“One flock, one shepherd . . .”
On the walk back from the now empty tomb and her encounter in the garden with the risen Christ, we can only imagine the jumble of thoughts, images, and ideas that were swirling in the head of Mary of Magdala. What had just happened to her? Who was this person, alive, dead, and alive again? Who was the teacher who had healed her, traveled with her, and who now told her to speak to the other disciples of his rising? Soon her friends, Jesus’ companions, were asking those same questions. How can we understand and speak to others of our rabbi?
Peter already had declared that their teacher, Jesus, was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) But clearly Peter had not fully understood what that meant. Peter did not realize that, to be the Messiah, was to be the one who would lay down his life, “undergoing great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests . . . killed, . . . and raised.” (Matthew 16:21) When Peter had tried to silence Jesus — he himself was rebuked and silenced.
On this Fourth Sunday of Easter the gospel lesson shifts from historical recounting of the events following to resurrection to Christological reflection. The goal is to assist us as we, like Mary and the disciples, seek to understand what happened and is happening to us, the flock of the good shepherd.
In the years, decades, and centuries, to our own time, the followers of Jesus have sought for ways to express, in words and images, who was and who is this person Jesus Christ. John, for example, opened his gospel account with the grand vision of the one who was before all time and through whom all things came into being. Jesus was the very Word of God made flesh. And they turned to the images Jesus had taught them about himself. He told them that he was the vine and they were the branches. He told them that he was the bread of life and living water that would quench their thirst forever. And he taught them that he was their shepherd; they were his flock.
Some of the earliest images of Jesus found in churches and tombs were not portrayals of Jesus on the cross, or the infant in the manger. Rather, they picture Jesus as the gentle shepherd. And what may be one of the earliest paintings of all is of a very young Jesus, dressed in a short white tunic, who has draped a lamb over his shoulders. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:14) A sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Easter may explore what it means to understand the risen Christ as our shepherd. And what kind of flock are we to be?
I think that it is fair to say that most of us do not have much experience with shepherds or with sheep. Every September the county in which I live holds The Great Frederick County Fair. I never want to miss the animal barns: cows, pigs, and of course the sheep. In each pen are lovely, wooly sheep being taken care of the 4H boys and girls. Just outside of the barn there will always be one of the 4H members washing, combing, and trimming their lamb. I love the fact that sheep really do say, “Baaaa.” But I am afraid that is my only contact with sheep and their caretakers.
When Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who had everyday experiences with lambs, sheep, goats, and kids. Even if they made their living as a carpenter or fisher, they knew or watched the shepherds all of the time, moving the sheep and goats from the pens to the fields. They drank the milk of those animals, turned that milk into cheese, and eventually ate the animals. Those animals provided not just daily nourishment, they were essential for important religious rituals. All of Jesus’ friends and followers had grown up telling and re-telling the story of Moses and the flight out of Egypt. Each year they heard the call to “take a lamb for each family” (Exodus 12:3b) and prepare the Passover meal.
As you prepare to explore these important questions with the portion of Christ’s flock that you serve it is important to recognize that this passage not only offers us a functional description of what God in Jesus will do for us. Jesus is also making an ontological statement. He is not only describing what a good shepherd does and will do. He is making the claim that he is the good shepherd. Therefore, it must have seemed quite strange and startling for Jesus’ friends and followers to hear Jesus tell them that he was the good shepherd. After all, they knew who the good shepherd was — God. The scriptures were filled with images of God as the shepherd of the chosen people.
The Psalm appointed for this Sunday is perhaps one of the best known references, “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Psalm 23:1). The Psalm paints the picture of a loving, caring God/shepherd providing food, comfort, and shelter. They knew that they were “your people and the sheep of your [God’s] pasture” (Psalm 79:13). The prophet Ezekiel had told them that God was angry with shepherds who took advantage of and abandoned their sheep. God declared, “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:11, 15) How could Jesus say that he was the good shepherd? Are we to conclude that he was, in fact, God?
