Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter 29 April 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Easter 4 Textweek

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Just while we were going through the readings – this is a complete aside, but who knows…. Have a look at the front page of the pew sheet - we’re just looking at the pictures now, not the words, so much easier: and we’ve got a picture of Jesus – just have a look; then we turn over, page 4 and 5, there’s another picture of Jesus, and then finally there’s the picture on page 6. One of the quests of the church for two thousand years has been, which one of these is Jesus? Is it the one with the beard, is it the one with the moustache blowing a horn or is it the one of the lamb with a cross? When we hear it that way it sounds a bit silly, and yet hold that, because that really is what a lot of the church has been about for a long time, trying to find what’s the picture, and it’s the question, it’s the question that we heard in the Gospel that the Jews are asking: ‘We want to know who you are.’

Good Shepherd Sunday gives us one answer, just by the fact of the title, Good Shepherd, and the truth that we celebrate in the image of the good shepherd is a truth that has been unwittingly distorted in its orthodox understanding. It’s a very simple image and it’s a very tempting image. It’s an image that we can quite readily feel drawn to, and in churches it’s an image that’s just reinforced by the space and the position. If someone came from Mars and heard us talking about shepherds and sheep, it’s pretty obvious I’m the shepherd and you’re the sheep: ‘listen to me, hear my voice’. See what I mean? Just by the space, we actually create an understanding and that understanding might be distorted. If we started afresh there’s a good chance there would be more churches built as circles rather than in this shape. It would make a difference.

‘The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.’ The classical understanding of that text in its Sunday School simplicity is, ‘Christ died for me, all is and will be okay; the Lord is my shepherd and I am his sheep; Christ died so that I can live; because of what he did, I’ll be okay; if I accept Jesus as Lord then I am saved and safe.’ If we look at it again, ‘The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want’: I shall not be wanting. I shall not be wanting: my needs for safety, security, shelter and sustenance shall be satisfied. Why then – good question – why, if the Lord is our shepherd do we still want: five bedrooms two bathrooms, superannuation, an investment plan, border security, protection from refugees, the coalition of the willing for war. Why this list of wants if the Lord is our shepherd?

The other readings that we hear this morning I think can be quite helpful. In the Gospel we hear, like us, the Jews of the Gospel wanting to know the truth about Jesus. Their ‘who are you’ is also our question, and it’s more than identity that we’re seeking. When we ask, we don’t want to know which of those three pictures in our pew sheet you are. We’re intelligent people, we’re asking more than that. Verse 24: ‘Tell us if you are the Messiah’ - the Messiah being that which the Jewish people were looking for, their wanting, the fullest realisation of themselves as God’s people. By asking the question, they’re also asking something of themselves: are you the Messiah, are you the one that will bring us to our fullest realisation as people of God? Verse 25: ‘Jesus answered them, “I have told you,” and for us today, that answer still resounds. The divine promise and the divine purpose has been revealed; it is not withheld; there is no one not telling. There may be some not hearing, but there certainly is no one not telling; it has been revealed. But as it says in verse 25, ‘you do not believe,’ and verse 26, ‘you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.’ And then he goes on to say, ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ It’s a wonderful interaction to contemplate for ourselves with the divine: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ We can map that interaction down onto the interactions that drive us day by day - we may find what has already been revealed. Sheep trust in and believe in their shepherd; why do they do this? Because their need for safety, security, shelter and sustenance is both found in, and realised in, their relationship with the shepherd.

The next reading - it’s worth looking at - is the reading from Revelation, a contemplative dream. It’s a dream-like vision that paints a picture in a thousand words. The Book of Revelation is not only proof that marijuana has been around for a long time but it also is a wonderful way in, if like me, you get bored easily, because instead of having to read lots of words and try and understand theology you can build up a picture, an inner cartoon that you can then walk through.

The part that we hear today, in Verse 9, ‘the great multitude, every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages’. This is a dream vision for the world. No one, no one is not in the picture, absolutely no one. Verse 9 again : the Lamb, robed in white. Who is the Lamb, robed in white? Hold the question. Verse 14: then there are those ‘with robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Who are these? Then in verse 17, ‘the Lamb will be their shepherd’. In this vision and in its subsequent dreaming, is a revelation of Easter that totally leaves behind our Sunday School understanding that Jesus did it for me, Jesus did it on my behalf, for the Lamb became the shepherd. So important: the Lamb became the shepherd, became the Lamb, becomes the shepherd - like the sound of one hand clapping, that short verse stretches our intellect. The shepherd and the sheep are not one and an other: as it says in the last line of the Gospel, ‘The Father and I are one.’ The divine and the Christ are one, the shepherd and the sheep are one. And this Gospel revelation, this prophetic dream of Easter passion is actualised in the reading from Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles - the unfolding of the church - the narrative is located in a context of new understanding. Peter and Barnabas, their mission, is having a change of focus; it’s shifting and the shift is from the Jews to the Gentiles, so the context of the early church is the context of us today. We are trying to realise ourselves as the church in its fullest sense, in its promise. This is exactly what was going on then, the Church being the Jewish faith. And now we have Peter and Barnabas turning, realizing, as per the picture of Revelation, this is a revelation for all, it is a revelation for all the world. The revelation of Christ is breaking out of its religious orthodoxy; in every aspect it’s challenging all the previous norms. They’re all being seen as if in a new light, the new light being the light of Easter.

There’s a throwaway line at the end of the first reading: ‘Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.’ That itself is a statement of a complete change in direction, because tanners in the Jewish tradition were considered defiled because they dealt with animal carcasses. Peter chooses to stay with one who is defiled by his church, by his religion. He has seen something new that requires breaking out of what’s already there. This short reading in the Acts of the Apostles is a narrative whereby Peter parallels Jesus. The raising of Tabitha recalls the raising of Jairus’ daughter, which we’ll read in the Gospels. In Mark’s Gospel, in the version of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the words used are, ‘Talitha cum’. I don’t think it’s any mistake that the naming here is of Tabitha, it’s almost as if, ‘I want you to hear the echo’. The setting, the process by which Peter raises Tabitha is exactly the same: others are sent out, there is prayer and there is an invitation to step back into life from death.

Jesus the shepherd had a follower called Peter who was one of the sheep. I think it was last week’s Gospel, the shepherd handed over command to the sheep: ‘Feed my sheep’. Now the sheep, Peter, has become the shepherd and in becoming the shepherd he does and works with the same power of the good shepherd - this is not a cut down version, he raises the dead. Other miracles, water into wine must be simple once you’ve raised the dead.

Peter is doing what Christ did. What if we could realise that same truth? What if we could get the fact that we, we are the good shepherd – not Jesus, we are the good shepherd? Deep down we know it, every Sunday we speak it – ‘we are the body of Christ’. We are the good shepherd: somehow together, let us keep looking for that one step that will enable us to believe it, because when we believe it, we can actualize it.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris