Year C — The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 21, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. Ellen Johnson-Price

Acts 9:36-43
What are we to make of the story of Tabitha?

Help widows and do good works, and you’ll never die? Silly widows, she wasn’t really dead, she was just sleeping really hard? God allows miracles to demonstrate God’s power when the time is right? Stuff happens that we just don’t understand?

I know that, historically and exegetically, this portion of Acts is illustrating the spread of the gospel and faith in Jesus through the dynamic things that Christ’s followers were able to do. We are also seeing Peter ascend to his zenith, while Saul is emerging and will soon take center stage.

But, still…here’s Tabitha. Dead. Alive. I can’t help but wonder if she ever met up with Lazarus and had a confab in the world’s smallest club.

For the time being, I’m going with God is simply amazing. Sometimes, you just gotta follow your gut.

Psalm 23
Classic.

There’s always something for us in Psalm 23. It seems that no matter the translation, its rhythms and flow manage to comfort, assuage, and assure us for the day (and days) ahead.

On this day, as I read it again, I am drawn to v.3 — “the Lord restores my soul.” Life drains us; soul-less society is superimposed upon the reality of God’s beautiful world. 

More than a simple need to get back to nature, pausing in the presence of God in the great sanctuary of the green pastures and still waters truly replenishes and restocks “the store” of our hearts and lives — our souls. 

Revelation 7:9-17
God’s mercy has no limits. I love it that, in this scene of the redeemed from every nation, we see a multitude “that no one could count.” 

We are good at counting — how many parish pastors live and die by the dreaded accountability reports that must be turned in to superintendents, bishops, boards, or other ecclesiastical entities? I do realize, as I once heard an impassioned presenter proclaim, that “every number has a soul.” 

But, really — don’t we get a little too hung up on the numbers some times? Especially when the numbers are designed to tell us who is “in” and clearly delineate who is “out?” 

No counting in heaven. How cool.

John 10:22-30
Even in the Jerusalem of Jesus, it seems people wanted easy answers.

How often are we compelled to make our decisions based upon the sound bites from the latest news cycle? Matters of great weight are decided (much to my chagrin) by the latest hot-button issue, expressed in our societal proclivity for “Yes” or “No” answers.

Are you for cutting the budget? Are you for raising taxes? Are you for protecting the unborn? Are you for “gay marriage?”

Some things just can’t be loaded into a 20-second video clip or encapsulated in 140 characters in a tweet! Some things need to be heard, considered, discussed, ruminated upon, and then decided. Don’t be in such a hurry!

Jesus said, “You have the works I have done; you have the Law and the Prophets; you have had me walking daily in the temple courts. What do these things tell you?”

Yeah, but…what would Bill O’Reilly say?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“My sheep know my voice,” Jesus said. Our Scriptures for today are full of references to sheep and shepherds. In Acts we see Peter living out the promises he made to Jesus to tend Christ’s sheep. Psalm 23 is full of beautiful imagery about God’s love and support and care for us as our shepherd. Revelation is a vision of heaven, of the faithful from all times and all places, all countries and all races, gathered around the heavenly throne, and the last verse tells us, in a mixed metaphor, that the Lamb is also our Shepherd, who will protect and comfort us forever. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus answers those who question him about being the messiah with a sheep and shepherd image, as well as an admonition that they should look to his words and his actions if they want to know who he really is. 

The shepherd was a very powerful image in Israel. For much of their history, they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep. Because of this, sheep imagery was very important, and the king of Israel was often referred to as the Shepherd of Israel, harkening all the way back to King David, the traditional author of Psalm 23, who is the king by whom all kings were measured, and who began life as a shepherd boy.

The ancient kings of Israel were seen to be different from the kings of the nations around them, in that they were not seen as divine themselves, but as human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in his name. The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs, it was God’s and they were to take care of God’s kingdom and God’s people in God’s name and with God’s help.

North Carolina Synod Bishop Leonard Bolick told the story of a retired clergyman who organized a Holy Land Tour. One day the group made a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Along the way the Pastor told the group how they would see many sheep and shepherds and to think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd and how shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them; he never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them. Suddenly the bus was stopped for a herd of sheep to pass. The pastor was surprised d to see a man with a stick beating the sheep. He got off the bus and confronted the man, “Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.” “That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.”


A true king, a true leader of Israel, was a shepherd, not a butcher. Now when the folk come to Jesus asking if he is the messiah, they are asking if he is the one sent from God to free them from the Romans and their puppet king Herod. They all knew Herod was no true shepherd; he was a butcher, a cruel man using his position for his own advantage.

Jesus’ answer to them points them to his actions. “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 they honor God?” He then goes on to make it plain, just as they requested. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “They know their true shepherd and follow and respond to him.” He goes further by claiming that God has put the true Israel into his hands to protect and keep, and that he is doing this on behalf of God, indeed that he is God, “The Father and I are One.” 

The hearing of the Shepherd’s voice is not the difficult part in all this. Just hearing the voice is not enough. This is an issue which has confounded the church for generations; why do some believe and others not? Why do some respond and others turn away? Those of us gathered here on a Sunday morning have in one way or another heard and recognized the voice of our master, our savior, our Lord. 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.

And, to varying degrees, we have all put ourselves into the hands of that shepherd; we have trusted him with our souls and our lives. We feel secure in the promise that we will not be “snatched away,” and in the hope of praising him around the heavenly throne.

The one question that remains is what are we to do about that voice here and now, in this time and in this place; which brings us back to the Acts lesson and our gospel for last week. 

In Acts, we find Peter doing what Jesus told him in the last chapter of John, being a shepherd to the sheep, doing what Jesus did. This story, the raising of Dorcas, is very similar to the story in Mark, chapter 5 where Jesus raises the synagogue leader’s daughter. And in the verses just prior to our lesson, Peter heals a man in a way that reminds us of the way Jesus healed the man lowered down from through the ceiling, even to telling him, “Get up and walk.” It is clear that Luke wants us to see Pete as following in the ministry footsteps of Jesus.

And that is our calling as well. In order to follow the voice of the Shepherd, we are to follow him and do what he did. Not just pastors, but all of us. We, the church, are the shepherds, and the hurting, lonely, lost people of the world are God’s scattered sheep. And we are called to go out to them with the Voice of the Shepherd, calling them home, calling them home to God, 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 hear from us; what people know of God’s love, they receive from us.


The shepherd calls. How will we answer?
Amen and amen.

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