep from various kinds of enemies such as animals and thieves (rod). The shepherd would apply medication and other balms when the sheep got stuck in briar patch or cut itself against a rock and started to bleed (oil). Moreover, shepherds could identify individual sheep. The shepherd knew where pens were located in which to keep the sheep safely at night. (That is why the shepherd in the parable attributed to Jesus could leave the 99 and go in search of the one. Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:3-7).
The figure of the shepherd as an image of God is quite compelling, especially in a world which is increasingly threatening and violent. The idea of a tender care at the center of the universe—the idea that this care knows my name—can be strengthening.
Yet, many people within the sound of the preacher’s voice will wonder, “Where are the green pastures for me or for us? What is the relationship between the shepherd and so much racism, sexism, abuse, hierarchicalism, exploitation, poverty, injustice, violence, and uneven distribution of material resources?”
Two aspects of the psalm are often mentioned in biblical commentaries but, as far as I can tell, seldom make their way into sermons. One is the function of the staff which could be used to guide the sheep by pushing at them. The staff could be used to discipline the sheep. The shepherd must sometimes tell the sheep “No.” A preacher might consider points at which caring for the flock today requires redirecting the flock and even telling the block “No.”
The other is the table that the shepherd prepares for the sheep in the presence of the enemies. This table may be a way of speaking of the shepherd preparing a pasture (a table) in the midst of threats. It may also refer to the Ancient Near Eastern practice of hospitality. In a land that could be quite harsh, when travelers appeared at one’s tent, one was to feed and care for them. According to the strict rules of hospitality of the culture, the guests were to respect the hosts and other guests. Some scholars think that a host was even required to receive an enemy as a guest and to provide for the enemy as for other guests. Those at table were to treat one another as guests. Relationships can change under such circumstances. Guests can become friends. That does not always happen, of course, but to sit together is to create possibility. A preacher might look for figurative (or literal!) tables where people with significant differences—who are even hostile—can treat one another with respect, and perhaps even become friends.
1 John 3:16-24
This reading from 1 John, like the readings on the previous Sundays of Easter, presupposes s the two-story Johannine view of existence (see Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015). It also highly contextual in that it presupposes John’s larger purpose of trying to help his community recover their sense of identity and behavior in the wake of members having left that congregation. The boundaries of today’s reading should be 1 John 3:11-24.
1 John 3:11 reminds listeners (as often in the Johannine literature) that the central work of the community is to love one another (per John 13:34). Love, in this setting, is to act for the good of the other, especially the community. This behavior contrasts with those who left the community. They are children of Cain who, according to John, is of the evil one, the devil, the ruler of the world (1 John 3:12). Cain epitomized the values and practices of the world by engaging in murder. The world—those who live according to its values and practices, including the people who left the community—hates the Johannine community (1 John 3:13).
To hate is the same as murder (1 John 3:15) because it destroys the mutually supportive relationship that should characterize communities that live according to the commandment to love one another. According to 1 John, murderers do not have eternal life, that is, their present existence is a kind of walking death in the present which will eventuate in eternal death.
A preacher might point to ways that breaking relationship has death-like consequences, at least in the sense of destroying the possibilities that might come with living relationships.
By contrast with Cain, Jesus reveals the way of love by laying down his life. Jesus came down from heaven and even went to the cross for the good of those who live in the world. The members of the Johannine community should do so for one another (1 John 3:16).
The ancient writer illustrates such love in action by advocating that those who have material resources share (laying down their resources) for those who need (1 John 3:17). Such actions are part of how the community continues to reveal heaven while still in the world. Indeed, this behavior demonstrates that the community truly understands God’s purposes. In a dramatic claim, the author says that such values and practices reassure our hearts before God whenever our hearts condemn us (1 John 3:18-20). The act of loving is thus, for 1 John, nearly sacramental. This act not only supports others but is a sign of God’s love for those who love.
Like parts of the Gospel of John, 1 John 3:23-24 invokes the importance of the notion of commandment in Judaism to stress what the writer believes God wants: for the Johannine community to believe that God reveals the way to heaven through Jesus and that this way includes love. By doing these things, believers abide God and in them.
Preachers sometimes miss the fact that 1 John is not written for life in general but is intended to guide the attitudes and behavior of a sectarian community. Here is a point at which I think the preacher’s instinct to broaden John’s wisdom about love to the larger world is better theology than1 John itself. To be sure, most congregations would benefit from less Cain-like behavior and more Jesus-like behavior, but so would the world
Three pieces of background information are important for understanding this beloved image of Jesus as the good shepherd. First, is the recollection that John’s community is in tension with other Jewish communities, likely Pharisees. John seeks to reinforce the identity of the members of his congregation. Second is the fact that this text is part of the narrative that begins in John 9:1 and reveals that the misperception and untrustworthiness of the Johannine Pharisees.
The third piece of background information is Ezekiel 34 which contrasts the false shepherds of Israel with God as the true shepherd. The false shepherds do not feed (and otherwise care for) the sheep, but eat the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). Ezekiel refers to the leadership of Israel that failed to serve God’s purpose and, in serving themselves, brought about the exile. By contrast, the true shepherd seeks out the sheep, gathers them, and returns them to a safe place (Ezekiel 34:11-16).
John 10:11-18 is built on a contrast between Jesus the good shepherd and the hired hand who does not care for the sheep. The hired hands, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, are like the false shepherds of Ezekiel. They do not protect the sheep from the wolves. Jesus protects and feeds the flock.
While John writes in a sectarian way to the congregation, Jesus does say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16). Scholars discuss whether the “other sheep” are Jewish believers in congregations other than John’s, or whether they might be gentiles (see John 7:35; 11:52; 12:20ff.). They are people who believe in Jesus and are not from other religions. Even if John’s community is sectarian, John reminds them that the community of Jesus is larger than their immediate locale. John’s community needs to be ready to welcome them.
John 10:17b-19 is a definitive Johannine statement: “I lay down my life . . . .” In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the primary actor. Jesus is in control of his fate. Irony is an important theme in John. The self-giving of Jesus is a shepherding act. At the trial and crucifixion, Jesus is not at the mercy of the Jewish leaders and Pilate but is the one in charge. Only those who perceive the world through the lens of the revelation of God in Jesus see the true significance of such things and respond accordingly.
This passage raises an important issue for the contemporary church and the contemporary world. Which leaders (and visions and movements) are good shepherds and which ones are hired hands? A good shepherd is one who works for the good of the flock. This effort is represented in Jesus laying down his life for the well-being of the flock. Jesus is the paradigm of self-giving for the sake of the community. By contrast, hired hands (poor leaders) are self-serving; they promote their limited agendas.
A preacher should criticize the polemical element in this passage as theologically inappropriate. Beyond that, John’s fight with Jewish leaders of antiquity is not our fight. John, of course, was a Jew in conflict with other Jews. When the church became more gentile and extended this polemic, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism resulted. A good shepherd in the church today will encourage attitudes in the church towards a loving, that is, mutually supportive, relationship between church and synagogue.