Jesus’ lengthy exploration of what it means to be and who is the good shepherd is a response to a group of Pharisees. Over and over again people were trying to understand who Jesus was and where he came from. “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? . . . Who do you claim to be?” (John 8:53) Then, after being driven out of the temple, Jesus passed a blind man begging. As a sign of who he was, Jesus explained that the man’s blindness was not caused by his sin or the sin of his parents. Rather, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3).
Understandably, the man’s healing caused quite an uproar. The Pharisees were not only enraged that the man had been healed, but that the healing had occurred on the Sabbath. Who would do such a thing and who could do such a thing? After the man proclaimed that he believed Jesus to be the Son of Man, Jesus declared that he had come “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:39) Was Jesus, those Pharisees charged, accusing them of being blind?
Jesus then described the divine sheepfold. To be his followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them. It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.
Like Ezekiel, Jesus then contrasts himself with the hired hand. The hired hand, he explained, thinks only of himself and not the sheep; running away when danger approaches. (Was Jesus suggesting to the Pharisees that they were hired hands?) Jesus then explains that not only is he the shepherd who will give up his own life for the flock, but he has done this willing. It may have looked like he was captured and executed by the authorities, but in reality, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18)
What does it mean to be a sheep of Jesus’ flock? It means that we enter through his gate. Jesus is the way to salvation. We know his voice and follow him. He cares for us, keeping us safe. And when we wander away, which we know we do all too often, he comes searching for us.
These are wonderful, comforting images, but this passage includes one other challenging thought. The good shepherd decides who is in the sheepfold, we do not. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16) The Pharisees and the disciples alike thought that they knew who the chosen ones of God were. But this shepherd is telling them, and telling us, that there will be “one flock, one shepherd” and it is God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, not we, who bring together that flock.
The establishing, negotiating, and naming of power and acts of power is inherently political and very often religious.
The Jewish leaders (including elders, scribes, the High Priest and those associated with his office) had held the apostles in custody overnight, and the following day they summoned Peter and John to interrogate them. Like the leaders and the people, Peter and John are devout Jews, as well as disciples commissioned by Jesus who himself was a loyal worshipper of YHWH. The leaders want to know the source and authority of their power to heal a man crippled from birth: “By what power (dumanis) or by whose name (onoma) did you yourselves perform this act,” 4:7.
Implicit in the question, it appears, is the understanding that the apostles did not perform the miracle by their own strength and a concern for the potential emergence of a rival “power,” “name,” or a new Jewish sect that might threaten the status quo (cf. 28:22). Also, the leaders do not assume that the miracle occurred by the power of or in the name of YHWH, despite the fact that all of them are worshipers of YHWH. Religious folks who have confused the power of position with the power of God are more likely to reject the power of God operating in others who lack similar position and rank (cf. 4:13), despite how God might use them. We should maintain some humility considering our fallibility, mortality or human condition no matter how high we might climb in institutions. Only God is infallible, inscrutable, and absolutely God.
Those same religious folks might misguidedly attribute God’s miracles to some other power or name that is antithetical to God. Interestingly, the people (laos) did not ask this question but were somewhat celebrity struck by what Peter and John did for the lame man, 3:12.
This scene is reminiscent of Acts chapter 8 where Luke writes of Simon that “He was the power (dumamis) of God called great,” 8:10. Both this text and our pericope may betray a bias on the part of some against what cannot be explained by our conventional understandings of how God functions in our world or against phenomena that falls outside the boundaries of our theologies. Many would not believe that God was active in and through Jesus of Nazareth; it did not fit with their constructed theologies (cf. 4:2-3).
