The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A), 3 May 2020


May 3, 2020

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Acts 2.42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2.19-25John 10.1-10

by David J. Lull

Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are my own translations.

Acts 2.42-47

Themes:

  • What practices of the communal way of life of the earliest “believers” are already part of your church community’s way of life? What practices not already part of your community’s way of life would you be willing and able to adopt or adapt? What practices would you reject?
  • Believers in Jesus as the Messiah and in his message about the kingdom of God originally was a sect within Second Temple Judaism, which was diverse and pluralistic.
  • The book of Acts is a witness against the sad, tragic tradition of Christian hostility toward all Jews. The intentional demonization of others is inconsistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus!

The community of Judean “believers” was one in which all shared their possessions, had meals together, and gave to everyone in need from the proceeds of the sale of their possessions. However, that arrangement was not without problems: some didn’t comply because of greed (see 5.1-11), and some of the needy were not served because of their theology and/or ethnic identity (see 6.1-6). What practices of this communal way of life are already part of your church community’s way of life? What practices not already part of your community’s way of life would you be willing and able to adopt or adapt? What practices would you reject?

These Judean “believers” adhered to “the apostles’ teachings” and continued gathering in the temple “with one accord” (ὁμοθυμαδόν, homothymadon, a word that occurs 11 times in the New Testament, 10 of which are in Acts). Evidently “the apostles’ teachings” were not in conflict with participation in temple practices. Later we learn of conflict, not just over the temple, but also over Mosaic law (6.7-7.60). “Believers”—that is, those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and in his message about “the kingdom of God”—continued as a sect within the family of sects that made up ancient Judaism at least until the second century of the Common Era (ce), or likely until the proto-orthodox Christian councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. The date for the writing of Acts runs from the early-mid-60s and the early-mid-80s to mid-second century, which puts it in a period of heterodox, Jewish pluralism. Due to increasing numbers of Christ-oriented gentiles, who became a plurality and then a majority, distinctively Jewish practices and culture diminished among “believers.” Finally, the “ecumenical” creeds were developed to identify “true believers,” who were distinctly different from emerging “Rabbinic” Jews. At that point, two offshoots from the earlier family of Second Temple Jewish sects went separate ways as Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

According to Acts, Judean “believers” won respect (ἔχοντες χάριν, echontes charin, “while having respect or goodwill”) “with all the people” (πρὸς ὅλον τὸν λαόν, pros holon ton loan, “with or toward all the people,” namely, all Judeans in Jerusalem or the entire population of Judea). This claim of complete solidarity does not fit what we know of the first decades after Jesus’ death, as the Pauline letters attest for the 30s-early 60s. The opposition Paul encountered as an evangelist for the “law-free” gospel (see, e.g., Galatians 2.1-21 and Romans 15.30-32) is the same opposition in which he had been an activist during the 30s and 40s (see, e.g., Galatians 1.6-24). Nevertheless, Paul enjoyed support from some Judean “believers” (see, e.g., Galatians 2.1-10). In the end, the book of Acts cannot help but tell the story of polemic, debate, and hostilities between this Second Temple Jewish sect of “believers” (itself diverse and pluralistic!) and Judean “non-believers.”

Every day, “the Lord” (God or Jesus) increased the number of Judean “believers” who “were being saved.” As I have written in earlier commentaries for this Easter season, the book of Acts is a witness against the sad, tragic tradition of Christian hostility toward all Jews. The intentional demonization of others is inconsistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus!

Psalm 23

Compare Isaiah 53.6 (NRSV: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”), 1 Peter 2.25 (“For you were wandering aimlessly, like sheep; but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives.”) and John 10.1-10.

As this psalm begins (vv. 1-4), God is playing the role of a shepherd, who provides everything the psalmist needs to survive: food, drink, rest, guidance in the ways of righteousness, and reassuring presence and companionship in life-threatening circumstances. Then the metaphor shifts to a grand banquet (vv. 5-6), in which God plays the host and the psalmist plays the honored guest. God not only lavishes the psalmist with generosity but does so in full sight of the psalmist’s enemies, so that they might know God is the psalmist’s wealthy and generous friend. The end of this psalm consists of a mixed metaphor: Like a shepherd (and like the psalmist’s enemies!), God, personified by goodness and faithfulness, will chase after the psalmist, who is prone to wander off into harm’s way. With gratitude for God’s generous hospitality, the psalmist is glad to be a life-long resident of God’s house—that is, to live in God’s presence, generosity, and faithfulness.

The shepherd’s tools—a rod and staff—are interesting metaphors for acts of God! A “rod” is a weapon to defend against “enemies,” including injuring or killing them. God’s “staff” is a shepherd’s tool for guiding sheep along safe paths and keeping them together so that none are lost. God’s “rod” in some cases might be medical instruments of healing. In the recently released movie “Burden,” we might see God’s “rod” and “staff” in a Klansman’s relationships with three individuals, including a Black pastor, which persuade him to re-examine his life-long beliefs. As the “process” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says, God offers “particular providence for particular occasions.”

