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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year B
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION  TO THE SCRIPTURE 	
Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)


ACTS 4:5-12.  This is another of the sermons like those preached during the 
early days of the church. This time Peter declares the fact and the power of 
Christ's resurrection before the same council of religious leaders who had 
condemned Jesus to death.
	
The healing of the man at the gate of temple had a wider meaning than giving 
strength to paralyzed legs.  As in Jesus' own healing miracles, to be fully 
healed meant to be brought into a right relationship with God through faith.  
Thus healing and salvation were one and the same.


PSALM 23.  No psalm is better known or more loved as a prayer of trust in God 
who cares for us now and forever. It cannot be correctly attributed to David, 
however, because of the reference to the temple in verse 5.


1 JOHN 3:16-24.   John writes of God's love for us and God's command that we 
love one another.  This love enables us to live courageously as God requires.
	
Note that John also says that we receive whatever we ask of God because we 
obey and do what God requires of us.  Yet this is not justification for a 
'name it and claim it' attitude which mistakenly dreams of God meeting our 
every demand.


JOHN 10:11-18.  It may be helpful to read this passage and then to read  
Ezekiel 34 immediately after.  There seems little doubt that Jesus made that 
Old Testament passage the basis for his own ministry as Messiah.
	
There are numerous other Old Testament references to the way God, like the 
shepherds of biblical times, guided, cared for and rescued Israel, "the sheep 
of his flock." For some of these, read also Isaiah 40:11; 49:9-10; 63:14; 
Psalms 80:1; 95:7; 100:3.

One of the enduring images of Jesus is that of the good shepherd.  The 
startlingly different aspect of this passage is the willingness of the 
shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. 

************

ACTS 4:5-12.  This is another of the sermons intended to show how Peter and 
the other apostles preached during the early days of the church. The 
kerygmatic proclamation sought to show hoe the Christian tradition grew out 
of the Jewish tradition and yet also clearly defined establish the 
distinction between them. While this passage appears to present a keen 
eyewitness account, as did the synoptic Gospels, it represents the views of 
the Apostolic Church in its continuing conflict with Jewish authorities. Most 
probably this conflict was particularly severe in Jerusalem in the years 
immediately after the resurrection. It outlasted the destruction of Jerusalem 
in 69-70 CE and reached its height in the early 80s, when Jewish Christians 
were banned from synagogues. This occurred about the same time that Luke's 
Gospel and Acts may have been composed. By that time, the Apostolic Church 
had become predominantly a Gentile community. In many respects, this passage 
reflects the Gentile hostility toward Jewish authorities and clearly defines 
the discontinuity of the two traditions.

In this sermon Peter declared the fact and the power of Christ's resurrection 
before the same council of religious leaders who had condemned Jesus to 
death. If we assume the scholarly consensus that Luke-Acts was written for 
the Christians in Rome circa 80 CE, the courage of the apostles would have 
had a very positive influence of the Christian community still reeling from 
Nero's persecution in the 60s when Peter, Paul and James had been martyred. 
The histories of Josephus, favourite of the emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE), may 
have influenced the author of Luke-Acts. One of the characteristics of 
Josephus' *The Jewish War* viewed that struggle from positions which 
described the superior tactics of the Romans while also depicting the 
exceptional courage and heroism of the Jews.

The healing of the man at the gate of temple had a wider meaning than giving 
strength to paralyzed legs.  As in Jesus' own healing miracles, to be fully 
healed meant to be brought into a right relationship with God through faith.  
Thus healing and salvation were one and the same spiritual experience. Luke 
underlines this emphasis by quoting a favourite NT reinterpretation of Psalm 
118:22 and reiterating the unique salvation found in Jesus alone (vss. 11-
12).

