Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 21, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 9:36-43Psalm 23Revelation 7:9-17John 10:22-30

By Russell Pregeant

The gospel lesson illustrates a distinctive aspect of Johannine theology, which Bultmann has called a “dualism of decision.” [1] On the one hand, dualistic language pervades John’s gospel. There are sharp contrasts between light and darkness, flesh and spirit, and above and below. Indeed, one could get the impression from some passages that these contrasts reflect an actual cosmic dualism than would negate human freedom, since whether a person is “from above” or “from below” seems to determine whether or not one has faith in Jesus. In 8:23, for instance, Jesus tells his opponents, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” And as the conversation continues, he makes explicit what “from below” means: “You are from your father the devil.” It would thus be easy to hear in 10:26 a fatalistic condemnation of his enemies that brands them simply incapable of belief: “but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

There is, however, a balancing element in John that points to human freedom—that is, to the ability of persons to choose their origins. This appears early in the gospel: in 1:12, the narrator declares that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.” And even 8:44, in which Jesus tells his opponents that they are from their father the devil, ends with this: “and you choose (thelete) to do your father’s desires.” Most importantly, in 9:40-41, the Pharisees ask Jesus if he is saying they are blind. His answer overturns any implication that those who reject him do so because of a predisposition over which they have no control: “If you were blind, you would have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This background of the freedom/determinism issue in John suggests a way in which this passage might be mined for preaching values. The basic insight is that choices have a tendency to take on the quality of fate. An initial choice opens up possibilities, but it also closes off other avenues of thought and action. The Pharisees do not believe, because they do not belong to the fold where belief is encouraged and nurtured; they belong to another fold, one in which the works that Jesus has done remain unconvincing. What would be convincing within the fold is unconvincing outside it.

To say this, however, raises two difficult questions. First, how does one reach the point of making an initial choice that would eventually lead to actual faith? Second, does not the suggestion that one must be in the fold to appreciate the “evidence” that would lead to faith promote an understanding of faith as the arbitrary ideology of a fanatical sectarianism that sets itself against all other sources of knowledge as well as against reason? These are serious questions, and they should warn us to be very careful about how we make the point I am suggesting.

But I believe the point remains valid: we can all too easily accept certain premises in life—in religion, in politics, in human relationships—that we then allow to curtail our ability to examine things adequately or be open to new or unpopular ways of thinking. And the more we allow this to happen—the deeper we dig ourselves into some habit of perception or thought or action—the more radical a transformation is needed to help us embrace new, life-giving possibilities. That is why the dualistic language in John, though dangerous, makes a valid point: the transformation human beings need is a transformation at the most fundamental level—that of our most basic loyalties and perceptions of value. Faith, in other words, is a matter of conversion.

Another important aspect of the passage appears in vv. 27-28. It has to do with the intimate relationship between Jesus and his followers. He knows them, and they hear his voice. And this intimate relationship brings assurance: “No one,” Jesus says, “will snatch them out of my hand.” Here again, there is a serious danger. Assurance can become arrogance and bigotry, and it can feed a closed-minded self-deception. A particular kind of assurance, however, is a valid and even necessary part of authentic Christian faith. True faith is something more than guess or a “bet”; it issues from a deep, convincing perception that one is in the presence of something that grasps us, that demands our loyalty—something that is self-validating as an ultimate value. This kind of faith is secure without being closed off from reason, from the possibility of further transformation, or even from other faith-claims. Indeed, it can remain open precisely because it is secure.

The reading from Acts expresses several characteristics of Luke-Acts as a whole. Central to this two-volume work is a scheme of salvation-history that reaches from the creation to Jesus’ return in glory. There is a strong sense of continuity that runs through each of the historical periods, binding them together as part of God’s over-arching plan. A primary aspect of this sense of continuity that appears in Acts is the fact that the apostles perform miraculous works similar to those of Jesus. In this story, Peter raises a woman from the dead, as Jesus did in Luke 7:11-17 and 8:41-42, 49-56. As Robert Tannehill shows, moreover, there are strong similarities not only between these latter passages and Acts 9:36-43, but also between all of these New Testament instances of raising the dead and similar deeds by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37).[2] The repetition not only of the broad theme of raising the dead but of details in the stories contributes to the impression that God is working in a basically similar way throughout human history to bring healing and new life to human beings.

