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.
For reasons I have never entirely understood, the lectionary always gives us a Sunday during Easter in which at least three of the four lessons relate in some way to shepherds and sheep. My reflections on these lessons have been shaped by the upcoming Synod Assembly at which representatives of our New Jersey congregations will elect a new bishop whose shepherd’s staff has become a prominent liturgical symbol in recent years. I should add for the benefit of my non-Lutheran friends that bishops are a relatively new feature of Lutheranism in America. It all began in the 1970s as little more than a name change. At some point the predecessor churches that merged into the ELCA in 1988 began calling their national president and district presidents “bishops.” The title did not sit well with the pietist contingent within Lutheranism that has always had a deep distrust of ecclesiastical power structures and an unhappy history with bishops. We were assured that the change was nominal and not substantive. “It doesn’t change anything,” said our then president turned bishop Rev. David Preus.
But I believe it has changed us to some degree. For one thing, we have seen the steady growth of liturgical and symbolic encrustation around the office of the bishop. What used to be a purely administrative position held by a democratically elected individual has become a pastoral office. To complicate matters further, at its 1999 Church Wide Convention in Denver, Colorado, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church-USA under the terms of which ELCA bishops and pastors were brought into the historic episcopacy (at least insofar as the Episcopal churches are concerned). Again, for those of you unfamiliar with such things, the historic episcopacy is based on a belief that continuity in the ministry of the alter, i.e. those presiding over the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has been maintained from apostolic times to the present by the “laying on of hands.” That is to say, there is a communion of bishops entrusted with authority to ordain priests to the office of sacramental ministry who have received their authority from a prior generation of bishops whose hands have been laid upon them. This laying on of hands, according to tradition, goes back to apostolic times and is a witness to the continuity of ministry and the unity of the church. At the same assembly, the ELCA voted to enter into full communion with three other protestant churches that are well outside the historic episcopacy. I am not sure how that shakes out theologically, but was very much relieved to see that, whatever being within the historic episcopacy may mean for Lutherans, it does not mean that we are cutting ourselves off from churches outside that tradition.
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with any of these developments. I do believe, however, that we have not taken enough time to think through their ramifications. As a consequence, we have never developed a clear notion about what a Lutheran bishop is or what we expect from one. The constitutional requirements for the office of ELCA bishop are as broad as they are vague. Everyone seems to prioritize them differently. Do we want a bishop who will be the public voice of the church addressing issues of societal concern? Are we looking for a “pastor to the pastors” whose chief responsibility is care and oversight of the clergy? Do we seek a bishop who will be the additional pastor for every congregation and so intimately involved with the lives and ministries of our churches? Do we want a bishop who will take a “hands on” management approach and push local congregations toward a larger vision of the church’s mission or a responsive bishop whose leadership is shaped by the vision and practices developed by the congregations s/he serves?
I don’t pretend to have answers to such questions, but perhaps these shepherd/sheep texts for Sunday can give us some insight into how we might begin to discuss them. It seems to me that part of our problem in thinking about the office of bishop is our tendency to confuse power with authority. Often when we think we are discussing authority we are really talking about power. Power issues have to do with control and they are important. It would be naïve to pretend that we do not exercise power in the church. We discipline pastors, congregations and individuals whose conduct is injurious to the Body of Christ. We decide who is fit for ordination and call for the public ministry of the church. This exercise of power is constrained by guidelines and procedures to ensure that it is not abused. That is why we have constitutions, by-laws and guidelines.
Authority is quite another matter. So far as we know, Jesus had no rabbinic training, no priestly office and no governmental title. He had nothing in the way of power. Yet when he spoke, people recognized his words as authoritative. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says to his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27. Authority needs no credentials. You know the voice of authority when you hear it. The Gospel of John further relates how the temple police (the guys with the power) were sent to arrest Jesus and bring him before the council. When they came back without Jesus, the leaders asked them why they had not brought him in. They could only respond, “No man ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. That’s authority! Power can be conferred by election, appointment or by operation of law. Authority can only be built into a person’s character over time through a life of faithfulness to the practices of worship, prayer, attentiveness to scripture, generous giving and humble service to the neighbor. Words are authoritative when they are congruent with the narrative of the speaker’s life. It is what we mean when we say that a person is as good as his or her word, or what John meant when he said “the Word became flesh.” There is no gap between the walk and the talk. That is why Jesus could say: Doubt my words, do you? Well take a look at my works. (Highly paraphrased) A person who would exercise power properly and effectively must have authority. The converse, however, is not true. Authority has no need of power and does not fear power. Authority is a gift of the Holy Spirit and cannot be confined to the channels of power nor to any office or title.
In the final analysis, I don’t really care about the next bishop’s leadership style, mission priorities, strategy for the future of the church or theological leanings. I don’t expect the bishop to achieve for us a dramatic turnaround in the downward trajectory of church attendance or shower us with new ideas or (God forbid!) initiate yet another round of congregational self study. I am not particularly interested either in how we define the office of bishop (if we ever get around to doing that). But I pray that God will give us a man or woman who speaks and acts with the authority Jesus exercised.
In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle account to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues his life giving mission. Luke’s gospel contains two such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). It should be emphasized that these raisings 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 raisings are 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. 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, 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.
It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” 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.
What can I say about this psalm that has not already been said? Here are a few random thoughts on a very familiar psalm that gains meaning for me with each reading.
Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.
“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?
“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, that does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” We are not dealing with a rabbit’s foot.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?
For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 7th and April 14th. 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. 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.
“The tribulation” out of which the “host dressed in white” has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. They 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.” The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the Israelites 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.”
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 rededication 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 expectations 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 here, 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? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. (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 lyrical way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.