4th Sunday Easter, April 22, 2018
Acts 4:8-12; Psalm 118; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18
Today, we look again at Easter, starting with the Gospel of John. John inserted teaching dialogues by Jesus between some of the action scenes. The teaching we read is about Jesus’ coming death in terms of “The Good Shepherd”, which then leads into Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. John, you see, identifies the raising of Lazarus as the turning point when the High Priests began to plot to kill Jesus. These scenes flow together to build up to the crucifixion. We are doing exactly what the disciples did after Easter –looking back at what Jesus taught, and discovering new meaning in the light of the Resurrection.
Here are the key Gospel verses: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd and I will lay down my life for the sheep. This is why 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 on my own.”
Background: Palestine is at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa, so there are many large wild predators – Persian Lions, Cheetahs, Lynx, and leopards. A shepherd would have good reason to protect himself, to allow these fierce cats to take a sheep, and not try to intervene. The people understood the grave danger of being a shepherd. In this passage, Jesus repeats his promise to lay down his life for the sheep 3 times; making a sacred oath that he will give his life for us.
Notice that Jesus does not put limitations on this oath. It’s not, “if” the sheep is well behaved or “if” it is obedient. In fact, there are no “If” clauses in the promise. We are given this loving protection without reservation. Those listening to Jesus, not realizing he was talking about people, found this promise extravagant and unnatural.
Our 1st reading is a continuation from the Book of Acts we have been reading since Easter. Acts is a thriller; it is high drama, with conflict and death. It is a coming of age story for the disciples. It is an exciting history of the early church. It is a self improvement book, a great stand-alone read.
Anyway, today we read the 3rd of Peter’s sermons. The 1st was at Pentecost, the 2nd was when Peter healed a man crippled from birth and was arrested for healing him. This 3rd sermon is Peter responding to the charges of the High Priests the following day. You immediately notice how bold and articulate Peter is. He is no longer the rough fisherman who denied Christ on Good Friday and fearfully hid in the locked room on Saturday. He is “Peter infused with the Holy Spirit” now.
Peter starts by telling the High Priests that the cripple was healed in the Name of Jesus (get that – merely the name has power to heal), AND that Jesus has risen from the dead. That blast of information is enough to knock the High Priests off their feet. Then Peter quotes Scripture, just as Jesus would have.
He bases his argument in Psalm 118, which shows the High Priests that they have made a terrible error in judgment. They have rejected the very person and the salvation promised in yet another promise, by God, long ago in a Psalm of King David. Jesus is the very cornerstone, the support piece on which rests our salvation. Jesus is the “promised one”. Our lectionary does not include the Priests’ response; you can read it on your own.
But our lectionary does give us part of Psalm 118. If you were a youth group, I would have scripts with your parts identified by speaker so that you could act this out. It is a beautiful piece of ancient liturgy; this is dramatic liturgy at its best, with speaking parts for the priests, the people and the king. It was written for the occasion of a great victory, a celebration which proclaimed God as their strength in danger. Each speaker proclaims God’s mercy, and there is testimony of how God saved them from what seemed to be certain death. They were surrounded on every side in battle – the “enemy encompassed me like bees”, the King says. “They flared up like fire among thorns. I was hard pressed and was falling, but the Lord helped me.” Who has not felt like that at some time in their life? Who has never felt overwhelmed and that their problems were greater than their strength?
But the Lord makes the tiny and weak victorious over evil and death, just as the Lord had brought tiny Israel, overwhelmed by larger and greater forces, to military victory. At that time, Israel thought it was the rejected stone. But now we understand the one who was rejected as Jesus. And Jesus has become the anchoring base for our lives, our church, and our world. “This,” the king in the Psalm announced, “is the day the Lord has made,” using the same expression we use to announce Easter. The priests respond to the king with a blessing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” We make church relevant when we see and celebrate the movement of God in our own lives, here and today in our liturgy.
So Jesus has told us that we are of great value to him, so much so that he will suffer and die for us. Realizing that Jesus is alive, Peter is filled with the Spirit of God, boldly preaching that Jesus loves us and protects us from evil. Peter confidently places his own life and well-being in Jesus’ hands. And the Psalm assures us that God has loved and protected believers from long ago. These readings give us another viewpoint of the meaning of this Easter Season and why we celebrate it with such great joy.