4th Sunday of Easter

May 14, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 23
Reading 3: 
Acts 4:5-12 or 1 John 3:16-24
Reading 4: 
John 10:11-18
By Bruce G. Epperly

Easter Weeks 3-6
In this lectionary guide, I have focused on an interpretation of the lectionary readings in light of the inclusive, dynamic, and relational theology and spirituality characteristic of process thought. For the most part, I have focused on the meaning of the text for our time and left the historical-critical analysis to the homilist’s own personal study. There are many fine scriptural commentaries available, including the New Interpreters Bible. I have sought not only to weave together the themes of each week, but to note the common thread which runs through the May readings. (Editor's note: You may wish to read through all three of Dr. Epperly's May commentaries and the concluding "Pulling it all together" and "Final reflections" paragraphs on the May 28, 2000 page).

As you reflect on these scriptures in your own spiritual formation and for the spiritual formation of others, may you and your congregation be filled with the spirit of Christ’s resurrection.

In this postlude to the healing described in Acts 3, Peter and John respond to the challenge of the Jewish religious leaders. They proclaim that this man is healed as a result of the power of the name of Jesus Christ. The crucified one is alive and at work in the world. The Risen Christ is victorious over death and disease in all of their manifestations.

The Risen Christ, according to Peter and John, is a unique figure in world history. Although their discourse does not deny the wisdom of the prophets or the teachings of the Hebraic scriptures, Peter and John make the bold - and, for many of us - and problematic proclamation that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." This passage, along with others such as "no one comes to the Father but by the Son," has been the foundation of the Christian proclamation and mission unto the whole world. But, these passages have also, tragically, contributed to Christian exclusivism, imperialism, and intolerance. While most process preachers will deliver their sermons in liberal or mainstream churches, the question of Christian superiority is still a lively one among many of their parishioners. The homilist must ask herself or himself and the congregation, "Can we preach this passage without contributing to an intolerant Christian superiority or demeaning the spiritual paths of our neighbors from other faiths? Can we salvage this passage as a Christian affirmation in a pluralistic age?" If we are to rescue such passages as the foundations of an inclusive evangelism, we must again go beyond the impasse of exclusivism and relativism in our understanding of Christology.

For Peter and John, Christ is alive and powerful. Like Paul, they believed that Christ is the supreme revelation of the One "in whom we live, move, and have our being." Clearly, they see Christ in universal terms and so must we. Indeed, all religious traditions claim a universality for their truths. Just forty years ago Zen monks and Hindu gurus began to flood the United States with their message of spiritual formation through meditation. They realized that Westerners as well as Easterners could benefit from zazen, yoga, or transcendental meditation. Today, we must wrestle with proclamation of the universality of Christ even as we affirm the abundant diversity of divine revelation.

Today, the danger of an uncritical pluralism is the "balkanization of religious experience," that is, the return to a primitive image of gods who have power only in certain geographical or ethnic contexts. In contrast, the story of Hebraic adventure is the ongoing revelation of the reality of One God who intimately relates to all persons. Further, without some claim to universalism, we will lack any foundation for creatively confronting the serious moral, ecological, and social issues of our time. Beyond the essential relativity of our concrete experience, the spiritual and moral life yearns for the intuition of a dynamic wellspring of truth and wholeness.

Today, without denying the truths of other faiths, the preacher may choose to reflect upon the relevance of the early Logos as well as current Logos theologians such as John Cobb, who claim that "wherever truth is present, Christ is also present." In our time, Cobb describes Christ as the source of "creative transformation" in all things. In line with this scripture, the preacher might affirm that "wherever truth and healing are present, Christ is also present." Christians today need to affirm creatively the centrality of the living Christ while recognizing the spiritual significance of the living Buddha. The issue is not "all or nothing" when it comes to truth or salvation, but the recognition that faithfulness to Christ calls us to embrace truth wherever it is found. The preacher who portrays God’s love as universal in a convincing way will make a tremendous contribution not only to interfaith dialogue and appreciation but also to the formation of a lively inclusive theology, spirituality, and evangelism. In the spirit of Philippians 2:5-11, the significance of Christ is magnified when we see Christ’s presence humbly permeating and supporting the spiritual journeys of all persons in every land.

