Lectionary Commentaries for May 15, 2011
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 10:1-10

Sarah Henrich

In one of those sermons that bring the biblical world “down to earth,” the preacher talked about his life in Africa.

He told us how the people of a village knew each other’s sheep the way we might know one another’s children.  As he sat in a group in the village, a person would stop by, “Have you seen my sheep so-and-so,” identifying his own sheep by name.  Through the dark night he heard villagers calling out names.  “They are calling their sheep,” one of the locals told him.  “They will all find each other.”

This feature of village life in a place small enough and close enough where folks know which sheep are theirs and which belong to someone else, where sheep themselves know to whom they belong, was as familiar to Jesus as it is unfamiliar to us.  In this portion of John 10, as Jesus tries to describe the connection between himself and his followers, he uses images that don’t touch our hearts and minds as richly as they would have touched his original hearers.  There is good work for the preacher in that gap.

This passage is divided into two parts, each addressed to an audience loosely identified as “the Jews” back in John 8:57.  His disciples are singled out in 9:2 and the Pharisees are mentioned as “near him” in 9:41.  We see in 10:19 that “the Jews” were divided by the things that Jesus was saying.  It is fair to imagine the audience for 10:1-10 as including local people of all sorts of persuasions about Jesus and about their faith.

After all the questions about Jesus’ identity in John 9, Jesus tries to explain both the division that surrounds him (9:16 and 10:19) and the consummate difference between what he brings to his own and what is brought by others.  There is genuine consternation among the people around Jesus.  Who is he?  How can we trust him?  Is he really from God or simply some new charlatan in town?  Jesus answers these questions both pragmatically and poetically.  He does things that God alone or one blessed by God can do.  He describes the blessing he brings from God in poetic terms.  This description is what 10:1-10 offer.

The two parts of the passage occur because no one seems to understand Jesus’ first “figure of speech” (verse 6).  In verses 1-5 Jesus identifies himself as the true shepherd.  In verse 6 the narrator explains to us that his hearers did not understand Jesus’ figure of speech.  Verses 7-10 Jesus offers another way to understand his relationship to the people: I am the gate for the sheep.  Neither of these images is wholly convincing to everyone, thus bearing out the truth of what Jesus says, that his own sheep hear his voice.  Others presumably do not.

Let’s look briefly at the two sets of images in this text.  In 10:1-5 Jesus simply speaks a truth that his hearers would have known and relied upon.  Like the folks in the African village, the first century Judeans also highly valued their sheep and knew them intimately.  The first century could have imagined the industrial agriculture that makes Jesus as shepherd an odd image for us.

We can observe a couple of interesting things about the shepherd with whom Jesus identifies himself. First, this shepherd has the well-being of the sheep at heart, rather than his own well-being.  This shepherd is neither thief nor bandit who would steal sheep, a profoundly anti-social act and one in which the sheep would come to no good end.  Jesus emphasizes a particular difference between the bandit and shepherd:  the shepherd enters rightly, properly, and openly into the sheepfold.  It is appropriate for him to come and call his sheep and he does so, through the door consistently (note the use of present tense participles in verses 1 and 2).  All is open and above board, a cooperative effort with an obliging doorkeeper and sheep who respond to the sound of their name.  There is a relationship of trust among all parties here.  Notice that the sheep are not presented as totally dumb.  They hear, follow, flee false shepherds, and are able to “know” whom to trust.

In verse 4, their trust is validated and emphasized by another piece of the shepherd’s behavior: he brings the sheep out of the fold and then goes before them.  The sheep do not simply escape some confinement or hasten out of the fold to brave the larger world on their own.  Their shepherd leads them out and then goes before them, in front of them, to lead.  The sheep are not abandoned.

When this image didn’t click for people, Jesus tried again to contrast himself with thieving leaders.  Becoming very specific about those who had come before him as the thieves and bandits that he had mentioned in verse 1 and whom the sheep rightly fled, Jesus turns to a clear statement of identity.  I am the door.  I am the proper way, the right way, the only way into the sheep fold.  Pasture, that is, life, is through me, the door.  Those who enter are being saved, that is, being brought into pasture and life rather than being snatched up for their destruction.   

This passage does not offer us a problem about how Jesus can be both shepherd and gate.  Instead, Jesus speaks of the gate to help clarify the image of shepherd.  In both cases it is about the trustworthy one–whether leader or path–who brings his followers into ample pasture.  He is the good shepherd of Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, the leader whose work and life are for the sheep and their well-being.  He is the right way, the true way to enter into that amplitude, that fullness of life.  Both shepherd and gate are participants in a social system whose role is to protect the sheep and provide for them.  These are both in contrast with those who prey upon the sheep for their own purposes, diminishing the flock and creating anxiety within it.

