Lectionary Commentaries for May 3, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 10:11-18
Commentary on Acts 4:5-12
F. Scott Spencer
How quickly things can change, and how differently people can interpret the same event!
Last week’s reading from Acts 3 featured the people’s amazement at the apostles’ healing the lame man who had long begged for alms at the temple gate. They were so taken with the apostles’ miraculous work, they worshipped them. Yet Peter pointed the crowd away from himself and John to the true source of power, to the strong name of Jesus whom God raised from the dead (Acts 3:11-16).
However, we soon learn that while Peter and John continue teaching the awestruck audience, the temple authorities comprised of chief priests from the Sadducee party burst on the scene “much annoyed.” They are angry with the commotion over the lame man’s up-rising in the holy place and, especially, with the apostles’ crediting this wondrous event to the risen Jesus Christ (Acts 4:1-2).
In fact, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead under any circumstances (cf. Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). But they would have been particularly disturbed, and not a little jealous (cf. Acts 5:17), over the people’s rapt attention to the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus. For it was Jesus whom the chief priests had delivered over to the Roman prefect Pilate as a blasphemer, traitor, and “perverter of our nation” (Luke 23:1-2, 13-14).
With the wisdom and authority of the temple leaders being seriously challenged on their own turf, they place Peter and John in custody overnight planning to interrogate them the next day (Acts 4:3, 5).
The apostles’ ministry of healing in Jesus’ name thus evokes diametrically opposite responses: wonder and excitement from the common worshipers, but suspicion and vexation from the religious authorities. Lauded by one group, Peter and John are locked up by the other.
During the examination, the Supreme Council, headed by Annas the high priest, cuts to the chase: “By what power or name did you do this [healing]?” (4:7).
Peter had already addressed this issue before the people (3:13-16) and is happy to repeat his Christ-centered response before the temple rulers. But first, “filled with the Spirit,” he tacitly challenges the Council’s line of inquiry: “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed…” (4:8-9).
Peter intimates that the inquisitorial leaders have lost sight of the vital matter at hand: an act of benevolence, a truly “good deed,” has been wrought on behalf of an infirm man. Rather than receiving a few alms to get through the day, a lame beggar has been healed! Surely rules and regulations, procedures and protocols should take a backseat to rejoicing and praising God with the former cripple for his dramatic cure. And where better for such a glorious event to take place than in God’s house (temple)?
If a friend with terminal cancer suddenly becomes well, with all trace of disease gone from her body, this is no time for scholastic debates or political posturing over who or what cured her: an adroit surgeon, a new drug, a positive attitude, a prayer group, divine intervention, or some combination of these.
A religious community in particular, whether temple, synagogue or church, should exult in rehabilitation and redemption, however and through whomever they occur, as part of God’s good purpose for humanity. As Sovereign Maker and Ruler of all creation, God works through all sorts of processes and personnel. Nothing and no one, including the “highest” religious officials, have a monopoly on God’s grace.
Nowhere is the scandal and mystery of God’s saving work more evident than in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom Peter now heralds before the priestly council.
Reprising his announcement from the previous day in Solomon’s Portico, Peter confirms that the remarkable “good health” now enjoyed by the long suffering cripple owes entirely to “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10).
He further elaborates, drawing on Psalm 118:22, that “this Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone'” (Acts 4:11). The architectural image is especially apt for the chief priests tending the magnificent temple structure “adorned with beautiful stones” (cf. Luke 21:5). But tragically, they rejected the true foundation stone of God’s house. They crucified God’s Messiah.
How can any good possibly come from such a miscarriage of justice and misapprehension of truth by religious leaders charged with serving God’s interests and nurturing God’s people? We could chime in with our own laments over Christian leaders’ shocking betrayals of their calling or over constructions of self-advancing programs, schemes, and structures thinly based, if at all, on God’s foundation in Christ.
How can good come out of corrupt, callous institutions? Answer: because God remains faithful. Good comes because God refuses to let human rejection have the last word. It comes because God raises the rejected and crucified Jesus from the dead; because God lifts up the disabled and destitute lame man in the name of the risen Jesus. God has invested in this name, and made available to all who will receive it, the full bounty of God’s health and salvation.
