The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
John W.B. Hill
Acts 2: 42-47;
1 Peter 2: 19-25;
John 10: 1-10
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2: 42). That is how the first reading describes the earliest community of disciples of the risen Christ. And that is the calling we accepted, in our baptismal covenant. But there is more; that first community of disciples apparently adopted, quite spontaneously, an entirely new social order and economy. Once liberated from the economy of anxiously defended personal security, they freely supported one another in love, in a shared life of adequate abundance and treasure in heaven.
According to the Gospel reading, they could do this because they trusted their shepherd. The risen Christ shapes our communal life not by compulsion but by winning our trust as he pioneers a new way of life for us.
Sheep played two important symbolic roles in the life of Israel: (a) sheep were a recurring metaphor for the people of Israel themselves (as in the Psalm); and (b) sheep were essential to the cult, as sacrificial offerings. In the synoptic versions of the gospel, we hear Jesus frequently taking up the metaphor of God’s people as sheep, but it is only in John’s version that the cultic role of sheep comes to expression:
· Jesus is ”the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29, 36);
· Jesus is slaughtered on the same day the Passover lambs are slaughtered (John 18: 28; 19:31), not on the day after, as in the synoptic accounts (Mark 14: 12; Luke 22: 7-8);
· in the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ (John 2: 15), Jesus drives out cattle and sheep (in addition to overthrowing the tables of the money changers, as recounted by the synoptics);
· John provides the only New Testament reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem (John 5: 2), the gate he refers to again in this parable (John 10: 1-6), through which animals for sacrifice were brought to the Temple.
And so, the great irony of Jesus’ parable of the shepherd is that we are invited to think of Jerusalem as the sheepfold; yet this fold is not a place of safety but a place of slaughter!
Israel’s prophets had often drawn a contrast between good shepherds and bad ones. David would be the king in whom God took delight because he had been a shepherd boy (1 Samuel 16: 11-13; 2 Samuel 5: 1). Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21: 1-4) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34) castigated the ‘shepherds’ of Israel who exploited the sheep and scattered them, and promised that, one day, God would be their shepherd. The Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah is compared to a lamb led to slaughter for the sake of the sheep who have gone astray (Isaiah 53: 6-7).
Jesus’ parable then sharpens this prophetic vision by contrasting the shepherd who enters by the gate and the false shepherds who climb in by another way (“thieves and bandits”). The true shepherd lives among the sheep, going ahead to lead them, in contrast to the false shepherds who are imposed on them (and then slaughter them!) That is how the sheep learn to trust the true shepherd, for he is one of them, not an outsider who takes advantage of them. (Compare this with the economy of major corporations today: when hiring a new CEO, they no longer raise up someone from within the company, but bring in an outsider whose job will be ensuring corporate success, not promoting the security of the employees.)
But the key to the parable is that the true shepherd shares with the sheep their fateful passage through the sheep gate! Sheep brought to Jerusalem were doomed to suffer for the sins of others, but the true shepherd shares their suffering and death, and changes for ever the meaning of their suffering and death.
This is precisely the message of the second reading. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2: 20-21). We who have been baptized into Christ’s death (who have entered the kingdom of God through ‘Jesus the gate’ (John 10: 7-10)) have been set free from the competitive and retributive norms of the secular culture. We are now free to support one another in love.
In its context, however, Peter’s message is addressed to slaves! Are slaves who follow the way of Jesus called to passively submit to abusive structures?
The earliest Christians — a tiny minority — could not yet imagine a social revolution capable of challenging the economy of slavery in the Roman Empire. Anti-slavery doctrines only began to appear in Christian theology after the decline of Rome. Even today, there are tens of millions of slaves around the world. How then can slaves possibly follow the way of Jesus?
If, as today’s second reading insists, Christ has left an example for us to follow, it is not just the example of his patience in suffering. What he suffered for was his fearless indictment of the false shepherds who exploited the sheep of God’s fold! If it is left to slaves alone to resist the evil of slavery, and they are just sent to the salt mines and replaced by newly enslaved people, the evil is only compounded. It is those of us who are not enslaved who must follow Christ’s example of resisting this evil on their behalf. This is the real meaning of “supporting one another in love”.
The Church in which we have become members by our baptism into Christ may wear the face of a tradition-bound institution, functioning in a way similar to other corporate institutions. But that is not really who we are. We trust the risen Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12: 2); this is what holds us together in the bonds of love, in a shared life of adequate abundance and treasure in heaven.
John W.B. Hill is a presbyter serving in Toronto. A Council member of APLM, he is the author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
The Good Shepherd (Original Oil Painting on Sculptural Base), by Bette Anne Wygant, available from https://www.houzz.com/photos/33335244/The-Good-Shepherd-Original-Oil-Painting-on-Sculptural-Base-contemporary-paintings
“I Am the Good Shepherd,” by Lee Hodges