Sunday, April 13, 2008

Four Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

And I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah for ever.

“People, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” We all know the words to this hit song by Barbra Streisand which was first released in 1964 and has been sung by many others over the years. I vaguely remember singing it when I was in my elementary school choir. We are lucky when we love others and are not emotionally cut off from them. Our most basic needs are satisfied with love, as we share with one another and take care of one another. It is this kind of life we see in the story from Acts. The Christians gathered together regularly to hear God’s word and to share in the breaking of bread. They shared everything, ensuring that no one was in need. This is a beautiful example of a local congregation.

We live in a world that is increasingly becoming “people-free.” The grocery store provides “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can watch church on television, order pizza on the Internet and rent videos that automatically arrive in our mailbox.

We need to interact with other people every day, to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole.

The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity. Individuals get lost in the crowd, which is just as well for many of the people who attend. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians.

The earliest Christians lived in community and they shared everything. They gathered often to pray, learn and fellowship. They ate together, communed together and worshipped the Lord together. They were bound together with other believers not only by the Spirit, but by a life lived in community. They were people who needed people. They loved one another and in that love they saw God.

Christians have many different ideas about what it means to be Christian, about the nature of Jesus and what God intends for His people. We argue about everything, from the littlest details to the eternal doctrines of our faith. Some things matter, they are the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, there are too many Pharisees in our world today that teach doctrines that go against the word of God. They preach a false gospel, a gospel that offers no grace or hope. It is a gospel that burdens the people, leads them from God into a life of works righteousness or religiosity.

I heard a funny joke recently. Saint Peter was walking the streets of heaven which seemed overly crowded to him. He went to the gate to look in the book they keep when people check into heaven. He found no comfort in what he saw; he knew that there were too many people on the streets based on the information in the book. He told Saint Paul of his concern. “Paul this doesn’t look good! Are there really that many extra people in the streets? Who are these people and how did they get here? Go and see if you can find out what is happening.” So, Saint Paul ran off to investigate while Saint Peter stood at the gate personally. After a while Saint Paul returned with a report. “You are right, Peter, there are extra people here.” Saint Peter replied, “I knew it. Where are they coming from?” Saint Paul answered, “Oh, its Jesus. He’s helping people climb in over the back fence again.”

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus told those listening that He is the door for the sheep. He is the way into this life of grace and mercy. Then he told them that those who came before were thieves and robbers. This does not refer to the Old Testament prophets, but rather the false prophets who had so distorted God’s word and burdened the people with a false gospel. “The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy.” Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, like the sheep cared for by the Great Shepherd.

Jesus doesn’t have to bring people in over the back fence because He is the gate. It is through Jesus Christ that we enter into the blessedness of eternal life. Now, the joke is right about one thing: sometimes the Church tries to limit entrance into heaven to those we think deserve to be there. We set boundaries and judgments based on our understanding of the scriptures. It is a fine line we draw, since the scriptures are sometimes difficult to understand in our world context and from our point of view. What does any city dweller know about shepherding? What does any businessman know about tending sheep? So, we live in the hope of eternal life, based on the promise of Jesus rather than the sum of our knowledge. We are called to have hope for all people, teaching them about Jesus so that they see Him as the gateway into God’s presence.

In all things, Jesus is our focus. As we follow Him, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Those who we once considered enemies will become brothers, not because we change our mind or because they change but because we see them from a new perspective: through Jesus colored glasses. There is no reason to limit the number of people on the streets of heaven because God’s grace is big enough for all. We are reminded in this passage that the way we get there is through Jesus—whether it is over the back fence or through the front door.

Peter is writing to people who most likely first heard the Gospel message while in Jerusalem during Pentecost. The letter is addressed to people in many different places. They were the ones to witness the miraculous speaking in tongues, the first incredible moments of the church and they took that Gospel home with them. Peter probably preached in those places during his ministry, helping to establish new communities of believers. The Christians in that time and in those places were facing persecution from different perspectives, and Peter’s letter helps them to have courage through their difficulties. The text for today is specifically addressed to people bound by slavery. Peter encourages them to persevere through it, even if their slavery is unjust, to glorify God in their grace-filled living.

God knows when the world is treating His people unjustly. However, the promise of deliverance is not always immediate. It took four hundred years for God to send Moses into Egypt. Thousands of years passed before Jesus came. Our suffering might last a moment, but we can rest in the promise that God has taken care of it all through Jesus Christ. He too suffered a necessary suffering for our sake. We don’t know what good might come out of our bondage, what changes might happen in those lives we touch with His grace. Our example is Jesus Christ and we are called to live, love and suffer as He did. However, we are also reminded that it was for our sin He died. By His grace we are restored to God to live according to the example Christ has set before us.

We live through those tough times with the words of the beloved Psalm on our hearts and tongues. The Lord is my Shepherd. We hear these words often during the year, repeated several times over the course of the three year lectionary. As a matter of fact, we just heard them a few weeks ago during Lent. They are words with which we never tire. They never grow old or irrelevant. They bring comfort and peace to many, Christian and non-Christian alike. Though many modern believers do not fully grasp the significance of the words of this Psalm – not knowing what it means to shepherd sheep – we understand that God is our Shepherd and that He will take care of us.

We hear these words this day because the Gospel lesson for this week is a lesson about the Shepherd and His flock. The Shepherd, in this case, is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we are the flock. The lesson is a warning to beware of those who are not truly the shepherd, those who would steal the sheep with false promises. Jesus says, “He that entereth not by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”

In the Old Testament, the word shepherd often refers to the leaders of the community, both religious and secular. David was a shepherd boy who became the shepherd king. The priests were seen a shepherds, caring for the people. In Jesus’ day, the shepherds were the Pharisees and other leaders both in the community and the temple. Ultimately, however, our Shepherd is God, a reality so eloquently stated by David in today’s Psalm.

Jesus told the Pharisees that the sheep will follow the shepherd because they know His voice. The Shepherd is Jesus, leading us in a life of faith. We follow because we hear Him and find comfort in His words. Just like David, we look to God to take care of our needs. It is hard for us to identify with the language of the psalm because we see little comfort in lying in a field for a night. However, it is not merely the comforts of living that God will provide. He grants us even greater blessings.

Those blessings are found in the community of believers. They are found when we share all we have with others, ensuring that no one is hungry and that all are safe. Living in that community will not necessarily keep us from suffering persecution or pain. We are going to hurt one another with our disagreements. Peter and Paul argued. The communities had different ideas because they knew about Jesus through their own world view.

One way is not necessarily better than another. We can work together for the sake of God’s kingdom, unified not by a point of view but by the amazing grace of Christ Jesus. We belong to the community of God not by our own discipleship or actions, but through faith in Jesus Christ our Great Shepherd. If we remember this, eyes always on the cross and the promise that is found there, we’ll know the unity that they saw in that early church, a diverse group of people sharing everything and living as God called us to live, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It begins in the here and now, but someday we'll see the faithfulness of God when we are joined together in heaven, crowded streets and all.

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