“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). God saved Jesus from the clutches of an unjust, ignominious death so that God’s suffering people might access God’s salvation in Jesus’ name. As a metaphor, I think of “Jesus” as a computer password leading directly to God’s heart.
God took the rejected “stone” of Jesus and made him head of the corner supporting all God’s kingdom. To continue the Psalmist’s point: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). It is indeed.
Commentary on Psalm 23
The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favorite.
And yet for all its familiarity, there may be some nuances to the Psalm we have missed, some reflections scholars might share to deepen our sense of the most comforting words ever composed.
Consider one four letter word in verse four: thou. The second-person pronoun “thou” is old English, a relic from the 1611 King James Version. The vast majority of the time we prefer modern translations of the Bible—but Christians cling to a 400-year-old translation of Psalm 23. Why is this? Could it be that elevated language, words with some lineage and dignity, are appropriate to the grandeur, the majesty, the immeasurable grace of God who is indeed our shepherd?
And here is a fascinating item: James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, “Thou art with me.”1 Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.
God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.
This marvelous news draws our attention again to the Thou. For the first three verses of the Psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd… he leads me… he restores my soul.” But with the Thou, the third person shifts to second person: “for Thou art with me, thy rod… thou preparest a table…” Instead of talking about God, the Psalmist begins to talk to God; instead of God in the head, God is a friend in the heart. A conversation happens, a relationship grows. This is faith, the only true comfort.
If we genuinely and in the marrow of our being believe that God is with us, then the only logical consequence would be, “I shall not want.”
We’ve read it, uttered it, delighted in it: but have we thought about it? Or lived it out in reality? I shall not want? Our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. In our consumer culture, I shall want, I shall always want. I shall never stop all my wanting because the mall entices me with ever new, shiny, unnecessary objects, and I am instructed from childhood on to want–and not merely to want, but to have.
I shall not want? “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the Lord is the shepherd, then I am a sheep, and the reason sheep need a shepherd is simple: sheep nibble themselves lost.
Sheep are not brilliant creatures, and we cannot be flattered that the Psalm thinks of us as sheep. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.
The Hebrew original is perhaps better translated, “I shall lack nothing,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” What do I lack? Well, I lack an iPhone or a house at the coast. I lack a fully-funded pension and I lack… We can fill in the blank endlessly.
But it is more to ask “What do I lack?” in the sense of “What really matters that I do not have?” What, at the hour of death, would I dare not lack? The answers aren’t iPhones or vacation houses. Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), who claimed to be good, and had plenty of stuff. What did Jesus say? “One thing you still lack.”
We don’t lack lots of things: we lack just one. The one thing we lack is intimacy with God. The one and only thing that can cause us to say, “I shall not want,” or “I lack no good thing,” is God. Nothing else. Just the Lord who is a good shepherd to his sheep.
God is our satisfaction. God is good enough. Or, to be truer, God exceeds whatever we may think we desire.
If “Thou art with me” is the focal point of the Psalm, and if “I shall not want” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God, then the end of our life with God is this: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Why do we want stuff like iPhones and vacation homes? Is it sheer coveting? I don’t think so. We want communication devices because we long to connect. We want a house, or a better house, because no matter how far we travel, no matter how happy or sad our nuclear family might have been, we carry inside a yearning for home. In our mobile society, we may be clueless about where that might be, or if it really exists. But we still want, above all else, to go home.
Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”2 Or consider this: if you are lucky, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small, but as a child it was large in love, in special treats, in cousins and fun. It was another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love.
Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?
Isaac Watts often recast Psalms into slightly different language. His metric version of the 23rd Psalm is eloquent, elegant, and moving: “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may Your House be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”3
Like a child at home. Yes, some children bear the misfortune of a home that is more warfare than peace, more division than love. But the fact that we recoil at the idea of any child anywhere not enjoying peace and love at home is evidence that God has wired into our hearts a keen sense of a proper destiny, which looks like me as a boy at my grandmother’s table or on my grandfather’s lap.
