Lovers of the literal, maligners of metaphor, beware!: This passage is not for you.
Or, maybe this passage is especially for you. Here John showcases Jesus’ habit of conveying truth not propositionally, but poetically. Jesus carries on about sheepfolds, gates, thieves, sheep, and gatekeepers, strangers, and voices. After five verses he pauses and notes that they haven’t got any idea what he’s talking about (v. 6). So, what is an effective speaker to do at that point? Explain the figure of speech (paroimia)? Drop the use of metaphor? Apologize for using such elevated speech and dumb things down, put it all in simplistic terms? Maybe. But that’s certainly not what our Lord and Savior did. Rather, he again (v. 7, palin) throws out the same word-pictures. The whole Gospel of John is nothing if not a piling up of metaphors, figures of speech. How else are we to convey truth about God? What single image, what single word could suffice? Plain speech (parresia) is fine as far as it goes (see 16:26, 29)–but it can’t go far enough to “explain” God. The Fourth Evangelist is a wordsmith extraordinaire. Words matter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This passage is a call to pastor and parishioner alike to exult in the poetic power of language to draw us into a transformative experience of truth.
Billy Collins has a wonderful poem about poetry that applies equally well to Scripture:
Introduction to Poetry www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html)
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
If we wanted to “find out what Jesus’ figures of speech really mean,” we’d have to do a fair amount of torturing. Anyone looking for an exact one-to-one correlation between image and referent may be frustrated. How can Jesus be the shepherd, the gate, and the gatekeeper all at once? The same way he’s the way, the truth and the life in ch. 14; the true vine in ch. 15; the light of the world in ch. 8; the resurrection and the life in ch. 11, the true bread of heaven which the father gives in ch. 6, and so on. He’s all of this and more. All of these metaphors get at Jesus’ nature and function as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the world.
Jesus the Shepherd and the Lamb I don’t know any shepherds and no amount of sharing what you found out about first-century shepherds in the Bible Dictionary or stories you tell about the modern Bedouin shepherds you met on your trip to the Holy Land is going to change the fact that I don’t know any shepherds. Your best bet, then, may be to continually familiarize me with my scriptures which speak at length about how God is shepherd-like. Read Ps. 23 to me while my eyes are closed and ask me how I do or don’t experience God as a shepherd? If Ps. 23 is read along with ch. 10, the listener will immediately hear the connection in v. 9. Inundate me with shepherd language from the Hebrew Bible. Then show me the places in John where this theme recurs. If you do this, I will discover that John wants me to understand that I am known by name and constantly cared for, never “orphaned” (14:18) or forsaken.
In John 5 Jesus says that soon the dead will hear his voice (phone) and live. In our passage, we hear that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice (phone). In ch. 11, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, comes out of the tomb to live in response to the voice (phone) of Jesus calling his name (11:43-44). In 18:37 Jesus tells Pilate that everyone who belongs to truth listens to Jesus’ voice (phone). In ch. 1 John the Baptist declares “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Unlike the Synoptics, in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the day before Passover; he is killed on the day that the paschal lamb is slaughtered. And the resonances go on and on. John intends to convey all of these meanings, piled on top of one another until we find meaning everywhere.
The Enemies of the Shepherd The shepherd, sheep, gate, and gatekeeper have enemies: thieves and bandits. Judas Iscariot will be named a thief in ch. 12. In ch. 1 John made it clear that God creates and saves; therefore, it makes sense that those working against God’s plans can be identified by their association with death and destruction. God is not in that business.
Truth over Time Often in the Gospel of John the disciples don’t understand a particular speech or act of Jesus’ and the reader is told that the requisite knowledge, remembrance, or understanding will come later for them (2:22; 16:4, 12). So, the author is telling us to immerse ourselves in the biblical language and metaphor, absorb it, and, in time, we will understand it. We all know that some kinds of truth stun us with their unexpected, immediate appearance; others unfold over time as we gather the various pieces that, taken together, eventually form a discernible truth.
Life, Abundantly From start to finish and everywhere in between, this Gospel announces that the sole purpose of God’s creative acts and Christ’s work on the cross is life (zoe). The noun alone is used thirty-six times and various forms of the verb twenty more. Draw your people into the poetry of life and you will have been true to the passage in particular and the Gospel as a whole:
Poem A, John 1:4: In him was life, and the life was the light of all people;
Poem B, John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him;
Poem C, John 10:10: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly;
Poem D, John 20:31: But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Christians make their most magnificent claims during Easter.