Nothing could have angered the Jewish tribunal more. They would have 
interpreted this claim as both anti-Semitic and religiously invalid when seen 
from the strictly Jewish point of view. When Christians today make the same 
claim, we immediately end all possibility of constructive dialogue. The claim 
of unique salvation also appears to deny the openness of Jesus toward non-
Jews despite his controversial challenges to the Jewish authorities 
represented by the Sanhedrin. Luke's Gospel makes special note of Jesus' many 
interactions with non-Jews, particularly Samaritans. Jewish authorities 
despised Samaritans because they had intermarried with non-Jews and rejected 
the centralized sacrificial system of the Jerusalem temple.

It is interesting to note in passing that as the story is told, no reference 
whatsoever is made to the Roman authorities. For his own purposes, Luke set 
this incident in a totally religious context. This contrasts with the trial 
of Jesus where Pilate played a significant role, but took the easy way out of 
his dilemma by releasing Barabbas instead of Jesus whom he had found innocent 
(Luke 23:1-25). Luke's intention in Acts, however, was to show that Romans 
authorities did not share the Jewish animosity toward the Christian 
community.

This being marked as Christian Family Sunday by many congregations, it might 
be worth using this text to focus on the nature of the family as the 
fundamental unit of society and the Christian family as inclusive of all 
people of faith. As one e-mail correspondent put it, "I've looked at this 
time in the church year as an opportunity to see our "family' as more than 
the one into which we are born, ie: family by baptism, by faith, by our 
desire to work together as a community, etc."


PSALM 23.  No psalm is better known or more loved as a prayer of trust in God 
who cares for us now and forever. Only the first four verses depict the 
pastoral scene of the shepherd caring for his flock in several different 
circumstances from pleasant pasturage to grave danger.
Another image in vs. 4 refers to a banquet, or at least a meal provided for a 
refugee from pursuing enemies. Tribal custom among pastoral Semites dictated 
that anyone fleeing from enemies bent on the rough justice of the wilderness 
could appeal for refuge from any encampment he might happen upon. Pursuing 
enemies could not take the refugee while he was guest at supper in the 
sheltering encampment. The additional imagery of the guest being anointed 
with pungent oil and served an overflowing cup suggests an elaborate banquet 
provided by an exceptionally hospitable host. We have a similar image of 
Jesus being feted in that way at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of 
Bethany just prior to his crucifixion (John 12:1-10).

Generations of interpreters have incorrectly attributed the psalm to David, 
the shepherd who became Israel's legendary great hero-king. However 
satisfying religiously, this is more of a romantic than a realistic 
interpretation. In the closing verse 6 the picture fades into that of the 
temple where worship is continually offered. It is not inconceivable that 
David did serve as a priest-king on some occasions. But for him, a tent (i.e. 
tabernacle) like that which served his ancestors in the wilderness was indeed 
"the house of the Lord.." His desire to build a temple in his new capital 
city of Jerusalem went unfulfilled. The biblical record tells of him bringing 
the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, but it was his son, Solomon, born of 
the fateful liaison between David and Bathsheba, who is credited with the 
construction of the temple.

Perhaps no scripture is more often read or hymn more frequently sung at 
funeral services than the metrical version of this psalm. It could well have 
been one of Jesus' favourites too. The image of the shepherd had a special 
place in his teaching as reported in all four Gospels. The intimate 
relationship of shepherd and sheep had special meaning for Jewish people long 
before Jesus' time
too. Numerous OT passages speak of Yahweh as the shepherd of Israel. Raising 
sheep for the annual sacrifice of the Passover played an important part in 
the nation's economy. The Scottish scholar, William Barclay, hypothesized 
that as many as 250,000 animals were slaughtered for this one high holiday. 
The sacrifice of an unblemished lamb and the sprinkling of its blood on the 
altar symbolized the exodus from Egypt under Yahweh's protection and renewal 
of the Sinai covenant.

Once the temple was destroyed in the Roman-Jewish War of 69-70 CE, only the 
religious symbolism of the relationship of sheep and shepherd carried over 
into the Apostolic Church. The church's developing theology of the person and 
work of Christ blended the images of the shepherd and the sacrificial lamb. 
John 15:11-18 and Hebrews 13:20-21 express this blending most clearly. 
Today's Christians do not respond to the sacrificial images. The image of the 
shepherd caring for the sheep, however, is as strong as ever.

