Sunday, May 3, 2009

Four 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 love? Love is defined by Merriam-Webster as “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.” In this definition we find many types of relationships, such as the romantic relationship between a man and a woman as well as the relationship between a mother and child. We love these people because they have become a part of our lives. We are connected to them by blood and other bonds. We can also love things; in this case, love is a “warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion.”

John writes in today’s second lesson, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us his commandment.” How can we be commanded to love? Love, as we have come to know and understand it, is an emotion and it is uncontrollable. One can’t fall in love and out of love by will, so how can it be commanded? Our hearts are not reliable. Romantic love fades, siblings bicker, and neighbors declare war over the silliest issues. We are fickle, self-centered and falsely motivated. We can’t force ourselves to have strong affection or attraction for someone we simply do not like.

There is another definition of love, “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another: as the fatherly concern of God for humankind or brotherly concern for others.” This is the type of love God is calling us to live. We love because God first loved us, and our love is manifest through the ways we lay down our lives for others. As we dwell in the love of God, His love flows through us into the world. We love so that the grace of God will be manifested to others. The Shepherd cares for us so that we too will become shepherds and in doing so glorify God. That’s what Peter and John did for the beggar at the Temple.

The men mentioned in today’s first lesson were men of power and position. We are given the names of the high priestly family, but they were accompanied by the rulers, elders and scribes. These men made up the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, which was the ruling body of the Jews. This court was made up of mostly Sadducees, a sect of Judaism that had did not believe in any resurrection. A doctrine of resurrection of the dead at the end of time had developed among some Jews, but the Sadducees adamantly rejected that doctrine. So, when the disciples’ preaching about Jesus resurrection was gaining popularity with the people, they knew they had to put a stop to it. Peter and John were arrested.

The catalyst for this arrest was the story from last week, when Peter commanded the lame beggar to walk by the name of Jesus. Peter then 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.

What exactly caused the Sanhedrin to arrest Peter and John? The question asked at the trial was “By what power, or in what name, have ye done this?” Peter answers, “If we’ve been arrested because we kindly helped a cripple, then know this: it is Jesus’ name that healed the man.” Would they have arrested the disciples for healing someone?

The answer to the court’s question is that Jesus is the source of their power. But they did more than simply heal the cripple. They offered forgiveness of sins, the same blasphemous crime that Jesus committed. 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 preached. 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. This isn’t very comforting for those of us who are being sent out into the world to share God’s grace.

But that’s why we use the last definition of love for the way God is calling us to live. It is a call to unselfish actions for the sake of others, even unto death. In “A Sheperd looks at Psalm 23” Phillip Keller 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 this book, Keller looks deeply at the beloved Psalm and explains it from practical standpoint as one who was a shepherd.

Imagine what it must have been like to be 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.

It was dangerous work. There were wild animals willing to fight the shepherd for a tasty morsel of lamb. The summer feeding meadows were often in high places, with rocky paths and steep cliffs. The water doesn’t always run smoothly and the food is not always readily available. There is a painting of Jesus searching for the lost sheep that shows him hanging precariously off the side of a mountain: one slip and both the sheep and the shepherd would be found at the bottom of a valley.

But that’s the whole point: Jesus is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. He was willing to do whatever it would take, which is why He went to the cross. His death was the only way, and He laid His life on the line for us.

The beggar that Peter and John met at the door of the Temple didn’t care very much. He wasn’t even paying attention to the pilgrims who were passing him. He was just crying out for help, hoping someone might pass him a few coins, but convinced that no one would even see him. He seems to be in deep despair, knowing that even his family did not care for his well-being. He was dumped by the doorway each morning. Did they care for him at all, or perhaps only for the coins he could get by begging? His family members are certainly not very good shepherds, are they?

As I was reading through the Gospel lesson for this week, I thought about those images we see when Animal Control officials go into puppy mill or other place that abuses animals. Animals are found in cages that are much too small, lying in their own waste. They are diseased and malnourished. The owners are arrested or fined for animal abuse and the animals are taken away to someone who will properly care for them. It is heartbreaking to see those animals: the cry for help in their eyes, the frighteningly thin bodies and scruffy exteriors.

We can also see it in the house of a family that loses control of their animals. They take in a stray cat or two, but soon the numbers are unmanageable. They can’t afford to have the cats neutered, or they adopt the pets when they are already pregnant. One or two cats quickly becomes a dozen, which quickly becomes too many for one home. Though they may offer food and water for the animals, it is difficult to keep a home with so many pets clean. Carpets become stained and the furniture infested with fleas. The house smells of urine.

