Engaging the Word: 5/7/17 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter)

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 By Barbara Klugh

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. In our readings for Good Shepherd Sunday, we learn how the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and to fellowship with one another, Peter instructed his readers to rejoice in suffering for doing the right thing, and Jesus described himself as the true shepherd who is the gate for the sheep.

Good Shepherd window at St. John the Baptist’s Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Good Shepherd window at St. John the Baptist’s Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Acts 2:42-47: Most likely written by the author of Luke’s Gospel c. 85-95, The Book of Acts connects the Gospels and the Letters, the documents that form the majority of the New Testament. This week’s reading continues with the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered the people to become the first Christian community.

Peasants breaking bread. 14th century manuscript. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Peasants breaking bread. 14th cent. manuscript. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The newly baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (This probably sounds familiar, as it’s the first promise of our Baptismal Covenant.) Responding to the teachings of Jesus, all who believed shared money and possessions and attended to one another’s needs in a joyous sense of community. They continued to be devout Jews and “spent much time together in the temple” and, as followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians “broke bread at home” (Luke’s expression for the Eucharist), establishing a new way of being in community.

I found the idea of living in such a close community attractive and scary—I really want to follow Jesus, and, at the same time, I resist the totality of this vision of community. I read a few commentaries, and learned that many interpreters since the Reformation consider this passage of Acts as a utopian description of communal life, or maybe a record of the honeymoon period of Christianity, but one that was unsustainable as the church grew. So maybe we can’t return to the life of the earliest Christians, but as Christ’s disciples here in northern Michigan, we’re coming closer and closer. And I treasure our community in the joy of celebration, of doing God’s work together, and being available to one another when times are hard. That’s Grace.

  Psalm 23: In this week’s reading we have the Twenty-Third Psalm, in which David describes God as his shepherd. In the Wikipedia entry for Psalm 23, I learned about J. Douglas MacMillan. He was a minister in Scotland, a shepherd for 12 years, and wrote a book about the Twenty-Third Psalm. He maintains that the shepherd theme permeates the entire psalm. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Douglas MacMillan argues that verse 5 (“Thou preparest a table before me”) refers to the “old oriental shepherding practice” of using little raised tables to feed sheep. Similarly, “Thou anointest my head with oil” may refer to an ancient form of backliner – the oil is poured on wounds, and repels flies. MacMillan also notes that verse 6 (“Goodness and mercy shall follow me”) reminds him of two loyal sheepdogs coming behind the flock.

St. Peter by Pierre-Étienne Monnot. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Peter by Pierre-Étienne Monnot. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Peter 2:19-25: This week’s reading is addressed to household slaves who are suffering unjustly. Peter argues that enduring unjust suffering wins God’s approval, and that one should imitate Christ: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

This text was meant to provide encouragement to the faithful followers of Jesus who were suffering at the hands of the Romans. Peter reminds them that by Jesus bore our sins that we might live for righteousness. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Drystone wall and gate near Drumkeeragh forest, UK. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Drystone wall and gate near Drumkeeragh forest, UK. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John 10:1-10: In our reading this week, Jesus uses sheep and shepherd imagery to portray himself as the true shepherd (the Son of God) and gate for the sheep (God’s people), in contrast to the Pharisees who are thieves and bandits. Here is the entire reading:

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The lectionary stops there, but Jesus continues in the next verse: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And he did.

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