4th Sunday of Easter

April 13, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 23
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 2:19-25 or Acts 2:42-47
Reading 4: 
John 10:1-10
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Once again the intertwining themes of the individual in community, and the proper shepherding of that community engage us in the texts for this fourth Sunday of Easter. (For additional detailed exegetical analysis of these texts verse by verse, please use the link to 2002 to study Ron Farmer’s careful discussion of these passages.)

Psalm 23
The psalter proclaims God as shepherd in just the two words, Yahweh roi. Our intense involvements interpreting the decidedly individualistic-sounding Psalm, and our efforts to ground it in the community life of Israel, all seem to derive from having to add one definite article, a verb to be, and a personal pronoun to create a proper sentence in a western language: TheLORD is my shepherd.

Perhaps the full bearing of the beloved opening of the psalm comes across most strongly when we just reiterate the two words by themselves, or perhaps as families have chosen the hyphen to represent their unity, when we hyphenate the name itself: Yahweh-shepherd

In that way, we are making the clearest, boldest assertion about the nature of God without privatizing our claim on the deity or disassociating ourselves from the context of the community, which makes appearance later in verse 6 where a house appears as a gathering point like the Temple itself.

Acts 2: 42-47
Most historical treatments of the origins of a particular community life disclose disagreements amidst the presumed unity of purpose. Recent documentary work on the life on John Adams, for instance, continues to disclose his near disruptive impatience with those from the southern colonies who stood for support of King George of England long after he came to realize that suffering abuse was not going to bring about political equality or economic justice for the Bostonians.

Similarly, here we have a testament to the unity of the life of the apostolic community. It creates an image of the ideal of communalism in the faith community, perhaps with a higher view of at least “redeemed human nature,” that each shares as each has need. That provides the Church a sustaining, guiding and perhaps transcending image in times when our strife seems greater than our ability to see one another as brothers and sisters in a greater kingdom. The apostles give guidance through their servanthood. The result is the new strategy of shekinah and awe! There is Glory manifest in the community, and awe is the proper response.

1 Peter 2:19-25 & John 10:1-10
We have from the psalter, the epistle lection, and the gospel lection a “trilogy of the function of shepherding.” From the bold affirmation in Psalm 23 that Yahweh functions as shepherd, we have the image of Jesus not just as shepherd but as “the gate” in John 10, and then household codes in 1 Peter 2  about proper conduct of those whom Jesus’ abusedness has redeemed as shepherd.

Jesus the gate
The gospel lection has a central image of the gate as an entrance or passageway both for the shepherd (verse 2) and the sheep (verse 9). It includes another of John’s “I am” statements in verse 9 – “I am the gate.”

Strong language about the thief and bandit occurs twice (verses 1 and 8). It is used to denote those with unauthorized access permissions.

I use the term “permissions” above not because the text uses it but because in some case that is going to be the contemporary cultural context from which listeners will hear the term “gate” today. If you have a congregational context with members involved in information technology, there is a good chance they are going to bring a pre-understanding of the function of the gate, which you can use to good advantage to open up the possibilities of the gospel as gate.

Typically, interpretations of this text divide between the predisposition toward exclusivity or inclusivity: either Jesus functions as gatekeeper to monitor those who would enter for some criteria of legitimacy or set of “permissions” (proper belief or doctrine), or as the gate itself, which widens to allow entry of all seekers who have a motivation to follow a different path in community with others.

In information technology, the term “gate” has been associated with an “interface,” a combination of hardware and controlling software, which either permits or denies access to some “resource” located on the “inside.” Typically called a “gateway,” it s thought of in the excluding function of keeping out those with the improper motivation of unauthorized access and malicious motivation (nicknamed “hackers”). Like the gospel’s reference to thieves and bandits, these electronic intruders literally masquerade as something they are not. They “spoof” their identities, purporting to be someone authorized. We now even have websites where anyone can “spoof” their caller ID on their phone and call you in such a way as to appear as someone you would recognize and welcome. In a parallel to the gospel’s concern, they, like the thieves and bandits, have the improper or unhealthy motivation of disrupting, if not destroying, community. They mislead those on the “inside” into sharing limited resources which they then abscond with, thereby depleting the community.

If you address this technological pre-understanding among your hearers, you may wish to point out to them that the mentality behind the use of gateways as points of inspection of suspicious activity is one of a relative lower anthropology – that human nature seeks exploitation more than healing and upbuilding.

There is a second use of “gate” and “gateway” in information technology: a gateway facilitates two-way access. It allows and encourages those on the “inside” to access many resources on the outside, while trying to protect them from malicious threats while out there. The gateway becomes the necessary vehicle for expanding and enriching community life, thus keeping it from insularity. Inside and outside are no longer explicit boundaries or choices – they flow into each other.

That second meaning of gate and gateway in today’s culture is a rich and meaningful one to explore. It doesn’t deny excluding those with malicious intent against the community, but its focus is on opening the way to see beyond ourselves and being enriched by other communities of faith and cultures.

Jesus, then, may not be the one who monitors some narrow passageway for correct entry credentials but instead the one who widens the gate to allow all others to enter who may have been victims of denial and repression among thieves and bandits who sought to demean or deplete them. Jesus as gate provides safe haven.
The woundedness that heals us
I Peter 2 draws upon the suffering servant song of Isaiah 53, culminating in the active metaphor that by or through the agency of his “stripes,” “bruises” or “wounds” you have been healed (v. 24). That image has had such a powerful influence in our culture in music and art. In Handel’s Messiah: “…he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

So, both 1 Peter 2:18-25 and George Frederic Handel are themselves interpreters of the text of Isa. 53—proclamations of faith that seek to disclose to reader-listeners in their generation the significance of that great text.

We have our own interpreters in our time as well, and among them two stand out in the process community for a most notable contribution: Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker in their Proverbs of Ashes (Beacon Press, 2001). Their interpretation, while not solely of 1 Peter 2 but certainly inclusive of its theme, alerts the church in no uncertain terms never to promulgate suffering and tolerance of abuse as an excuse to protect the abuser with the silence of the abused! This entire lection never should be heard as the excuse for continuation of the powerless to tolerate injustice and physical abuse. The church must distance herself from that morally and socially reprehensible interpretation usually offered by those in power to keep the powerless in subservience.

Brock and Parker even challenge the Church’s use of any language of violence, bloodshed, and abuse in describing the work accomplished by Jesus. If we interpret this text in the hearing of those who have been beaten, raped, or threatened by violence; if we suggest physical violence is the means God used to bring about our healing; if we (following Psalm 23: 5 and 6) prepare and invite others to a table characterized by a violated physical body and bloodshed, then we risk harming and alienating the very ones whom God seeks to heal.

So, there is indeed healing from those who have gone astray like sheep, but the shepherding needs to be that of the one who does not retaliate with further abuse! In the midst of a text with a context of implicit slavery (1 Peter 2:18), that is perhaps the enduring significance of 1 Peter 2:23 – “he did not return abuse.” Our household of faith “rules of conduct” today can maintain that theme in our text. As in the medical Hippocratic Oath, do all in your power to minimize potential harm to the very one you seek to serve by observing clean, respectful language when referring to the work of Jesus that heals us. Try to issue an invitation to the table without images that invoke physical violation and bloodshed just once, and then we will open a gate to him rather than encircle that same table with the yellow tape of a crime scene.