Year B — The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 29, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Acts 4:5-12
Cheeky answer, wasn’t it?

Peter is standing — along with his accomplice, John — before the very seat of power in Israel of the first century CE. This is you or I being brought before our particular judicatories (synod, conference, presbytery, deacon body, etc.) and questioned about our ministerial practice. The fact that these men were “all” members of the high-priestly family added a bit more gravitas (if any were needed.)

“By what power are you doing these things? Who, or what, gives you the right to act the way you have been acting?”

It’s not a question one wants to answer lightly. They knew that they could get in real trouble. You or I might very well find our livelihoods on the line if brought up for questioning on a similar matter. (What if your entire pension fund were riding on the words that came next out of your mouth, for instance?)

“None other than Jesus of Nazareth — the one you crucified. God raised him from the dead and his is the only name that has been given by which we may be saved.”

Pretty specific; pretty well-defined. Not afraid to be gently, if firmly, confrontational. It’s an all-or-nothing response, when you think about it. 

Are we, who may have much less on the line, just as willing to proclaim our conviction as to the truth of the gospel today?

Psalm 23
The classic Psalm 23 provides background for the qualities of the “good shepherd.” We do well to have this passage in mind when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

As you re-read Psalm 23 — and do take the time to re-read it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, read it, or even preached it —  what quality (or qualities) of the good shepherd stand out to you? How have you experienced the presence of the Lord as your shepherd?

1 John 3:16-24
True love does a lot more than wait; it gives, it hopes, it perseveres, it trusts, it supports…and a whole lot more (refresh your memory at 1 Corinthians 13.)

Mainly, as the Elder Apostle writes here, it acts. Love is a very active thing to feel and do. Not just the words, lofty as they may be (love poems are among the highest literary achievements in human history.) It’s all about what you do, baby!

Don’t just tell me that you love me — show me! You don’t have to live in Missouri to subscribe to that kind of wisdom!

John says that we have not gone far enough when we have simply believed  in Jesus…we must also love (in word and deed) one another.

John 10:11-18
If you’re just in it for the paycheck, you probably aren’t too interested in sacrificing yourself for anyone at the place where you work. That’s just not a “normal” way to think, is it?

But Jesus says that living life his way is sort of like a shepherd in the old days — most likely, the shepherd had a literal financial interest in the welfare of the sheep. He was owner or part-owner of the flock, so it was in his best interest to deliver them to market (or to the shearer) in the best possible condition. Healthier sheep equals higher dollars.

But more than that, the shepherd shared a bond with the sheep. He knew them each by name (his own pet names for them;) he knew how they acted, which were prone to act up or skip out, which were prone to mind and follow in the way they were led.

The sheep also knew which was their shepherd; they got used to his (or her) voice. Even when penned with other flocks and other shepherds, only the voice of “their” shepherd would rouse the sheep to follow. The shepherd was sworn to protect the sheep, and — evidently — would put himself at risk in order to fulfill his duty.   

So, Jesus says, I am a lot like that; I know you, you know me, we’re really in this thing together. I have given my life for my sheep. All of them. Even the ones you can’t see in this fold. 

Trust me on this.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In my little backyard converted shed office, I have a couple thousand books arranged on a variety of yard sale bookcases. As I wrote this sermon, my coffee cup rested on a shelf that contains what I call my “Jesus books.” In recent years there have been a huge number of books written and debate hashed out about who Jesus was, or if indeed he really was.

I own over 30 of these books, and that’s just a small part of all that are out there. They have titles like: “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand up?” The Misunderstood Jew,” “Who Was Jesus?” “Lord or Legend?” “Looking for Jesus,” “The Real Jesus,” “What Jesus Meant,” and my favorite title, not favorite book, but favorite title: “Cynic Sage or Son of God?” (Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.)

For over 2000 years the world and the church have wrestled with the question of the true identity of the wandering preacher from Galilee.

The whole of Chapter 10 in John deals with this. Who does he say he is? Does his walk match his talk? Is he for real?Are the signs to be believed?

