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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year C
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

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	
The Fourth Sunday of Easter -  Year C
     

ACTS 9:36-43             The story of Peter healing Dorcas, the disciple of
Lydda, presents the apostle in the role of continuing the ministry of
Christ. It demonstrated to the early church that Jesus was alive and still
ministering through the apostles.  This story also serves to show that
Peter, the recognized leader of the apostles, engaged in the mission to the
Gentiles. Luke describes Peter's role in detail in the next two chapters.


PSALM 23                 This best known psalm uses the metaphor of the
shepherd, so familiar in ancient times, to express the fullness of God's
protective care.  The metaphor changes to that of a gracious host in the
last two verses. 


REVELATION 7:9-17        In this vision John sees a host of faithful
Christians joining in a victory song before the throne of God.  The victory
is a spiritual one, the victory of faith in Jesus Christ and his
self-giving love over all that can seduce and contaminate the faithful
person or community.   The great ordeal through which they have come is a
grim conflict of loyalties in which a Christian may well genuinely doubt
where his/her duty lies. 


JOHN 10:22-30.           Thus far Jesus had only hinted at who he was.  Now
hecklers wanted him to declare himself openly.  He insisted that he had
already told them by his actions and they would not believe.  Only those
who recognized him as the Messiah would follow him as sheep follow a
shepherd.

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

ACTS 9:36-43   The story of Peter healing Dorcas, the disciple of Lydda,
presents the apostle in the role of continuing the ministry of the risen
Christ to demonstrate to the early church that Jesus was alive and still
ministering through the apostles.  It recalls the story of Jesus raising
the daughter of Jairus in Luke 8:41-56 just as the immediately previous
healing miracle about Aeneus (9:32-34) recalls the healing of the paralytic
in Luke 5:18-26. 
     
Hans Conzelmann points out in his *The Theology of Luke,* (Fortress Press,
1961, 177) that the story assures Luke's audience in a second generation
community that the church still has living contact with Jesus whose
presence with the apostles fulfills the commissions of Luke 24:46-49 and
Acts 1:8.  "It is the Exalted Lord who heals ...."  This became of great
significance toward the end of the 1st century.  The apostles were aging -
many who had known Jesus had already died - and the rest would soon no
longer be present to witness to their direct experience with Jesus.  How
was the church of future generations to continue the ministry of those who
had been directly appointed by Jesus?  This pericope clarifies that the
spiritual power which was in them as it had been in him will continue in
the Christian community. 

In a sense, this  affirms a true apostolic succession.  It does not depend
on the presence of the apostle, but on the members of the Christian
community.  The Spirit that functioned through the apostles would still
carry on Christ's ministry through the church.  In his new book, *The Pagan
Christ,* Canadian scholar and journalist, Tom Harpur, has taken this to its
furthest conclusion.  The Spirit of God is present in all humanity and has
been since the dawn of human self-consciousness and spirituality which
differentiate homo sapiens from our mammalian ancestors.  It is part of the
universal myth to be found in many other religious traditions, the earliest
definition of which are still visible in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic
writings.  Harpur believes that this radically new approach to spiritual
living, as distinct from a literal, historical view of spirituality and
scripture which have dominated Christian thought, will prevent the church
from being irrelevant in the present and future centuries. 
     
The story we have in this lesson also serves to show that Peter, the
recognized leader of the apostles, engaged in the mission to the Gentiles.
Luke describes Peter's role in this mission in considerable detail in the
next two chapters through to 11:18.  The way in which these stories appear
immediately after the stories of Stephen, Philip and Paul, all of which end
abruptly and inconclusively, signals that Peter, not those others, actually
initiated the Gentile mission.  Yet the main narrative from 13:1 on deals
almost exclusively with Paul.  Behind these conflicting traditions may lie
the tension within the apostolic church to which Paul refers in Galatians
2. Certainly, as G.H.C. Macgregor stated in *The Interpreter's Bible,* vol.
9, 129, "The narrative, like the story of Peter's and John's visit to
Samaria (8:14-25), reads like the account of an episcopal tour." 

On the other hand, Heinz Guenther, formerly of Emmanuel College and the
Toronto School of Theology, described the true protagonist of the whole
narrative of Acts as neither Peter or Paul, but the Holy Spirit. 
Accordingly, *The Acts of the Apostles* is a misnomer.  They are the
"helpers" who carry out "The Acts of the Spirit."  They are always
successful because in this "salvation history," created by Luke's "faith
imagination."  They function under the protection of the Spirit and nothing
can go wrong.  For Luke, the Christian faith is both creative and
productive.  He wanted to get away from the problem the second generation
had of hanging on until the Kingdom comes.  So he created the theology of
the Spirit active in the Apostolic Church to explain the delayed Parousia.
All the miracle stories and the missionary activities of the apostles
elucidated this theological viewpoint.
 

