Lectionary Commentaries for May 11, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 10:1-10

Karoline Lewis

Liturgically sensitive preachers will immediately take note that the 4th Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary is always “Good Shepherd Sunday” and perhaps will then let out an audible sigh of despair.

It’s not that we don’t like Jesus as the Good Shepherd. After all, probably half of Christian art would disappear were it not for this popular image of Jesus.

The hint of exasperation arises when we find ourselves asking, what more is there to say about Jesus, the Good Shepherd? How many times can I talk about shepherding practices in ancient Palestine? Do my congregants really want to hear again that they are all a bunch of dimwitted sheep? Please, anything but Jesus as the Shepherd.

Good Shepherd Sunday, Year A, the irritated preacher gets the unexpressed wish. Not until 10:11 will Jesus declare, “I AM the good shepherd” because 10:1-10 is all about Jesus as the gate. Twice, 10:7 and 10:9, Jesus reveals himself to be the gate for the sheep before saying he is the shepherd of the sheep. Perhaps for this year, we might find a way to explore the meaning of this image of Jesus in relationship to Good Shepherd Sunday.

A reminder about the lectionary is necessary before we move into commentary on the verses themselves. Each year of the lectionary assigns different portions of chapter 10 of John for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: Year A, 10:1-10, Year B, 10:11-18, and Year C, 10:22-30. For preaching the first part of chapter 10, it is essential to remember, however, that 10:1-18 is not an isolated passage that pictures Jesus as door and shepherd in some sort of generic way.

John 10:1-18, and even the verses before, 9:40-41, are Jesus’ discourse in response to his healing of the man blind from birth (9:1-41), whose story is read on Lent 4, Year A. Jesus does not stop talking at 9:41 even though the lectionary’s textual delineations are in service to the chapter and verse markings of our modern bibles.

As a result, 9:1-10:21 is all one massive textual unit that follows the structural pattern used elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel of sign — dialogue — discourse. Jesus performs a sign (9:1-7), which is followed by a dialogue as its onlookers try to figure out what it means (9:8-39), and concludes with Jesus’ discourse or interpretation of the sign he has performed (9:40-10:18). What does this mean for preaching? It means that the preacher has to assume and draw on the context of the healing because that is exactly to what Jesus is referring in 10:1-10.

John 10:1 most certainly marks a shift as Jesus moves into his interpretation of the healing and begins to introduce the imagery that will be further unpacked throughout the discourse. John 10:1-5 offers a cast of characters that will receive attention as the chapter unfolds: shepherd, sheep, thieves, bandits, gatekeeper, strangers, and yes, even the gate. Intriguing pictures such as stealth entrance into sheepfolds, knowing the voice of another, being someone’s own, and having your name called are presented. John 10:6 is a brief interruption in the flow to note the lack of understanding of the audience, which includes, by the way, the Pharisees, the disciples, and even the blind man.

Misunderstanding is a frequent reaction to Jesus to which Jesus typically responds with an invitation toward a deeper level of engagement. John 10:7-10 focus on the image of Jesus as gate or door. None of these elements, however, can receive its full measure of meaning without the entirety of 9:1-10:21 in view. Does that seem like a tall order for preaching just these ten verses? Am I asking you to preach the entire passage? Well, yes. And yes. Any element on which the preacher chooses to focus must be filtered through the experience of the blind man and during the course of what Jesus has yet to say in the rest of the discourse. Pick one, choose wisely, and work it. Then, you won’t be preaching the whole passage.

For example, let’s take Jesus as the door, translated “gate” here because that better fits the pastoral scene. Twice Jesus claims, “I AM the door” which will be the same for the good shepherd in 10:11-18. The uniqueness and importance of the “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John should be reviewed at this point, noting also that the beginning of 9:1-10:21 commenced with 9:5, “I AM the light of the world.” The image of the door draws on the notion of inside and outside first articulated in chapter 9 with the blind man being thrown out and then reiterated in the sheep pen of 10:1-5.

The thieves and bandits return as persons, like the stranger, whom the sheep do not know and to whom they will not listen. Each of these set of characters, the thieves, the bandits, and the strangers is the counterpoint to Jesus who is known. Jesus repeats “I AM the gate” in verse 9, giving more specificity to what it means that he is the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters, presumably the sheepfold, through him will be saved, will be able to go in and out and find pasture.

Although easily overlooked, it is Jesus as the gate that first offers salvation. Preaching salvation here demands a radical contextualization of its meaning. Any generalized claim about salvation that erases the specificity of its literary location here dismisses about whom this discourse materialized in the first place. As commentary on the healing of the blind man, what is salvation for him? From what did he need to be saved?