1 Peter 2.19-25

Themes:

  • Not suffering itself but faithfulness in doing what is right despite being caused to suffer unjustly is a virtue.
  • Domestic abuse is never just or justifiable suffering!
  • The “calling” of believers is to be faithful in doing what is right. No one’s “calling” is to endure domestic abuse!
  • God’s people resist injustice and other forms of evil by non-violent means.
  • If a rule is inconsistent with what love of God and neighbor requires, even if it is in the Bible, we are not obligated to obey it. If a rule is inconsistent with what Jesus required of his followers, even if it is in the Bible, we are not obligated to obey it.
  • We might agree that “love patriarchy” would be better than unmitigated misogyny. But even better is working toward justice and equality for everyone and the removal of injustice everywhere in the social order.
  • Entrusting ourselves to God, “the guardian of your lives,” is a source of strength and faithfulness whenever we serve God despite unjust suffering.

The Lectionary leaves dangling the conjunction “For” or “Now” (γὰρ, gar), which introduces an explanation or reason for the preceding statement (v. 18): “Household slaves, obey your masters with complete respect, not only those who are benevolent and gentle, but also those who are unjust.” The reason for this instruction is that God will reward you for it, because it pleases God when you do what is right despite the suffering (vv. 19-20)! Besides, that is your “calling”—namely, doing what is right despite the suffering—because of Christ’s example of not retaliating against his abusers and of trusting in God (vv. 21-23; “he handed himself over [or “entrusted himself”] to the One who judges justly”), which resulted in something good—through his faithfulness despite his unjust suffering people were freed from their sins, so that they might live for righteousness (v. 24; or “justice,” δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē). “For you were wandering aimlessly, like sheep; but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives” (ψυχῶν, psychōn, “souls”; compare 1 Peter 2.25, Isaiah 53.6, and Psalm 23).

The point is not that suffering itself is a virtue! Rather, it is a virtue to be faithful in doing what is right despite being caused to suffer unjustly. Confidence that you are doing what is right, and that God approves whenever you do what is right, and trusting in God, “the guardian of your lives,” makes it possible to endure unjust suffering (2.20-25).

Two further points: First, 1 Peter accepts that suffering can be just under some circumstances—for example, as punishment for violating civil laws—and that suffering is unjust under other circumstances—for example, when a person is innocent or when someone does a good deed of which “authorities” disapprove. Domestic abuse is never just or justifiable suffering!

Second, with the rise of modern democratic forms of government, resistance to injustice increasingly became a possible alternative to submission to “authority.” Although resistance to systemic injustice was not within its horizon of possibilities, 1 Peter suggests that, for communities of believers today, resistance could be a “good deed” for which one might suffer unjustly. But resistance, which sometimes takes the form of civil disobedience, is not the same as vengeance against those responsible for injustice—resistance ought not to replace one form of injustice with another form of injustice. God’s people resist through the ballot box, in the halls of government and courts, and other non-violent means, like petitions and letter campaigns, marches, participating in crowd arrests, boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

This part of 1 Peter belongs to an ancient Greco-Roman “code” for the conduct of the household’s key players: slaves and masters, wives and husbands (2.11-3.12). This “code” of conduct calls for mitigation of an unjust social system based on domination by men and elites. Nevertheless, the mitigation is limited. The system that allows slavery and domination remains intact. Within that system, Christ-oriented people are to submit to “every human authority” (2.13). At the same time, they are called to sincere mutual love, to love one another always (1.22). But, at least here, that “love patriarchy” is limited to the “community of Christ-oriented people” (v. 17, ἀδελφότης, adelphotēs, “community of brothers,” i.e., a family of like-minded people). In a wider social context, they are to live as “God’s people” (2.10) and “God’s slaves” (the NRSV translates δοῦλοι, douloi, as “servants”), and yet “as free people” (2.16). In general, they are to “honor everyone, love the community of Christ-oriented people, fear [or “revere”] God, and honor [or “respect,” or perhaps “revere”!] the Roman emperor (2.17).

Perhaps some Christians believe we should obey every rule in the Bible, but I’m guessing we do not feel obligated to endorse, or keep silent about, patriarchy and other systems of domination by elites. If a rule is what love of God and neighbor requires, whether it is in the Bible or not, we would agree to obey it. If a rule is inconsistent with what love of God and neighbor requires, even if it is in the Bible, we would agree not to obey it. If a rule is consistent with what Jesus required of his followers, whether it is in the Bible or not, we would agree to obey it. If a rule is inconsistent with what Jesus required of his followers, even if it is in the Bible, we would agree not to obey it. The baptismal liturgy in the United Methodist Church includes the commitment to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

Furthermore, “showing respect” toward the state’s highest authority—for example, the “Roman emperor” or, in our case, the American president, even Donald Trump—and by extension to anyone in authority, includes offering constructive criticism, “speaking truth to power,” out of respect for their being a creature endowed with reason and a sense of morality, however imperfectly they are developed. Perhaps we could agree with 1 Peter on that point. We might also agree that “love patriarchy” would be better than unmitigated misogyny. But even better is working toward justice and equality for everyone and the removal of injustice everywhere in the social order.