That we continue to be divided about who cares best for us, that we continue to live with the anxiety of wondering who seeks to diminish us in any respect ought not surprise us.  Division and a struggle to understand are the result and the motivation for Jesus’ words here.  We struggle for clear speech and we yearn, but hardly ever dare, to trust our leaders. 

One lesson here is that sheep fare best together, not picked off one by one.  Another is that there is promise of great pasturage, abundant life for all who follow Jesus’ way.  A third is that there is something public, open, honest, and even simple about how we live as God’s people through Jesus.  It’s the shepherd, the door, the sheepfold rather than the sneaky, hidden bandit or robber.  There are some hints in that contrast that might help us identify the true shepherd.  And there is the comfort that understanding comes and goes.  Hearing Jesus’ voice does not always happen easily even for those who are closest to him.  Yet neither he nor they abandon one another. 

In a world where even computers generate letters and phone calls in which we are addressed by name, always seeking to gain something from us, there is a promise here that when God calls to us through Jesus we dare to trust that we will be fed along with all God’s people. 

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:42-47

Mitzi J. Smith

In the book of Acts three major summaries connect narratives to miracle stories and miracle stories to narratives (2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16).

These summaries provide a general picture of the activities the new believers engaged in when they congregated under the leadership of the apostles. Our text, 2:42-47, the first major summary, follows the massive baptism that results from Peter’s first missional speech at Pentecost. The summaries tell incomplete stories of how the nascent group of believers constituted a community. Summaries provide snapshots; they are not designed to tell the whole story. They do not relate community problems.

But Luke has interlaced the major summaries with episodes about trouble and disorder–the religious authorities attempt to detain Peter and John (4:1-31) for teaching and performing miracles in Jesus’ name; Ananias and Sapphira retain some proceeds from their property sale and are fatally punished (5:1-11); and after chapter five, where the last major summary appears, Luke provides the first narrated community dispute between the Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) and the Hebrews (Aramaic speaking Jews) over the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily ministry (6:1-7).

Immediately preceding our text, the new believers are told that they would receive the promise of the Holy Spirit (2:38-39). There is no immediate Spirit manifestation such as speaking in other languages, but the narrative immediately shifts to our summary about the community of new believers implicitly anticipating the promise of God’s Spirit. This mirrors the command to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Spirit in chapter 1 and the subsequent meeting in the upper room. The appropriate response to God’s promise is active expectation that God will continue to do what God promised.

Mutual commitment shapes and maintains community
It is important that community building starts on the right foot. Verse 42 begins “And they were committing themselves (proskartereo) to the teaching of the apostles and to the koinonia…” This is the first mention of the apostles’ teaching in Acts. Many persons have now joined the Jesus movement who may never have heard Jesus’ teachings. It is not clear in the Greek text whether the breaking of bread and prayers at verse 42 constitutes the koinonia or if they are activities distinct from the koinonia. Nevertheless, koinonia signifies mutuality and commonality among the new believers beyond potluck meals; it consists of building a shared existential reality and anticipatory future. 

Instructively, the Greek verb proskartereo describing the believers’ mutual devotion is the same verb used for the disciples’ commitment as they gathered in the upper room waiting for the outpouring of God’s Spirit (1:14). The presence of proskartereo in both texts and other linguistic parallels may demonstrate a paradigmatic relationship between Acts 1:14 and 2:42-47. That is, Acts 1:14 is the model upon which the first (and subsequent) major summary is based. Our text reflects the charismatic growth of the community quantitatively and qualitatively expanding upon that first upper room gathering. Proskartereo occurs a second time in our summary at 2:46 where the focus shifts to how the believers committed themselves to the Temple and to house-to-house breaking of bread. Proskartereo indicates the devotion of Cornelius’ slaves to their master (10:7) and of Simon to the Hellenist Philip (8:13). If it were not for the proskartereo of the believers, their attention to the apostles’ teaching, prayers, eucharistic celebrations, and participation in signs and wonders would be less than koinonia, but merely activities that they engage in simultaneously and in the same place. Proskartereo engenders koinonia mutuality–the giddy sharing of goods, self and time for the welfare of all.

Luke repeats here two other phrases introduced at 1:14 to describe the pre-Pentecostal assembly: “at the same place and at the same time” (epi to auto) and they “were having all things common (koina).” It is not enough to share space and time, but an intentional act of koina is required. Verse 45 delineates more tangibly how the believers held all things common: “they sold their goods and their real property, and they distributed the proceeds to whoever among them was in need.” Commonality and sharing was not limited to spiritual things, but included material possessions. This koina is what many scholars find least credible. We can read these words as descriptive of actual events or as a prescriptive ideal picture of how Luke envisioned a koinonia-governed community.

