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Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 - link to NRSV text
OR Ezekiel 34:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 23 - link to BCP text
John 10:11-16 - link to NRSV text

On Acts 4, please see my article in The Witness, "The Missing FOR and the Risen Life." There's a fun and illuminating exegetical issue in that passage that the article dicusses: The passage says, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, FOR there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." The NRSV, like most English translations, leaves out that "for," obscuring what for Luke-Acts is a point made repeatedly: that there is a direct causal connection between making sure that no one is needy and the other characteristics of Christ-centered community the passage raises.

In other words, we experience the presence and the power of God's Spirit most fully and we testify to Jesus' resurrection most powerfully when we are caring for the poor such that no one is left in need. That connection isn't intuitive for many of us, especially in the individualistic and introspective West, where we're inclined to see "spiritual" as a word describing an interior and emotional experience rather than as a way of being in the world. But that connection is absolutely core to Jesus' message and God's mission.

Jesus makes that clear as he presents his own "mission statement" in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And there's another FOR, a "because" we shouldn't miss. Luke reveals that Jesus himself saw his experience of the Spirit as a product of the mission -- God's mission -- for which he was anointed, and it is a mission which leaves no one out. The poor shunted to the margins by their poverty, the prisoners shut out of our communities, the blind left to beg at literal and figurative city gates, are all to be brought safely in to the center of our life together, fully incorporated in community and empowered for ministry and mission.

That mission -- God's mission, for which Jesus was anointed -- is about nothing less than changing the world. So whatever you else you might do with Jesus' message, I beg you not to take it as pious words of comfort for you and your family, a message about working hard and playing by the rules to sleep secure in the knowledge that God loves you as long as you work hard and play by the rules. God wants so much more for us than that!

I've blogged and preached a number of times before about an image that's central to my sense of vocation, one that came up in my parish discernment committee for the ordination process in Los Angeles: namely that of a washing machine. Washing machines don't work if the load is stagnant; without motion, there's no transformation. So the washing machines that I grew up with had something at their center that bounced around to push what's at the center out to the margins and bring what's at the margins in to the center such that the whole load could be transformed.

We call that thing at the center of the washing machine an 'agitator,' and I can think of no better word for what the Spirit does for us. The call of God's Spirit pushes those of us at the center of our world's all-too-concentrated power and wealth out to the margins to welcome the marginalized to the center. If we stay where we are and let the rest of the world stay as it is, we're not fully experiencing the presence and work of the Spirit, and we won't benefit as fully from the transformation that the Spirit is bringing.

That's why Jesus says in Luke, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." But that's Luke. John's gospel is often preached as if its whole message could be boiled down to this: Jesus said that he is God's Son. Everyone who doesn't acknowledge that is going to hell. You need to do two things in response: a) tell God that you understand Jesus to be God's Son and that you want Jesus to save you from hell; and b) tell everyone else that Jesus is God's Son, and if they don't tell God that they accept that proposition, they're going to hell.

That's a serious misreading of John for more reasons than I can sketch in a single lectionary blog entry. What I want to emphasize this week is that John doesn't present Jesus' message and mission as being just about what goes on inside one's head or heart any more than the other canonical gospels do (now the Gospel of Thomas is another story, presenting Jesus' message as being almost entirely about his own spiritual status and the importance of realizing it for one's own spiritual status -- but I digress). This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus' saying "I am the good shepherd" tends to evoke for 21st-century urban and suburban folk an idealized, bucolic scene of rolling green hills and lush meadows, over which the fluffy (and remarkably clean) sheep roam with their serene (if slightly bored) shepherd. It would have evoked a different scene and mood in the first-century Mediterranean world.

For starters, the scene evoked among Jesus' hearers or John's by a reference to shepherding would be less about serenity than about survival. Shepherds had a hard life. To make sure that their sheep had enough food and water, they had to roam far from home, and they paid a heavy price for it. They were exposed to the elements, and suffered from heat during the day and cold during long, sleepless nights guarding the flock from human and animal predators. Their mothers, wives, and daughters were in turn more vulnerable to predators, and that's a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters, leaving their families so exposed. If after all that a shepherd lost too many sheep to illness, injury, starvation, or dehydration, the whole family would perish -- the flock's welfare really was the shepherd's own.