PSALM 23   This best known psalm uses the metaphor of the shepherd, so
familiar in ancient times, to express vividly the fullness of God's
protective care.  The metaphor has been a great boon to artists, pastors
and preachers ever since.  According to the Gospel authors, Jesus himself
made several memorable references to this metaphor for God found also in
many OT passages. 

Near the reconstructed ruins of the great theatre in Caesarea Maritima, on
the west coast of Israel, one can still see a small statue of a shepherd
with a lamb across his shoulders.  It has been badly battered, but one
cannot tell whether this was deliberately done or the result of an accident
of history.  One wants to imagine that it was a Christian symbol of the
Good Shepherd destroyed during the persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd
centuries or the Islamic invasions of the 7th century.  It could just as
likely have been an idol of some pagan god cast in the same providential
role as Israel regarded Yahweh. 

The metaphor changes to that of a gracious banquet host in the last two
verses.  This metaphor may have had a messianic reference.  From earliest
times, religious festivals included feasting.  Sacrifices offered in
temples were, in fact, meals offered to and consumed in fellowship with the
deity.  This became an important element of the liturgical tradition in
Israel and well as having its social counterpart in  weddings and other
family celebrations.  The practice of welcoming strangers, fugitives and
even enemies with a feast was a significant feature of Middle Eastern
culture.  According to the gospel narratives Jesus drew on such cultural
practices in a number of his well-known parables and symbolic actions; e.g.
the prodigal son; the wedding at Cana; the feeding of the five thousand.
Indeed, it has been proposed by Bruce Chilton in an extensive study of
Jesus' concept of sacrifice formed the main source of his conflict with the
temple priesthood and the cause of his execution. (*The Temple in Jerusalem
and the Sacrifice of Jesus*) 

No one can now determine whether or not this or any other psalms attributed
to him by superscriptions throughout the Psalter were composed by David.
This attribution may be a part of the legend of the shepherd singer who
became Israel's great king.  It was designed to increase the national
religious tradition.  Most scholars agree that this is highly unlikely that
David authored this or any other psalm.  Though 73 of the 150 psalms carry
a Davidic superscription, these were not added until the Hellenistic period
(4th to 2nd centuries BCE).  It is futile, as some literalist interpreters
have ambitiously attempted to do, to fit different psalms such as this one
into different periods of David's life.  These so-called "Psalms of David"
do no more than indicate that behind the final collection of the Psalter as
we now have it lay earlier collections which contributed to the complicated
history of psalmody in Israel.


REVELATION 7:9-17   In this vision Full of weighty metaphors, John sees a
host of faithful Christians joining in a victory song before the throne of
God.  The victory is a spiritual one, the victory of faith in Jesus Christ
and his self-giving love over all that can seduce and contaminate the
faithful person or community. 

In most translations, the word *soteria* in vs.10 is translated as
"salvation."  Professor George Caird translated it as "Victory."  While
acknowledging the common translation throughout the NT, he claims that is
not the sense in which John used the word here.  The martyrs were not
celebrating their salvation which had been achieved long since.  First, the
vicarious death of Christ, who loved them and released them from their sins
by his own life-blood had done this.  Then by faith they had accepted his
redeeming love and the baptism which sealed their faith and made them
members of the redeemed and priestly community.  Now, before the heavenly
throne with Christ, symbolized by the Lamb, they celebrated their
triumphant passage through persecution. (G.B. Caird. *The Revelation of St.
John the Divine.* Black's New Testament Commentary. London: Adam & Charles
Black, 1966. 100-101.)
     
Caird goes on to point out that in the Septuagint *sozein* and *soteria*
normally translate the Hebrew verb *yasha* and its cognate nouns.  Besides
meaning "to save," (*yasha*) means 'to give victory to' or 'to win a
victory.'  It could be that both of these ideas are present in the martyrs'
shout of triumph.  Primarily, however, they are conquerors, to whom the
promise was made that they should share both the conquest and the throne of
Christ (3:21).  They attribute their victory to Christ who fully revealed
his power to conquer in the cross.  But the victory of Christ is also the
victory of God over all the powers of evil which compete with him for
possession of creation.

The great ordeal through which the martyrs have come is a grim conflict of
loyalties in which a Christian may well genuinely doubt where his/her duty
lies.  This was as real a danger for the church members to whom John was
writing at the end of the 1st century as it is for us at the beginning of
the 21st century.  The tragedy may be that so many of us do not realize how
our loyalties are being tested every day as we seek to live in two cultures
- the one characterized by Christian mora and spiritual values and the one
which attempts to maintain the comfortable materialistic values of the
world.