I don’t doubt that in the beginning the people in both situations meant well. But they lose control and then do not know how to get out of it. It is expensive to take each animal for shots and other medical services. In the end, the picture is not pretty and the animals are not really given the care they need. Sadly, we aren’t much different. When we try to meet the needs of our neighbors by our own power, we tend to fail. We lose control of the situation, we don’t have the resources on our own or we simply do not give them what they really need. Of all the people who walked by the beggar at the door of the Temple, a few must have given him some coins. They had the right heart. They wanted to help. But did he really need a few coins, or something else?

What does it mean to be a good shepherd? Let me tell you a third story. In Warwickshire, England, animal control officers found a whimpering dog cowering inside a locked shed, obviously not given the care she needed. She was timid from abuse, as well as dirty and starving. They took her to a wildlife sanctuary where the keepers help injured or abandoned animals heal before they are released back into the wild or given to good families. They took very good care of the dog who rebounded quickly. She was brought back to full health and her trust in human beings was restored. The man who runs the sanctuary, Geoff Grewcock, began looking for a new home for the dog they had named Jasmine. Jasmine had a different plan.

As new animals were brought into the sanctuary, Jasmine took it upon herself to be a one dog welcome wagon. She took care of the animals, loving them like a mother. It didn’t matter what type of animal was brought it, she stayed with them, lay with them, cuddled with them, cleaned them. She ensured their comfort and gave them the love and support they needed. I heard about this story through an email, and in the email there are pictures of Jasmine interacting with deer, bunnies, foxes, badgers, guinea pigs, and even birds. In one picture, Jasmine is laying on a coach with some of her friends: two dogs, a deer, a rabbit and an owl. Not only has Jasmine made the other animals trust her; they trust each other even though in the wild they may be enemies or prey.

Peter and John had no silver or gold to give to the man, but they gave him something better: God’s grace. This is not to say that we do not have give our coins to those in need, but we look to God for guidance on how to best serve our neighbor.

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 is like Jasmine, embracing every hurt and frightened animal. He provides all we need so that we might have life and have it abundantly. In this story, Jesus tells the disciples that whatever happens to Him (and they would soon learn about His horrible end on the cross), He is not destroyed by others. He does lay down His life for His sheep. Whatever happens, Jesus tells them, He has the power and those who would harm Him do not. 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.

John writes, “Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” What does it mean to lay down our lives for another? It means living humbly in the world, unselfishly meeting the needs of our neighbors.

It is interesting that one of the definitions for love includes material objects. Think about the man who works eighty hours a week to keep his family in a lifestyle to which they become accustomed. Yes, it is the loving man who willingly sacrifices his time and energy for the sake of his family, but is he making the right sacrifice? Are the big house, the state of the art electronics and the expensive clothes worth the lost time together as a family? He loves his family by doing for them, instead of being with them. Perhaps the real sacrifice would be letting go of some of the stuff so that true love between people can be maintained.

Real love is realizing that a broken heart or shattered relationship requires mercy and compassion, forgiveness and hope, not a pile of stuff. Love isn’t found in the things we collect. God doesn’t dwell in that kind of love. He abides in the hearts of those who live in the forgiveness of God and share the transforming power of God’s grace with others. As the song says, “they will know we are Christian by our love” and that love is manifest through the deeds we do for the sake of others.

We tell our children, our spouses, our neighbors and others how much we love them, yet we spend so much time keeping up with an unsustainable lifestyle that we lose touch with those we love. We can say we love someone a thousand times, but they are empty words when we spend more time chasing after things than dwelling among the people we love. Our needs are not just physical. We need companionship, mercy, grace and forgiveness. Sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is to say, “Silver and gold have I none; but what I have, that give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Sometimes the best we can give to someone is the healing and peace of forgiveness found in the love of Jesus.

Let’s look at Psalm 23 from the point of view of Peter. 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, 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. They had established some customs, meeting together for meals, learning from the apostles, breaking the bread as Christ has commanded, sharing everything with one another. They praised God together and were making a difference in the world in which they lived.

Peter and John knew that some day they would face inquiry from the Temple leaders. Jesus had told them that they would be hated as he had been hated. They would suffer the same persecution; perhaps even drink the same cup. Yet, Peter faced this arrest and false trial calmly with confidence. It wasn’t his own words or abilities that gave him hope or peace. 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 happy, content. He knew God’s lovingkindness surrounded him, despite the circumstances he had to face.

So, too, it is with us. We don’t know what we will face tomorrow, or even today. But 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 can not do.

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 us and our 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 necessarily 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.

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