To ask these kinds of questions of this biblical text will prevent the non-descript definitions of salvation that, if we are honest, will not save anybody. The man blind from birth is saved from isolation and marginalization. His healing saves him from everlasting darkness. Never again will he wonder where his next meal will be or who will answer his pleas as he sits begging outside the city. He will know the safety and security of community.

That salvation in John 10:9 is linked to the promise of pasture and protection (in and out of the sheep pen) means that the man born blind will know sustenance and security. For the disciples overhearing Jesus’ words, that which is for the blind man is for every disciple, every believer. The basic needs of life, food, water, shelter, intimacy, Jesus affords, the tangible grace depicted in 1:18, at the bosom of the Father.

The development of the image of Jesus as door or gate concludes, to an extent, in 10:10. The character of the thief returns alone, this time as the one who comes to steal and kill and destroy. In contrast, Jesus comes to provide abundant life. Singling out the thief foreshadows the role of Judas at the arrest of Jesus. The only other time in the Gospel of John that the term “thief” is used describes Judas in 12:6.

Stealing and killing and destroying are all possible outcomes of Judas’s arrival at the garden and may explain Jesus’ words in 18:9 which have no antecedent, “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’”

Preaching this portion of the “Shepherd Discourse” on Good Shepherd Sunday in Year A will preach this text on its own terms, as offering a sustained picture of Jesus as door or gate that is every bit as life-giving as that of Jesus as shepherd. This may be challenging on a Sunday labeled Good Shepherd Sunday, with an undeniable dearth of “Jesus as the Door” hymns, but to ignore this portrait of Jesus dismisses the ways in which this image is further developed throughout the Gospel.

Too many readers and hearers of this particular passage will extract its seemingly exclusionary claims of Jesus as the sole source and means of salvation (14:6). To return the pericope to its immediate and narrative context works against such absolute assumptions that are, in fact, counterintuitive to the theological premise of the Fourth Gospel, that God loves the world.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:42-47

Scott Shauf

Acts 2:42-47 summarizes the daily life of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem.

The passage is fairly easy to understand in terms of the picture it describes. Its challenge comes in discerning how to apply it. Is the life of this community to be taken as a model for Christian life today? If so, it would be hard to deny that most Christians are missing the mark on some key points. If it is not to be so taken, then what shall we do with the passage?

The account follows directly on the story of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit had been experienced powerfully not only by the gathered remaining followers of Jesus, but also by many others in Jerusalem in the neighborhood of their gathering (2:1-13). Peter had given the first Christian evangelistic sermon, explaining that what the people were experiencing was the end-times gift of God’s Spirit promised by the prophet Joel, now poured out on them by the risen and exalted Christ (2:14-36). The response to the sermon was tremendous: Three thousand people repented, were baptized, and joined the Jerusalem Christian community (2:37-41). This week’s passage describes what the life of the resulting community looked like.

Most of the activities described as characterizing the community’s life are uncontroversial and have often characterized Christian congregational life throughout history. This is especially so with the opening description of verse 42. Teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer have been common Christian practices for ages. The middle two of these may be especially significant — fellowship (the Greek word is the well-known koinonia) and eating together, mundane as they seem, are not activities we just happen to do but are essential acts of Christian life.

Teaching and prayer are likely more obvious as Christian activities, but many congregations will nonetheless be helped by a reminder of their centrality. There is some debate about the precise nature of the third and fourth activities: Does “the breaking of bread” refer specifically to the Lord’s Supper or more generally to shared regular meals? The answer is probably both, as 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 suggests that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as a part of regular meals in the early church. The fourth item says “the prayers,” not simply “prayer” as some translations have it; this probably refers to the set prayers occurring at the temple (see Acts 3:1).

Verses 46-47a provide a similar additional description of the community’s life, repeating the ideas of their fellowship and shared meals, while adding their praising of God and the goodwill experienced by them among the rest of the people. The latter may surprise some, as the common stereotype is that early Christians were constantly the object of ridicule and scorn. That is at least not the case here, though certainly trouble will arise in the following chapters.

It is verses 43-45 that have tended to cause the most debate about this passage. Verse 43 describes the miracles done in the community. This naturally raises the question of whether and to what extent miraculous activity ought to characterize Christian life today. The importance of the picture here might be mitigated by the fact that God is the initiator of the miracles — contrary to many of the major translations, including the NRSV, the Greek text says not that they were done “by” the apostles but that they were done “through” (Gk dia) them. Performance of miracles is not primarily a matter of human volition, though one might still ask why miracles occur in one setting and not in another.

The chief challenge of the passage, however, clearly comes in verses 44-45. The members of the community sold their possessions, held all things jointly, and distributed to others as there was need. Ought all Christians to follow this example? The strongest reason for answering “no” here comes from setting this passage in the context of the overall New Testament witness.

While it is not hard to find examples of the community’s other described activities throughout the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole does not indicate that early Christians broadly lived in this radical communal fashion. We do not even find it in Acts outside of the original Jerusalem community. We certainly find concern for the poor and concern about economic oppression in places like Paul’s letters, James, and Revelation (and the rest of Acts), but all other indications about Christian living, whether direct or implicit, are that Christians retained their homes and basic possessions.

We must beware, however, of dismissing this passage too easily. Most of us have no desire to live in this fashion and are thus overly motivated to find reasons not to do so. And surely it is no coincidence that this activity is described as following the powerful gift of the Spirit and the performance of miracles through the apostles! These points suggest that where God is especially at work and where God’s presence is especially experienced, such giving and sharing is the natural Christian response.

Thus Jesus’ own followers during his lifetime likewise lived in such an intensive community. That our own lives look quite different is likely an indication that we have not experienced such divine work among us. I do not mean this as an indictment but merely as a recognition. We still live in a fallen world, and such powerful experiences of God’s activity are not common. But where they occur, our response should be one of celebration rather than suspicion, and we ought to seek such things, not avoid them.

In the meantime, our lives, communal and individual, ought to reflect our own experiences of God’s grace and action in and among us. What message do we send to the world about God by our own attitudes and deeds concerning our possessions? How can our own lives better reflect what God has done for us and the living presence of Christ in our midst?


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

Elizabeth Webb

Consider the vulnerability of a sheep.

A sheep is a particularly vulnerable creature, especially when on its own. Sheep need a leader so as not to wander aimlessly, and will follow their leader even into certain danger. Sheep have no defense against predators except for flocking, yet their instinctive flight response to danger can also cause panic and scattering. Individual sheep are highly stressed when separated from their flock. Indeed, sheep must be able to see each other in order to graze without agitation, and the loss of that visual contact can lead to further panic and flight. A lost sheep is, if you will, a sitting duck.

Texts in which the people of God are depicted as sheep arise from the experiences of vulnerable communities. The people are scattered and have fallen prey to those bent on Israel’s destruction. These passages offer assurance that their Lord is with them, to lead them as their shepherd (Psalms 95:7 and 100:3), to rescue the scattered and bring them to their own land (Ezekiel 34:11-16), and to gather lambs to God’s bosom and gently lead them home (Isaiah 40:11).

Our text for today, Psalm 23, is spoken by one who knows fresh pain. The writer speaks for a community that has recently walked through the darkest valley, and has emerged, trembling and stumbling and blinking in the light. Just such a story of suffering and deliverance is told in Psalm 22, and the two psalms can be read as companions.

Indeed, Psalm 23 offers assurance in the very places where Psalm 22’s lament lacks it. Reading Psalm 23 in light of Psalm 22 emphasizes the depth of that assurance; it is not an assurance cheaply bought, but is the hard-won assurance of those who have suffered greatly and felt the gentle guidance of their shepherd.

Psalm 22 contains the traditional elements of Psalms of lament, but with a distinctive pattern. While the text includes the customary elements of lament (verses 1-2, 6-8, 12-18), petition (verses 10-11 and 19-21), statement of trust (verses 3-5 and 9-10), and praise (verses 21b-31), Psalm 22 is heavy on lament, and withholds all praise until after deliverance has occurred (“From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me,” verse 21b).

Eschewing a more typical pattern that intersperses lament and petition with trust and praise, Psalm 22 layers lament upon petition upon escalating lament, with a few words of trust in God’s deliverance sprinkled in. This psalm voices the increasing desperation of a community that has been encircled by enemies and whose life is all but gone.

It is in response to these desperate laments that the writer of Psalm 23 delightedly proclaims, again and again, trust in the Lord. It is as if the desperation of 22 is matched by the exuberant trust of 23. Yet the exuberance does not erase the pain; rather, assurances of God’s care are a salve applied precisely to the particular wounds of Psalm 22.