A elderly Scottish farmer and elder of a rural congregation suffered a stroke 
which robbed him of his voice, his freedom to walk and his ability to feed 
himself. This forced him to spend the last years of his life confined to his 
bed or a wheelchair in a nursing home. Although he was fully alert to all 
that went on around him but could only respond by nodding and shaking his 
head. One day his pastor received word that the elder was dying and went to 
the nursing home to see him. The elder's eyes were closed and he seemed 
unaware of his visitor. As the pastor held the man's feeble hand, he wondered 
how to give him some special gift that might bring comfort to his last hours. 
Quietly he repeated the 23rd Psalm. Instantly, the man's eyes opened wide. 
Tears flowed down his cheeks as his eyes expressed the gratitude his voice 
could not utter. The pastor offered the Hebrew benediction, "The Lord bless 
you and keep you ...." and left. Just a few days later, the Shepherd Psalm 
was sung at the elder's funeral service.


1 JOHN 3:16-24.   Scholars have had difficulty with this passage, not so much 
because it appears to jump from subject to subject, but because the Greek 
text can be variously read. Throughout the letter, the author's purpose is to 
establish his audience in very practical Christian living, not to engage them 
in theological controversy. In doing so, he appears to have both Jesus' 
commands about agapé/love in John 15 and Paul's view of justification in 
Romans 5:1-5 very much in mind. 

This relationship to the Johannine and Pauline texts forms a strong basis for 
the argument that the letter is of late date, possibly early in the 2nd 
century CE, when both Paul's letters and John's Gospel had a fairly wide 
circulation, at least in the cities of Asia Minor.

All ancient manuscripts were written in capital letters without punctuation.  
Accordingly, it is difficult to know where the appropriate divisions should 
be placed.  Versification was introduced about the 12th century CE as one 
means of doing this. Modern scholarship has tried to make these texts more 
readable in using modern punctuation, sentences and paragraphs. This reading 
appears to be taken from part of one paragraph and the whole of another two 
in most modern versions. One analysis regards the whole section as beginning 
at 2:29 and deals with the issue of the inner conflict between good and evil 
which every believer experiences.

In this passage John does not name Christ until the very end, but when he 
writes of how we know God's love for us, he cites the sacrifice of Christ 
(vs. 16a). Immediately he repeats Christ's command from John 15:12-13 that we 
love one another in a similar manner (vs. 16b).  From this thought he jumps 
to a rhetorical question about the discrepancy between those who have worldly 
wealth and those who are in need (vs. 17). This may well have been a problem 
within the Christian community to which John wrote. It certainly is in our 
day and constantly confronts us as governments reduce distribution of wealth 
by means of taxation, a social safety net and programs providing social 
justice for all.

Love, John goes on to say, must be expressed in concrete actions, not just 
pious words (vs. 18). Again, the internal conflict of this community may well 
have been evident in how they "talked the talk, but did not walk the walk." 
That kind of hypocrisy leads to guilty consciences and divine condemnation. 
Those who do not feel such guilt, John then says, can be reassured that they 
are living as God requires (vs. 19-21). One has to ask whether this is a 
valid insight. Could John have been speaking exclusively to a particular 
audience with special moral sensitivity? The real world is not always like 
that. One thinks of all the contemporary political propaganda which tries to 
put a positive spin on every policy or action which may cause public 
controversy threatening to those in power. John's caveat is that "God knows 
everything," so ultimately every hypocrisy will be found out and condemned 
(vs. 20).
	
