Lectionary Commentaries for April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 10:11-18

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

The metaphor of shepherd and specifically of Jesus as the good shepherd is one that the church has long used as a means of assuring Christ’s followers of his unending and unfailing care for them. 

Most likely, having preached this text or others where the analogy of shepherd and sheep are representative of the divine/human relationship, the understanding of the nature of sheep and their need for care, protection, and guidance by the shepherd has already been shared with the congregation. If not, it is important that the backdrop be provided as it substantiates the need for such a relationship between God and human beings. 

And given the context of our times, expounding on the image of shepherd is not only an appropriate response to the felt needs of society but also of the church that, like the society in the United States, is divided over too many issues and wandering, even becoming adrift, in dangerous places. Certainly the great division caused by politics is no secret and while it has the possibility of unleashing fierce anger in some quarters, even in some churches, this text offers an opportunity for the willing and perhaps adventurous preacher to address it from the context of this passage from John’s Gospel.

The text has long been considered one where, as Stephen A. Cooper names it, “[T]he main issue is ecclesiological.”1 Cooper also notes the “deep challenge to denominationalism.”2 However, in this moment of societal disagreements, perhaps the preacher might want to focus more widely on another side of the issue; namely, the call for diversity in and as the Body of Christ. In language similar to that used in the parables, John directs his hearers to focus their worship on Jesus Christ, their only true guide. But he makes clear that the Body of Christ is incomplete; there are many who have not yet come to the knowledge of Christ and therefore have not taken their place in the beloved community under the sovereignty of Christ. In John’s time it was the Gentiles who were yet to become a full part of that fledgling community. 

Certainly, the congregation can and should be considered as being part of the group who, through their acceptance of Christ as Lord, have become members of Christ’s body. The preacher may begin by asking: who are the Gentiles of our time? Who are the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold?” In doing so, it may be important to look beyond the immediate congregation as a starting point. Focusing on the meaning of the Body of Christ that is inclusive of all nations, races, and people opens the hearers to the full meaning of what it means to be the Beloved Community and of the requirement of unity so that, as Jesus told his disciples, “they may all be one” (John 17:26). 

Despite holding the position of the hired hand, the preacher is called to be daring, to not run away from the challenge of calling their hearers to a clear understanding of the call to oneness in the name of Christ, and to address and welcome diversity in whatever form it is represented in the wider community in which the congregation is located. And given the separation of cultures, races, class, and even political affiliation that is representative of the majority of communities in the USA, this may be a great challenge for the preacher.

While the congregation may pride itself on its ecumenical stance and involvement, it is more often than not difficult to welcome expansive diversity, despite proclamatory statements to the contrary, and for congregations to move beyond the familiar in the makeup of their ecclesial community. Even churches that are heavily involved in mission and outreach projects beyond their immediate borders are often hesitant to reach out to immediate neighbors and bring them fully into the fold. Too many arms-length or distance projects offer them the security of loving the neighbor without seeing the neighbor. And unfortunately, even when caring for neighbors involves giving access to food and clothing provided by the church, inviting and including the recipients of their ministry as members of the congregation is all too often beyond their ability.

Thus the preacher who dares to speak about the “other sheep” must do so after deep consideration about the characteristics of the sheep that they will present to the congregation. Beyond denominational divides, there are issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and even political affiliation. However, the common denominator that brings all together is the good shepherd. John is clear that in the voice of the good shepherd, the ultimate goal is “one flock (under) one shepherd.” That shepherd is not the preacher or the denominational hierarchy. That flock belongs only to “the good shepherd (who) lays down his life for the sheep” (verse 11b). In this post-Easter season, that good shepherd is the one who has already not only laid down his life for the sheep in his crucifixion, but who has taken it up again in his resurrection. 

That good shepherd is the one who has made the definitive call to all who will become part of the fold. The divisiveness that plagues both society and the church is contrary to the divine call. The preacher can become the mouthpiece for the good shepherd, putting forward the words as the text presents them in the name of Jesus. Doing so offers an opportunity to alert the congregation that being part of that one fold that belongs to the good shepherd means loving neighbors in all their diversity, and thus moving them closer to attaining that same resurrection to eternal life.


Notes

  1. Stephen A. Cooper, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year B, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 448.
  2. Ibid.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:5-12

Matt Skinner

Conflict arises in Acts for the first time in this passage. 

It’s a story that follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s reading, in which Peter, with John at his side, preaches a sermon in the temple complex to a group of the people (laos) who gathered to marvel at the healing of a man who could not walk.

The first four verses of Acts 4 provide essential information, and so they deserve to be included in the reading. They tell us that the Sadducees and their allies within the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy flex their muscles and seize the two apostles. They hold them in custody. Displays of power and coercion like this are what rulers do when they don’t know what else to do.

