May 11 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Theme: Yes, well, good luck with choosing a theme this week! I've had to reject a few ideas because they all fell somewhere on the spectrum between rudeness and blasphemy. Having complained last week that the Easter Season is passing too quickly, one look at this week's readings made me wonder if it's already over. However, reflection is a wonderful thing, and after a while some sort of link with the resurrection stories began to emerge. If Thomas' absence might be thought of as an illustration of the breakdown in fellowship caused by the death of Christ, could we not see in the resurrection stories as a whole the restoration of fellowship flowing from Christ's resurrection? So my pick for this week's theme is "The Shared Life".
Introduction. We start with one of the most challenging little passages in the New Testament. Go back a few verses and recall that in response to Peter's "Pentecost Sermon" "about three thousand persons were added" to the 120 or so believers at the start of the day. And now we are given a summary of how those 3,120 spent their time and resources, which led to daily increases in their number! Feeling challenged yet? Perhaps the second reading will make you feel better? Suffering for your faith is good for you; and we're not talking mickey-taking, scorn, or even downright hostility here. We're talking physical violence all the way up to martyrdom. And there's not a lot on offer in the gospel reading by way of soothing balm, is there? To be blunt, I'm not sure what there is in our gospel passage today. When I got to verse 6 I found myself muttering "I'm not surprised." We have to wait until the very last sentence of this week's passage to find anything that sounds like the Good News we are called to proclaim.
Background. Still struggling to keep up with the pace of the Easter season, I found myself this week going back to the question the Risen Christ first asked the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" At one level, of course, that's a pretty obvious question, an opener to get the whole encounter under way. But Jesus so often asked apparently simple questions that turned out on reflection to be far more profound, and I suspect that this one may belong to that genre. If the journey to Emmaus is, as is so often claimed, a model of the faith journey, then perhaps all us on that journey need to address that question from time to time. What are we discussing with one another as we continue the journey? When we gather for a cuppa after the service – when we gather in our Vestry meetings or AGMs – whenever we are with our fellow believers - what are we discussing? Our faith? The hope we have in Jesus Christ? How best to share that hope with others?
And so to this week. What is the link between the readings we have before us now and those we have worked through over the last three weeks? Starting with the gospel passage, in what way is that a particularly appropriate reading for the Easter Season? Well, I began with John 21 in mind (particularly as I had rather thought we might have something from that chapter somewhere in the Easter Season). That's very definitely a "resurrection appearance" chapter, of course, with at least two of the familiar elements in it. First we see the problem of recognition, and then we have another example of the Eucharistic motif we had last week. But I'm thinking particularly of verses 15 to 19, with its unmistakeably pastoral language. The threefold "re-instatement liturgy" with Peter is almost like a new and converse version of the Kyries elieson – "Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep." And taking the passage as a whole, the fact that Peter does indeed love Christ is the basis for his vocation to shepherd the flock.
But what does it mean to "shepherd the flock"? For "John" anyway, the answer to that question is to be found in chapter 10, hence the link to this week's gospel passage. But there is a fundamental problem here. In chapter 10 Jesus is addressing the hostile Pharisees, not his disciples; and in the course of his argument with them he changes his imagery sharply. Although not very explicit, in verses 1-5 he appears to place himself in the role of the shepherd, and refers to someone else as the gatekeeper who opens the gate for him. But when he meets with blank faces all round (verse 6) he tries another tack, this time describing himself as the gate; before returning much more explicitly in verse 11 to his self-identification with the good shepherd. Once we get to that verse, perhaps, we feel more comforted, more at home. I have seen a few stained glass windows depicting Christ the Good Shepherd; I can't recall ever seeing one depicting Christ the Gate!
Yet I do think these first few verses have something important to say if we will take the time to listen, and "listen" is the right word to use here, because of central importance is once again the theme of recognition. The sheep need to be able to recognise the shepherd, and they do so by recognising his voice. Similarly we need to be able to discern his voice among all the other voices with which we are bombarded today and which threaten to lead us astray.
And now to my chosen theme of "The Shared Life", about which I will have more to say when I get to our first reading. But as a general introductory comment, I think we can discern a pattern in the resurrection stories of the slow rebuilding of fellowship. Even though the stories tend to start with individuals, Mary at the tomb being the classic example, what follows is a sharing of the good news, and even (often) some sort of fellowship meal. Thomas is brought back to the fellowship; Peter, too, and when he shows an unhealthy interest in the fate awaiting the other disciple he is immediately corrected. There is to be no jealousy or rivalry in the restored fellowship. This week's passage, perhaps, is intended to underline that a shepherd is there for the entire flock, and the well-being of each sheep is only ensured if the whole flock sticks together and follows the one shepherd. The flock that grazes (eats) together, stays together. Which leads us rather nicely to our first reading.
