Lectionary Commentaries for April 26, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 10:11-18

Meda Stamper

The good shepherd discourse, or at least the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd, is one of John’s especially memorable moments that tend to be remembered out of context.

While it can have in memory (at least for me) a warm, gentle glow of safety and warmth about it, this discourse actually emerges out of a conflict with the religious authorities in John 9, and the conflict and related discourse are flanked by attempts to stone Jesus (John 8:59; 10:31).

John 10 begins in the middle of a quotation that has started at John 9:41. Jesus is continuing a conflict with the religious authorities, which they have started with the man born blind after Jesus has restored the man’s sight. When the authorities cast the man out, Jesus finds him and receives him as his own — his “sheep” in the rhetorical landscape of John 10. The man born blind receives not only physical sight but also spiritual insight, while Jesus tells the powerful opponents that in their insistence that they are able to see, they remain spiritually blind. He illustrates the conflict of John 9 in John 10 with the contrasting images of the true, good shepherd, on the one hand, and the thieves and bandits who oppose him on the other; the false shepherds, who do not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climb in by another way, do not have the best interests of the sheep at heart; they steal, kill, and destroy, while Jesus, who is metaphorically both the door to the sheepfold and the shepherd of the sheep, offers abundant life.

As our passage for this Sunday begins, we learn (and we hear it again and again in these verses) that the goodness of the true shepherd comes at a cost. While the hired hand, who does not care for the sheep because they are not his own, runs away when the wolves come, the shepherd does not. The good shepherd lays down his life. The phrase is repeated five times in these nine verses and suggests a division of the passage into three parts.

The first section distinguishes the good shepherd from the hired hands who run away when danger comes, leaving them in peril. The theme of the bad shepherds (the thieves and bandits of John 10:8) and the weak shepherds (the hired hands of vv. 12-13) is drawn, like the vine metaphor that we see next Sunday, from the imagery of Israel’s prophets; see, for example, Ezekiel 34. The true and best shepherd is, of course, the Lord of Psalm 23, another text for this Sunday; Jesus’ relationship to that great “I am” is evoked here by the “I am” statements of vv. 7, 9, 11, 14 and will be made explicit in John 10:30.

The thematic phrase of the passage is repeated in John 10:14 and begins what we might see as a second subsection. This one focuses on the identity of the sheep, which is based on mutuality of knowledge with the shepherd. He knows his own (and loves them, 13:1). And they know him (as in 10:4), as the man born blind, the hero of John 9, comes to know him and to testify to who he is.

The “other sheep” of John 10:16 leave the door open to the readers/hearers of the Gospel and also warn against any kind of exclusive claim on the door-shepherd Jesus. Deciding who is in and who is out is really, this suggests, not the business of the sheep and is a mystery to them. We sheep-folk are told only to cleave to Jesus, to love, and to testify, as Jesus makes explicit in later chapters of John and in upcoming lectionary texts.

The third subsection of the passage (John 10:17-18) draws the Father’s love into the image. The mutuality of knowledge between the Father and the Son has been mirrored in the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Now that relationship is further defined as one of love, which will be linked to commandment-keeping here in v. 18 as it will be again in the passages of the next two weeks. The Son is again, v. 17, said to lay down his life, but now he will also take it up again. The thematic phrase is here repeated three times in quick succession. He lays it down in order to take it up. He lays it down of his own accord. He has the authority to lay it down and the authority to take it up. All of this is framed by references to the Father’s love and the Father’s command, so that the death and resurrection are drawn into the mystery of the unity of the Father and the Son (which will inspire homicidal rage in Jesus’ opponents when he proclaims it in v. 30); the laying down and taking up of life on the part of the good shepherd are an expression not only of immense love and faithfulness toward the sheep but also of love and faithfulness toward the Father-God from whose loving presence he has come to the broken, dangerous, beloved world.

Jesus’ sheep are drawn into the unity of love and mutuality of knowledge between the Father and Son. They will, like the Son, choose to abide in love, as we will hear in the next two weeks of lectionary texts, and it will be that for which Jesus prays in the prayer of John 17, in the week after that. Then there is a suggestion in John 21:15-19 that the sheep within the story, like Peter, and the sheep of the future (we included) might later, in light of the Son’s laying down and taking up, function as better hired hands, the ones missing from the imagery of John 10. Nurtured by the love of the Father and Son, these later hired hands will tend and feed Jesus’ sheep and be able to face the worst the wolf can do (John 21:18-19) in the assurance that they have been drawn into a love that stretches from before time into a future beyond time in the abiding presence of the shepherd-God.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:5-12

Troy Troftgruben

When it comes to modern preachers, “boldness” may not inherently be a virtue.