This is the first time in Acts that Peter is explicitly described as “filled with the Holy Spirit,” 4:8. Perhaps, this description serves to set Peter (and the apostles) over against the leaders and/or to authenticate the content of his speech: “Let it be known to you all that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom you yourselves crucified and whom God raised from among the dead, by this [name] this [lame] man stands before you whole. This [Jesus] is the stone, the head cornerstone, who was reject by your builders,” 4:10-11. The healing of the lame man in the name of Jesus becomes evidence for the power of God operating through his name. The name has power beyond the grave because God lifted Jesus out of grave and made him both Christ and Lord (2:36).
The phrase “full of the Holy Spirit” is a term that is never applied to women in Acts, in spite of the fact that God’s Spirit fell on the women also who were at Pentecost (1:14; 2:1-4). In Acts, Luke describes women such as Dorcas, as full of good deeds (9:36; cf. Luke 1:35, 41). When the seven Hellenists (including Stephen and Philipp) are chosen for the daily table ministry as opposed to the apostles’ ministry of the word of God, the seven men are selected because they are full of wisdom and of the Holy Spirit (6:3,5).
Here again, the phrase is used to distinguish one group over against others. There is danger in a single story because some stories remain untold and the telling of a story is never synonymous with the real event(s) themselves. The many stories in the Bible testify about God and Jesus (cf. John 5:39; 21:25). God cannot be circumscribed or contained within any story humans narrate, if only because human language is sufficiently insufficient.
That “God raised Jesus” was a critical kergma (proclamation) among the early believers in Jesus as God’s Messiah (1 Corinthians 15). This phrase is repeated in missional speeches in Acts (4:10; 10:40; 13:34, 37). A careful read of Acts, in fact, shows that it is not the Holy Spirit (or Peter or Paul) who are the primary actors, but it is God. We have lost sight of the theocentric Jesus and the theocentricity of the Scriptures. God raised Jesus. God promised God’s Spirit. God poured out God’s Spirit.
A theocentric approach to religion is not a watering down of Christianity, but it is re-membering of an ancient foundational kerygma. A theocentric faith focuses on the power of God at work in and through Jesus, at work in believers, and at work in the world performing miracles or powerful acts. A theocentric faith acknowledges that God acts in ways I don’t understand. God invested Jesus with power! And Jesus said we would do greater things. God raised Jesus!
Peter further declares that there is no other name under heaven given among humans by which we must be saved, 4:12. Perhaps, the people and religious leaders wondered about the salvation of their relatives, the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the many, many people who had lived and died before Jesus of Nazareth ever walked the earth. What was undeniable was the evidence of God at work in the world: The man who had been lame from birth stood before them whole, 4:14. Does our faith require that we have all the answers? God, thank God, continues to work in the world even while we struggle to understand and to articulate, imperfectly, our faith in God.
Psalm 23 is one of the best-known and most often-quoted passages in the Bible.
The psalm is commonly used in the context of death and the funeral service. But the psalm’s language and imagery may be more fitting for the season of Easter when the Church tries to discern how to live in light of Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, Psalm 23 is more about how a person lives in relationship to God than how one faces death or finds security beyond the grave.
Psalm 23:1 summarizes the message of the whole. Verse 1a declares, “The Lord is my shepherd” and thus acknowledges God as the one who protects and guides. It is important to recognize, however, that “shepherd” connotes more than someone who herds sheep. Shepherd was a royal metaphor in the ancient Near East. Therefore, to call God shepherd is to acknowledge God as one who rules over one’s life, to surrender to the will to God.
After the metaphorical statement, “The Lord is my shepherd,” verse 1b adds the unqualified phrase “I shall not want” which could also be rendered “I have no lack.” The absolute character of this second phrase is striking. It suggests the Lord is all one really needs, that God’s shepherding care provides all that is essential to life.
The rest of the psalm illustrates how and why this is true. The list of provisions in verses 2-5, however, should not be understood as a restrictive list of what a person needs (e.g. food, water, safety, protection from enemies). A close reading of verse 5 shows God’s extravagant care of the psalmist. This verse shifts the imagery, from shepherd to host. As a host who gives refuge to the psalmist beset by enemies, God offers abundant food and drink, oil for grooming, as well as the assurance of safety. The expression “my cup overflows” the psalmist not only has basic provisions, but also enjoys abundance.
