20 April 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2015

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
I John 3:16-24
St. John 10:11-18

Background:  Good Shepherd Sunday
After the Vatican II reforms, and the wide acceptance of the Roman Ordo, specifically the Three-Year Lectionary that was quickly adopted by Episcopalians and Lutherans, the theme of the Good Shepherd moved from the Second Sunday after Easter to (in the new calendar) the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The readings that center on the shepherd images of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, give background to the name.

For most of us, however, we are at such a remove from rural life, specifically that of the sheepfold, and the tasks of the shepherd, that it is difficult to plumb the depths of these images. Too many stained glass windows have sentimentalized the image of shepherd and flock for us that the realities of this kind of life and its ramifications for our own living, are sometimes unattainable. There are two ways to go here. One would be to look at the role the shepherd played in the ancient near east, sometimes operating at the fringes of society, if not being outcast from society. Yet these individuals were an important part of the agricultural economy. David spent his time as a shepherd, and it is a role that is often connected with kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The other tack would be to explore all the symbolic content that the shepherd figure offers, not only in Israel and in the Jesus story, but in the ancient near east as well. What may be received by most modern worshippers as “cute” might be turned into something more profound and engaging. What does it mean to be the “Lamb of God”, and how might we understanding the arresting images of the Lamb in Revelation? Here is something for lector, preacher, and people to explore.

Acts 4:5-12

The day after they had arrested Peter and John for teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, 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, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

`The stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

The subthemes in these stories are about power and authority. The question is often asked, “By whose authority do you do these things?” To this theme, Luke adds the consideration of the power of the name of Jesus.  In the third chapter, Peter says, “And by faith in his name, this man, whom you see and know, his name has made strong, and the faith that comes through it has given him this perfect health, in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3:16). In this pericope, we see two men, of little means and education, who speak with boldness and authority. It is they who bear the Name, and it is they who invoke its power. Peter is quick to answer the inquiries of the religious authorities, but his response is noted as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Luke sees the authority of both Name and Spirit. Peter always sees such questions as an opportunity to proclaim the resurrection, and the salvation and forgiveness that come with it. If you would like to read a stunning description of what such preaching might entail, see John Dally’s Chapter, “The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God is Accompanied by Healing”, in his book, Choosing the Kingdom – Missional Preaching for the Household of God[1]:

“As we learn more about Jesus’s original context, however, we begin to realize that the healing he enjoins his followers to offer is part and parcel of a larger missional plan for proclaiming the kingdom of God present on earth.”

Peter is being cast in the role of Jesus, by Luke, who wants his readers to see in Peter’s and later Paul’s actions the active ministry of Jesus. Luke has Peter preach, but his actions of healing were probably more powerful and profound to those who witnessed them. Such touched lives offer a different evidence of authority and power.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What power does the Name of Jesus have in your life?
  2. How might you heal as Peter does?
  3. How might you proclaim as Peter does?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those
who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Here we have an excellent example of the shepherd image being used to describe God. A quick point might be that this among other images of everyday life is applicable in describing God’s presence among us. Perhaps that is why this is such a powerful and beloved psalm. There are hazards in this psalm in addition to the green pastures and the still waters. “He revives my soul”, is probably better translated with “he gives me back my life (nephesh – “life breath”). This is followed by another hazardous image, that of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We all are walking in hazardous places, and we all are accompanied by a God, who like a shepherd protects us by walking with us. What follows in the verses that follow is what is engendered in us by God’s presence, “I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” 

The remaining verses leave the pastoral image behind, and we are seated at table, luxuriating in anointings of oil, and a cup brimming with joy. The presence in harm is also the presence in all of life, both good and bad, “all the days of my life.”

Breaking open Psalm 23:
  1. What is your valley of the shadow of death?
  2. How does God keep you safe in that valley?
  3. How do you luxuriate in God’s love for you?

1 John 3:16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 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.

The author sees two necessary things, belief in the power of the Name (see the commentary on Acts, above) and the love of one another. What are we talking about here? This is an ethic, “love one another”, that is accompanied by a theological point – belief in the Name. These form the major themes in the latter part of this Epistle. Jesus serves as the example of this behavior, and indeed the fulfillment of it. By his actions we are all included in grace, and are sent out to be examples of it in our own lives as well. The author says it well, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” This might prove to be a difficult ethic.

Breaking open I John:
  1. How does the church follow the example of Jesus’ love?
  2. How does it not?
  3. How does this play out in your own life?

