April 26, 2015 – 4th Sunday of Easter
The reading from John’s gospel comes near the end of five chapters of growing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. The religious authorities are seeking to kill Jesus and Jesus knows it. At one point in chapter 8, (v59), they pick up rocks to throw at him (that’s the traditional way to execute someone for blasphemy) but Jesus is able to leave the scene without harm.
Chapter 10 is the conclusion of a pattern in John’s gospel that starts with a miracle, moves to a dialogue with the religious authorities and then ends with a discourse by Jesus. The miracle—in chapter 9—was the restored eyesight of a man who was born blind. What we’re hearing in chapter 10 is the last part of the discourse. In the discourse you won’t hear about the man who was born blind but you will hear Jesus’ critique of the religious authorities.
I’m going to begin with the second half of verse 10. I will alternate using “Father” and “Mother” as images of belatedness between God and Jesus which is so important in John’s gospel.
In this passage it is Jesus who is speaking. [READ John 10.10b-18]
There is lots of trouble in both of the readings for today. Trouble and conflict. In John’s gospel, Jesus is taking the religious authorities to task for acting as the hired hands rather than as shepherds. Jesus invokes an image of leadership and care that his first century hearers would have recognized right away. They were used to hearing the title of shepherd used for leaders. “God and kings were called the shepherd of their people,” All through the Hebrew scripture, God is called the shepherd of Israel, and Israel is called God’s flock. In Ezekiel 34, a passage that Jesus’ listeners (and the religious authorities) would have known, “God the good shepherd cares for the sheep, rescuing them from the places to which they have been scattered, feeding them, and tending to the weak, the injured, and the lost.” Ezekiel 34 also chastises the shepherds—Israel’s leaders—who have not taken care of the sheep and their negligence has resulted in the flock being scattered and leaderless.
So when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” he is saying he is the shepherd who meets the needs of the sheep. He is the one who is “fulfilling God’s promises and doing God’s work.” And not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus means that he is the good shepherd, not the religious authorities, and that he is the one doing God’s work, not the religious authorities because they have gotten caught up in their own power and prestige and neglected what God called them to be and do.
Can you imagine why they want to get rid of him?
Over in Acts, we find more conflict. Peter and John have healed a man who had spent his whole life unable to walk. The people who see this are amazed and Peter and John use that opportunity to tell them about Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead.
The religious authorities are ticked off and they summon Peter and John. They don’t ask “How did you heal the man?” They say, “Who gave you the authority to heal him?” They knew Peter and John hadn’t been authorized by them and they knew they didn’t like people horning in on their religious territory. The religious authorities assumed they had an exclusive franchise and they didn’t want other people coming in and stealing their business.
Peter uses their question to speak again about Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. The story goes on to say the religious authorities told Peter and John not to speak or teach about Jesus any more. But both men say they cannot stop speaking about what they have seen and heard about Jesus. The religious authorities are not happy about this but they cannot figure out a way to silence them because so many people have already heard about Peter and John and their teaching about Jesus.
This week I’ve been thinking about how odd these stories in John and Acts seem for the season of Easter. This is the time in the Christian year where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Of course, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection but even more so during the season of Easter. Wouldn’t you think we’d have stories that are joyful and uplifting and inspiring? And there are part of these stories that can be heard that way: a man is healed by Peter and John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But both of the stories are set in the circumstances of conflict. And conflict that will continue to escalate.
It makes me think about the many friends I have, inside and outside the church, who say, “What’s the big deal about Easter? It doesn’t solve anything. I’m not sure it changes much of anything.”
We preachers proclaim that the resurrection of Jesus is about God having the last word over evil and estrangement, over death and destruction. That the worst the world can dish out is not greater than the love and grace with which God responds. It is, as we sing, “Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.” But, honestly, Easter and resurrection doesn’t change that people get sick and die. Relationships deteriorate. Poverty degrades the lives and limits the potential of millions of children in our country and around the world. Hunger haunts more than 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. who live in homes that are food insecure. Mass incarceration of millions of African-American men is the Jim Crow of our generation. “Today there are more African-Americans…in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850.” And each week there seems to be another death of an unarmed black man who has an encounter with the police.
How does Easter and the resurrection change any of that?
In the Acts story, the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything for his followers, including Peter and John. Their sorrow and despair at the death of their friend turns into wonder and amazement when they meet him risen from the dead. The disciples are made bold to speak about the transforming power of Jesus. And in the name and power of Jesus they teach and heal and set people free. They followed in the way he had taught them and they did what he had commissioned them to do.
In John’s story about Jesus who is the good shepherd, reading it after the resurrection, we meet again the shepherd who provides for the needs of the sheep, who cares for the sheep, even if it should cost him his life. But costing him his life is not the end of the story. There is something about this good shepherd Jesus who knows that the religious authorities want to kill him but he is not at their mercy. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” he says. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (10.18) “Jesus is not a victim in death or a martyr against his will, but is in control of his own death.”
Those words we sing, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate” were written by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu lived much of his life under the evil of apartheid. And he saw it end—which I can only imagine might have felt like the resurrection.
At the end of the 1986 movie “The Mission”—which is about a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America—at the end of the movie the missionary and many in the mission village are slaughtered by the colonizing Portuguese. After the slaughter, the Roman Catholic Cardinal and the Portuguese Governor of the territory have an exchange. “Thus is the world” the governor says with a shrug of his shoulders. “No,” says the Cardinal. “Thus have we made the world.”
Recalling the story in John 20 where Jesus appears to the disciples who were in a locked room afraid of the religious authorities, Sara Miles writes in her book, Jesus Freak, Jesus “is handing over the greatest power of all: to forgive sins, to make peace, as he’s forgiven the friends and strangers who’ve betrayed and killed him. From this power, and from the practical acts of mercy he’s given every human being the authority to undertake now—feeding, healing, casting out demons, cleansing the ritually unclean—resurrection itself springs [forth]. Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.”
The story of Easter and the resurrection invites us to live in a different way. Not resigned to the death-dealing ways of the world. But attuned to the God who invites us and gives us the power to re-make the world.
The conflict of Easter is that is transforms our lives to live in a way that is at odds with what conventional wisdom says.
At the beginning of the service this morning we affirmed our faith with words of resurrection hope. “Resurrection hope is a hope for the transformation of this world, not a hope for escape from it. It is the hope that evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated, that past history will be redeemed, and that all the things that ever were will be made new. It is the hope of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, in which God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth.”
You can say that’s foolish and crazy—and you’ll be like the Portuguese Governor who looking over at all the death before him shrugs his shoulders and says, “That’s just the way the world is.”
Or you can say “resurrection hope is the way I want to live—even if there are days it seems impossible and so much of the evidence points in another direction.” And you’ll be more like the Cardinal who looks out over the carnage and says, “That’s how we have made the world”—with the implication that if we have made it in that destructive way, we can also remake it in a life-giving way.
Not because we are so good or because Easter makes everything easy, but because we follow the Good Shepherd who provides for our needs, who walks with us in the darkest valleys, who feeds us in the midst of our enemies, and who sends goodness and mercy to accompany us all the days of our lives, who comes to bring abundant life and who calls us to forgive and heal and feed and transform the world.
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1. John 8.59 note in The Access Bible, NRSV, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
2. James L. Mays, Psalms, (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), p117.
3. Gail O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 669-670.
4. Ibid., 670.
5. Text by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, copyright 1995, Desmond Tutu.
6. http://issuu.com/cdfweb/docs/2014_soac_child_nutrition/3?e=3139395/6445093, accessed 25 April 2015.
7. http://www.npr.org/2012/01/16/145175694/legal-scholar-jim-crow-still-exists-in-america, accessed 25 April 2015.
8. O’Day, 671.
9. Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding – Healing – Raising the Dead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), x-xi.
10. Adapted from the PC(USA) Study Catechism, Question 85.