The final verse continues the language of riches and blessing with two hopeful claims. The first claim is that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (verse 6a). That “goodness” will follow the psalmist probably needs no explanation. The second term, “mercy” translates the Hebrew word hesed, which is used of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness. The psalmist is claiming that the way of Yahweh, as illustrated by Yahweh’s faithful rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, providing guidance in the wilderness, and helping them possess the promised land, will be the way of Yahweh with the psalmist.
The psalmist’s second hope is that “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (verse 6b). The house of the Lord is the Jerusalem Temple (see Psalm 27:4). This final line qualifies the nature of abundant provision the psalmist enjoys. Namely, the blessings of being shepherded by God are directly related to being in God’s presence. Psalm 27:4 offers an apt parallel: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Indeed, Psalm 23 essentially says that the best thing about having the Lord as shepherd is having the Lord as shepherd.
Although Psalm 23 is spoken by an individual, it connects with a wide association of texts that incorporate the experience of Israel. The Old Testament associates God’s shepherding with two defining experiences in Israel’s corporate life: the exodus/wilderness (Psalm 77:20; 78:52-53; 80:1) and the exile (Isaiah 40:11; 49:9-10).
The former speaks of Yahweh’s rescue and presentation to the promised land; the latter offers hope for a return to that land. The wilderness experience in particular echoes throughout Psalm 23. For example, “I shall not want” (which also could be translated, “I do not lack”) recalls Deuteronomy 2:7, which states that during the forty years in the wilderness the Israelites “have lacked nothing;” “He leads me in the right paths” is similar to Exodus 15:13, which says God guided Israel to a holy habitation; “You prepare a table before me” sounds much like Psalm 78:19, which declares that God can “prepare a table in the wilderness” for the people.
The shepherd metaphor, with all its varied expressions, raises the historical memory of a people shepherded by God. Unique to Psalm 23, however, is the extremely personal expression of God’s care. Nowhere else in the Bible does anyone say, “the Lord is my shepherd.” Herein lies the key to the vibrancy of Psalm 23 in the life of faith. This poem draws from a communal consciousness about God as a shepherd for the nation, but here the psalmist expresses this understanding in very personal terms.
Many people in the ancient world believed in personal gods. Usually those individualistic expressions of relationship referred to a lesser deity in a pantheon. In Psalm 23, however, the psalmist declares that the Sovereign of the universe, the Creator of all things, can be described using “my,” that the Lord attends to me in a personal way.
The shepherd image appears not only as part of the Old Testament but as a vital part of the New Testament as well. For Christians, Psalm 23 foretells the words of Jesus, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), and the writer of 1 Peter who declares that Jesus is the “shepherd and guardian” of souls who leads believers when they are “going astray like sheep” (2:25).
These connections are appropriate for reading Psalm 23 in the Easter season. During this time, however, we should also remember the tradition of reading the Psalms as Jesus’ own prayers. It reminds us that Jesus is the chief example of one who depended on God while in trouble and who sought God above all else. Perhaps Jesus is the only human being who could really claim, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have no lack.”
Last week’s text addressed the problem of sin in the believer’s life. This week, the problem seems to be guilt.
There are some styles of preaching and piety that prey on feelings of guilt, either to maintain pastoral power or to keep people coming to church (and, at times as a higher priority, giving their money). On the other hand, there is no scarcity of voices offering shallow psychological platitudes designed to banish all unpleasant feelings about oneself. This passage from 1 John offers sturdier stuff.