The leaders appear to be provoked by both the content and the effects of Peter’s preaching: it’s about resurrection and 5000 men—apparently all Jews or proselytes, not counting women and children—are persuaded by what they’ve seen and heard. As we know from the New Testament (for example, Acts 23:8) and Josephus (War 2.8.14), Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. Back in Luke’s Gospel, they, along with the other temple-based elites with whom they shared a political coalition, were concerned about the impact Jesus and his message were having on large crowds (Luke 19:47-48; 22:2; 23:5). Both the apostolic teaching and its popularity were dangerous, from their point of view.1

It is crucial that congregations understand who the apostles’ antagonists are in this scene, for the narrative is rather specific. These are not rank-and-file Jews who oppose, detain, and question Peter and John. They are the leaders of the temple and the Jewish nobles whom Rome entrusted with ruling and ensuring the peace in Judea. With the high priest atop the pyramid, they are the tiny percentage of the Judean population that possessed an enormous amount of power. For the most part, they are the same people who Luke says cooperated with Pilate to do away with Jesus (Luke 19:47-20:19; 22:4; 52; 22:66-23:5; 23:35).2

I beg for precision with regard to this passage because Acts is often imprecise about characters who oppose the spread of the good news. Later in the book readers encounter groups of Jews who appear hostile and resistant. Acts includes more than thirty unspecific references to “the Jews,” and the accumulation of that rhetoric leads many readers to conclude that Acts is eager to cast judgment on Judaism as a whole.3 That is not the case in Acts 4, however. Here it is the conflict that began between Jesus and the Judean leadership that persists, now as the apostles take up the work of preaching to receptive Jewish crowds. Acts signals that Jesus’ followers inherit and continue every aspect of Jesus’ ministry—healing, preaching, serving, and also contending against the people with the power to discredit them. That’s the main story, at least for the time being.4

Once Peter speaks, his message is direct. As he did in Acts 3:12, he quickly turns attention toward Jesus and away from himself and John. The name of Jesus refers to the power of Jesus, the one crucified and raised from the dead.

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit like his Lord was in Luke 4:14, 18, quotes Psalm 118:22, just as Jesus did in Luke 20:17. The early church detected the scent of resurrection in the psalmist’s poetry about a discarded stone becoming a cornerstone or keystone—the most important stone for the structural integrity of a building or archway (see also 1 Peter 2:7). It is also significant that the psalm describes the crucial stone as being rejected by the experts, builders who would be authorities on such matters. Peter tells the religious and political equivalents of master builders that they are incompetent. The high priestly and Sadducean dynasty, by their refusal or inability to recognize Jesus for who he was, only makes the magnificence of his resurrection all the clearer to Peter. Peter then describes Jesus as the power of God’s “salvation,” employing a word that carries a lot of weight also in Luke (1:77; 2:30; 3:6; 19:9).5

Peter’s words in Acts 4:8-12 anticipate where the larger story told in Acts 4 will end: with a prayer celebrating the power of God to minimize and embarrass those who purport to hold sovereignty over human societies (Acts 4:24-30). If God has made the crucified, risen, ascended, and empowered Jesus “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36), then all Pharaohs, Caesars, and the gods we human beings construct are exposed as pretenders.

Although Acts does not reveal much about what motivates the aristocracy to intimidate the apostles, Peter’s claims about the power of Jesus’ name will eventually make it clear—at least to readers—that the leaders should have good reason for concern. Their problem, as Acts 4-5 makes clear, isn’t that something about their Jewishness makes them resistant to the apostolic message. Their problem is that they presume they have the power to put a lid on the good news.

The issue, then, isn’t a theological debate over the possibility of God raising the dead. The issue hinges on the question of whether Jesus is Lord. Easter preaching might take a cue from this story. Instead of preaching to convince people about resurrection, preach to introduce people to a God who claims the world as God’s own. Describe the salvation that the God of new life can provide. Tell the people what it means that Jesus’ inauguration of God’s kingdom continues undeterred, no matter who or what might stand in the way of it.

Willie James Jennings notes that Peter and John’s distress in Acts 4 should not have come as a surprise. Clearly the same confrontation “that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well,” as long as they remained committed to participating in “the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people.”6 Jennings continues with a sage reminder for preachers and their congregations who participate in Jesus’ ongoing work in the face of significant social and political resistance:

Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality. Christians of the modern West have never really grasped our deep connection to the criminal mind, our mind. We should always understand ourselves as what Edward Said called secular critics who unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic, and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions.7