While no one wants a milktoast speaker, many of us associate “boldness” with religious voices too arrogant and unsophisticated for our liking. However, today’s first lesson features a “boldness” characterized not by volume but by the Spirit, which manifests itself at just the time of need. Perhaps this “boldness” is more needed today than we typically realize.

I. The literary context: “Ya got trouble”

Our first lesson takes place in the larger context of Acts 3:1-4:31, the first instance of conflict between Jesus’ witnesses and local authorities. The precipitating causes are a lame man’s healing (3:1-10) and Peter’s public proclamation (3:11-26). Positive reception for his message riles the temple authorities, prompting them to arrest Peter and John for investigation (4:1-4). Today’s reading features the apostles’ response at that investigation.

II. The text at hand: A new kind of boldness

The authorities gathered for the investigation are no team of scrubs:

“Their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:5-6).

Annas was high priest in 6-15 c.e., and his son-in-law Caiaphas is high priest at this time (18-36 c.e.; John 11:49; 18:13).1 In short, Acts 4:5-6 sets the scene for a serious examination by Jerusalem’s foremost leaders.2

The leaders ask directly: “by what power or by what name did you do this?” (4:7) The entire incident recalls earlier words of Jesus:

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12).

Not only does Acts 4:5-12 resonate with Luke 12:11-12 in language and tone, it also accurately foresees how Jesus’ followers will respond. Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8) and answers in a way that the narrative ultimately calls “boldness” (4:13, parresia). This is the first instance of many in Acts where Jesus’ witnesses proclaim with a “boldness” that stems from the power of the Spirit (4:29-31; 9:27-28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31). Under this intense atmosphere of investigation, the Spirit’s “bold” empowerment first manifests itself, and at just the right time.

“Bold” is certainly what Peter’s answer is. After reiterating the grounds for investigation (Acts 4:9), he declares emphatically:

“Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).

Peter’s response names several themes representative of apostolic preaching in Acts. First, he addresses not simply the leaders, but “all the people of Israel” (v. 10; see 2:14b, 22, 36; 9:15; 13:26, 38, 46; 28:20). Second, after attributing Jesus’ death to the leaders of Jerusalem (cf. 2:23-24; 3:14-15; 4:27-28), he emphasizes that “God raised [him] from the dead” (4:10). More than any other evangelist, Luke emphasizes the resurrection as Jesus’ vindication (Acts 2:22-36; 3:13, 26; 5:30; 10:40; 13:31-38; see also 24:21; 26:8; 26:23). Third, Jesus’ rejection by those in authority fulfills scripture, as implied by Peter’s quotation of Psalm 118:22 in Acts 4:11 (see also Luke 24:44-47; Acts 2:22-36; 3:18; 13:31-38; 26:22-23; cf. Matthew 21:42; 1 Peter 2:7). Fourth, the message of Jesus entails “salvation” (soteria) — a divine reality that generates wholeness, restoration, and reversal of societal norms (“healed” in Acts 4:9 is literally “saved,” sesotai).3 Fifth, the language of necessity (“must,” dei, v. 12) about being “saved” is distinctive language of Luke-Acts for identifying matters “necessary” to the overarching purposes of God (Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:14, 33; 17:25; 21:9; 22:37; 24:7, 26; Acts 3:21; 19:21; 23:11). Altogether, Peter’s response in Acts 4:8-12 uses distinctive themes of Luke-Acts to express a bold declaration about the saving nature of Jesus.

III. Reflections: “Boldness” in today’s world

In today’s pluralistic society, interpreters rightly stumble over the exclusiveness of Peter’s language: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Taken at face value, this word excludes. However, in its original context the apostles did not aim to exclude future religious movements, but rather to validate the message of Jesus before a hostile audience and world. In this context, the Spirit’s “boldness” empowered a frank and straightforward emphasis that was seemed necessary. Whether or not a “boldness” empowered by the Spirit today should be so one-dimensional is another question. In short, the contexts of the first audiences of Acts 4:5-12 are very different than our own. While Peter’s words undoubtedly emphasize the distinctiveness of salvation associated with Jesus, how the same Holy Spirit empowers us to express the good news of Jesus “boldly” today is a matter of ongoing dialogue and discernment. Nonetheless, as with the earliest apostles, we are no less in need of Spirit-driven boldness today, lest the world never recognize “companions of Jesus” (Acts 4:13) in their midst.