The psalmist’s deep sense of abandonment, heard especially in those haunting words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1), is healed in 23:1-3: “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me … he restores my soul.” Most poignantly, 23:4 asserts that even in the darkest valley, there is nothing to fear, “for you are with me.” The shift from third-person description to second-person address underscores the intimacy of the divine presence; the one who seemed to have forsaken the people in Psalm 22 is here the one who is fully with them even in their deepest despair.

The heart-wrenching depictions of acute suffering in Psalm 22:14-18 are met in Psalm 23 with lavish descriptions of refreshment for the body and soul. Being relentlessly humiliated and pursued by mortal enemies (Psalm 22:7-9, 12-13, 16) has left the speaker “poured out like water,” with a heart “melted like wax” and a tongue stuck to a parched mouth, lying in “the dust of death.” With shriveled hands and feet and protruding bones, the sufferer is as good as dead in the eyes of the pursuers, as they cast lots for and divide up the sufferer’s clothing. Psalm 22 describes an affliction so acute that the very body and spirit of the sufferer are wasting away.

In response to this, the speaker in Psalm 23 describes the restoration that God the shepherd provides. Green pastures, still waters, a rod to protect and a staff to guide, all of this restores the soul. The table set in the presence of those enemies refreshes the parched throat with an overflowing cup. God is the host at a feast of thanksgiving, and the sufferer is the honored guest, whose head is anointed with oil. In response to the sufferer’s wasting away in Psalm 22, Psalm 23 depicts the overflowing refreshment of God’s presence, which restores the sufferer in body and soul.

Assurance of God’s presence and care does not erase evil and suffering. Nowhere in the Psalms do we find a naïve trust, but always one that is fully aware of what has been lost. Divine deliverance does not mean that evil is eradicated. Indeed, it is still in the presence of enemies that the psalmist sits down at God’s table. There is no suggestion here that enemies have become friends.

But Psalm 23 insists that we can trust in deliverance in the midst of evil; the deliverance is true, it’s real. Whatever preys upon us, individually and as communities, we are not defeated, because God is with us. Imagine if we lived as if we really knew this truth, as if we really feared no evil, because our trust is in God. Imagine where no longer being driven by our fear might take us. Imagine if we, the vulnerable flock of the divine, knew ourselves forever to be pursued by the goodness and mercy of God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25

Karl Jacobson

 “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering.” 

This is difficult. But probably not difficult in the way you might think. The truth is that for most of us — at least for most of us living in the United States — living the Christian life and being “aware of God” are less than likely to bring us suffering. Suffering, abuse, threats of physical violence; these are not the barriers to the life of faith that many of us will ever face.

The old saw that “the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist” (attributed variously to the French poet Charles Baudelaire, or Verbal [Kevin Spacey] from The Usual Suspects [1995]), may be amended a bit along these lines:

The greatest threat to the Christian faith is indifference. It can seem, at times, that we just don’t matter that much. Let me be perfectly clear at this point: I am not suggesting that physical danger is to be desired, nor am I pining for the good-old-days of persecution. But does the current state of affairs, at least in North American culture, render a text like 1 Peter 2:19-25 almost irrelevant?

“For this you have been called. Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps.” Is this a call that we need to answer? Can it be answered? Perhaps the call to suffering or even martyrdom will not be sounded for us, at least not explicitly. But we can follow in Christ’s steps, in a figurative sense. Following 1 Peter 2:22-24 here is an attempt to chart the course of following Christ’s example.

Verse 22, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in him,” is an allusion (in the form of a quotation) of Isaiah 53:9, “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” To take this as an admonition never to sin would be to ask the impossible, but honesty — as a way of life, in our confession not only of sin but of Christ, in our living out of the calling to which we have been called in Christ. This can be within our grasp.

In verse 23 there is another allusion (this time not set out as a quotation) to Isaiah 53, this time verse 7. The author of 1 Peter writes, “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” This calls to mind the suffering servant as Isaiah imagines him, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.”

Here too is an example that is within our reach: to stay our lips when we are abused (lied about, insulted, defamed), to refrain from responding in kind when we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to entrust ourselves — in every situation — to our God…these are things that we, like Jesus, can do.

These may not be the sufferings of legend, but they are real. And we called to look to the Christ, and follow his example. This may be a difficult word to preach, but it is one we do well to consider. In a culture that often is given over to a word-based revenge, to foul, lowest-common-denominator rebuttal, to name-calling, the need for some sacrificial silence may be long overdue. This might also be an opportunity for the preacher to exercise some silence.

1 Peter 2:21 is an invitation: “For this you have been called. Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps.” Is this a call that we need to answer for our audience? Or is it best left to them — or better opened up for them — to answer for themselves?