John 10.1-10

Themes:

  • How does the metaphor of predators help you understand forces that create life-threatening crises today?
  • In what ways does the abundant life that Jesus offers exceed our expectations and surpass our wildest dreams?
  • What does the statement that whoever “enters” through Jesus “will be saved” mean? Does it mean salvation is only through Jesus? Or does it offer certainty and assurance to everyone who “enters” through Jesus that they “will be saved,” in the sense that they will not be stolen, killed, or destroyed, that they will be saved from death and destruction and saved for life, and “have it abundantly”?
  • Those who “belong” to Jesus’ know and trust his voice through hearing Jesus proclaimed in the gospel.
  • Being a follower of Jesus means following in the direction Jesus is going ahead of them. Where do you see Jesus leading you and your community?

A typical sheep pen was an area enclosed by a stone wall topped with thorny branches to discourage predators from climbing over the wall into the pen and sheep from climbing over the wall to get out of the pen. A simple wooden gate would close the break in the wall through which sheep would come and go. That said, this parable or figure of speech (vv. 1-5) assumes this picture but the focus is on a contrast between predators and a shepherd and the difference between how the sheep respond to them. Predators steal, kill, and destroy, and sheep do not follow them but run from them. A shepherd goes ahead of them and leads them, and sheep follow.

The explanation (vv. 7-18) for those who do not understand it (v. 6) consists of two parts, the first of which (vv. 7-10) focuses on the metaphor of the sheep pen’s gate and repeats the previous contrast. The second part (vv. 11-18, not in the Lectionary) switches to a contrast between the shepherd and “hired hands.” That introduces a difficulty: Jesus claims to be both the gate of the sheep pen and the shepherd. This difficulty is easily dismissed. The main point of the first part of the explanation is stated in v. 10: Jesus came, not to steal, kill, and destroy, but to offer “abundant life” (elsewhere, “eternal life”)—i.e., “a pasture,” land that provides abundant food without having to cultivate it. “Life in abundance” is life more than one could dream of, life that exceeds one’s expectations!

This figure of speech paints a word-picture of a general situation. It is not an allegory, for which we need to find historical references (e.g., Pharisees and temple authorities). Instead, we are to find analogues to the contrast between predator and shepherd. Its explanation applies the metaphor of the shepherd to Jesus, but it provides no analogy to the predator. That leave us free to imagine how the metaphor of the predator, who represents forces or powers that steal, kill, or destroy, helps us understand life-threatening crises today.

Although we might think of individuals, we would be on safer ground to think of things or systemic forces and powers: for example, economic and labor practices that discriminate against people of color and women and privilege white men, unbridled economic growth that threatens the ability of our planet to support life, practices that create wealth while neglecting the needs of the poor and widening the wealth gap, a healthcare system that privileges care for the wealthy and neglects the poor, a justice system that penalizes without restoring and that targets people of color, “Second Amendment” policies that allow anger, resentment, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia to lead to gun violence and mass murder—to name a few of the systemic forces that steal, kill, or destroy the lives of many today. How do you think the metaphor of predators help you understand forces that create life-threatening crises today?

In contrast, Jesus offers an abundant life that exceeds our expectations and our wildest dreams. Most of us will think first of Jesus’ witness to God’s forgiving, transforming grace, which surpasses even our greatest expectations. That’s the witness of the gospel! We might also think of how lives of radical gratitude, or of non-violence, or of solidarity with the poor and those who suffer unjustly are lives that Jesus makes possible and that surpass our expectations and are beyond our wildest dreams. In what ways do you think the abundant life that Jesus offers exceeds our expectations and surpasses our wildest dreams?

What about the exclusivism of this parable and its interpretation? Does “Whoever enters through me will be saved” mean salvation is only through Jesus? Or does it offer certainty and assurance to everyone who “enters” through Jesus that they “will be saved,” in the sense that they will not be stolen, killed, or destroyed—that is, they will be saved from death and destruction and saved for life, and “have it abundantly”? Or is it the exclusivity of the binary contrast between whatever leads to abundant life and whatever is false and leads to death and destruction?

The sheep coming in and go out from the sheep pen and knowing the shepherd’s voice is analogous to the community of Jesus’ followers. Those who “belong” to Jesus’ know and trust his voice through hearing Jesus proclaimed in the gospel. The gospel is Jesus’ voice calling hearers by name and leading them “out.” Being a follower of Jesus means following in the direction Jesus is going ahead of them—forgiving, healing, resisting oppression, feeding the hungry, speaking truth to power. Where do you see Jesus leading you and your community?

 


David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).

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