Eventually, in verse 24, the people ask Jesus – “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one sent from God?” Jesus’ answer points to his actions as keys to his identity; behavior reveals character.

He asks them, “Do I act and talk like a Messiah, like a true king of Israel?” “Are the things I say and do for the benefit of the people?” “Do I honor God with the way I live my life?”

In this first part of chapter 10, Jesus talks about being the Shepherd of the sheep, about how the sheep hear the true shepherd’s voice and follow, about the willingness of the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep.

In verses 7 through 11 Jesus showed the contrast between himself and the other shepherds: “all who came before me are thieves and bandits,” Then he says “I am the good shepherd.” Later in chapter 10 Jesus again picks up the protective and caring shepherd theme.

It may be helpful to us to think not in terms of good and bad, but rather in terms of true versus false; or real versus pretend; or fake versus genuine; or perhaps faithless versus faithful.

What Jesus lays claim to here in this text is to being not a false, not a pretend, not a fake, not a faithless shepherd of Israel; but rather to being a true, a real, a genuine, a faithful shepherd of God’s sheep.

The shepherd was an important symbol in Israel. For much of their history they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep for their livelihood. Because of this, sheep and shepherd imagery was very important.

The King was often referred to as the Shepherd of Israel, referring back to King David, the traditional author of the 23rd Psalm. David, a shepherd boy in his youth, is the king by whom all kings are measured.

The ancient kings of Israel were different from the kings of the nations around them. The other kings were held up to be gods on earth, divine beings in human form. The kings of Israel were not believed to be divine; they were known to be ordinary human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in God’s name. The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands.

The kingdom was not theirs to do with as they pleased. The kingdom was God’s and they were to take care of it and God’s people in God’s name and with God’s help. And even great King David failed to do it right all the time.

Between David and Jesus there were many years and many kings, and all the kings of Israel failed in one way or another. None of them lived up to the image of the good, the true, the real Shepherd of Israel, especially not the emperor in Rome or his puppet King Herod.

Now Jesus makes it plain. The sheep hear my voice, he says, they know their true Shepherd and follow and respond to him.

This is the difficult part of this lesson for me. Just hearing the voice is not enough. Many people hear, but don’t appear to respond, don’t seem to answer, don’t look like they are following, apparently don’t recognize the voice of Jesus.

Those of us gathered here in church on Sunday morning have, in one way or another heard and recognized the voice of God, the voice of our savior and friend, in the voice of the Bible, in the voice of the Church.

Some of us are more sure than others, some of us hear it more clearly and distinctly than others, but all of us have heard it. That is why we are here. But we are left to wonder about those who aren’t here, those who may have heard the word but don’t appear to have heard the voice.

Rather than wonder about if they have heard, or why they haven’t heard in the, our calling today is to live our lives in such a way that the voice of the Christ is shared with the world in the way we live our lives and in the way we tell God’s story.

Pastor John Ortberg tells this story in a recent book:
A man is being tailgated by a woman in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes. The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures.

While she is in mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman. He invites her out of her car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell. After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her her personal effects, saying

“I’m very sorry for the mistake, ma’am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language. I noticed the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bumper sticker, the CHOOSE LIFE license plate holder, the FOLLOW ME TO SUNDAY SCHOOL window sign, the FISH EMBLEM on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car.
(When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box, 2007, p. 115)

How we live our lives sends a message to the world. When Martin Luther said that the church is a “priesthood of believers,” he didn’t mean that we are all pastors; he meant that we all carry Christ into the world in our words and in our actions.

In the modern world, we; we, the church; we, all of us in the church; we are the shepherds; and the hurting, lonely, lost people of the world are God’s scattered sheep. Our calling is to go out to them with the voice of the shepherd, calling them home to safety, calling them home to love.

We are the voice of Christ in the world.

What people know of God’s law, they learn from us.

What people know of God’s forgiveness, they receive from us.

What people know of God’s love, they feel from us.

The voice of Christ calls each of one of us out into the world today.

How will you answer?

Will you go?

Will you go out there and love the world in the name of Christ?

Amen and amen

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