A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018
(Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18)
Psalm 23 is surely one of the best known and loved of all David’s poems. How many of us know by heart these most memorable of words: ‘The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.’ It is a beautiful image arising, no doubt, out of the imagination and prayers of this young man who would rise from leading his father’s sheep to leading Israel. The shepherd of sheep becomes the shepherd of his nation.
Yet this poem is not about David. It is about the LORD. David makes his claims on behalf of God in this song. Under his shepherd, David ‘wants’ for nothing. The ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ God leads him to are a source of rest and restoration. Even the valley of death, so well known to this warrior, is a place free from fear. How? The ‘rod’, ‘staff’, and presence of God are his comfort. Even when multiple enemies surround, David can celebrate the anointing and abundant generosity of God. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6).
His is a poem of complete trust.
Our gospel reading sees Jesus take up this very image of the shepherd as his own: ‘I am the good shepherd’. It is one of a number of ‘I am’ statements in the Gospel of John. Each of these echo the self revelation of God to Moses at the burning bush. There the one whose people are Egypt’s slaves is revealed as the ‘I am’.
In a culture where identity is found in the listing of ancestors this title is revealing. There is no reference to another. This one simply is. It should recall to the reader’s memory the first words of this unique gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). Here is a not-so-veiled claim to deity.
Of course, there are also strong echoes in this passage of our Psalm. There this shepherd language is also used of the LORD (YHWH; ‘I am’). The self-revealed God is the shepherd who leads this sheep to safety. In our gospel reading, Jesus claims this role for himself. He is the shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. It is a clear reference to the cross upon which Jesus died for us.
Through this shepherd image, Jesus highlights one particular aspect of his coming sacrifice. He is committed to us, his sheep. As our parable unfolds we see the declaration that Jesus is no hired hand. His is a costly commitment to our good. Unlike other leaders, when danger comes Jesus is not one to run in self-preservation. Rather, as is shown in the easter account, Jesus stands between the danger and us. He takes the attack if only we would trust him enough to rest behind him. Jesus concludes this parable by referring to ‘other sheep’ (John 10:16) and his decision to ‘lay down my life of my own accord’ (John 10:18). His is a world-wide call birthed in the heart of God.
Later John wrote in his first letter that this revelation of God is the very source of our understanding of ‘love’: ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…’. Love is redefined in the event of Easter as we capture a glimpse in Jesus’ sacrifice of the heart of God toward us. Love is no longer a fuzzy feeling. It is not ‘word or talk’. Rather, it is found in our imitation of the death of Jesus. It is costly action on behalf of another. Love is ‘deed and truth’. No wonder we are urged when we see a brother or sister ‘in need’ never to close our heart against him. After all, in Jesus we see the open heart of God toward us. How unthinkable is it for us to close and protect ourselves from others while claiming to worship the God who ‘opens’ and ‘shields’ so generously?
It is as we learn to love like this that we come to ‘know that we are of the truth’. There is a spiral of knowing happening in this text. First, Jesus shows us what love is. Second, we imitate this costly love in the world. Third, as we obey in this way our hearts develop a ‘confidence before God’. Finally, we find ourselves ‘abiding in God’ and God in us. This is the Spirit’s witness to our hearts. I prefer this image of a spiral than a circle with a beginning and end. The Spirit’s witness to our hearts is not an end in itself. Rather the Spirit calls us into deeper contemplation of Jesus’ Easter sacrifice, a deeper imitation and obedience, and a deeper confidence. We are invited here to a life of ever deepening abiding in Christ.
Perhaps today we can hold the account of Peter and John being hauled before the Jewish elders as an example of this spiral. They are inspired by the recent act of love by Jesus on the cross. They imitate the love they have witnessed in the healing of the lame beggar. The healing draws a crowd and they boldly proclaim forgiveness to those behind the crucifixion. In doing so they are arrested and ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ to the point that they proclaim what they have seen before the ‘…rulers and elders and scribes…’.
Maybe I am stretching the connection between the passages. I pray that you would at least be open to seeing that Peter and John re-learn what love is from the crucifixion of Jesus. As they imitate and obey this costly love their confidence before God grows and extends their abiding in God through the Holy Spirit. Here they are caught up in the spiral of learning to love the God who first loved them.
The pinnacle of their testimony before those who orchestrated Jesus brutal crucifixion is the offer to know this salvation for themselves: ‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’.
I pray that not only Peter and John’s hearers took this invitation to heart. I pray that we too would dare to trust Jesus and learn the only way of love that leads us to salvation.