Sunday, May 7, 2006

4 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.

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. I suppose to some, such a worldly exegesis takes away some of the beauty and mystery of this special passage. Most people want to hear the words in King James English and not concern themselves with interpreting what it means.

Yet, there is so much to learn about the way God cares for us from the 23rd Psalm. Keller describes how a shepherd guards, protects, feeds, waters and leads the sheep. They, like all human beings, tend to want and do the very things that are not good for them. They want the grass on the other side of the fence, and as they seek to satisfy their wants they get caught and strangled in the fence. Keller writes of this and many other examples of how sheep need the care of a shepherd how the shepherd loves the sheep to the point of self-sacrifice. The same is true of our God.

Though the book offers a wonderful look into the details of the Psalm, Keller's comment in the first paragraph speaks to the message of today's scriptures – that our relationship with our Shepherd is a working relationship. Psalm 23 is very much about the Good Shepherd who loves us. But on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we will consider why.

In Luther's Small Catechism, the commandments relating to other people are written, "We should fear and love God so that…" We fear and love God so that we will honor authorities and not do the things that might harm our neighbor. In Mark 12, Jesus reminded His disciples of the two great commandments, "The first is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."

Yet, we can't love on our own. We are like those sheep, chasing after the things we want rather than seeking the things that would be truly good for us. We think we'll find joy in the satisfaction of our flesh, but instead we find heartache and dis-ease. We think we'll find peace in controlling our circumstances, instead we find trouble and doubt. We think we can love, but in the end our love is shallow, built on all the wrong foundations. We love because God first loved us. As we dwell in that love, God's love flows through us into the world. We love so that the grace of God will be manifest to others. The Shepherd cares for us so that we too will become shepherds, and in doing so glorify God.

This is most obvious in today's first lesson. Here we see Peter and John facing trial for preaching the name of Jesus. They got into this situation because of a passing comment to a beggar on the street. As a matter of fact, in the story from Acts 3, Peter seems frustrated by the man's begging. They were on their way into the Temple when a crippled man cried out for money. He did not even care who he was asking. Peter had to say, "Look at us." He was laid on the steps, abandoned there by his family or friends to beg for money. Did they care? It doesn't seem like they cared much for the man, but perhaps they cared about the money he could bring. So, the man didn't care much either. He just cried out for money.

I'm sure that Peter and John did not look like wealthy men. They were probably dirty from traveling. They had left everything behind to follow Jesus, so they were not wearing find robes. Peter said, "Look at us!" The man looked at them expecting to get something from them. Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you." He had the love of God, and in reaching out to the man and speaking the name of Jesus Christ into his life, Peter shared the love of God. The man was healed, not by any power that Peter could claim as His own, but by Jesus Christ. Peter knew the healing power of Jesus Christ, for he'd experienced it himself. What he had, he gave away to another.

The man stood, walked. Then he went into the temple jumping and praising God. When people recognized him as the beggar they were filled with wonder and amazement. He held on to Peter and John and the people came running to see what was happening. This gave Peter the opportunity to speak about Jesus to those who were astonished by the healing. "Why does this surprise you?" he asked. Then he added, "Why do you stare at us as if it was by our power?" The man was healed because God the Father of their ancestors glorified Jesus Christ.

Peter's preaching upset the priests and the captain of the temple guard, so they seized Peter and John and put them in jail. Here's where we pick up on today's story. The next day the temple leaders gathered together. They had Peter and John brought before them to be questioned. "By what power or what name did you do this?" Peter knew that they were using the healing of the crippled man was being used as an excuse to put a halt to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They didn't like the preaching – the healing was just a sign of the message they were sharing.

Peter answered, "If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple…" He questioned their motivation. Despite this, Peter told them the source of power. "It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed." Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who died at their hands still lives and He continues to shepherd His people through the lives of His sheep who have been made into shepherds.

That which was seen by the world as the end of Jesus ministry – His day on the cross – was just the beginning. 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.

You know, the life of a sheep is not really that terrible, particularly under the care of a 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.

John writes, "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 commandment." Someone asked, "How is it possible to command someone to love?" After all, those of us with children know it is impossible to command them to love their siblings. Love, as we have come to know and understand it, is an emotion and it is uncontrollable. One can't fall in and out of love by will – so how can it be commanded?

To this John writes, "My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth." We love because God first loved us. As we dwell in that love, God's love flows through us into the world. We love so that the grace of God will be manifest to others. The Shepherd cares for us so that we too will become shepherds, and in doing so glorify God. This may mean laying down our lives for another. Peter did not love the beggar. As a matter of fact, his attitude toward the beggar was not one of compassion but of frustration. "Look at us! We don't have money but what we have we give to you – Jesus Christ." Even so, Peter stood between the wolf – the world – and risked his very life in offering the healing that comes by the power in Jesus' name.

Our hearts aren't reliable. Romantic love fades, siblings bicker, and neighbors declare war over the silliest of issues. We are fickle, self-centered and falsely motivated. We can't force ourselves to love someone we just don't like. We say the words, but when that love is not manifest our words are nothing more than a lie. Loving is a matter of integrity. We love because God first loved us, but if our love is not manifest are our hearts really true?

John writes, "And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us." It is in being the shepherd, partnering with God to share the healing power of Christ and the life found in Him. It is in being obedient to the commandments which He has given us, living that life which He has proscribed for those who love Him.

Looking once again at Luther's Small Catechism, we see the commandments positive perspective. God commanded, "You shall not murder." Luther writes, "We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all life's needs." Keeping God's commandments means more than just keeping ourselves from wronging our neighbor. It also means doing right for them.

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 relationship. 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. Thanks be to God.

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