God’s Spirit engenders signs and wonders on the earth
The Greek adverb homothumadon (in one accord) also occurs both in our text at 2:46 and at 1:14. In both texts homothumadon follows proskartereo demonstrating a unified devotion among the disciples in the second floor room and among the early community after the Pentecostal increase (cf. 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 7:57). Homothumadon also signifies the Samaritan people’s united attachment to Philip (8:6, 7, 13) because of the powerful deeds he performed. The harmonious commitment of the early believing community could be partly motivated by the many signs and wonders that the apostles performed (2:43). We cannot deny the power of tangible and visible miracles.

The Joel quotation that Luke inserted and modified from the Septuagint states that in the last days wonders (terata) would occur in the heavens above and signs (semeia) on the earth below (2:19). Our summary does not agree with the Joel quotation. The apostles like Jesus before them perform both signs and wonders on earth. We are called to bring about tangible signs and wonders on the earth, not just in the church. Signs and wonders signify that God’s Spirit is at work on the earth. When we act with homothumadon to do our part to eliminate hunger, homelessness, child abuse, discrimination, and inequality in education, inter alia, God’s Spirit, in and through us, performs signs and wonders on the earth. Mutual and unified commitment engenders marvelous acts of social justice within the community and beyond.

Our summary finally describes how the community praised God and demonstrated favor or grace toward one another. And the Lord (God) saved many more who were brought into the community. Ultimately, it is God who saves and expands the community, but not without our cooperation. God worked in and through people willing to teach and be taught, to believe in, perform and receive signs and wonders, and to create mutual koinonia.


Commentary on Psalm 23

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 23 is classified as an Individual Psalm of Thanksgiving.

In this type of psalm, singers praise God for God’s goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations — illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc. In Psalm 23, the psalm singer praises God as the good shepherd who guides the psalmist — as shepherds might guide the flocks of sheep or goats in their charge — through a myriad of life situations.

The familiarity of the words of the psalm can hinder the reader from truly entering into the meaning and intent of its words. Thus the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson might be a helpful beginning point for its exegesis. He interprets Psalm 23 in the following way:

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” Which words are correct, which are true? Both are. The words of Psalm 23 are those of an ancestor in our faith who was delivered, in some way, from danger and who praised God for help in the midst of that danger.

The psalm singer takes on the role of a sheep or goat, animals herded and cared for by shepherds. These are animals that, without the care of a shepherd, would be easy prey for other animals in the open grazing land.

In the psalm, the shepherd provides green pastures for grazing, still waters for drinking, and right paths for travel from one grazing place to another (verses 2-3). In troubled areas, the protection of the shepherd provides safe passage for the flock (verse 4). And even when trouble is nearby, the shepherd makes sure that the flock can feed and water in safety and can lie down for a night’s rest (verse 5). Therefore, the flock can count on continued existence because of the faithfulness of the shepherd (verse 6).

Descriptions of God such as those found in Psalm 23 abound in the book of Psalms. God cares for, provides for, and protects those who are faithful (see, for instance, Psalms 30, 66, 91, and 121). This message of Psalm 23 is clear.

But when we examine Psalm 23 in its canonical location within the book of Psalms, new insights into its meaning may emerge. Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22, a heartfelt lament, one connected with the passion of Jesus in the New Testament. The opening words of Psalm 22 are the words spoken by Jesus on the crucifixion cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Laments in the book of Psalms are structured in a movement of five elements:

1. Invocation: The psalmist calls on God to listen.
2. Lament: Next the psalm singer tells God the reason for crying out God.
3. Petition: Then the psalmist tells God what he/she wants God to do.
4. Words of Trust: The psalmist recounts why God should be trusted at all by remembering God’s faithfulness in the past.
5. Words of Praise: And finally, the psalmist offers words of praise to the Lord.

The structure of Psalm 22 exhibits an escalation, a piling up, of elements of the lament. In the first strophe words of lament (verse 1-2) are followed by words of trust (verses 3-5). The second strophe contains words of lament (verses 6-8), words of trust (verses 9-10), and words of petition (verse 11). The third strophe, however, moves directly from words of lament (verses 12-18) to words of petition (verses 19-21), with no words of trust intervening.

Might we be permitted to read Psalm 23, an individual hymn of thanksgiving, as the words of trust that are missing from the last strophe of Psalm 22?

The two psalms share vocabulary and concepts, thus strengthening an argument for connecting them. Psalm 23 expresses confidence in God as shepherd to the psalmist. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist’s cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist’s body is shriveled and emaciated.

Indeed, in Psalm 22, God lays the psalmist in “the dust of death” (verse 15), “because” (verse 16), “a band of evildoers surround” (verse 16). The singer cries out, “but you, O LORD, do not be far from me” (verses 11, 19), for “trouble is nearby” (verse 11).

In contrast, in Psalm 23, even while walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (verse 4), the psalmist will fear no “evil” (verse 4), “because” (verse 4), “you are with me” (verse 4). In fact, God prepares a table for the psalmist “in front of my troublers” (verse 5).