JOHN 10:22-30   Thus far, John tells us, Jesus is accused of having only
hinted at who he is.  Now the hecklers who followed his every move so they
could entrap him wanted him to declare himself openly.  He insisted that he
had already told them by his actions and they would not believe.  Only
those who were capable of recognizing him as the true Messiah would follow
him as a flock follows its shepherd.

John's description of the time and place of this confrontation deserve some
attention.  The festival of the Dedication is celebrated today as Hanukkah,
or the Festival of Lights, which occurs on the 25th of the Hebrew month,
Chislev, somewhere near our Christmas.  Its origin lies in the rededication
of the temple after the Maccabean Revolt of 165 BCE.  According to the
Jewish legend, when the temple was purified, only  one cruse of unpolluted
ritual oil was found intact.  It contained only enough oil to last a single
day.  By a miracle the contents that little cruse lasted for the full eight
days of the rededication period until new oil could be prepared according
to the correct ritual formula. 

William Barclay speculated that this confrontation between Jesus and his
opponents must have occurred close to the time when the lamps in the temple
and in all Jewish homes were being lighted for the festive commemoration of
this miracle.  He also suggested that it may have been close to the time
when Jesus declared himself to be "the light of the world."  After the
destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the festival celebrations took place
entirely within the home as is commonly done to this day.

The portico in which this incident took place was a columned and roofed
area which enclosed the temple precincts.  Some models or drawings of the
temple show columns on all four sides.  In most reconstructions, the name
Solomon's Portico is generally reserved for the eastern side only.  It was
breached by the Shushan or Beautiful Gate which gave general access from
the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount and the Court of the Gentiles.  The
portico on the north side was named the Royal Porch.  Barclay states that
the columns which held up the roof were magnificent pillars almost forty
feet high.  People walked there to pray and meditate.  There too rabbis
strolled as they talked to their disciples (not necessarily students) and
expounded their particular doctrines and interpretations of the traditional
faith. (*Daily Bible Readings. The Gospel of John, volume 2, 83*)  All of
these details give the story unmistakable messianic undertones.  In another
study of Jesus' confrontation with the temple authorities.  Jesus has been
described as a rabbi with a special interpretation of the tradition about
sacrifice which thrust him into a messianic role he reluctantly and only
late in his ministry accepted. (Bruce Chilton, of The Center for
Progressive Christianity, Bard College, Annandale-on-the-Hudson, NY.)
According to Chilton, Jesus believed that every Jew should have the right
to present his own sacrifice directly on the altar rather than purchasing a
properly sanctioned sacrificial beast from the authorized supply controlled
by the temple priesthood.

The narrative includes the corroborating data that "it was winter."  Such
details seem to suggest that the story comes from an eyewitness.  If it was
the apostle John whose account of this incident is reported here, he
certainly would have been aware of this location and the message Jesus
delivered to his disciples.  The content of Jesus' conversation with his
opponents is a continuation of the teaching in 10:1-18 in which another
messianic declaration, "I am the good shepherd," is the central focus.
Typical of John's sub-plot of a continuing controversy with the Jewish
authorities, he has Jesus confirm the difference between those who believe
and follow him, and those who don't.  Obviously John was writing this to
exhort his own community at the end of the 1st century to remain faithful
under duress, a theme which is extensively elaborated in the Book of
Revelation.

The issue remains: How are we to maintain our loyalty to Christ when
everyone and everything around us denies that for which he lived and died?
Chilton's view of Jesus' unique teaching about sacrifice may have some
relevance.  The purpose of sacrifice which Jesus emphasized was not to
placate a deity angry with us because of our sinful behavior, but to have
the intimate fellowship of a festive meal with the deity.  Sacrifice did
nothing to make the worshiper pure and so worthy to be in God's presence.
The person who brought a sacrifice was pure already because of being
included in the divine covenant with Israel.  An intimate relationship with
God such as is the purpose of every meal became the central focus of Jesus'
view of sacrifice.  This was contrary to the contemporary priestly practice
of controlling who was pure enough to enter the temple to offer sacrifice
and what sacrifices were permitted as pure.  What is more, Jesus sought to
open the temple to all who desired to enter the presence of Israel's God.
This included not only women, but social outcasts and even the hated
Samaritans and all other Gentiles to whom the priesthood rigorously denied
all entry. 

Such universalism was anathema to the priesthood as this pericope clearly
shows.  On the other hand, the prophetic tradition did envision a time when
all nations would come to the temple of Israel to worship Yahweh.  Jesus'
contention was that this time had come and that he was the Messiah.  But
only those who followed him could understand that. 

The church still struggles with the question of who is acceptable in the
intimate fellowship with God.  Inclusiveness almost always creates
conflict.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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