Year A — The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 15, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Acts 2:42-47
This Easter thing was really starting to take off by the end of Acts 2! The “church” (and there was still only one at this time) was devoted to some pretty amazing things: teaching, fellowship, communion and prayers. 

Ever long for “the good old days” when those were the things we focused on…instead of board meetings, ecclesiastical folderol, soothing the saints’ hurt feelings and such?

Though not particularly a proponent of the “recover the church of the 1st century” type of movements, I do think there is something to be said for asking ourselves: how did we get sidetracked from these things? And how could we get back some of our “devotion?”

It’d be nice to see a few added to our number (as opposed to the inverse of addition) for a change, don’t you think?

Psalm 23
Are you kidding? Me — comment on Psalm 23? 

It is pretty obvious why the Committee for Consultation on Common Texts pairs this “Shepherd Psalm” with the gospel reading from John 10, concerning the voice of the shepherd. The Lord is a faithful Shepherd, performing everything expected of a competent sheepherder…and then some!

All analogies are limited, and even this beautiful metaphor isn’t perfect. But, the words have proved meaningful for many thousands of years. This is one of those passages that you just read…then let it do its work.

1 Peter 2:19-25
Peter was no doubt mindful of the Isaiah 53 background of this text: “All we like sheep have gone astray…” (v.6) and “by his wounds we are healed…” (v. 5.)

Wounds were something that many of his listeners were evidently familiar with. He speaks to slaves who have been beaten by their masters, presumably unjustly. Peter draws a connection for them, reminding them that all of Christ’s wounds were undeserved.

It is perhaps difficult for today’s preacher to parallel the experience of being beaten as a slave for our congregants. Maybe we are accused unfairly from time to time in our experience; few, if any of us, will ever be beaten for “standing up for what is right.” 

Still, like the slaves of Peter’s times, if we deserve such accusation, that’s one thing. If we are innocent, God will have to take care of it. It may not seem like much comfort, but Jesus understands.

John 10:1-10
In today’s reading, Jesus presents himself as the gate of the sheep pen, the place where the sheep are kept safe and secure. It is not actually until verse 11 that he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But that’s probably close enough, since most of us are going to naturally use the shepherd metaphor for this sermon, anyway!

What we do learn about Jesus — whether gate or keeper or shepherd — is that he has come to do the opposite of the “thief,” who wants to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus has come to bring life, and to bring it “abundantly.”

What a cool word: perissos in Greek, which in this context means, “superior, extraordinary, surpassing, uncommon.” (Thayer/Smith Greek lexicon, online here) Again, whatever else may be said about the life Jesus came to share with us — and that we share in our Easter faith — it is way, way better than pretty much anything else we can imagine!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The Shepherd of the Sheep”

Will Rogers said that the only thing he knew about politics was what he read in the papers.

I find myself with an even greater handicap, the only thing I know about sheep and shepherds I read in a Bible commentary.

I know more about mules than I want to know. We had two when I was growing up and we used them in raising tobacco. I know a lot about cows. We had one that we milked by hand, and my uncle had a dairy next door. I even know a considerable amount about hogs having helped my wife’s father with his for several years.

But again, I don’t know anything about sheep and shepherds, except what I read in the commentaries.

Now here’s an interesting thing that occurred to me this week. Bible commentaries are written by biblical scholars, who learned what they know from an older generation of biblical scholars, who learned from an even older generation of biblical scholars, so . . .
I began to wonder how far back you have to go until you find a biblical scholar who actually, really, knew anything about sheep and shepherds.

These reflections led me to two very comforting conclusions:
1) most other preachers don’t know anything about sheep or shepherds either.
2) The point of the text isn’t about sheep and shepherds anyway.

Jesus is here establishing that he is more than just another religious leader, or rabbi, or priest or prophet; he is the messiah of God.

A few quick things from the Bible commentaries might be helpful to us here.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the people of Israel are often referred to as the “flock of God.” The kings and priests and prophets of Israel were given the responsibility for taking care of God’s flock.

And, as the historical parts of the Hebrew Scriptures tell us, they often failed at this task; there were many bad kings, lousy priests and false prophets. When Jesus compares himself to a shepherd, it’s not really a farm image; it’s more a religio/political one.

The important truth he is speaking is that whereas the previous leaders had been poor or incomplete or unfaithful leaders, or, to use the language of the text: “strangers” and “thieves and bandits,” Jesus lays claim to being “the shepherd of the sheep,” and “the gatekeeper,” and “the gate.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “In the past, God gave the responsibility for the people of God over to the kings of the country and the priests of the temple and the prophets of Israel, but now God has given over that responsibility to me, Jesus of Nazareth.”

There are two important implications for us as we think about this text: One is that membership in the “God community” is a matter of hearing and responding to the voice and call of God in the world. The key verses here have to do with voices and listening.

In verses 3-5, Jesus says something like this, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

We are Christians, the people of God, because God’s voice has gotten through the static of our hectic, noisy, modern lives. We are Christians because the “still, small voice,” of God has slipped in underneath the busyness of our existence and tugged at the apron strings of our hearts, getting our attention and moving our souls.

Christianity is not so much a matter of believing certain things as it is of hearing that voice and trusting it with your life. Jesus calls to us in the Scriptures, “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” he says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” he promises. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” he pleads with us.

Over the years I have had some people speak some very kind words to me about my preaching, and I have no false modesty, I appreciate the praise.

But it is important that we all recognize that the voice we hear in preaching is not the preacher’s voice; it is the voice of the shepherd speaking through the preacher’s efforts and sometimes in spite of them.

It’s the same voice that speaks through the Scriptures and through the liturgy and through the hymnody and through the Choir Anthems.

It is the voice of deep crying out to deep, of Christ’s spirit seeking out our spirits and calling us to come into the presence of the lover of our souls.

I said there were two important implications. One is that Jesus’ voice calls to us. The second is that life in Christ is a good, rich and abundant life. I do not mean by this what is sometimes called the “prosperity Gospel,” what we in seminary called “blab it, grab it” theology. Prosperity Gospel advocates say that God wants you to be rich, wants you to be swimming in material blessings. They interpret “abundant life” in terms of houses and cars and jobs and bank accounts.

This is most assuredly NOT what Jesus meant by an “abundant life.” 

Jesus meant a life that is full of the will and way of God. Jesus meant a life that is directed toward loving deeds and peaceful goodness to our neighbors. Jesus meant a life in which our cup is running over with an awareness of the goodness of God so much so that it naturally spills out and spills over and intersects with every aspect of our lives. Jesus meant a life full of random acts of kindness toward those around us. Jesus, quite simply, meant a life full of God, which means a life full of love!

Today, the voice of the true shepherd calls to us across the years. Today, the gatekeeper comes and opens the way to the green pastures of God’s love. Today, the gate itself swings wide and beckons us to enter into the community of God’s faithful. Today, Jesus speaks to us in the language of the heart, and spreading wide his arms and his heart he says, I love you. Follow me!

Amen and Amen.

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