Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:16-24
Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.
“Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, that I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!” These simple words caused Peter and John a great deal of trouble. We heard them in the story last week. Peter said them to a beggar who was sitting at the gate of the Temple, hoping for charity from those going in and out to worship God. Peter couldn’t give him what he wanted, but he could provide something even better: new life. Peter told the amazed crowds that it was not by his power or ability that the beggar was healed; it was by the power of the One they had crucified and who was raised from the dead. Peter then called for the people in the Temple to repent and turn to God to receive the forgiveness God has offered through Jesus Christ.
Peter and John were arrested. Why? The answer is found in the question asked by the Sanhedrin at the trial: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Peter answered, “If we are examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Jesus is the source of their power.
The problem, though, is that they did more than simply heal the cripple. They offered forgiveness of sins, the same blasphemous crime that Jesus committed. Peter was, in his preaching, usurping the authority that the Temple leaders thought belonged to them. The Sanhedrin, especially the high priests, rejected the very premise that gave Jesus the authority to transform the world: His resurrection. That authority was the capstone of everything the disciples were building in Jerusalem: Jesus is the only way to salvation. This proclamation took the power away from the Jewish leaders. This was really the crime for which they had been arrested. The disciples’ teaching threatened their authority with the Jewish people. It was the same reason they destroyed Jesus. It is the same reason the world threatens the faithful today.
It is no wonder that the early disciples might be afraid. They had every reason to be. And yet, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they were willing to do and say what Jesus sent them to do and say. They were willing to take a chance, to speak the truth, to tell Jesus’ story. They were willing to stand up to the world even though it was likely that their bold confidence would make them martyrs. It did for ten of the eleven.
From the beginning of this thing called Christianity we’ve heard what Peter says so clearly in today’s lesson. Jesus said it, too. “I am the way.” Salvation comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that somehow Christians are better than others. It also does not mean that the Christians you know today are the only ones who will spend eternity with the Father. But there is no doubt, from Jesus’ own words and the witness of those first Christians: those who reject Jesus will not be saved. It is up to us to be bold witnesses to that Good News, to tell the story so that they will hear and believe. We can’t be wishy washy. We can love, honor and respect all our neighbors no matter what they believe. But we are called to tell the story of Jesus to them all so that they will be saved.
This attitude is seen as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit, or pride by those who do not believe. “You just think you are better than others,” they say. So we concede and encourage our neighbors to follow their own hearts. I agree that there are some wonderful aspects of other religions. Yes, there is grace and mercy, kindness and peace. Yes, there are people in every faith tradition who do good and wonderful things. It is even possible that God is working through those faith traditions in His own way. We are not meant to be arrogant, haughty, superior, conceited, or proud, but called and gifted to be loving, joyful, peaceful, longsuffering, kind, good, faithful, meek, and self-controlled. We are called to a humble life of sharing the story of Jesus Christ with bold confidence so that everyone will be saved.
Peter and John knew that some day they would face inquiry from the Temple leaders. Jesus told them that they would be hated as he had been hated. They knew they would suffer the same persecution; perhaps even drink the cup that Christ drank. Yet, Peter faced the arrest and false trial with confidence. It wasn’t his word or power that gave him hope; it was the knowledge that Jesus Christ was his Shepherd. Perhaps the comforting words of Psalm 23 were on his lips that night he spent in prison. He was walking through a valley and did not know what would happen the next day. But he trusted in the One who did know, and who had prepared that table of goodness on which Peter could feast even in the presence of his enemies. He was content. He knew God’s lovingkindness surrounded him, despite the circumstances he had to face.
Psalm Twenty-Three is one of the most beloved passages of scripture, perhaps even one of the best known. Even if you can’t quote it word for word, I suspect that you are familiar enough with it to give a decent rendering. We love this passage because we find comfort in it, especially in those tough times. It is, of course, used often at the beside of the sick and dying and is very popular at funerals. In it we can experience God’s presence and His care through the good times and bad. So, how do we look at something that is so familiar with new eyes?
Peter was zealous to continue the work Christ began. We don’t really know how much time passed between the first Easter Day and the day that Peter and John were arrested. It was at least seven weeks, because this story happened after Pentecost. The early Christian community, not yet identified by that name, was beginning to grow. As a matter of fact, those who believed after the healing of the crippled man numbered over five thousand men, not to mention the women and children. This was a quickly growing community of faith. The leaders of the Jews were concerned. The disciples might have had reason to be afraid, but that didn’t stop Peter and John from speaking with bold confidence. Their confidence didn’t rest in their ability, but in God’s promises.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John writes about a shepherd as he might be in the field with a flock of sheep. It doesn’t matter about the dangers he might face, he will not abandon his flock. Unlike the hired hands, he will stay with them despite the angry wolves. Jesus embraces every hurt and frightened animal. He provides all we need so that we might have life and have it abundantly. In this story, Jesus told the disciples that whatever happens to Him (and they would soon learn about His horrible end on the cross), He will not be destroyed. He promised to lay down His life for His sheep. Whatever happens, Jesus told them, He has the power. So, even today we listen to His voice and follow Him because He knows us and we know Him. It is in His care we will find peace and love.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Indeed, Jesus laid down His life for us. He stood between the world and His sheep and suffered the pain and humiliation of the cross for our sake. This was not the end, it was the beginning of something even greater. In this passage Jesus is very clear. His death did not come at the hands of men. He laid down His life for the sake of His people. He laid it down and He had the power to take it up again. Death and life in Christ Jesus was in His control. He is the Shepherd, and the Shepherd loves His sheep so much that He stands in the gap between death and life for us.