Various happenings in our life strike us as urgent. They make us anxious, or perhaps we have some fun or face trials. But it is all a preparation for a grand homecoming, when we will “find a settled rest… no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” Or as the Psalmist sang, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6).
- James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
- T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, 1943.
- Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” 1719.
Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24
This epistle, really a sermon, was written for a community that defined itself over and against the world around it.
Those in John’s community were children of light and those outside were children of darkness. For example, consider a verse that the lectionary omits: “Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
As we noted last week, John’s epistle is written in part to clarify the meaning of John’s Gospel for a community which reads that gospel as its central guide to faith and action.
This is most evident in the kind of creedal summary that we find in today’s passage. The author writes, “And this is (God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as (Christ) has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
There are two great themes in the Gospel of John. First, as Rudolf Bultmann has insisted, John’s Gospel is the revelation that Jesus Christ is the revealer of God. Above all, Christ reveals that he is the revealer. And second, as Dean Harold Attridge of Yale Divinity School reminds his classes on John’s Gospel, Jesus not only reveals himself, he commands those who believe in him to love one another.
These two themes help to shape the identity of this relatively small church as they feel battered by the hostile world around it. This is a community that should do two things very well. True members of this community should believe in Jesus Christ as God’s own Son, the full revelation of God’s own self. And true members of this community should love one another.
But the writer of our epistle is concerned that in both of these ways, the church members he leads are falling away from the truths with which they began.
1 John 3:16 again recalls John’s Gospel and that great text where Jesus sets the command to love one another in the even greater context of his own revelatory love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Here the communal love for brother and sister is placed in the context of the redemptive love that Christ shows for all of humankind on the cross.
1 John makes the same connection between our love for each other and Christ’s love for us. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
Here we glimpse the depth of the gift and the gravity of the demand. Christ gives unconditional love for us, even to the point of death. And he demands our unconditional love for each other, even to the point of death.
Yet, as preachers so often do, the preacher who writes this epistle tries to show what love to the point of death might mean, not just at the extreme moments of sacrifice, but in the daily give and take of the loving life.
Concretely, such love means charity. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?” (1 John 3:17).
Even in the midst of great economic difficulty, most Americans have more of the world’s goods than most of the world can imagine. At its most painful end, Christian love requires giving up our lives. In ways less sacrificial but still surprisingly painful, Christian love requires giving up some of the goods we think we need when we come up against someone who is truly needy.
And concretely such love means living out what we say. The truisms abide because there is truth in them. “Practice what you preach.” “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.” “Sermons in shoes.” “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
There is a great word from the Gospel of John that this preacher knows and uses: “Abide.” Jesus abides with those who love him (cf. John 15:5). In that eternal life to which he invites us, there are many “abiding places” — a better translation than the traditional “mansions” (John 14:2).
1 John makes clear what the Gospel of John also implies: the dwelling in eternal life is not a promise for the future only, but a promise for the present as well. “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us” (1 John 3:24). The promise of John’s Gospel is still being lived out in the community that treasures its words.
There is a network on the Internet called “Linked In.” It seeks to provide the opportunity for people to stay in touch with each other and to serve as resources for each other in times of particular need.
1 John believes that the church is the people who are Linked In. The presence of the Paraclete links believer to Christ through faith and believer to believer through love.
The epistle’s word for that link is richer than the website’s. We abide, says the preacher. We abide in God and God in us, and we abide in each other, too.
“When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”1
1From verse one of the hymn “Abide With Me,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #629.
In a Gospel text that uses pastoral images of sheep and shepherd, the contemporary preacher is challenged to connect rural metaphor with listeners who remain at several removes from the animating metaphors of this work.
What then might be useful in proclaiming this passage?
First, the preacher approaches this text mindful of what it might yield within the overall context of the Sundays of Easter.
In other words, how does this passage of shepherd and sheep connect with the post-resurrection reality of the Christ who intersects our lives across time and space? What difference does the empty tomb make to preaching this passage?
