Good Shepherd Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

This being good Shepherd Sunday in many churches, a slight theme about shepherds and sheep occurs in greater or lesser degrees in all of the readings. These notes will contain background and sermon suggestions on all four readings, though the greater emphasis will be on the reading from Acts 9 and John 10.

Acts 9:36-43

This story actually begins with v. 32, which describes Peter visiting people “here and there” who are already Christians (near modern Tel Aviv). In Lydda, he has healed a paralyzed gentile named Aeneas, who (probably not coincidentally) has the same name as the main character in Virgil’s Aeneid. Many scholars, who spend far too much time on this sort of thing, believe that this is to prepare the reader for the critical story of the opening up of the church (through the story of Peter) to the mission to the gentiles.
Following that healing story, he then visits “Joppa” (named, I believe, after the Joppa Grill, south of Boston, over on Route 18 just north of East Bridgewater…but I could be wrong on that). He hears of a woman known both as “Tabitha” (an Aramaic name, by the way) and “Dorcas” (a Greek name).  Both mean gazelle, or “a creature with the beautiful look (or eyes),” from derkomai. The gazelle was a favorite type for beauty in the orient. (See, for example, Song of Solomon 2:9, 17; 4:5; 7:3.)
Note that this is the only place in Acts that a woman is explicitly called a Disciple, and it is the only place in the entire New Testament that the Feminine noun for disciple (mathētria) is used.
 Luke often emphasizes helping the poor (referred to here as, “acts of charity”). Verse 37 recalls the story of Elijah reviving the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17; Peter’s action is in portrayed as being in continuity with the Old Testament and with Jesus’ acts of healing, especially of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56). Luke calls followers of Jesus “disciples” (vv. 38, 36).
It was probably her great compassion and work for others that caused her to be called a disciple. She apparently also had a leadership role in the church, the details of which are not spelled out, but which would be an amazing thing for the day. Quite possibly the “Widows” who mourn her death were real-life followers who constituted something of a guild of people, organized to help others (hard not to call it a “Dorcas Committee”).
Note that instead of hired mourners following her “death” the “widows” actually knew her and seemed to genuinely weep for her loss. The widows stand around the body (getting in Peter’s way, actually) crying, and telling stories about Tabitha’s great help in sewing tunics and cloaks for them. As did Jesus, Peter gets peace and quiet (here, by sending the mourners outside.) With the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter commands Tabitha to rise, be resurrected, and be brought back to life. It may be a coincidence, but in Aramaic, his command to her sounds a lot like Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter: talitha koumi. Also not a coincidence is the fact that the word Peter uses for “get up,” anistemi, is in Greek the same word used often in the New Testament to refer to the resurrection of Jesus. It may be Luke’s intention to say here that Peter is performing the same kind of miracle on Tabitha. Peter then shows members of the Christian community (“saints and widows”, v. 41) that she is alive again; God’s action through him leads many to faith (v. 42). 
Then at the end of the story, Peter leaves and goes over to the house of a guy named Simon, who is a tanner, and sleeps with him (meînai…pará tini,“sleep…by the side of”). I didn’t make that up.

Psalm 23

Even though it’s been overdone, here are a few tidbits about Psalm 23. You can never get too much of the 23rd Psalm.
The psalm seems to be written by someone who is in hiding, who is on the run and is taking asylum in a religious sanctuary. God is therefore both the shepherd who protects this sheep (vv. 1-4) and the host (vv. 5-6). There are enemies and evil and “darkest valleys” everywhere, but God is miraculously able to calm his fears and enable him to lie down peacefully in green pastures, and even relax at a table set “in the midst of my enemies.”
It’s not clear what this person is running from. He appears to believe himself to be innocent, so it is probably a crime which he did not intend to commit (like manslaughter) or a political crime (like insurrection or criticizing the king). That he is led in the “paths of righteousness” for God’s “name’s sake,” lends weight to the idea that he might be hiding from persecution for a political crime.
But it is the terms of protection and comfort that are redemptive about the psalm: “Green pastures,” “still waters,” “restores my soul,” “cup overflows,” “goodness and mercy shall follow me,” etc. If it is in fact the psalm of a man on the run from the government, then to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” may be understood as a literal statement. Or it may be a metaphor for wishing to be present with God forever wherever one is.

Revelation 7:9-17

This is a cosmic and glorious service of celebration and worship, commemorating the liberation of a “great multitude” of survivors of political and religious oppression. They are the ones who have suffered tremendously in the “great ordeal” (of Rome’s machinery of repression) and are not weakened.
Chapter 7 fits in between opening of the sixth seal (6:12), that describes the cosmic upheavals that are to happen before the end, and the opening of the seventh seal (8:1), which is a series of trumpet blasts and calamities which parallel the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-10). (Do you know the joke about why there are no politicians or preachers in heaven? It’s because when they open the seventh seal there is silence in heaven for the space of a half an hour—living proof that no politician [or preachers, for that matter] could survive in heaven.)
There are two scenes in the passage. The first (vv. 9-12) is liturgy and song from the persecuted of every nation, ethnic group (êthnous), tribe (phylon), and language (glosson) waving palm branches and praising to “The Throne (God) and The Lamb (Jesus),” who have liberated them from their brutal oppressors. Their white robes are symbolic of purity (3:5-6; 4:4). Their Palm branches are symbolic of honoring a king (John 12:13), or a liberator (1 Macc. 13:51; 2 Macc. 10:7).
They sing of “Salvation” which has come from “God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Note that salvation (sotería) in Johannine literature means liberation from bondage.
See 12:10-11: 
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down,
       the one who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony...”