Acts. Could this really be historically true? Personally I find it harder to believe than the resurrection stories! Maybe it was true just for a very short period of time; the beginning of chapter 6 sounds much more like human nature in action to me. The more interesting question might be, would we like it to be true? Could we live out our faith in a community of like-minded people following an agenda such as the one outlined here? And if the honest answer to that question is no – and if the number of intentional faith communities that have arisen, flourished briefly and then collapsed in acrimony over the years is anything to go by, no is the honest answer – what does this reading have to say to us this week? Should we blush with embarrassment, avert our glance and hurry on to the next reading? Perhaps the middle course is to focus on the principle of cooperation, which after all is really fellowship in action. Every time I hear one of our politicians insisting that we must build a more competitive society I want to scream: personally I want us to build a more co-operative society. One where we believe in feeding the sheep because they are hungry, not because the market demand for "sheep fodder" ensures high profits for us. In a week when our news media were full of awful images of addicts focused on their need for legal highs (the ultimate image of the death of any form of fellowship is surely the addict focused exclusively on himself/herself)), the one bright spot I found was an article in the ODT on the Food Share organisation, founded and managed by Dunedin lawyer, Deborah Manning. Begun just 18 months ago, "she and her team of mostly volunteers collect about two tonnes of good, edible food a week [from supermarkets and other retail outlets] for redistribution back into the community". I have no idea whether Ms Manning or her team are motivated by Christian belief; but I do know that what they are doing is a wonderful example of our Lord's teaching put into practice.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly through these verses. Which verse do you find the most personally challenging?
- Have you ever sold something in order to donate the proceeds to a charity? As a Christian, do you prefer to give to a Christian rather than a non-Christian charity?
- Does your local faith community collect food for distribution through a food bank or similar outlet? If not, consider suggesting it to your Vestry. If so, do you contribute regularly?
- Focus on verse 46. Do you eat your food with a glad and generous heart, pausing to remember those who do not have enough to eat?
Peter. Things get no less challenging when we come to this reading. To accept suffering is counter-cultural in our community today. If we are unwell, we must throw everything act it, take something to take away the symptoms, and in the worst case scenario bravely fight it to the bitter end. If we are injured, someone must be held accountable, and justice (code-name retaliation/vengeance) must be pursued at no matter what cost. And if we are accused of something... So when we are told of Christ that "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten", what are we to do when we are also told that he did all this "leaving [us] an example, so that [we] should follow in his footsteps"? And in case we have already forgotten the teaching of the last few weeks, the passage ends with two very clear and important verses.
Taking It Personally.
- How accepting of pain and suffering are you?
- When you feel unjustly accused of something, how do you react?
- Do you agree there is a difference between "being a doormat" and choosing not to react in kind?
- We are now about half-way through the Easter Season. Take some time to reflect on verses 24-25, lest you forget.
John. As I have already noted, it is important to remember that this teaching is primarily aimed at the Pharisees, and purports to be a continuation of the debate with them that Jesus was having in the context of the healing of the man born blind. But as seamless transitions go, this is not one of the author's finest examples; and it is not made any clearer with the rather muddled use of different images. It seems that the first few verses have in mind a sort of sheep-motel, where sheep of different flocks (owned by different people) are penned together overnight, with a keeper at the gate. When morning comes, an owner calls and his sheep respond to his voice, thereby satisfying the gatekeeper that the claimant is in fact entitled to those sheep. (Rustlers and thieves have to try their luck at climbing over the fence and grabbing a sheep or two the hard way.) So Jesus is the shepherd who calls his sheep out of the pen, leaving behind those who do not belong to him, and therefore do not recognise his voice (that is, the Pharisees). But then, when that failed to get through to them, Jesus claimed to be the gate (the means of access) through which those who enter will be saved, and may then go out to find pasture. With great respect, I'm not sure this works any better than the first part. And the reference in verse 8 to "all who came before me" being "thieves and bandits" is surely problematic. Presumable that is not intended to include the prophets up to and including John the Baptist; but to whom does it refer? False Messiahs, perhaps, or false teachers of the law, scribes and Pharisees?
Taking It Personally.
- If you understand this passage better than I do, work with your own understanding.
- I can only suggest you focus on verse 10. In what way(s) do you feel that your life is "abundant" because Christ has come to you? Give thanks.