Notes:

1 Cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.2.2; 20.9.1. The identities of John and Alexander (4:6) are unknown, but some manuscripts read “Jonathan” instead of John. (Jonathan was the name of Annas’s son, who became high priest in 36-37 c.e.)

2 Joseph Fitzmyer concludes that these groups constituted “a formal session of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. . . , the highest group of religious authorities in Jerusalem” (The Acts of the Apostles [Anchor Bible 31; New York: Doubleday, 1997], p. 299). Cf. Acts 6:12; 19:35; 23:9.

3 See, for instance, Luke 6:9; 8:36, 48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; Acts 7:25; 14:9. For more on this topic, see Joel B. Green, “‘The Message of Salvation’ in Luke-Acts,” Ex Auditu 5 (1989): 21-34; Green, “‘Salvation to the Ends of the Earth’ (Acts 13:47): The Saviour in the Acts of the Apostles,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (ed. I. Howard Marshall; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 83-106.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

Joel LeMon

Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” With a simple metaphor in a concise and elegant line, this verse expresses the message of the entire psalm: Yahweh satisfied every need. The images shift throughout the poem, but that central idea remains constant.

Indeed, Psalm 23 delivers some of the most beautiful and deeply comforting images in the whole Bible. As such, this psalm is a favorite — indeed, the favorite — of many.1 But the imagery in this psalm is also full of surprises. So our reading and preaching of this text should not be sentimental, but bold, always keeping in mind the ways that its radical claims confront our experiences of suffering, fear, enmity, and alienation.

The enduring appeal of Psalm 23

The pastoral metaphor at the outset of Psalm 23 resonates so deeply with Christians because of texts like John 10:11 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday) and John 21:15-17. The history of Christian art has played its part as well, reinforcing and developing this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd through countless iterations. Having encountered all of these images of Jesus holding and caring for sheep, it’s hard for us not to associate Jesus as the shepherd in v. 1.

We can also attribute the psalm’s popularity to its happy ending. With rhetorical flourish, the psalm describes a blessed present and a blessed future, filled with the enjoyment of God’s presence: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long!” (v. 6, NRSV). The venerable KJV, which so many of us know, in fact, seems to suggest that a beatific afterlife is in view: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Preaching such a popular text is dangerous, for sentimentalism can easily supplant exegesis. When that happens, our well-worn readings tend to mute the fresh word from God to the contemporary community. Thus we proceed with caution in mapping the structure and imagery of the text.

The journey of the Psalmist

The pastoral images that dominate the beginning of the psalm (shepherd, the verdant fields, and the waters of repose) actually work together to describe a journey that Yahweh oversees and guides. The rest in green pastures is in fact but a temporary repose (v. 2a). This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4).

After the description the blessing that awaits the psalmist in the house of the Lord (v. 5), the text again pictures the psalmist in motion: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (KJV). The word “follow” here (radaph) is better translated “pursue,” a surprising verb given that it is usually the enemies that are pursing the psalmist with an intent to overtake and destroy (e.g., Psalms 7:1; 35:3; 143:3). Furthermore, in this same verse, the word “surely” (’aq) is better translated “only.” Thus it’s not the enemies in hot pursuit. Instead, “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”

The imagery of the final line of the psalm (v. 6b) also deserves another look. For most readers, the end of the psalm provides a picture of an unending bliss in the house of the Lord. The KJV is the basis for the NRSV translating the word shuv as “dwell” here. Some scholars reckon this to be a unique usage of the word shuv, claiming that it indicates a “return with the desire to stay where one ends up.” So, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV). Yet others rightly understand shuv here in its most simple sense: “to turn” or “return.” Given the prevalence of images of travelling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.