Another way in which this story expresses a characteristic aspect of Luke-Acts is that it places a woman in a central position. Not only is Tabitha the recipient of a miraculous deed, but she is both named and praised for her good works. Together with Peter’s healing of Aeneas in 9:32-35, moreover, the lectionary reading repeats the pattern in the gospel of Luke of pairing a story of a woman with the story of a man. Also, the fact that Tabitha’s good works included charity, which is illustrated by the reference to her having made clothes for widows, plays into the pervasive emphasis on economic justice in Luke-Acts. And, finally, the notation in 9:42 that “many believed in the Lord” because of Peter’s miraculous deed continues the emphasis that began with the story of Pentecost—the Christian mission is making its way into the wider world, gaining converts at every turn.

The image of God as a shepherd caring for his sheep in Psalm 23 can be fruitfully related to several aspects of the gospel and first readings. God the shepherd is with the sheep in the face of death (v. 4), just as in Acts 9 God acts to overcome the death of a disciple; and the sense of intimacy in the reading from John is paralleled by God’s presence (v. 4) and guidance (v. 3) in the psalm. The three readings, taken together, in fact present a powerful testimony to the sufficiency of God’s all-embracing care in all of life’s circumstances as well as in the face of death. God nourishes and sustains the believer by providing food and drink (green pastures, still waters, a table prepared); God nourishes the soul—which is to say, the whole person, when despair has threatened and others have brought pain (Psalm 23:3, 5); God’s goodness and mercy will not let the believer go (Psalm 23:6); in Jesus, God offers an intimate relationship to the divine (John 9:27), security in that relationship (John 10:28), and victory over death (John 10:28; Acts 9:36-43). In short, a right relationship to God is such that the believer can truly say, “I shall not want.”

It is no wonder, then, that a person would want to hear one such as Jesus and follow him (John 10:27) and to make a lifelong commitment to be in God’s house—that is, in the presence of those who worship the biblical God of goodness and mercy. This is all the more so when we consider that this God is not merely responsive to our seeking but actively seeks us. The Hebrew in Psalm 23:6 is better translated as “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me,” and in John 10 Jesus reaches out to human beings with both deeds (v. 25) and words (v. 27). Indeed, the entire gospel of John revolves around the notion that Jesus comes into the world precisely in order to reveal God.

In the second reading, Revelation 7:9-17, Jesus himself takes on the role of the shepherd who will lead the flock to water (v. 17), with the interesting twists that he is also named the Lamb and the water is specifically “the water of life.” We thus have yet another image of divine, life-giving care; and of course the scene itself suggests God’s care as victorious over death, since the flock here is made up of the martyrs who gave their lives in “the great ordeal.” The scene portrayed is one of joyous, thankful worship, motivated by God’s gracious vindication of those who were faithful unto death; and the notation that those in the great throng come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” is a ringing declaration of the inclusiveness of the gospel message and therefore of God’s love and mercy.

The members of the throng praise God as the giver of salvation (v. 10), and it is important, as Ronald Famer observes, to understand that they have been saved “through, not from, the great ordeal.”[3] They have not escaped but have rather withstood the woes that befell the world. Their experience has thus made them one with Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, and in whose blood they have washed their robes and thus become purified.[4] The theme of rejection, which appeared in the gospel reading in the form of Jesus’ opponents’ refusal to believe and more subtly in Psalm 23:4-5 (“fear no evil”; “in the presence of my enemies”), reaches an apex in Revelation 7: faithfulness to the God of goodness and mercy can lead to persecution and even martyrdom. And yet the passage is one of celebrative worship.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 9.

[2] Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 2: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 126.

[3] Ronald L. Farmer, Revelation (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 78.

[4] Ibid., 79.