One of my favorite books is “A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23” by Phillip Keller. He says, “So when the simple – though sublime – statement is made by a man or woman that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ it immediately implies a profound yet practical working relationship between a human being and his maker.” In his book, Keller looks deeply at the beloved Psalm and explains it from practical standpoint as one who was a shepherd.
Phillip Keller learned what it was like to be a shepherd. He grew up in East Africa where his neighbors were simple herders who lived much like those in Jesus’ day. As a young man he earned a living as a shepherd. These experiences gave him a much deeper understanding of the imagery used in the Bible that describes God as a shepherd. In his book, he explains the different aspects of caring for the sheep through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. He tells about how to care for the fields so that the sheep do harm themselves or get lost because they have gone looking for greener pastures. He shares the struggles of moving the sheep to the hills for the summer months, the lack of water, the bugs that bother the sheep until they rub themselves to death. He describes the use of the rod and staff, showing how they keep the sheep safe and comfortable.
Phillip Keller was able to look at these words of David and embrace them because he too had lived the life of a shepherd. Though we have not experienced that type of life, we can know that Jesus will be true to His Word and that He will keep us through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. He will care for the fields so that we will not harm ourselves or get lost because we have gone looking for greener pastures. He will be with us as He guides our paths into places where we will find everything we need to sustain our lives. He will protect us from the things that seek to bring us harm. He will keep us safe with His rod and staff. In Him we will find comfort, peace, joy and life. Jesus is our shepherd, we shall not want for anything. He will be with us as we suffer the consequences of boldly proclaiming His Good News to the world.
The life of a sheep is not really that terrible, particularly under the care of the Good Shepherd. It would be nice to have someone who will find me a bed of lush meadows in which to sleep or a quiet pool of water from which to drink. How pleasant it would be to have someone who will give me a chance to catch my breath and send me the way I should go. How comforting it is to have someone to walk by our sides as we go through the dark valleys of our life. As sheep we would have the security of the shepherd’s crook. He would feed us and revive us with anointing oils. Our cup would be overflowing with blessings. (Translation loosely based on “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.)
Though we are sheep, God calls us to be more than sheep. He cares for us so that we will care for others. It is a working partnership between God and His people. “The Lord is my Shepherd” is a statement that implies a profound yet practical working relationship between a human being and his Maker. It means that like Peter, we are called to love others even unto death. Loving others means giving them what they need most, not what they want. It means speaking the name of Jesus into their life, so that they will experience the healing, the peace and the joy of the Shepherd.
We are called to be shepherds for those who are still lost in the darkness of sin and death. It is a tough road. We will face dangers. We’ll face persecution from those who deny Jesus and His message. We’ll face the contempt of those who refuse to see that they are sinners in need of a Savior. We will be rejected by those who do not want our help. We’ll fail and the world will laugh in our faces. But even as we walk in those valleys of confusion and doubt, our God will be with us. He will lead us through and along the way His transforming grace will flow out into the world. He will do the work we cannot do.
Dan Nelson writes, “How nice it would be just to be sheep. Then Jesus could take care of us and we would not have to do anything.” We aren’t sheep. As Dan says, “That is not the plan.” Jesus is our shepherd, but that doesn’t mean that He will do everything for us. Instead, we are called to be shepherds right alongside our Lord and Master, helping others to live and learn and love.
Those moments when we do offer a word of hope for our neighbors may seem very insignificant. After all, Peter and John did little more than say, “Get up in the name of Jesus” and a man was healed. If it hadn’t been for the crowds in the Temple at the time, we might not have even heard that story. They saw a man they knew had been begging by the Temple gate. What did they think when he began jumping for joy? Perhaps they thought that he had been faking. How can a man unable to walk one minute dance the next? The man wasn’t even a very good beggar. He didn’t care. Peter and John had to say, “Look at us” before the man even realized they were there. He was in despair and felt that nothing he did would make a difference. So, once in awhile, as pilgrims passed by, he called out to them for money. He knew that most would ignore his pleas, but he cried out anyway because it was the only thing he could do.
I suppose that’s how we get to the point of thinking that we’d rather be sheep. It was not a very good life the beggar was leading, but it was much easier to be dropped on the doorstep of the Temple for the day than to deal with the realities of his life. Bad circumstances make us think that we aren’t capable of making the right decisions, so we want someone else to do it for us. If we were sheep, we’d never have to worry. If we are hungry we can blame someone else. When we are sheep, we just look to others to provide all we need. But we aren’t sheep. As a matter of fact, God calls us to be shepherds.
Peter, like the rest of us, would probably have preferred just going to the temple that day to share in the fellowship, worship and sacrifice being offered there. He was on his way to be a sheep - to be fed - as many of us do each Sunday. On his way, however, he met a sheep in greater need. Offering Christ to that man forced Peter to sacrifice his time, his freedom and even possibly his life. It might not be so convenient for us to offer Christ to our neighbor. It might cause friction and even threaten our relationships with our neighbors. It might be a sacrifice of our time. We may even have to give up something that means a great deal to us.
We don’t want to do it. We don’t want to take the risk. We don’t want to step out of our comfort zone. We want to be sheep: fed, watered and led. Yet, the love of God calls us to be more. The Good Shepherd first loved us so that we will love. In this we will truly know God, know that we abide in Him and know that Jesus Christ is indeed the name above all others names. For through His name we will see the power of God healing the sick and making whole those who are broken. And there we shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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