It is a bold thing to do, for the victorious assertions of the resurrection are not easily squared with the despair and violence that characterize human experience. This Sunday’s reading describes a state of affairs that looks extremely attractive, yet utterly unrealistic or beyond our reach. Its hopeful vision of justice and service can look more like pie in the sky if we are not honest about the struggles that are part of our efforts to proclaim and embody the gospel in our living. But what better time than Easter to proclaim what God is capable of bringing into being?
By the time we get to Acts 2:42, Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon (on the wider context set forth in Acts 2, see the commentary for the two previous Sundays). Nevertheless, the work of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of the Easter message persist beyond that scene. The snapshot of communal life in 2:42-47 does not occur separately from the Spirit’s prophetic work, for it exists as a constituent piece of the Spirit’s witness concerning the resurrected Jesus. God calls people to salvation through the Spirit; God also creates a community comprising those who are called.
The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels most of us. We long for the life-affirming benefits that community can bestow, but we resist the demands that community makes. No wonder that we find it difficult to know what to do with passages such as this one. In an early chapter of her book Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), biblical scholar Rita Halteman Finger surveys a range of interpretive approaches that have concluded that Christians should not take the communal ethic described here and in Acts 4:32-37 as normative. Interpreters since the Reformation have proposed that Acts offers a symbolically idealized portrait of communal life, that these verses describe practices that were necessarily short-lived and limited in scope, or that such practices are simply unworkable in a modern context. Finger’s point is that a lot of us instinctively chafe against these descriptions because we recognize that have a lot to lose in such a situation. So much tempts us to dismiss these verses as quaint, even as we claim to yearn for such conditions as a sign of God’s reign among us.
It is important to acknowledge that Acts, taken as a whole, does not hold up this depiction of corporate life as central or primary in the church’s experience. It may represent the best of what God’s people are capable of, in the power of the Spirit, but after Ananias and Sapphira defraud the Jerusalem community in 5:1-11 one looks in vain for any description of community life that approaches the radicalism seen in Acts 2. This does not mean that hospitality, charity, mutuality, and worship are not characteristics of the communities that the Spirit still creates; they are, and they continue to be commended elsewhere in Acts. But Acts likewise concedes the flawed nature of believers and their struggles to achieve and maintain unity.
The description given in Acts 2:42-47 suggests what the Holy Spirit can do. These verses do not lay down rules or specific structures for Christian living. In their context they indicate that the reign of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ creates the potential for mutual service that embodies God’s justice. The life and work of a Christian community can reflect–even if only dimly–the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed while on earth and secured through his death, resurrection, and exaltation.
This passage presents a summary filled with generalizations, yet several details prove instructive. The community of faith in Jerusalem lives a multifaceted witness, one not restricted to a single place or mode. This witness manifests itself in houses and in the Jerusalem temple. It benefits its members and earns the admiration of outsiders. The community exists not for its own sake, but to care for its most vulnerable members and to be a means by which God extends salvation to others (v. 47).
It is noteworthy that this sketch of corporate life describes a state of affairs for which others in the ancient world longed. Terminology in this passage echoes other Greek philosophical writings that describe an ethic of friendship and mutuality that can be realized through ideal social and political arrangements. Some elements of the text also recall promises made in the Old Testament about the just society that God longs to see established in Israel. Certainly, then, this passage paints an idealistic portrait, proposing to ancient readers that Christian community offers the path to such a desirable vision of human existence. But just because an assertion might be idealized or hyperbolic does not mean that it can be easily dismissed. Acts anchors humanity’s deepest hopes for community, justice, generosity, and meaning specifically as a result of people coming to embrace the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ as God’s designated agent, as the particular means by which God institutes and exercises God’s reign within creation. Do not assume that this passage celebrates community or the church for its own sake. The community of faith exists as an extension of the ascended Lord Jesus’ commitment to bring salvation to the world.
The challenge for preachers, of course, is getting communities of faith to believe this about themselves–and about God. Congregations are easily frustrated in their attempts to build community that functions as an authentic expression of the gospel, even if it must remain a flawed expression. But it is an empowering thing to realize that Christians are not left to their own devices in creating such an environment. The ministry of God’s reign that Jesus inaugurated during his life and secured by his death, resurrection, and glorification is not merely a thing of the past or a faint hope for future days; it continues, sometimes barely perceptibly, in the corporate life of communities of faith. It is important to underscore that Acts 2:42-47 describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers. This is not to say that the members of a community of faith bear no responsibility for living in a way that displays God’s reconciliation. The audacious claims of a resurrection faith demand such boldness from us.
