FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
1 John 3:16-24
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” I John 3:17.
This week witnessed an air strike against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad by American, British and French military forces. This action was taken in order to punish the al-Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to ensure that no such attack occurs again. One can hope that the message will be received and that no similar atrocities involving lethal chemical agents will occur. Yet that alone will do little to alleviate the misery of the Syrian people who have been living in a state of civil war for the last several years. Arbitrary massacre of civilians has been al-Assad’s modus operandi from the beginning. The bodies of Syrian children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean with grim regularity testify to the desperate, failed attempts by families to flee the bloodshed. One cannot help but wonder why murdering children with poison gas triggers a military response, whereas years of killing them with cluster bombs, land minds and chasing them into the sea with “conventional” weapons has evoked barely a whispered protest. I also wonder at the moral indignation of our president over violence against these same children that he so vehemently refuses to shelter within our borders. Evidently, killing Syrian children with starvation, disease and bullets does not warrant a response. Closing our borders and allowing them to languish in refugee camps is not at all morally repugnant. But using poison gas crosses the line. I cannot be the only one catching the odious scent of hypocrisy in such pretended outrage.
Saint John’s admonition makes clear that anyone following Jesus owes his neighbor whatever help s/he is able to provide. And just to be clear, there is no proviso that the neighbor be somehow deserving, worthy or even properly thankful for such help. Nor is there any exception to this command for national security. Martin Luther went so far as to say that withholding life preserving help that you might have provided to your neighbor in need is nothing short of murder-a violation of the Fifth Commandment:
“In the second place, this commandment is violated not only when a person actually does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm or injury. If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in similar peril and do not save him although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of a service by which his life might have been saved. Therefore, God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life.” Tappert, Theodore G., The Book of Concord, “Luther’s Large Catechism,” (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) pp. 390-391. In short, if you believe in Jesus, you believe in open borders. When someone comes to your doorstep, your neighborhood, your country fleeing violence, persecution or starvation, you welcome them. That’s the Bible. That’s Jesus. Deal with it.
I am never thrilled with military solutions. The best argument to be made for one is that it amounts to a belated effort at addressing an injustice that has gotten way out of hand by reason of prolonged recklessness, neglect and stupidity. I have often said that arguments for the necessity of military action are similar to those of the adulterous couple who claim that their attraction was “bigger than both of us.” At some critical point, that was probably true. It wasn’t true, however, when they first felt an attraction that they knew very well should not be pursued. It wasn’t true the first time they lingered together for longer than they both knew was necessary at the water cooler. It wasn’t true when, against their better judgment, they started taking lunch together at the gym. It wasn’t true when they arranged to be sent to the same training seminar sponsored by their employer. At any point along the way the fire could have been put out before it got out of control. So, too, western leaders had reason to know for nearly a century that their colonization, exploitation, domination and manipulation of middle eastern countries to ensure their supplies of petroleum would ultimately blow up in their faces. But the west did and still does little to reverse this pattern of exploitation. Their leaders should not be heard at this late hour to insist that their military strikes were necessary to extinguish a wild fire that has been smoldering for generations.
So, too, our president should not be heard to insist that the United States is the victim of illegal immigration. The victims are peoples of Africa, the middle east, Mexico and Latin America whose lives have been put in jeopardy in no small part by the pernicious effects of colonization and exploitation. An “America First” policy that places our nation’s interests above those of our neighbors in other lands has contributed substantially to the global refugee crisis. Sealing our borders to all who come to us seeking freedom and safety is but to compound our sins.
The church is called to be a witness to God’s coming reign. Unlike nation states, we are to have no borders, nor must we recognize any border that threatens our oneness in Christ or interferes with our mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is why we cannot remain silent or inactive as walls, both tangible and bureaucratic, are erected against our neighbor in desperate need. Doing so, quite frankly, equates with a violation of the Fifth Commandment against murder.
Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that exposes graphically the cruelty and human carnage lying behind political slogans like “secure borders,” “national security” and “deportation.” Read and ask yourself whether it reflects the kind of nation we Americans want to be. Ask yourself how a disciple of Jesus can acquiesce to such brutality.
Bent to the Earth
They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun
the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.
They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths
revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.
Source: De Luna, Blas Manuel, Bent to the Earth (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press). Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.
But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.
It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.
It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.
Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.
I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, 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 Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rdPsalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.
This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.
All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.
In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.
As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.