This passage primarily describes the attributes of a model shepherd. While much can be made of the historical links to Old Testament images of the shepherd, no Old Testament texts characterize the shepherd as one who will sacrifice himself for the flock to the point of death.
That being the case, this text is an image already tested by the death and resurrection of the Christ. The reality of death has been withstood and conquered by the shepherd. Verses 12 and 13 take pains to make clear the test of the true shepherd is proven by comparison against those who do not care for the sheep — to the point of death.
The affirmation of Jesus as the model shepherd in verse 11 is repeated again in verse 14 with an emphasis following on the mutual reciprocity of recognition.
Just as Jesus knows God and God Jesus, the same genuine knowledge of Jesus is found in those who recognize that basic relationship. To know God is to know Jesus, and that is the mark of the flock which recognizes the shepherd as their own. The passage returns to the same theme in more elaborate form in verses 16-18 when Jesus asserts that his willingness to die for the flock stems from the love between him and God.
What elements in this passage might the proclaimer use to emphasize the presence, care and perpetuity of this shepherd, one unlike all others? Two possibilities might yield some rich preaching.
One of the most fascinating realities of this text is in plain sight but rarely addressed. Jesus’ claims point to one key fact that permeates this passage: recognition of the shepherd’s voice (verse 16).
Embedded in this statement is a basic fact recognized and studied in the field of speech communication: listening. Prior to recognizing and responding to a sound, one must listen.
In their pioneering research work Listening, co-authors Wolvin and Coakley identify five basic types of listening: discriminative, comprehensive, critical, therapeutic and appreciative.1 These interrelated types start with the very basic ability of an individual to hear sounds and then move to other tiers of analysis, critique, concern, and appreciation.
If the link between Jesus and his flock is mediated by recognition of the Master’s voice, what does that mean for the kind of spiritual listening involved in responding to him?
In a culture and church which is heavily focused on word and speaking, the emphasis on listening as a prior condition and state can be overlooked. Yet, listening has a rich spiritual and personal biblical history and in the area of spiritual formation and discernment. It is the prior requirement for any type of effective speaking environment.
The Wolvin and Coakley paradigm offers some interesting possibilities for the way we hear God. (By way of linguistic caveat, listening is far more than merely hearing, it is responding to what is heard). So, what does the herd hear?!
Certainly the ability to recognize the shepherd’s voice at all is what preaching the Gospel is about. We daringly claim to speak for God, by our voice to bring the Voice which calls us to life, salvation, new hope, and safety. It is a voice which the Church has had the wisdom to recognize must be spoken repeatedly without cessation to all who recognize it and to those who are unfamiliar with it. It is that same shepherd’s voice that prompts Christians to say to one another, “We have heard the Lord!”
Martin Luther’s views on the Word and speaking pre-dated the corresponding listening insights of Wolvin and Coakley by some centuries. But in his Smalcald Articles, he indirectly presumes that the effective functioning of the means of grace is mediated by the ear!
In other words, without the prior attitude of listening to the Lord’s voice through preaching, the sacraments, the words of forgiveness, and the church itself, our relationship to the shepherd would be rendered meaningless.
Verse 16 also raises significant issues related to who hears and recognizes the shepherd’s voice. In a global environment of vigorous cross cultural, multi-cultural and inter-faith discussions, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words that “other sheep will hear my voice?” From a biblical-historical perspective, debates focused on the Jews and the Gentiles.
For today what does it mean to sound the shepherd’s voice within hearing distance of those who do not know it or even repudiate it? Debates within our own culture sharpen the focus on verse 16. Should a Christian preacher speak at the president’ inauguration? Should religious holidays be cancelled so as not to offend the avowedly non-religious?
Jesus’ statement in verse 16 prompts as much thoughtful discussion as it did in centuries past. This fact returns the preacher to the fact that this text is preached as part of the Easter season. If God in the risen Christ speaks even yet, in what global, even cosmic ways do we listen to that voice?
1Andrew Wolvin and Carolynn Gwynn Coakley, Listening, 5th edition (McGraw-Hill, Columbus, OH, 1995).