This Sunday is "Good Shepherd Sunday", as you'll guess from the texts for the day.
Acts 4:5-12. This is Peter on steroids! It's a bit like a Russian dissident lecturing Putin and the Politburo! The Sanhedrin is the Council of the Jews, but let me "unpack" that a little for you.
"Sanhedrin" is actually an English rendering of the Greek word for the Council: "synedrion" 'seated together'. It was a large group-did I read seventy-one somewhere? It was made up of three political/theological groups plus some others:
1) Sadducees. They were wealthy aristocrats. Many of the priests of the temple were Sadducees. It might strike us as odd that priests would be wealthy aristocrats, but remember that Israel at the time was, if left to its own devices, a theocracy. The Sadducees, whether they were priests or not, held considerable power within the nation, but they shared their power with the Herods, the "royal family" of Israel at the time. We know that the Herods were tyrannical; they were not above murdering their own children if that's what it took to hold onto power. However, anyone who held power in Israel did so at the pleasure of the Romans, so they did whatever they could to not annoy the Romans, i.e., they were collaborators. Simply put, they were the party of the elite.
Their theology was interesting, too. They believed in neither angels nor resurrection, and as far as they were concerned, the Messianic Era had already begun-a century or so previous, at the time of the Maccabees (we don't have time to get into that).
2) Pharisees. Some would describe them as "fanatics" for the Law. At the very least, the Law was central for them, and they lived by it more consistently than the Sadducees did. As lay people, they were (as opposed to the Sadducees) a party of the people. They believed in angels and resurrection, and they believed that the Messiah was yet to come.
3) Scribes. Some treat them as lawyers, which they probably were not, at least not in the sense that we mean "lawyer" nowadays. They were more like "experts in the Law". Perhaps we'd be closer if we called them "biblical experts". That interest made them natural allies with the Pharisees.
The immediately preceding context for this reading is that Peter has healed a man who was lame from birth. Peter would be upset with me for saying that HE did the healing; as you can see, he'd prefer that I say that GOD USED HIM to heal the man "by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth". Now he's before the Sanhedrin-the very same body which tried and condemned Jesus, so you don't want to mess with them-and they've just asked him the same sort of "authority" question they used to ask Jesus: "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Their question is about authority; Peter's answer starts there, but quickly moves to resurrection, which is arguably the most important concept of Christianity-and certainly a point on which the early church would have insisted.
Peter is no longer tongue-tied; he's now experiencing exactly what Jesus had promised the disciples long before: "So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." (Lk. 21.14-15) He's also arguing in the style of the time: from the specific to the general. He's arguing from himself to Jesus, from healing to salvation, and from the dead, but now risen, Jesus to resurrection. He's split the Sanhedrin-Sadducees, who will argue against resurrection, from the Pharisees, who will argue for it.
This is the very same Peter who denied Jesus three times as Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin. Now, here he is, before the Sanhedrin arguing for the self-same Jesus he'd denied!
Psalm 23. As we've said before, this psalm must be the best-known psalm of Judaism/Christianity. I, personally, learned it by heart in Sunday School when I was seven. What about you?
It's also a psalm of comfort. It's used in all kinds of pastoral situations, e.g., prayers for the sick, prayers for the dying, and funeral liturgies. I know there are a half dozen other psalms of comfort, but this one seems to be central.
So, the question is, "What about it is comforting?" And that's where we have to talk about shepherds. Remember that the people of Israel were largely rural when this psalm was written-and at the time of Jesus-so they'd be familiar with agriculture and with shepherds, and it would be a good illustration for them.
Theoretically, anyone could be a shepherd, but a good shepherd? That's another story. Just for starters, a shepherd has to know a lot about sheep and what they need. There are all kinds of illnesses and injuries you have to look for. You have to know where to find water for them to drink and pasturage for them. You have to know the natural enemies of sheep and be prepared to defend them. You also have to be ready to protect them from sheep-stealers. You have to be alert for dangers of the environment itself. You have to be strong enough to defend them; it's all well and good to know of the dangers, but if you're not able to do anything about them, what's the point?
Now, all kinds of people can have that kind of head-knowledge, but only a few people are prepared to LOVE the sheep. Many might have the knowledge and the strength, but at the first sign of danger, they're out of there! Love for the sheep can enable all kinds of things which a good shepherd needs to do well for the sheep.
And all of this is to get us to the point. In the ancient world, people used to refer to the king as a shepherd, but if the king doesn't love the people, what good is that? He's like the "hireling", who's in it for the pay cheque. At the first sign of danger, he's gone-or even worse, he's never there for them in the first place.
There's one king we've pointedly ignored up to this point: God, the Lord-and that's where the psalm begins. "The LORD is my shepherd." And here we are, arguing from the specific to the general again. With God as our shepherd, we have no needs/wants; they're all taken care of.
For example, "He makes me lie down in green pastures." Lying down in the wild is the ultimate act of trust. Lying down and sleeping makes you very vulnerable, so doing it means you trust the situation enough to let your guard down; you know you're being protected. Furthermore, the pastures are green. There's green succulent grass for your nourishment.