This text begins with the concrete reality of love known and lived because of Jesus. In contrast to Cain who robbed his brother of life (3:12-15), Jesus laid down his own life for us. The author is not interested in explaining just how Jesus’ voluntary death benefits us. The point is that Jesus’ act is the deepest meaning of “love”, and so Jesus himself defines the character of the church’s life. His self-giving death is love’s story and love’s shape. The church proclaims and lives love not as a vague ideal rooted in the human potential for good. Love is identified and known by what Jesus has done, and that act is the ground of all Christian thought and hope.
But the author insists that this love is not known only as a story from the past; this same love ought to be made visible now in relationships with one another within the church. As is characteristic of the Johannine tradition as a whole, love for the rest of humanity, while certainly not rejected, is not the topic here. We ought not to criticize this narrow focus too quickly. It is often easier to express love for those who are distant from us than for those who are constantly face to face with us. The author is blunt: we ought to do what Jesus did (see John 13:12-15). 1 John does not reflect a situation in which it is likely that members of the church will actually die for one another; there is no fatal persecution of the church expected here.
Rather, life-giving will be lived out in ways that are much closer to the situation in most of our congregations, and therefore much more challenging. Anyone who has the “life of the world” (NRSV “the world’s goods”, which expresses this phrase’s referent but loses its connection to the laying down of life discussed in verse 16), and sees a brother or sister in need, can live out the life-giving of Jesus. The call is not just to the wealthy, or for rare acts of heroism. This is the more mundane material of daily discipleship for the church’s multitude. Any disciple of Jesus, with the means to sustain life, is called to share that (i.e., to “lay down life”) where it is lacking.
To fail at this point is more than selfishness with our stuff. It is to shut off one’s compassion from the brother or sister in need (NRSV verse 17 “refuses to help” is a pale rendering of the more graphic language of the text, “closes one’s innards”). The love of God is not present in anyone who can do that. The phrase “love of God” in verse 17 could be taken to mean either our love for God (since love for God is reflected in love for God’s people; see 1 John 4:20-21), or God’s love for us (since God’s love for us is to be the force that prompts love from us; see 1 John 4:19). Either way, to give one’s life in this way, in imitation of Jesus’ own love, is more than simply a result of believing; it is the concrete shape that belief takes in the world,1 and the presence of such giving is a sign that God’s love is present and active.
Verses 19-22 address the question of how we know we are “of the truth.” Perhaps this question was raised, whether explicitly or implicitly, by the opponents who left the Johannine church. Unfortunately, the grammar of verses 19-20 is notoriously tangled. It seems most likely, contrary to the usual pattern in 1 John, that “by this we will know” points backwards: it is by loving in truth and in action (verse 18) that we know that we are “of the truth.”
Verses 19b-20 often have been understood as a stern warning: if our hearts condemn us, then we must remember that God’s condemnation will be even greater, since God knows absolutely everything, even those sins which we may succeed in hiding from ourselves. However, in this context the point is almost certainly one of comfort and reassurance, as most recent commentators have recognized. Human conscience is not an infallible guide. Even when we would condemn ourselves, God’s grace is larger than our sin, and God’s mercy is greater than our ability to grasp it.
It may be surprising good news for some that the faithful stance is not one of constant fear and self-loathing. The author finds it possible that our conscience may not be plagued (verse 21), which is identified as boldness in God’s presence, the assurance that we may ask and God will graciously give. However, God is no cosmic vending machine operating to serve our desires. Verse 22 speaks of keeping God’s commands, and doing what is pleasing to God. Whatever requests rise from belief in Jesus and from love for one’s brothers and sisters will be pleasing and acceptable to God.
These two commandments for faith and for love are identified as one in verse 23. Love for others is the core of the Son’s revelation of the Father, and so such love is the very essence of the One in whom we believe. Faith and love are the marks of the church, and for the Johannine believers (and us as well), bruised by church schism and by questions about whether God is truly at work among us, these marks are both the calling and the comfort of the church. They are in fact nothing less than what it means to dwell within the life of the Father and the Son, brought to reality and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit (verse 24).
1David Rensberger, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 102.