St. John 10:11-18

Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

This text from John uses the images of the sheep and the shepherd that revolve around kingship and authority. Many roles are portrayed here, but chief among them is that of the shepherd as the ultimate protector who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus, as in the second lesson (above) becomes the example of authority in action, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” So it is not only wind and wave that Jesus commands but the realities of life and death also. There is also a quick and decisive look back at the One who gives this authority by means of “this command from my Father.” So not only is Jesus talking about protection, and salvation, but access as well. In the previous pericopes, Jesus describes himself as not only the Shepherd, but the Gate of the Sheepfold as well. All of this meditation on Jesus as Shepherd, Gate, and Life-giver is preceded by healing – a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. So it is not only about authority and power, but also about God’s presence with us. These readings have an amazing sense of unity.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. If Jesus is a gate in your life, to what does the gate lead?
  2. Has anyone laid down their life for you? Who and why?
  3. Has Jesus healed you? How?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Dally, John A. (2007), Choosing the Kingdom – Missional Teaching for the Household of God, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia

14 April 2015

The Third Sunday of Easter, 19 April 2015

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
I John 3:1-7
St. Luke 24:36b-48

Background: Witnesses
In the readings today you will encounter the word “witness” several times. It might be good for us to realize the subtext of this word, that might not be apparent if we think of the word in English terms only. The Greek word is “Martyr”, and as we think about the connection of those two words, we begin to see that those who witness Peter’s healing, the appearance of Jesus, have the possibility of dire circumstances accruing to them. In its original usage in the Greek, a martyr was a “witness”. There was no threat of death or persecution – just bearing witness to something. It is the Christian experience in the ancient world that glosses the word with the additional meaning.

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw the astonishment of those who had seen the lame man healed, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

"And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out."

Several commentators note how Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, sees the actions of Peter and Paul, especially, as parallels of what Jesus had done in his ministry. Readers might want to look at St. Luke 5:17-26 to see the basis for the witnessing that Peter will do in this pericope. The apostles are in the Temple confines, which has several things to say to us, the presence of God, the piety of the disciples, and the place from which the lame man was excluded, and after his healing is included. The lame man (see Acts 3, especially the verses preceding the liturgical pericope) represents Luke’s oft presented agenda for the “lowly ones” – the poor, the sick, women, orphans, and such. What follows is Peter’s address to the witnesses that are present at the cure. Peter wants them to understand the healing they have witnessed as a sign – something that indicates the role of Jesus in God’s plan of salvation. The section following this invites repentance from the witnesses. That Luke describes the crowd as “astonished” indicates their receptivity to what Peter is about to tell them. He underscores the healing as an indication of the power of the name of Jesus. The three major points of this sermon are Jesus foretold, Jesus as fulfillment, and Jesus as a sign of the covenant.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How do Peter’s acts replicate those of Jesus?
  2. What is the reaction of the people standing around them?
  3. How does healing happen in your life?

Psalm 4 Cum invocarem

Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; *
you set me free when I am hard-pressed;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

"You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; *
how long will you worship dumb idols
and run after false gods?"

Know that the LORD does wonders for the faithful; *
when I call upon the LORD, he will hear me.

Tremble, then, and do not sin; *
speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.

Offer the appointed sacrifices *
and put your trust in the LORD.

Many are saying, "Oh, that we might see better times!" *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.

I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

This psalm’s dialogue between a suppliant and God might well be the conversation in the first reading for this Sunday.  The quote from God speaks to the situation in ancient times, asking when they will return to the God of Israel. The psalmist learns quickly, adjuring his readers to act as a righteous people, similar to Peter’s request that the people repent. Shown the faithful God of Israel, the one who “does wonders,” the psalmist literally urges his readers to tremble in the presence of the almighty and then to keep a deep silence. The second to the last verse is probably an interpolation or an error. The final verse, however, returns to the theme, and to the quiet of sleep that awaits those who trust in God.

Breaking open Psalm 4:
  1. When do you feel truly safe?
  2. Does your faith make you feel safe? How?
  3. How do you make others feel safe?

1 John 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

In the initial sections of I John, there is an emphasis on the human frailty of sin, but now in these verses and opposite position is takend, “no one who abides in him sins.”  The states of sinner and the sinless are compared. Those who abide in Christ are seen, and indeed act in righteousness. The opposite is so for those who indeed sin, for they neither see Jesus or know Jesus. The confusion is worthy of Luther’s description of the Christian as simil justus et peccator  (at the same time justified and sinner).

Breaking open I John:
  1. Why does the author of I John stress the importance of the Word as the Gospel proclaimed?
  2. How do you see your belief as light or darkness?
  3. What is the darkness of your life?
  4. How Christ a light in your life?

St. Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and their companions and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Reginald Fuller, in his book on the resurrection appearances, comments on how the appearances become more and more complicated and detailed. As the faith grew, the stories of Jesus’ appearance were likely to be filled with details borne out of the lives of those who experienced them. The appearances begin with individuals, and then the twelve, and in this pericope with the twelve and their companions. The greeting is always, “peace be with you.” What follows is both terror and astonishment. There is a formula here: terror, the showing of the wounds, the recognition, and subsequent joy. In this pericope, Jesus has no disciple (Thomas) demanding physical evidence, “unless I put my hand in his side.” In a way Jesus preempts such a request by asking if there is something to eat. The eating becomes a sign to them, as it is to us each Sunday. Just as at Emmaus, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” It is not only their experience of being in the presence of Jesus that ought to teach them but their very history as a people that bears witness to who and what Jesus is.  Here, Luke also outlines what is to come – the sharing of the Gospel to all nations, by witnesses – they themselves!

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is Thomas’ doubt healthy?
  2. What power does Jesus bestow on the disciples?
  3. Is your confession of Jesus the same or different from Thomas’
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller