Easter 4B: All We Like Sheep

Shepherd and sheepOLD TESTAMENT: Acts 4: 5-12

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Last week, we read that Peter and John had gone to the Temple to pray and Peter had healed a crippled man. Peter then exhorted the crowd to repent and turn to God that their sins might be wiped out. While all this was happening, the religious authorities became very annoyed and arrested them. John and Peter now appear before the council and are asked to explain their actions: Who empowered you to cure the lame beggar? Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, responds that it was done in the power and name of Jesus Christ (whom, he reminds them, “they” had crucified.) (There’s quite a bit of perceived anti-Semitism that you have to weed through here. Think of it more in terms of the “powers of the day”, the religious authorities, rather than the “Jews”. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.)

He then proclaims Jesus as the “cornerstone” of the Church, God’s agent and affirms that salvation is available through Christ. Following this, (I don’t know why the Lectionary wouldn’t have included it—odd!)  the members of the Sanhedrin (the council) are “amazed…and recognized…them as companions of Jesus.” They note that a notable sign has been done and order the two not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. The two inform them that they will continue to do just that.

You know what’s interesting—if you remember, Peter was never the strong one. In fact, wasn’t he the one who denied Jesus—three times, in fact? Something had changed. God had taken someone fearful, someone cowardly, and turned him into a bold proclaimer.

It is obvious, though, that the “powers” of the day sense the threat that was there. After all, the whole priestly entourage turns out. But that concluding statement has always caused problems in history. Christians have gone to war through the centuries armed with that last statement—that “no other name under heaven….” But the truth here is that Jesus was the one who confounded the whole system—turning the tables, so to speak. Here’s a quote from Walter Wink—he says it better than I do:

If “saved” means being united and reconciled with God, then Acts 4:12 is palpably false. There are many authentic roads to God, and no religion holds the franchise for illumination. But if “saved” here means being delivered from the bondage and delusions of the domination system, and being empowered to set others free–if it means ultimately transforming the system itself and renouncing domination in all its forms–then Jesus is indeed the one who can yet save the world from the domination system. And that, it seems to me, is a factual statement with which persons of all religions might agree. (From “Those Obstreperous Idiots”, in The Christian Century, April 13, 1994)

The point of it all is that Jesus promises a new wholeness, a new unity that will restore an otherwise broken world. I mean, when you think about, it had already healed Peter, already made Peter more of who God was calling him to be—strong, courageous, bold. So, how can good come out of a corrupt world? Good comes because God will never let corruption, or rejection, or despair, or injustice, or even crucifixion have the last word. Essentially, resurrection is always happening. In his blog on this Scripture, Dr. John Holbert says it like this:

It is nothing less than tragic that the idea of “being saved” has too often done precisely the opposite; it has divided people rather than united them. Ironically it will do that as well in the ongoing story of Acts, as Jews and early Christians grew further and further apart. Still, as the famous, and infamous, John 3:16 proclaims, “God so loved the cosmos” and sent Jesus, “not to condemn the cosmos,” but in order that the “cosmos might be made whole,” restored, made one again. By implication, any time that the name of Jesus is used to divide, and not unite, to generate hatred and not love, to separate person from person rather than join them together, that name has been besmirched, misused, profaned. We Christians, all of us, would do well to meditate on our use of Jesus’ name and ask ourselves what use we have made and make of it in our own faith lives. (From “A Fresh Wholeness”, available at http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Fresh-Wholeness-John-Holbert-04-23-2012, accessed 25 April, 2012.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do the abuses of this passage that exist do to its meaning?
  3. What does it mean for you to be “saved” through Christ?
  4. From what systems of domination does Christ deliver us today?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 3: 16-24

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In this passage, the author (we’re not sure who that is really!) begins by addressing the nature of love, pointing to Christ’s love that involved Christ laying down his life for us. It implies here that this is not a vicarious sacrifice but, rather, a total self-giving for others. That, then, is what love really is—giving oneself for others. The focus is not on sacrifice or atonement here, but on love and generosity.

Even though this letter is written within the context of the Christian community, it does not seem to limit the directive to love for that community only. This love is limitless. From love comes the right thoughts, the right actions, the truth, and the boldness to proclaim belief in the name of Jesus Christ. For the author, confidence comes from relating to God, rather than a notion of piety that separates one from God because of sin.

Through loving one another, we obey God and abide in God. It affirms the sufficiency of God and God’s love. By loving one another, by loving God, by abiding in God, we will get the sustenance that we need to live. In fact, in a community in which God’s love abounds, all will get what they need and all will live together in unity and wholeness. It is not the rule; it’s just the way it is. This clearly envisions a world where people are not diminished but are allowed to stand on their own beliefs with confidence. And the “right” belief means that they will love and respect each other.