And so it might be said that Jesus' metaphor of "the good shepherd" differs from the "washing machine" metaphor primarily in underscoring three things:

  1. What was at stake: Laundry isn't a matter of life and death, but the shepherd's whole family and community depends on the shepherd's journey to pastures and back home.
  2. How far that motion from the center to the margins should go: In a washing machine, we're talking about a radius of a couple of feet; for the shepherd, the family's survival depends on journeying as far as it takes to feed the sheep and get home with resources to feed the family.
  3. What that journey might cost: I suppose I could trip on the basement stairs headed down to the washing machine and sprain my ankle, but a shepherd might literally lay down his life for the sheep when threatened by a thief or a wolf.

I wish that congregations were going to read both Acts 4 and Ezekiel 34 this Sunday. Acts 4 makes the causal connection between caring for the poor and experiencing the Spirit's presence and power that we need to hear, but Ezekiel 34 is a scathing indictment of the extent to which we who claim to follow "the good shepherd" have been doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

We live in a world that discourages real contact between the rich (by which I mean people like me -- my annual pre-tax income of $28,200 makes me among the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List) and the poor, and so it becomes tempting for me to sit at home -- my home with solid walls and roof, running water, and electricity -- and actually think I'm poor because I don't have every luxury I want. The cities I live and work in divide rich from poor by neighborhood and school such that the vast majority of people I speak with on any given day have similar levels of education as I do and are from a similar social class. And for the most part, the churches in which I worship and work are far less diverse economically, socially, and racially than the zip codes in which they get mail.

Jesus, the good shepherd, calls me out of that comfortable home, away from living off of the fat available to me right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges I have that give me access to markets and schools and the power that comes with them. He doesn't promise that it will be easy, but he promises that the journey is the way to abundant life. And I know that I will hear the good shepherd's voice and see his face most clearly when I'm living world that lives out the connection all of God's prophets proclaim, and all of God's beloved children can sing with the psalmist, not in hopeful expectation but in celebration of a present reality:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Thanks be to God!

May 4, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Ezekiel, John, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink

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Dylan,

So many things in this particular post hit home. I have slowly been reconsidering just how much the Gnostic/Dualistic assumptions about the mission of Christ have infected the Church (and my own understanding as well). You comments about the current Evangelical (though you did not name them) understanding about the Gospel of John's message really hit home, as did your observation on how such a message would accord with the Gnostic gospel of Thomas.

We may be "spiritualizing" the message of the Bible by almost an automatic Gnostic grid that we really no longer read it for what it actually says. For example, the lines about the shepherds "feeding their sheep" almost instantly changes in my mind to "teach them right things." I make it about knowledge (Gnosis) instead of real food for real needy people.

Who knows, maybe Jesus instructions to Peter about "feeding my lambs" was much in the same vein. Perhaps that was the reason behind the practice in the early church that you describe here.

So much food for thought here. (Uh Oh! Did I just do it again?)

Posted by: Caine | May 6, 2006 8:02:43 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
Dylan's lectionary blog: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

« Third Sunday of Easter, Year B | Main | Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B »

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 - link to NRSV text
OR Ezekiel 34:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 23 - link to BCP text
John 10:11-16 - link to NRSV text

On Acts 4, please see my article in The Witness, "The Missing FOR and the Risen Life." There's a fun and illuminating exegetical issue in that passage that the article dicusses: The passage says, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, FOR there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." The NRSV, like most English translations, leaves out that "for," obscuring what for Luke-Acts is a point made repeatedly: that there is a direct causal connection between making sure that no one is needy and the other characteristics of Christ-centered community the passage raises.

In other words, we experience the presence and the power of God's Spirit most fully and we testify to Jesus' resurrection most powerfully when we are caring for the poor such that no one is left in need. That connection isn't intuitive for many of us, especially in the individualistic and introspective West, where we're inclined to see "spiritual" as a word describing an interior and emotional experience rather than as a way of being in the world. But that connection is absolutely core to Jesus' message and God's mission.

Jesus makes that clear as he presents his own "mission statement" in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And there's another FOR, a "because" we shouldn't miss. Luke reveals that Jesus himself saw his experience of the Spirit as a product of the mission -- God's mission -- for which he was anointed, and it is a mission which leaves no one out. The poor shunted to the margins by their poverty, the prisoners shut out of our communities, the blind left to beg at literal and figurative city gates, are all to be brought safely in to the center of our life together, fully incorporated in community and empowered for ministry and mission.

That mission -- God's mission, for which Jesus was anointed -- is about nothing less than changing the world. So whatever you else you might do with Jesus' message, I beg you not to take it as pious words of comfort for you and your family, a message about working hard and playing by the rules to sleep secure in the knowledge that God loves you as long as you work hard and play by the rules. God wants so much more for us than that!