Notes

  1. For a short overview of the Sadducees, see: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/sadducees.aspx.
  2. We lack complete clarity about the members of the high priest’s family. Annas was high priest 6-15 CE. His son-in-law Caiaphas held the office 18-36 CE (see Luke 3:2). Family members named John and Alexander are not known to us from any other sources.
  3. As Acts moves forward, the conflict mounts and the opposition comes from a widening segment of Jewish populations. For more context, see the three passages in which Paul indicts whole Jewish communities for their resistance to his message (Acts 13:46-48; 18:5-6; 28:25-28). We need to be aware of the hyperbole and also admit that Acts itself contributes to the problem.
  4. A single sermon cannot undo all of the ways Acts has provoked—and deplorable interpretations have perpetuated—anti-Judaic theologies. But sermons that help congregations discover the ways in which they might have taken criticisms of specific, narrowly identified Jews (as in the current passage) and transformed them into blanket condemnations of Judaism as a whole (as throughout Christian history) are valuable corrective steps in the right direction. The process for which we all share responsibility involves ongoing repentance and reinterpretation.
  5. The mention of being “saved” (sōzō) in Acts 4:12 refers back to the mention of the man being “healed” (literally “saved”: sōzō) in Acts 4:9.
  6. Acts (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 45.
  7.  Ibid., 45-46. Jennings refers to Said’s Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 88-89.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

Joel LeMon

Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”1 With a simple metaphor in a concise and elegant line, this verse expresses the message of the entire psalm: Yahweh satisfied every need. The images shift throughout the poem, but that central idea remains constant.

Indeed, Psalm 23 delivers some of the most beautiful and deeply comforting images in the whole Bible. As such, this psalm is a favorite—indeed, the favorite—of many.2 But the imagery in this psalm is also full of surprises. So our reading and preaching of this text should not be sentimental, but bold, always keeping in mind the ways that its radical claims confront our experiences of suffering, fear, enmity, and alienation.

The enduring appeal of Psalm 23

The pastoral metaphor at the outset of Psalm 23 resonates so deeply with Christians because of texts like John 10:11 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday) and John 21:15-17. The history of Christian art has played its part as well, reinforcing and developing this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd through countless iterations. Having encountered all of these images of Jesus holding and caring for sheep, it’s hard for us not to associate Jesus as the shepherd in verse 1.

We can also attribute the psalm’s popularity to its happy ending. With rhetorical flourish, the psalm describes a blessed present and a blessed future, filled with the enjoyment of God’s presence: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long!” (verse 6, NRSV). The venerable KJV, which so many of us know, in fact, seems to suggest that a beatific afterlife is in view: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Preaching such a popular text is dangerous, for sentimentalism can easily supplant exegesis. When that happens, our well-worn readings tend to mute the fresh word from God to the contemporary community. Thus we proceed with caution in mapping the structure and imagery of the text.

The journey of the Psalmist

The pastoral images that dominate the beginning of the psalm (shepherd, the verdant fields, and the waters of repose) actually work together to describe a journey that Yahweh oversees and guides. The rest in green pastures is in fact but a temporary repose (verse 2a). This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (verses 2-4).

After the description the blessing that awaits the psalmist in the house of the Lord (verse 5), the text again pictures the psalmist in motion: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (KJV). The word “follow” here (radaph) is better translated “pursue,” a surprising verb given that it is usually the enemies that are pursing the psalmist with an intent to overtake and destroy (e.g., Psalms 7:1; 35:3; 143:3). Furthermore, in this same verse, the word “surely” (’aq) is better translated “only.” Thus it’s not the enemies in hot pursuit. Instead, “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”

The imagery of the final line of the psalm (verse 6b) also deserves another look. For most readers, the end of the psalm provides a picture of an unending bliss in the house of the Lord. The KJV is the basis for the NRSV translating the word shuv as “dwell” here. Some scholars reckon this to be a unique usage of the word shuv, claiming that it indicates a “return with the desire to stay where one ends up.” So, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV). Yet others rightly understand shuv here in its most simple sense: “to turn” or “return.” Given the prevalence of images of travelling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.

This journey consists of the “paths (ma‘galim) of righteousness.” Interestingly, when ma‘galim appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we find it translated “tracks” or “entrenchments,” or even “ruts” that are made by the wheels of an ox-cart — the word ma‘galim is in fact related to the word for young cow, ‘egel. Thus, the “paths of righteousness” are more like ruts in the ground, groves for the wheels of your ox-cart. So, walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God. To live this way glorifies the name (or the reputation) of God: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Jesus as shepherd and trailblazer

As Christians who read and preach this text, we must consider Jesus not only as the good shepherd of John 10, but also as the trailblazer of the paths of righteousness (see Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus tends us and guides us into right relationships with each other and with God. In the psalm, the paths of righteousness do not lead directly from the green pastures to the house of the Lord. No, those righteous ruts go through the very darkest valley (verse 4). In Jesus’s case, the paths of righteousness lead all the way to the cross. Jesus has shown us that way (see especially 1 John 3:16-24, another lection for this Sunday) and calls us to follow him. The good news of Psalm 23 is that when we walk these paths of righteousness, we walk with God (verse 4).