This epistle was written to a community that saw themselves within the broken world in which they lived. But they are reminded here that God is ever-present and always-loving. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the same thing. After all, what does God’s Presence look like in our lives, in our world? What shape does God’s Presence take in our lives? What does a world look like that overflows with God’s love?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens to these thoughts in our consumer-driven society?
  3. Why do we not live our lives this way?
  4. What does God’s Presence look like in our lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 10: 11-18

To read the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

The ancient shepherd of Palestine had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, and frequently was amid dangers from wild animals and sheep stealers. But it was his job, his very livelihood, to protect the flock, particularly at night. The use of the shepherd image reflects both strength and nurture. This was not leadership that just sat back and told people what to do—it was, rather fully engaged in the workings of life.

It’s hard for us to grasp, but a shepherd does not care for a flock of no-name, generic animals. A shepherd that does his job well would know each and every one of the sheep for which he is responsible. (My grandfather could name every cow on our ranch—it always amazed me.) The point is, this is not a removed role of leadership but fully participatory and engaged. But, when you think about it, it has little to do with control. After all, have you ever tried to control a bunch of sheep? The image is of a shepherd, not a controller.

So, Jesus as the shepherd may not be the peaceful, pastoral Jesus we envision. This was hard work. This was dangerous work. This was work that few “respectable” people would do. So what does that say? It says that Christ does not stand on the principles of this society or this world. The passage reminds us that Christ never gave in to his own preservation but instead gave himself to and for the world. And, so we are called to do the same, to be like Christ.

I think, though, the image of sheep is something that we should not omit. We tend to concentrate on the shepherd part and we forget the image of the sheep. After all, we don’t like to admit it, but we make pretty good sheep. We stand protected by our ranks, assured of our stance because others think the same within the boundaries of our lives, and secure in our walls we’ve built because we have company that’s helped us build them. And then someone comes along, honks a horn, and we take off running, not because there’s really a threat, but because everyone else is doing it.

And so, what about the other sheep? What about those that Christ invites into the flock? You know, it’s interesting—when we want to set limits, God tells us that it is precisely those on the other side of the wall who belong to the fold. And that’s what often makes us run or at least put our guard up a bit.

Sure, sheep are communal animals. The herd is the very essence of their survival. And, yet, they know that it’s the shepherd to whom they look. They’re really not worried about who is in the flock. Whoever follows the shepherd is one of them.

We all know what a “herd mentality” is. It is that thing that sends panic through a crowded space if someone claims they have a weapon. It is that thing that makes us drive above the speed limit if all the cars around you are doing just that—after all, I, personally, don’t like it when people pass me. Some would say, sadly, that it affects our very democratic process, as polls of who everyone else thinks should win come rolling out. In our world, a “herd mentality” somehow convinces people to not think for themselves. All we like sheep herd ourselves into the place that everyone else is and we expect the world to get in line behind us.

So you see, I’m not convinced that the character in this passage with which we should identify is actually the Good Shepherd. I’m thinking it is, rather, the sheep. Have you ever thought that the word “sheep” is the same for both singular and plural tenses? Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if it doesn’t matter, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps we are called to a new herd mentality—to a new way of living. In the society in which we live, we are encouraged to act as individuals, to do the things that preserve our own self-interest and our own self-preservation. And, yet, we sometimes struggle to think for ourselves. What would people think? But Christ calls us to a new herd mentality. Perhaps it is one where the singular and the plural no longer matter, where we act as a herd, as a group that follows Christ. But don’t get me wrong…we are meant to think for ourselves. That is called belief. That is called faith.

For the writer, the fact that Jesus laid down his life meant that Jesus brought life. It was not really a “sacrificial lamb” here, though. It meant that Jesus, the shepherd, loved the flock enough to ensure them life. And, as part of the “flock”, following the Good Shepherd means following and receiving life.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What meaning does the “shepherd” image evoke for you?
  3. What meaning does the notion of the sheep evoke for you?
  4. How does that image speak to our lives today?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

If I look at the mass I will never act, if I look at the one, I will. (Mother Teresa)

 

Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them. (Reuben Welch)

 

Experiments have shown how much of our behavior is determined by the mental images to which our minds are constantly returning. If we bring our minds back again and again to God, we shall by the same inevitable law be gradually giving the central place to God, not only in our inner selves, but also in our practical everyday lives. (Paul Tournier)

 

 

Closing

PSALM 23  LORD God, divine shepherd; in the days ahead, just as it has been all my life,  I shall not want for anything. You will rest me in rich pasture  and lead me beside calm waters. You will bring my inner being back where it belongs, and lead me along the right paths,  for the sake of your name. Even when things seem at their darkest, sensing your presence, I fear nothing; you are sure of the way ahead, and you protect me. Indeed, in spite of the adversity surrounding me you continue to provide abundantly for my well-being; anointing me with your hospitality and pouring out blessing upon blessing. Surely good and loving kindness will pursue me all my days, I will return, and you, O LORD,  shall be my dwelling-place for days without end.

                                    (by Jeff Snowden)

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