Fourth Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm is probably the one and only Bible passage nearly everyone recognizes. As such, it is enormously helpful to me in doing funerals for people with families that probably haven’t darkened the door of a church since baptism. It provides some familiar ground between us on which to meet. The Twenty-Third is also a favorite of long time believers who recognize in its lyrical verse the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Most Hebrew Scripture scholars classify it as a “psalm of trust.” I wonder, though, is Psalm 23 really only a psalm of trust, just a word of comfort and assurance for people going through bad times? Is there another way to read this remarkable hymn?
What if we were to read the Twenty-Third Psalm as a poem of resistance, a bold declaration of loyalty to the Lord over against all other would-be shepherds? Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” implies that, while I might take counsel or advice from a friend or recognize the authority of a teacher, pastor or government official, none but Jesus may shepherd me. A disciple of Jesus makes the bold declaration that his/her sole shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are serious about that declaration, we can be sure that it will put us on a collision course with a world governed by other shepherds. Frequently, we meet forks in the road where it becomes necessary to decide who is to be followed. To follow Jesus is to reject the call of a thousand other false shepherds who have little interest in the sheep and who promise shortcuts along the more attractive path of least resistance. Sometimes following Jesus means telling the powers and principalities in high places that “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Sometimes it means creating a socially awkward moment when you have to tell your house guest that a racist joke is not welcome in your home. Sometimes the cost of faithfulness to Jesus results in one’s losing career, business and financial opportunities or alienating family and friends. Following the Good Shepherd might cost you your life.
It might seem a little demeaning for a fiercely individualistic people like us to admit that we either have or need a shepherd, but the Bible tells us that independence is not an option. We were created to find our rest, our peace and our reason for being in God. If we will not have the Lord as our Shepherd, something or someone else will slide in to fill the void. Something else will dictate how we live. What’s more, that something will always disappoint us in the end. I wish I could tell you how many parents feel betrayed, empty and lonely when the children to whom they have devoted their lives grow up and no longer need them. How many people do you know that retire from their jobs only to discover that they have been so busy at work that they have never had time to imagine what life will look like when the work is all done? You have a shepherd. The only question is, who is it?
Understand that the shepherd/sheep metaphor will not allow for sentimentality. Sheep are not cuddly little pets. They are farm animals destined to be sheered and perhaps slaughtered. They are kept safe and sound not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the shepherd for whom they must one day suffer and die. So it is that our lives do not belong to us. Life and death are given so that in both we may glorify God and bear witness to Jesus. “Whoever would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow.” “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” Just as the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep are to live-and perhaps die-for the Shepherd.
Well, if that’s the case, why would anyone follow Jesus? The answer is that Jesus alone knows where the green pastures and still waters are. Jesus alone knows the way through the valley of the shadow into the light of the resurrection. Jesus alone can open our hearts to the love which the Father shares with the Son-love that is strong enough to survive even death, love that is able to bind together all the broken pieces of our world, love that can make us genuinely human. You inevitably will have a shepherd. So let him be the one who knows where he is going; the one that can save you from yourself and ensure that you take the right fork in the road-because it might make all the difference.
Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such a fork in the road:
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 105. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle story to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues Jesus’ life giving mission. Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 122. Luke’s gospel contains two other such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). Some commentators suggest that “Tabitha,” the name of the woman raised from death, is intended to echo the command given by Jesus in Aramaic, “talitha cum” (little girl arise), to the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41. Id. at 122 citing Wellhausen, Julius, Kritische Analyse der Apostelgeschichte, AGG.PH 15.2, Berlin 1914) p. 121. Though such a literary allusion would be consistent with Luke’s aim of demonstrating the healing presence of Jesus in the ministry of the church, I think it’s a bit of a stretch. If Luke had intended to make such a connection, he would surely have let Mark’s Aramaic rendition of Jesus’ command stand in his telling of the story. As it is, he translates the command into Greek. It should be emphasized that these raising events do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raising events constitute not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.
Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 93. As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, answers to earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.
There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Elisha’s raising the son of the Shunammite woman in II Kings 4:8-37. In both cases, the deceased were placed in upper rooms. As Elisha was alone in prayer with the corpse, so also Peter puts everyone else outside and prays alone in the room with Tabitha’s body. If these similarities between the two stories are anything more than coincidence, then Luke is once again making the point that the restorative power of God at work in the prophets and coming to full bloom in the work of the Messiah continues in the life of the church.
It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Vs. 43. Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. As my opening remarks demonstrate, however, that has not stopped me from trying. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.
For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 3, 2016 and April 10, 2016. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Brown, Raymond E., The Community of the Beloved Disciple, (c. 1979 by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., pub. by Paulist Press) p. 6. Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” vs. 10. The term, “salvation” or “soteria” in Greek might better be translated “vindication” or “victory.” Kelly, Balmer H., “Revelation 7:9-17, Interpretation, Vol. XL, no. 3, July 1986, p. 291. It is not that God is acclaimed as saved. Rather, the ways of God and God’s suffering love so perfectly expressed in the faithful ministry and obedient death of the Lamb are now vindicated as are those whose lives have been forfeited through their faithful following of the Lamb. “The tribulation” (vs. 14) out of which the “host dressed in white” (vs. 9) has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. The beleaguered churches are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” Vs. 15. The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the children of Israel throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”
It is unfortunate that the Book of Revelation historically has been a tool of apocalyptic terrorists seeking to sow seeds of fear, foreboding and doom. That was the last thing on the mind of its author, John of Patmos. I believe Balmer, supra, sums it up well: “Revelation 7:9-17 is therefore, an unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” p. 294 (emphases in the original).
This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.
The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.
Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectation regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive in his response, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said or add to what you already know? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just a word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. Vs. 25. (Highly paraphrased).
“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus’ voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own poetic way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.