Easter’s Conflict – John 10.10b-18 & Acts 4.5-12

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[1]) 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8]

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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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.

* * *
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.

The End is the Beginning – Mark 16.1-8 & Isaiah 25.6-9

April 5, 2015 – Easter Sunday

Compared with all the celebratory elements of this morning—music, flowers, even a beautiful sunny day—this story from Mark’s gospel seems so odd. Unlike in Matthew, Luke and John, where Jesus is seen again after his resurrection, there are no appearances by the risen Christ in Mark’s gospel. You have to take the young guy sitting in the tomb at his word that Jesus has been raised. And what we’re left with is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome fleeing the tomb and saying nothing at all.

(Which probably explains why we have both the extension of verse 8 called “the shorter ending of Mark” and verses 9 through 16 called “the longer ending of Mark.” People reading the gospel and its end at verse 8 said, “We can’t have it end like that! How will anyone be sure Jesus has been raised? How will future followers of Jesus be inspired to keep following Jesus?” They would echo Preacher Fred Craddock who, in a sermon on Mark 16, said, “This is no way to run a resurrection!”[1] And so they penned two more “suitable” endings—which few scholars who study Mark consider to have been part of the original writing.)

Incidentally, the Mark 16 telling of the resurrection is most likely what the window about the choir portrays. Mary Magdalene is the woman with her hair down, Mary the mother of James (who is likely the mother of Jesus as well) in blue, and Salome in green. Although what the stained glass artist portrays is much more serene than the actual story.
The story as it ends with verse 8 leaves us with a handful of startling emotions: the women are alarmed, they are overcome with terror and amazement, they are afraid. They can’t say a word to anyone.

Which is not exactly the sentiment we have come to expect on Easter morning!

The feelings the women have are strong and intense. The sense of the word alarmed is “beyond astonishment.” They are stunned, shocked, even immobilized. They can’t comprehend.

The Greek word translated terror is related to the word we translated as “trauma.” They are shell shocked. They are traumatized.

The word “afraid” is related to our English word phobia which carries with it dread and aversion.

And finally, “amazement” is translated from a Greek word that also means ecstasy or ecstatic which can be frenetic or rapturous. Either way, this too is an overpowering and intense emotion.

No wonder the women can’t say anything to anyone! For such an experience there are no words.

I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like that. An intense emotional experience that was beyond what you could comprehend, beyond what you could take in and process, beyond anything you had ever experienced or imagined before.    When you have no words to express what has astounded and confounded you.

Often after such an experience we begin to look for a way to express the inexpressible. And when an experience is beyond what we know how to describe, we look for images or metaphors, often poetry or song. Which is what those early followers of Jesus did too. They reached into the tradition that had shaped them and one of the poetic images they found was that of a feast.

Isaiah 25 pictures God preparing a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people. Pastor Cynthia Campbell notes it is “not those who eat regularly and well who envision God’s [presence with them] as a banquet. Rather, this is the vision of those for whom providing food is a daily challenge, for whom eating well is not an option, and for whom eating at all may be very episodic.” Which is likely the circumstances of those who wrote this vision. Perhaps it is a reminder, not only of the lavishness of God’s feast which has something to do with expressing the astonishment and completely unexpected nature of the abundant life God brings, but also that the abundant life God cares about includes our bodies and is for everyone, including “the really poor among us, those who know hunger as a real and daily companion.” [2]

As followers of Jesus, when we come to this table, we invoke the images of God’s life-giving feast for this is one of the places where we meet Christ in the breaking of the bread.

Isaiah 25 also paints a picture of death being swallowed up, the burial clothes destroyed because there is no longer need for them, and all tears wiped away. The separation and loss of death is ended and even in death we belong to God. [3]

Perhaps this was part of the terror and amazement and alarm the two Marys and Salome experienced. They had come to the tomb expecting to anoint the body of Jesus—he was dead, after all. I wonder if there wasn’t some relief in that for them. As much as Jesus’ life had inspired them and the other disciples, it came with a high cost. At the same time people were helped and fed and found freedom, there was also suffering, threats, danger from the political and religious authorities. They had seen Jesus be arrested on false charges, tortured by the state authorities, condemned to death and executed even through he was innocent.   They must have wondered what would happen to them next. Perhaps, says Professor Emeritus Cameron Murchison, there was some relief for all of the disciples, even as they grieved, that they could go back to their regular lives, “no longer burdened by the challenge of costly discipleship.” [4]

Disciples of old who walked with Jesus and disciples today who read the Bible “know and half believe that the life embodied in Jesus” opens into abundant life “for all of life, even while it is intensely demanding. Experiencing the [great] love of God [also] involves [being ready] to risk [great] love for [our] neighbor.” But wouldn’t most of us like to have the benefit of the great love of God but not the cost of great love for our neighbor? [5]

So perhaps we can understand the response of the disciples who “thought they were off the costly hook of discipleship only to discover—to their terror and amazement—the challenge still before them.” [6]

It’s a challenge—and invitation—that is still before us.

Because of the abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel and the absence of any appearances by Jesus after his resurrection, some who study this gospel say its theological direction is to urge the reader to go back to the beginning and this time around to read the entire gospel as the story of the appearance by the risen Jesus—embodying the reign of God in the world.

The women at the tomb are told that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. That’s the place where this all started for Jesus and his disciples. God is not done with those who followed Jesus—just as God is not done with us. The young man in the tomb tells the women the risen Jesus will meet them if they go to Galilee where Jesus has gone.

Thomas Merton, in an Easter homily in 1967 wrote, The veneration of the [empty tomb] “is Christian only in so far as it is the [veneration] of the place where Christ is no longer found. But such a [veneration] can be valid only on one condition: that we are willing to move on, to follow him to where we are not yet, to seek him where he goes before us.” [7]

And that is the word to us as well. We cannot stay in the place where he was. We must move on to follow Christ to where he goes before us. There we will be met by the Risen One, if we go where he has gone. [8] And where has he gone? Into the places of suffering and pain. Into the places of oppression and torture. Into the homes of people who are not appropriate or approved. Into the company of people who break the rules, who make others nervous. Into communities of people who are afflicted and addicted, who are hungry and hurting.

Christ has gone into the places where healing and peace are sprouting up from the ground of suffering and pain. Christ has gone into the places where freedom and new life are coming out of prisons and dungeons. Christ has gone into the homes of people who once were estranged and isolated and now are communities of grace and welcome. Christ has gone into communities of people who were outcast and shamed and now are transformed and whole.

On this Easter morning, it is not over when we leave this sanctuary. This is just the beginning. The beginning again of the challenge to follow the Risen Christ to where we are not yet but where Christ is going into the broken and beautiful world that God so loves.

* * *
1.  Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 138.
2.  Cynthia M. Campbell, “Isaiah 25.6-9 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 360.
3. Ibid., 362.
4.  D. Cameron Murchison, “Mark 16.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 356.
5. Ibid., 354.
6.  Ibid., 356.
7. Thomas Merton, “He is Risen”, Niles, IL: Argus Communications, 1967. Merton uses the word cult where I have substituted veneration. I think veneration captures the sense of Merton’s intent without the contemporary negative associations of a cult.
8. Mary Luti, “Mark 16.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 532.