Sunday, May 11, 2003

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18 

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

What is authority? Webster's defines it as the right or power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge. It is also the freedom or right granted to another, an accepted source of expert information or advice, an expert in a given field, the power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience or the grounds for a course of action.

The question of authority was one that concerned the chief priests and temple leaders. After all, they were the ones in authority according to the design of God. The Old Testament scriptures clearly laid out the ministry of the Temple - the who, what, where, when and how of everything relating to the relationship between God and His people. Over the years, that pattern was conformed to the world situation of the Jews, and they were able to live peacefully within the Roman Empire and still practice their religion. When Jesus came onto the scene, He upset the status quo and threatened the positions of those who thought they were the ones with the authority to guide the lives of the Jews.

It was quite obvious to the people that Jesus had an authority that they had never witnessed before. His command over the demons, His knowledge of the scriptures, His power over sickness, death and sin left little question in the minds of the people that He had come from God, and that God Himself gave Jesus the authority to say and do all He did. I don't doubt that even the temple leaders knew Jesus had that authority. However, in their hearts they refused to believe Him to be the One who would be the salvation of Israel. He rocked too many boats. He pointed His fingers at their sin and they refused to accept they were unrighteous. They were the example, they were the shepherds, and they were the ones with the authority from God. It said so in the Law of Moses. Jesus exposed them and forced the question of who was in charge.

In reality, the ultimate authority was always meant to be God Himself. Unfortunately, the wise men of Israel spent many years fine tuning the Word of God to fit into their own pattern rather than following the true intent God's design. They lost sight of Him and grasped the power for themselves. Then they put heavy burdens on the people, burdens they were never able to carry and they had no mercy when the people failed to live up to their expectations. They were just hired caretakers, not the true shepherd, and it was obvious by the way they cared only for themselves rather than the sheep.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus identified Himself as the shepherd. "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep." He did not care for His own life. As a matter of fact, He humbled Himself by giving up the glory of Heaven to come to earth and live in the flesh of man and die the most horrible death for our sake. He went on to say that those who were His sheep would know His voice. When they heard Him calling they would follow His voice.

As the people heard Him saying these things, they would have been reminded of the Old Testament images of God as their Shepherd. The most beloved passage of scripture even in our age must be our Psalm for today. "Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want." The image of the authority figure in their lives was not just one who could or would rule with an iron hand - commanding, enforcing laws, exacting obedience, determining, or judging - it was of One who would provide all they needed to survive. The Good Shepherd gave the sheep a place to sleep, water and peace. He guides the sheep safely through the difficulties of life. He encourages, disciplines and comforts. When they recalled those familiar words of David, they longed to know the Good Shepherd, to dwell in His house forever.

The chief priests and temple leaders did not have that kind of authority. They were puppet rulers. The people only had peace because the Romans allowed them to live their lives as Jews as long as they obeyed the rules of the Empire. Food, water and even a safe place to live were dependent on the Romans.

The chief priests and temple leaders knew this to true, which is why they were so desperate to keep things quiet. Yes, they wanted to keep their position, but they also knew that until the Messiah came to set them free from the Romans, they had to depend on them for their well-being. Surely they would recognize the One sent from God when He came because they were His chosen authorities!

Jesus was so bothersome because He didn't fit into their expectations. He said things that condemned the ones they considered righteous. He did not obey the laws they had established. He even talked to the wrong people - women, foreigners and sinners. He gave them forgiveness and healing. He gave them food and water. He made them feel safe and comforted in their times of distress. He fit the image the people had of the Good Shepherd, but not as they expected. Jesus settled the matter of authority when He said, "Therefore doth the Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment received I from my Father." Jesus had the authority from God to do the things He did.

What was most shocking about the authority of Jesus was not that it was based on power, though He certainly had great power. His authority was all about love, mercy, peace, submission and action. Too often in today's world, we determine authority by the ability of a leader to delegate - to get others to do the work. Not that CEO's sit around doing nothing all day long, it is difficult to organize a company without acting. But they know how to choose the right helpers. The most successful presidents of the US are not those who do everything on their own. They are the ones who choose the right people to be on his cabinet and serve with him. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, it is not the CEO or the president who suffers the consequences of their errors, but rather those whom they chose to do the work.

Jesus was different. He was willing to take on the consequences Himself even though He had no sin of His own. God gave Him the authority over life and over death. As Max Lucado puts it, "He chose the nails."

Yet, Jesus did delegate. He chose a rag tag bunch of misfits to continue His work in this world. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they were given the authority to do what He did - to cast our demons, heal the sick, and even to forgive sin. They heard His voice and they followed. It wasn't an easy life to live. "Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.  But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?  My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth."

Unfortunately, the chief priests and temple leaders never did hear Jesus' voice, neither when He was alive, nor from the mouths of His disciples. They questioned the authority of the apostles who were teaching the people about Jesus. They arrested Peter and John, but the numbers of believers was growing daily. The rulers were together, meeting in Jerusalem. "And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, By what power, or in what name, have ye done this?" The witness Peter gave was not from Himself, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. They had just healed the crippled man in the temple. Peter spoke the truth in love. "If we this day are examined concerning a good deed done to an impotent man, by what means this man is made whole; be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even in him doth this man stand here before you whole.  He is the stone which was set at nought of you the builders, which was made the head of the corner.  And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved."

Based on the witness of those first apostles, we are called into a similar life. We are called and gifted to carry on the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring healing and peace to the ones who are hurting in this world. We do so by sharing the message that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the One who will provide for our every need. The Lord Jesus is indeed our Good Shepherd. He laid down His life for our sake and brings us to dwell in His house forever. Let us go, therefore into all the world and share His love, mercy and peace with all who hears His voice. Thanks be to God. 

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