We ought to first note that the lectionary this week has skipped over I Peter 2.1-18. The very important passage in I Peter 2.4-10 will be next week’s text.
The creators of the lectionary have evidently changed the order of the texts so that “Shepherd Sunday” might be celebrated each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Psalm 23, for example, is appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in each year of the lectionary cycle.
We should note that the omitted verses 11-18 begin with the introduction which reads, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh….” The first thing to notice about this verse is its clear definition of the status of the Christians Peter is writing to in the Dispersion. They are aliens and exiles. They have no status in their lands. They are the marginalized, the worker slaves, the undocumented workers of their time.
One commentator calls this section “ethics for exiles within the structures of this world.” The kind of advice given here comes pretty much from what are called “traditional household duty codes.” These were commonly held ethical codes of their time. There is really nothing uniquely Christian about this listing of advice. The Law, after all, is written on the heart of all people! See Romans 2.14-16. It is not the Law that is revealed with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel that is revealed! Advice for ethical living in I Peter comes from the common wisdom of the society.
There is one disturbing reality in Peter’s ethical advice for exiles. Peter calls them to accept the authority of every human institution [v. 13] and every slave master [v.18]. Submission is Peter’s call. In our appointed text Peter continues by indicating that it is to their credit if they endure pain while suffering unjustly. This will bring God’s approval! Christ is the example they should follow. “…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.” V. 23.
It is imperative upon us to understand this advice in its social location. Peter is writing to aliens and exiles in the land. These were people who had no power to do anything other than suffer in their context. These texts, however, have often been taken out of their context and applied to people today. I once heard a preacher say that when Jesus was abused, ‘”He just took it.” That is, indeed, what today’s text says! Afterward the preacher’s wife reminded him how many women who have been abused by their husbands have been told by good Christian counselors to be like Jesus who just took it! Feminist theology has rightly revolted against an indiscriminate usage of this passage from Peter and other passages as well that continue to afflict punishment on women. Liberation theologians, theologians speaking for the “aliens and exiles” in the world today, have also challenged this kind of reading of this and other texts.
When we address our people today in twenty-first century America we address very few in our pews who are “aliens and exiles.” We preach to people who have rights in our society who, therefore, have the ability to protest unjust treatment through the courts and through the halls of political powers. Let us not proclaim to our people a false theology of submission based on a very different context from the pages of I Peter. This indeed would be to preach Law instead of Gospel. Our contemporary hearers are not powerless to work for a more just world.
On Shepherd Sunday we obviously have the chance to preach on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. This would be based on v. 25: We have been like sheep who have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way. We are called to return to “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” One approach to this text on this Sunday would be to tell some of the biblical stories regarding the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 is today’s appointed Psalm. Lift it up. The Gospel text is from John 10.1-10. “I am the door of the sheep,” Jesus announces here. We can also tell the stories of the shepherd from Jeremiah 23.3ff and Ezekiel 34.23ff. Luke 15.3-7 could also be one of our stories.
After hearing some of these shepherd stories we can turn to our human need for a shepherd. The Good Shepherd comes to find the lost. Talk about humans being lost! Make it vivid. Make it real. Then be the mouthpiece of the biblical shepherd. You might say something like this: The Good Shepherd has good news for lost people. His words are: “I have come to be your Shepherd, you shall not want. [Psalm 23] “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries and bring them back to the fold.” [Jeremiah 23.3.] “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” [Ezekiel 34.11] “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak….” [Ezekiel 34.16]. Behold, I am the Good Shepherd! Amen.
There are two other images in this text which could be developed into sermons. One image is the tree. In v. 24 we note that cross can also be translated as tree. Deuteronomy 21.22ff indicates that anyone hung on a tree is accursed by God. In Acts 5.27-32 Peter preaches about the tree and the one who offers Israel a chance for repentance and forgiveness. In Acts 10:34ff Peter again preaches, this time to the Gentiles gathered at Cornelius’s house. The death of Jesus on the tree [v. 39] is a central part of his sermon. As a result of his sermon the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles!
Peter also mentions the wounds of Christ in v.24. This is the only New Testament reference to the wounds of Christ as such. In the Old Testament, however, wounds are spoken of often as a description of the human condition. See Isaiah 1.5ff; Jeremiah 30.12, 17; Micah 1.8 and Nahum 3.19. Isaiah again speaks of wounds in chapter 53, his great poem to the suffering servant. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Isaiah 53.5.