Or 19:1-2:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

In v. 11, the heavenly singers of Ch. 5 (last week’s reading, in case you were there and were paying attention) join the survivors and the spoken liturgy breaks into song, a string of seven attributes of honor and glory to their benefactors. The joke is that each are words the Romans rulers loved to have heaped upon themselves. Note that singers punctuate their praises by beginning and ending the song with “Amen.”
The second scene (vv. 13-17) interprets the first. In the words of an angel (called here an “elder”) we hear who the worshipers are: they are victims of oppression who have survived not because of their strength, but because of their suffering, and the suffering of Jesus (“They have washed their robes [of their blood] and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”). They are those who have withstood brutal torture and abuse of the Roman occupiers, and have yet remained strong and faithful. Notice that they are here because they have come “through the great ordeal,” not because they managed to get around it. “For this reason they are before the throne of God.” And the result of their victory is that they will never again experience hunger, thirst, and scorching heat. The Lamb will be their Shepherd (finally we find out why this passage is read on “Good Shepherd Sunday”) guiding them to living water, and God will wipe away their tears.

John 10:22-40

First will be the text itself (NRSV), notes, and my own rough translation. Commentary and sermon suggestions follow at the end.

Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah,[1] tell us plainly.”[2]
25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know[3] them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life,[4] and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.[5] 30 The Father and I are one.”
31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law,[6] ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled-- 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand[7] that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. 40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.

My own translation:
It was the time of the feast of Liberation and Rededication. It was winter and very cold. Jesus was walking through the oldest portico of the temple, the massive covered colonnades, which were erected during the age of Solomon. Several Jewish religious leaders saw him and circled around him to ask him questions.
“How long will you hold onto our lives (psyche: breath of life, soul, Spirit)? Tell us powerfully and clearly whether you are or are not the anointed one, whom God has sent to liberate us.
Jesus said to them, “I have told you but you weren’t able to understand when I spoke. The testimony about who I really am was the actions that I performed in the name of my father. You’re not one of my “sheep,” so you weren’t able to understand the message of the deeds. I know my sheep, so when they hear my voice, they follow me. 
I have given them eternal vision, and their vision will never die.
No one can take them away from me.