Note that John also says that we receive whatever we ask of God because we do 
what God requires of us.  This is not justification for a 'name it and claim 
it' attitude which mistakenly dreams of God meeting our every demand.  Many 
people pray in just such a frame of mind, especially when in some personal 
crisis. Rather, this statement expresses John's conviction that Christian 
faith is best fulfilled by loving deeds in obedience to Christ's command that 
we love one another as he loved us. This is what" abiding in love" means, as 
Jesus spoke of it in John 15:9-10. This assured sense of Christ abiding in us 
comes as the gift of the Spirit.


JOHN 10:11-18.  It may be helpful to read this passage from the beginning at 
vs. 1 and then to read  Ezekiel 34 immediately after.  There seems little 
doubt that Jesus made that Old Testament passage the basis for his own 
ministry as Messiah. Another possibility is that the Apostolic Church, and 
especially the author of John's Gospel, reinterpreted the Jewish tradition in 
terms of their own experience of living in the presence of the pre-
crucifixion and post-resurrection Christ. They thus saw him as the living 
expression of the Shepherd of Israel.

There are numerous other Old Testament references to the way Yahweh, like the 
shepherds of biblical times, guided, cared for and rescued Israel, "the sheep 
of his flock." For some of these, read also Isaiah 40:11; 49:9-10; 63:14; 
Psalms 80:1; 95:7; 100:3.
	
One of the enduring images of Jesus is that of the good shepherd.  Romantic 
art and poetry, however, may well have robbed us of the truth about this 
passage. Its startlingly different view of how the shepherd performed his 
duties is the willingness of the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. 
It also challenges the traditional rabbinic attitude toward shepherds. In his 
*Jerusalem In The Time Of Jesus,* Joachim Jeremias gives four rabbinic lists 
of despised trades. Only shopkeepers, physicians, butchers, thieves and tax 
collectors ranked below shepherds on the social scale. They were regarded as 
completely untrustworthy, more likely to steal from his master than 
faithfully perform his task of caring for the sheep. Frequently shepherds 
were ostracized from their community.

Yet this reading reflects exactly how the Apostolic Church regarded Jesus as 
they had known him. They also recognized that he had not been the victim, as 
the lamb without blemish was the victim used for the Passover sacrifice. He 
fulfilled the role of sacrifice, however, by taking charge of his own life 
and death in the way he gave himself into the hands of his enemies (vss. 17-
18). This is far from the sentimental pictures of the shepherd with his flock 
of sheep and lambs we see in church art and stained glass windows. Rather, it 
is a brutally honest discernment of who Jesus is and what he had done for us.

Nonetheless, there are some elements of this image which do reflect the 
actual shepherd's life in ancient times. It was far from easy. When the 
shepherd had taken his flock far from home to feed in a good pasture, it was 
not possible to return home every night. So a rough sheepfold of stone or 
perhaps a thicket of thorn bushes was built in a safe location near the good 
pasture. There the shepherd gathered the flock for the night and then lay 
down at the gate so that no wild beasts or thieves could enter. As 
gatekeeper, the shepherd provided the necessary security. In the morning, he 
would lead the flock back to pasture calling each one by name. The walls of 
the sheepfold were not so high that a hungry wolf could not leap over them. 
In so doing, however, the intruder would cause panic among the sheep as they 
ran from danger. The danger to the shepherd was equally great. A shepherd who 
had been hired, but did not own the sheep would have greater interest in 
assuring his own safety than the safety of the flock (vss 12-13).
In John's rendition of this metaphor, Jesus goes on to interpret it almost 
allegorically. He likens his predecessors (presumably the priests and 
prophets of Israel) as "thieves and robbers." This is in keeping with John's 
penchant for describing the opposition of the Jewish authorities in 
thoroughly negative terms, thus giving rise to much subsequent Christian 
antisemitism. At the same time, John puts into this allegory three sayings 
that have been common preaching texts for generations as well as theological 
statements of profound significance: "I came that they may have life, and 
have it abundantly" (vs. 10b); "the good shepherd lays down his life for the 
sheep" (vs. 11b); and the thoroughly universalist, "I have other sheep which 
are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my 
voice. So that there will be one flock, one shepherd." 

                                              
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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