"… [H]e leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul." You know how refreshing a simple thing like a drink of water can be, and the waters to which the shepherd takes us are still and safe. No need to lean over a raging torrent to get a drink. "… he restores my soul." Actually, the word "soul" here is a little misleading. "Soul" is more of a Greek concept than Hebrew. The Hebrew word "nefesh" is what's in the original of the psalm. Nefesh is more like 'breath of life'. It's as tangible as a breath, not a relatively intellectual concept like "soul". So, "he restores my soul" means something more like 'he brings me back to life.' That's really in the air for us in the post-Easter season: resurrection.
"He leads me in right paths for his name's sake." Right paths are the ones where you're safe, where life will go well for you, where there'll be food and water and a safe place to sleep. But "right paths" are even more than that; they're the places and situations in life where you're safe, where you'll thrive. "… for his name's sake." A person's "name" is their reputation. For the sake of her/his reputation, a shepherd does a good job. Otherwise, her/his name is mud.
"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me …." "Darkest valley" may be more accurate than "valley of the shadow of death". There are all kinds of danger out there; death is only one of them. In a dark valley, who knows what's lurking? And in the DARKEST valley? Well, none of that with OUR shepherd around.
"Your rod and your staff-they comfort me." The ROD is for protection; it's more like a cudgel than a rod. And the STAFF is for guidance. Just a little tap goes a long way.
Up to this point, the shepherd has been a SHEPHERD. Now, all of a sudden, the shepherd is a HOST, but THIS host is more like a patron in Mediterranean society, a person whom you serve as a client-and you honour them by doing it-but also a person who honours YOU by vindicating you. And that's what "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" is all about. Your "enemies" are people who can kill you-in more than just the bodily way-and your patron not only protects you, but honours you by inviting you to dinner-right where your enemies can see it. Now your goodness is in the open for all to see.
But it doesn't stop with just dinner. "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." Actually, the Hebrew verb is _dishen_, and it has nothing to do with ANOINTING; it refers to LUXURIANT POURING of oil on the head. So, this verse refers to all of the things which make for a happy life: plenty to eat, hair well rubbed with olive oil, and an overflowing cup of wine. Does it get any better than that?
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." Whether God is shepherd or host, this is the sum and substance of it. What God does for us is give us "shalom", deep, fundamental wellbeing-security and harmony with God.
1 John 3:16-24. We just spoke of how important it is for a shepherd to love the sheep, and we said that's what God-in Jesus-does for us, and that's exactly how the reading opens: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us." But just as we're getting ready to bask in that, we're faced with a challenge. John argues from specific to general; just as Jesus did that for us, we ought to do that for others.
The rest of the reading is a set of examples of how that would manifest itself.
- Love is serious business, so serious that it might mean sacrificing one's life for the sake of it. One way of sacrificing might be to share what we have with others.
2) Love is tangible. It's more than just a feeling; it's action. It's treating others with love.
One of the manifestations of love is TRUTH, but that's not truth as in 'factual correctness'. It's truth as in 'I'll be true to you,' i.e., I'll be faithful to you. Truth is mentioned ninety-three times in the New Testament, twenty-one of them in John's gospel, and sixteen of them in the letters of John. That's over a third of all the references in the New Testament. I think it's safe to say that truth is a big deal for John.
So how does truth manifest itself in our relationships with others? In acts of love. Again, love is very important in the New Testament. It comes up 228 times, seventy-two of them in John's gospel and letters-again, about a third. It's no wonder that some refer to John's gospel as "the gospel of love". Love/truth is "consistent and reliable adherence to the standards of the Law" (Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1022). If we live otherwise, our hearts "condemn" us (see vs. 19 and 21); we're living in sin. By living our lives in love/truth, we abide in Jesus, and all of this is the work of the Spirit (see Gal. 5 regarding the fruit of the Spirit; what's the first one?).
John 10:11-18. By the time we've gotten here, we've said a lot of what needs to be said; we've already said a lot about what a good shepherd is and does. So, here it is, laid out for us. Yet there's more to be said.
This is one of the "I am" sayings in John's gospel; Gk. _ego eimi_. "I am" is the name of God. Go back to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. Here, God commissions Moses to go to Pharaoh and begin the process of leading the people of God to freedom. As so often happens, the one who is sent tries to wriggle out of it, and that's just what Moses does (read Exodus 3). For example, he says, "If I were to go, who would I even say sent me?" and God says, "'I am who I am.' He said further, 'Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I am has sent me to you.""' I AM is the name of God. So, Jesus conveys his divine nature with "I am." "I am the good shepherd."
We've summed up the nature of a good shepherd with the notion of love, in this case a love which is so great that Jesus LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE for the sheep. It's important in John's gospel that this act is Jesus' own; HE LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE, it's not taken from him. Jesus lays down his life FOR US. It's an act of ATONEMENT. Atonement is at-one-ment. Because Jesus does this FOR US, we're at one with him, and he's at one with the Father.
This act of atonement isn't just for us. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." (v. 16) This act of atonement is for everyone in the whole world. It's inclusive. It includes men and women, Jews and Gentiles, all races, all cultures. Everyone.
Psalm 23.1 "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
John 10.11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
1 John 3.16 16 "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another."
Thank you, Lord.