Comments on John 10:22-30

The community out of which the Gospel of John arose was different from the communities of the other Gospels in (at least) two respects. First, because of its interaction with converted Samaritans (see John 3:1-42, and Acts 6-8), who were expecting a “Prophet like Moses” instead of a Davidic military, kingly, Messiah, it developed a much higher Christology than any other first Century Christian community. More of a divinely sent prophet than a ruler. Second, before the disastrous revolt of the sixties, Judaism was much more tolerant of aberrant religious forms, even tolerating Jews who believed that the Messiah had arrived (cf. Acts 5:33-39). However, after the revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin reconstituted itself in the coastal town of Jamnia under the unyielding authority of the Pharisees. The age of tolerance had passed and the Messianic Jews were thrown out of the Synagogues (John 16:1-4, 9:22).[8] One result of both events (interaction with non-Jews, and expulsion by the Pharisees) is that after a time the writer(s) of the Gospel and letters could speak of “the Jews” as though they were talking about foreigners. See 10:34, 13:33, 15:25, etc.[9]
Both of these points show up in the text for today.
This chapter is at a turning point in the Gospel. It is the last public speech of Jesus. It is also the last of a series of five encounters Jesus has had since ch. 5 at the major Jewish festivals: Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, an unnamed feast (5:1), and now Dedication (or renewal [Hanukkah]). At each there is a conflict and a teaching in which he shows that the feasts have lost their significance in his presence. Now they are no longer feasts for the new believers in Jesus, but “feasts of the Jews (5;1; 6:4; 7:2).[10]
At the beginning of today’s passage he has come to the Feast of Dedication (or Renewal). Dedication/Renewal is the most political of all of the yearly feasts. It celebrates the re-consecration of the temple after the liberation of the Maccabees from the Syrian oppressors. The season is winter, the month is Chislin. Jesus is discovered walking through the oldest structure of the temple, a massive covered colonnade constructed by Solomon during the height of Israel’s power. The scene probably symbolizes a comparison of Jesus with the grandest time of Jewish nationalism. Suddenly “the Jews”[11] see him and form a circle around him[12] and begin questioning him. They are portrayed by John as being almost hysterical in their anger and fear. The question usually translated “How much longer will you keep us in suspense,” is literally “How much longer will you hold onto our life-breath.”[13] “If you truly claim to be the military/royal ‘anointed one’ (who is to come and destroy the Romans and to establish a new Israeli state, because that’s what they had in mind when they thought of Messiah), then tell us now, and tell us plainly,”[14]
Jesus knew of the volatile political nature of the name, “Messiah.” John portrays him as having on one occasion run into hiding after the feeding of the five thousand to avoid being crowned Davidic Messiah (6:15). He answers them with words that avoid the word, and have been homiletical fodder for sermons for centuries. He says in effect, “I did tell you about who I am, but you weren’t able to understand. Whoever, or whatever I truly am can be best seen in the deeds that I do in the Father’s name. I feed the hungry, heal the sick, liberate the poor from their demons, forgive the fallen, welcome the outcasts. Those who are among my followers (“sheep”) hear and understand what is being said by those deeds, but those who are not followers will not understand.” In other words, the encrusted, narrow, wealthy, powerful, authoritarian religious leaders (mainly Pharisees in John’s day, but Jesus was known to get pissed off at others as well) who are at the “center” of the religious life of post-revolt occupied Israel don’t have a clue as to the kind of power and world that Jesus was bringing to all of humanity in the name of the Father. But to the disinherited, the poor, the peripheral, the marginalized, who follow him, it is very clear. Insiders can never figure it out. This truth of his Gospel is only available to the outsiders, the periphery of religious and political life. Those who are not followers, believers, are simply unable to understand.
The point is that what you believe to be the “truth” has everything to do with what community you belong to. Jesus is saying that the problem with the Pharisees is that they belong to the wrong community. Another way of putting it is that truth has to do with relationships. The poor followers of Jesus who he fed at the Sea of Tiberias, and who wanted to make him king (as opposed to the Pharisees who wanted to make him dead), understand his word/deeds, not because of information told to them “plainly,” but because of their relationship to the speaker. (This is kind of the “Wine Critic’s Theory of Christology”: if you are a participant in the culture of the wine language already, then the reviews of the tasters sound lovely; if you aren’t, they sound hopelessly pretentious.)
Note that Jesus says that the members of the new community will know, and understand, and follow him when they hear his “voice,” but he has just said that the truth of who he is, is not to be found in words of the voice, but in deeds. That suggests that when the followers (who already trust him) can “see” deeds of goodness and justice, and are able to “hear” the meaning and message of Jesus found inside those deeds. Justice is where the true Christ is.
Jesus goes on to say that those who are among his community receive a life which contains eternity (zōē aiōion). John does not mean (just) “afterlife,” which begins (only) at death, but a life that contains today includes eternity, beginning now. It is not simply knocking down the barrier at the end of life but is more like receiving the awareness of living now, within the vast (and eternal) fullness of the cosmos. You are right now living within the breadth of eternity. The problem is that you just don’t know it. Receive eternal life. Know that you are eternal. “The one who hears my word now has eternal life” (5:24). Incidentally, this expansion of life was a favorite theme of John. He uses it 17 times.
It is at this point, most scholars believe, that the text of John 10:1-19 should be placed. There are several places in John that seem out of order. No one knows for sure (and John is dead and not talking about it), but the theory is that early on, in several places in the Gospel, the leaves of the manuscript were somehow dropped or removed, or in some fashion jumbled out of order, and then later stitched back together in occasionally wrong places. Whether or not that is correct, it is certainly true that 1-19 form a bond with some of the language and ideas of 10:22-39: Jesus there is also a shepherd, he protects the sheep from bandits, thieves, and hirelings who one suspects are the religious authorities of John’s day.
Jesus closes this section by saying that he will protect his sheep, no one will be able to “snatch them out of my hand” (same term used in 10:1-19), and he and the Father are one (does he mean we are “one” on this issue, or one in Spirit, or mind, or substance, etc.?). This last line has been subject to tremendous debate in the history of the church. I will only say that the Monarchians (and also the Sabelians, as I recall) interpreted it to mean “one person.” And the Arians, who were often attacked by the use of this phrase, interpreted it in terms of the moral unity of the will, but I don’t expect you to get too deep into that thicket in your sermon next Sunday.

[1] nrsv note: Or the Christ
[2] “Plainly,” parresia, out-spoken, i.e. frankly, bluntly, assuredly, boldly, confidently, freely, openly, plainly.
[3] “Know, ginosko, verb, “to know.” In a variety of applications, allow, be aware (of), feel, (have) known (-ledge), perceive, be resolved, can speak, be sure, understand.
[4] “Eternal life,” aionios zoe
[5] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand
[6] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read in the law
[7] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities lack and understand; others read and believe.
[8] This whole story is told in W.D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (London: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
[9] This summary roughly comes from J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), and Raymond E. Brown, Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1979).
[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 51.
[11] More accurately Pharisees, but whom John, from his separatist’s perspective, calls “the Jews.”
[12] ekukloôsan auton, to form a circle around.
[13] From psyche, life, soul, breath.
[14] Or “Forcefully” or “with power.” Eipon hémin Parrésiéi.