This journey consists of the “paths (ma‘galim) of righteousness.” Interestingly, when ma‘galim appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we find it translated “tracks” or “entrenchments,” or even “ruts” that are made by the wheels of an ox-cart — the word ma‘galim is in fact related to the word for young cow, ‘egel. Thus, the “paths of righteousness” are more like ruts in the ground, groves for the wheels of your ox-cart. So, walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God. To live this way glorifies the name (or the reputation) of God: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Jesus as shepherd and trailblazer

As Christians who read and preach this text, we must consider Jesus not only as the good shepherd of John 10, but also as the trailblazer of the paths of righteousness (see Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus tends us and guides us into right relationships with each other and with God. In the psalm, the paths of righteousness do not lead directly from the green pastures to the house of the Lord. No, those righteous ruts go through the very darkest valley (v. 4). In Jesus’s case, the paths of righteousness lead all the way to the cross. Jesus has shown us that way (see especially 1 John 3:16-24, another lection for this Sunday) and calls us to follow him. The good news of Psalm 23 is that when we walk these paths of righteousness, we walk with God (v. 4).


Notes:

1 For an extraordinary discussion of the ascendancy of Psalm 23 in American culture, see William Holladay, “Epilogue: How the Twenty Third Psalm Became and American Secular Icon” in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 359-371.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24

Nijay Gupta

“And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

“In truth it is impossible to love one another in the right way if we do not have faith in Christ, just as it is impossible to believe in the name of Christ if we do not love one another,” The Venerable Bede (Patrologia Latina).

Just before the 2012 presidential election in the United States, CNN posted to its website an interesting quiz: “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus”?1 You could answer a series of questions about how you read the Gospels and understand the message and meaning of Jesus and, by the nature of your answers, the quiz would tell you whether you believe in a Jesus who is a supporter of American democratic values or American republican values. One feature of the quiz’s profiling is that the “red” (republican) Jesus can be summed up in terms of John 3:16: Jesus came to bring salvation to those who believe; the “blue” (democrat) Jesus is summed up in Matthew 25:40: “’Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Which is right? Well, the quiz (probably not to the surprise of its creators) is flawed by forcing you to choose ostensibly mutually exclusive options. Was Jesus all about faith, or all about love? The gospel tradition obviously bears witness to the essential importance of both! And these twin convictions (the primacy of faith, and the primary of love) are both deeply embedded in the Johannine tradition.

While there is no way to be certain, many scholars suggest that 1 John is a text that provides clarifications in view of possible or even actual misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Fourth Gospel. (In that sense, it would have been the first commentary on the Gospel of John!) If this is accurate, one could see 1 John 3:23 as a way of ensuring that two main threads (faith in Christ, mutuality of love) of the Fourth-Gospel-garment are interwoven. For good reason, the Gospel of John is known as the “Gospel of Faith” — faith language appears over 100 times in the book! But “love” is, no doubt, also a leitmotif of the gospel, as becomes especially apparent in the frequency of the word agape in the famous Farewell Discourse of John’s Gospel (John 14-16).

Unfortunately, there have been trends and crosscurrents of debate and division that have led to a problematic bifurcation that can easily become distorted into a “faith vs. works” mentality. Twentieth century Reformed theologian, G.C. Berkouwer, helpfully articulates a more excellent way forward by modeling 1 John 3:23, bringing faith and love together, rather than standing by an inaccurate understanding of sola fide. Berkouwer writes, especially clarifying Luther’s thought:

Faith is not a competitor of love and good works but rather a sponsor, and gives foundation to them because it acknowledges the grace of God. Again and again, and for this reason, Luther pointed out the deep significance of the first commandment [“no other gods”] and accounted all works performed outside its sphere as nothing.2

Berkouwer goes on to explain how Luther saw the move from faith to loving one’s neighbor: “all one’s works must promote the welfare of one’s neighbor, since in his faith each has all the possession he requires and can therefore freely and lovingly devote his entire life to the service of his fellowman.”3

This kind of perspective seems to be reinforced by the way the author frames his statement in 1 John 3:23: believing in Jesus and loving one another are not represented as two separate commandments, but rather as one command. What God hath joined together, let no one put asunder! First John 3:24 completes the chapter by positing that learning obedience to the fullness of both Christ-believing and people-loving is what it means to abide in Jesus, to have a vital connection to the source of all eternal and true life and joy through the Spirit.


Notes:

1 http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/02/politics/red-blue-state-jesus/

2 G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), 32-33.

3 Ibid, 33.