I've blogged and preached a number of times before about an image that's central to my sense of vocation, one that came up in my parish discernment committee for the ordination process in Los Angeles: namely that of a washing machine. Washing machines don't work if the load is stagnant; without motion, there's no transformation. So the washing machines that I grew up with had something at their center that bounced around to push what's at the center out to the margins and bring what's at the margins in to the center such that the whole load could be transformed.

We call that thing at the center of the washing machine an 'agitator,' and I can think of no better word for what the Spirit does for us. The call of God's Spirit pushes those of us at the center of our world's all-too-concentrated power and wealth out to the margins to welcome the marginalized to the center. If we stay where we are and let the rest of the world stay as it is, we're not fully experiencing the presence and work of the Spirit, and we won't benefit as fully from the transformation that the Spirit is bringing.

That's why Jesus says in Luke, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." But that's Luke. John's gospel is often preached as if its whole message could be boiled down to this: Jesus said that he is God's Son. Everyone who doesn't acknowledge that is going to hell. You need to do two things in response: a) tell God that you understand Jesus to be God's Son and that you want Jesus to save you from hell; and b) tell everyone else that Jesus is God's Son, and if they don't tell God that they accept that proposition, they're going to hell.

That's a serious misreading of John for more reasons than I can sketch in a single lectionary blog entry. What I want to emphasize this week is that John doesn't present Jesus' message and mission as being just about what goes on inside one's head or heart any more than the other canonical gospels do (now the Gospel of Thomas is another story, presenting Jesus' message as being almost entirely about his own spiritual status and the importance of realizing it for one's own spiritual status -- but I digress). This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus' saying "I am the good shepherd" tends to evoke for 21st-century urban and suburban folk an idealized, bucolic scene of rolling green hills and lush meadows, over which the fluffy (and remarkably clean) sheep roam with their serene (if slightly bored) shepherd. It would have evoked a different scene and mood in the first-century Mediterranean world.

For starters, the scene evoked among Jesus' hearers or John's by a reference to shepherding would be less about serenity than about survival. Shepherds had a hard life. To make sure that their sheep had enough food and water, they had to roam far from home, and they paid a heavy price for it. They were exposed to the elements, and suffered from heat during the day and cold during long, sleepless nights guarding the flock from human and animal predators. Their mothers, wives, and daughters were in turn more vulnerable to predators, and that's a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters, leaving their families so exposed. If after all that a shepherd lost too many sheep to illness, injury, starvation, or dehydration, the whole family would perish -- the flock's welfare really was the shepherd's own.

And so it might be said that Jesus' metaphor of "the good shepherd" differs from the "washing machine" metaphor primarily in underscoring three things:

  1. What was at stake: Laundry isn't a matter of life and death, but the shepherd's whole family and community depends on the shepherd's journey to pastures and back home.
  2. How far that motion from the center to the margins should go: In a washing machine, we're talking about a radius of a couple of feet; for the shepherd, the family's survival depends on journeying as far as it takes to feed the sheep and get home with resources to feed the family.
  3. What that journey might cost: I suppose I could trip on the basement stairs headed down to the washing machine and sprain my ankle, but a shepherd might literally lay down his life for the sheep when threatened by a thief or a wolf.

I wish that congregations were going to read both Acts 4 and Ezekiel 34 this Sunday. Acts 4 makes the causal connection between caring for the poor and experiencing the Spirit's presence and power that we need to hear, but Ezekiel 34 is a scathing indictment of the extent to which we who claim to follow "the good shepherd" have been doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

We live in a world that discourages real contact between the rich (by which I mean people like me -- my annual pre-tax income of $28,200 makes me among the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List) and the poor, and so it becomes tempting for me to sit at home -- my home with solid walls and roof, running water, and electricity -- and actually think I'm poor because I don't have every luxury I want. The cities I live and work in divide rich from poor by neighborhood and school such that the vast majority of people I speak with on any given day have similar levels of education as I do and are from a similar social class. And for the most part, the churches in which I worship and work are far less diverse economically, socially, and racially than the zip codes in which they get mail.

Jesus, the good shepherd, calls me out of that comfortable home, away from living off of the fat available to me right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges I have that give me access to markets and schools and the power that comes with them. He doesn't promise that it will be easy, but he promises that the journey is the way to abundant life. And I know that I will hear the good shepherd's voice and see his face most clearly when I'm living world that lives out the connection all of God's prophets proclaim, and all of God's beloved children can sing with the psalmist, not in hopeful expectation but in celebration of a present reality:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Thanks be to God!

May 4, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Ezekiel, John, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink

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