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on April 26, 2015.
  2. For an extraordinary discussion of the ascendancy of Psalm 23 in American culture, see William Holladay, “Epilogue: How the Twenty Third Psalm Became and American Secular Icon” in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 359-371.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24

Sherri Brown

First John 3:16-24 is the central summons of this epistle that calls its recipients to unity as a new covenant community, despite social, cultural, and mainstream distinctions or challenges. 

The letter is structured around three appeals to a community in crisis, where the author calls for unity through the axia that God is light (1 John 1:5-2:27), that God is just (1 John 2:28-4:6), and that God is love (1 John 4:7-5:12). In 1 John 3:3:16-24, the author expounds upon the justness of God by reiterating the form and content of the new covenant community narrated in the Gospel of John.

Although we do well not to overemphasize reconstructive speculations, a determining factor for interpreting the Johannine Epistles is their historical relationship to the Gospel of John and the community that produced it. Interpreters take various positions as to whether the letters come from the same hand as the Gospel and/or whether they were written before or after the work of the Fourth Evangelist. The Gospel likely underwent several drafts and refinements over the years and is truly the product of a community’s experience of God’s activity in the world. Indications from the letters suggest they arose from the same general community of believers and reflect the ongoing life of that community as it sought to come to terms with its particular understanding of the good news of Christ and God’s new covenant in a larger socio-cultural environment. Further, they reflect a slightly different and later theological context where the author(s) thought that the Gospel’s message needed further clarification and adaptation. 

Therefore, the Letters are best understood as arising from the community after the crisis with post-war Judaism (for example, after 70 CE; what lies behind the Gospel) and focusing upon the life and belief of the community itself at the turn of/early in the second century. The Gospel was likely written circa 90-100 CE in a community defining itself in the Greco-Roman world that includes the mainstream Judaism of its past. The Letters then come from the following decade, circa 100-110 CE, in a community of churches that now finds it necessary to define itself against turmoil from within. Christian ideals are proving difficult to live out in the larger Greco-Roman world that maintains a variety of beliefs and standards. Writing from an authoritative position, the author seeks to stem the tide of discord and dissolution and strengthen and unify his communities.

The formal tone of 1 John is evident even through a first encounter. We can see why early church leaders called it a “catholic epistle” since it lacks a personal address or distinctive audience; rather, it seems to be written to a general, even universal, audience. Further, the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John is easily apparent. The author uses the same language, themes, and imagery in this more grounded and direct plea for the community. John’s language of believing, love, knowledge, justice, and the gift of truth for the children of God continues to permeate these pages. The content of the letter’s three appeals warns believing communities of the dangers of the world, while instructing them on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. An abbreviated outline of the letter follows:

1:1-4 Prologue: The Word of Life for the Community

1:5–2:27 Opening Appeal to the New Community: God is Light

2:28–4:6 Central Appeal to the New Community: God is Just

          2:28–3:10 The Mark of the True Children of God

          3:11-24 The New Covenant Commandment 

          4:1-6 The Call for Discernment and the Testing of Spirits

4:7–5:12 Closing Appeal to the New Community: God is Love

5:13-21 Epilogue: Prayer for the Faithful Community

Our focus rests upon 1 John 3:16-24, which lays out the new covenant commandment within the central appeal to the new community. The primary directive is that God is just. The author is further insistent that the new community is formed upon Jesus Christ’s commandments of believing and loving in him that lead to an outward-turning orientation toward social justice. The trajectory is a theology that leads to Christology, which forms an ecclesiology that manifests ethical action.

The central appeal to the new community emphasizes that God is just in terms of the mark of the true children of God (1 John 2:28–3:10) who are known by their keeping of the new commandment given by Jesus Christ (1 John 3:11-24) and their ability to discern and test spirits (1 John 4:1-6). The justice, or righteousness, of God will manifest in the children of God as a strong sense of ethics. The hope of the children of God is union with God in God’s image and likeness. This ethic is based in the commandments of the new covenant to believe in the name Jesus Christ and to love one another—and be known by this way of life (1 John 3:23). This abiding reality is expressed in the heart of this central appeal: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Abiding by this ethic brings the Spirit of God into the fellowship of the community and both empowers and emboldens the community to stand fast against the spirits of the world. 

Finally, he addresses them as “Beloved” (1 John 4:1), resonating with their founded figure, the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel. They are called to think critically and carefully about “the spirits” of the world, those who teach new ideas and values. They must make their decisions with the traditions of the community at the forefront of that process. The uncompromising polemic begins to ease at this point. The author thus concludes this appeal with the consoling security of eternal relationship with God: “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). They must abide in this communal relationship so that they may act in steadfast love in this world.