Reading Psalm 23 as a word of trust in answer to the heartfelt lament of Psalm 22 may add a new dimension of understanding to both psalms. Connecting them does not diminish the individual poetic and theological character of either, but rather creates a powerful statement of trust in the Lord.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

In his recent book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren recalls an interview he once facilitated before an assembly of about 500 pastors with author Peter Senge.

He remarks that while his opening question may not have been as profound as he would have liked, the answer it elicited was perhaps the most memorable part of the entire conversation. McLaren asked, “Mr. Senge, what would you like to say to this group of Christian clergy?’ In response, Senge invited his audience to reflect on a recent economic trend.

Why is it, he wondered, that texts on spirituality, and especially those on Buddhism, are one of the fastest growing commodities in the publishing industry today, second only to get-rich-quick manuals? Why aren’t books on Christianity equally as popular? After some discussion Senge provided his own assessment of the phenomenon: “I think people are attracted to Buddhism because it presents itself as a way of life, while Christianity presents itself as a system of belief.”

Of course, Senge is relying on a false dichotomy here, as if a lifestyle can somehow be removed from the values that inform it. But the point he is trying to make should not be lost on those of us in the church. It appears to many these days that Christianity has become so enamored with its own abstractions — its commitments to proper doctrine, for example, or to “what the Bible says” — it has come quite close to convincing itself that intellectual assent to first principles is really what the faith is all about. Right belief has become the foundation of Christian salvation.

The problem here, as Senge was polite enough not to mention, is that a system of belief, especially in a post-Enlightenment age, can be easily manipulated to justify nearly any way of life that the dominant culture deems acceptable. It then becomes little more than a convenient appendage attached to the body of the status quo. When this happens — when the embodied faith of the flesh becomes mere word — the full force of the incarnation is lost. Christians are then prone to wander like wayward sheep, and those in their midst are prone to wonder if “spirituality” might in fact be preferable to “religion.”  

Wandering is quite the opposite of what Peter has in mind for the newly baptized Christians he is addressing. Though he employs the imagery of the exodus throughout this epistle, he is nevertheless clear that those who have been born anew have embarked on a clear path toward a certain destination. They are following in the steps of Christ and as his disciples they are commanded to carry themselves according to his example. The Greek term anastrophe, translated as “conduct,” is clearly important to Peter; it is used more times in this short epistle than in any other New Testament text (see 1:15, 18; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16). It implies a “walk,” a distinctive way of being in the world, especially for those who have thrown off their old habits, picked themselves up, and set out anew (TDNT VII:714-717).

Though Peter is intent on teaching his readers about what is good and right to believe about the love of God the Father, the suffering of the Son, and the sustaining work of the Spirit, he balances all of this with an emphasis on anastrophe, the adoption of a way of life distinctive to the Christian faith. Anything short of this would be a job half-done, and in this respect he echoes the words of James: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).

Though the introductory verse is omitted in our lectionary reading for the week, Peter is addressing this section of his epistle to “house slaves,” oiketai  (2:18), imploring them to be submissive to their masters in all things, not in deference to their owners’ earthly authority but rather as an affirmation of Christ’s supreme example. Recall what I suggested in an earlier reflection about the new Adam, the church, living in an old world. Peter’s decision to address slaves first — and not the relationship between wives and husbands as in Ephesians and Colossians — suggests that he regarded this particular social group as paradigmatic of the Christian experience in Asia Minor at that time. They were all suffering the ills of a culture in which they had been effectively marginalized.   

Our contemporary embarrassment over what appears in scripture to be the acceptance of a deplorable social institution has perhaps led us to excise the introductory verse from this lectionary pericope, but in so doing we miss the force of Peter’s argument. As members of a heavenly household (paroikos, exiles living “outside the house”), the faithful will inevitably have to suffer the injustices of the domination system that rules the individual and cultural households of which they are still a part, if for but a while.

In this, their response should be a reflection not only of their belief in the redemptive efficacy of Christ’s suffering, but also an embodiment of it. It is a lifestyle choice that speaks a resounding and nonviolent “no” to the dictates of an unjust empire. In suffering, the body of believers becomes Christ incarnate once again.

Over the last few years it has become commonplace for professional athletes to talk about defending their home turf with the provocative words, “This is my house!” Peter’s use of this metaphor, though subtle in our English translation, challenges all Christians, regardless of time or place, to reflect on what house they are willing to defend, and how. It is not enough simply to recite our beliefs about who Jesus is or what the Bible says. We are called to live a Christian lifestyle (2:21), to follow in our savior’s footsteps and embody in all things a central tenet of our faith: that Christ bore our sins in his body on a tree so that we might die to sin and live righteously (2:24).