I John
Just as the Acts reading calls us to an abundant liberality in terms of the truth, the Epistle reading calls us to abundant liberality in the use of our personal resources. Many of those who will preach and hear this scripture will be convicted by its probing question: "How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" Love must be a matter of action as well as theology. Those of us in liberal and mainstream churches are often indicted by the fact that despite our perception of their narrow and exclusive theology, many evangelical churches exhibit greater personal and corporate generosity than do our churches. Orthodoxy (even of the liberal variety) finds its ultimate test in orthopraxis.

The issue of this passage involves the contrast of feelings of abundance and scarcity in our spiritual lives and stewardship of resources. It has been said that there are really only two emotions - love and fear. By definition, love issues in abundance, because love recognizes that its source is unlimited and that giving only increases one’s experience of love. On the other hand, fear lives by the bottom line and the zero-sum approach to life, which maintains that there is only a limited amount of energy, intelligence, love, and material in the world. From this perspective, generosity may be hazardous to our health since our neighbor’s gain always issues in our loss.

A process metaphysic, in contrast, sees our world as an open-system in which new energies and resources are always pouring in. While it is imperative that we practice careful stewardship of our planetary resources, it is equally clear that there are currently enough resources to benefit all of humankind. Starvation is a choice, resulting from personal and institutional scarcity thinking, revealed in inequities of distribution, dishonest governments, and failures in family planning. In the body of Christ, we are all in the same "lifeboat." Perhaps, the call to affluent North American Christians is, as the saying goes, to "live simply so that others may simply live."

John 10:11-18 (or John 10:10-18)
Once again, I would invite the preacher to transform creatively the lectionary reading. In adding verse 10, the preacher focuses on God’s aim at abundant life for all persons. God’s aim at abundance is so important that the Good Shepherd is willing to suffer on behalf of the flock. God is not aloof and unconcerned by our plight. God is in the midst of our life situation, providing the guidance we need to flourish and sharing in the pain we experience. The intimacy of the Good Shepherd’s relationship with the sheep is so great that the Shepherd will risk her or his own life for the recovery of even one lost sheep. The story is told of a man who once asked God how much he loved him. In response to his question, God showed him a cross. With Whitehead and Bonhoeffer, we can proclaim that "God is the fellow sufferer who understands" and the "only a suffering God can save."

A challenging counterpoint to exclusivistic readings of Acts 4:12 is John 10:16-17, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold." While this passage initially referred to non-Jewish followers of Jesus (Gentiles, Samaritans, and religious outcasts), today it invites Christians to recognize that God’s love embraces persons beyond the boundaries of the visible church. The call to unity in Christ is not a return to Christian imperialism, but a recognition that Christ embraces and inspires the amazing diversity of religious experience. In a time characterized by pockets of ethnic cleansing and intolerant religious fanaticism, God calls us to common cause with persons of faith from whatever tradition they come. Our affirmation of Christ as the Good Shepherd challenges us to recognize divine inspiration in our neighbor’s faith even as we proclaim the truths of our experience.

The reading from Psalm 23 continues the emphasis on divine care. Anne Lamott notes that religion is for persons who want to escape hell, while spirituality is for those who have been in hell. In the spirit of Psalm 139, Psalm 23 anchors our faith in a God whose presence illuminates the darkest night and gives comfort in the most hopeless situation. While it is not always obvious, we are in God’s hands at all times. God will not abandon any of God’s children.

Putting it all Together:
The homilist has a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the many dimensions of abundance and scarcity in our lives. In light of the image of the Good Shepherd, we can proclaim the abundance of divine resources in truth, healing, and material goods. While some live by scarcity of truth or possessions, the abundant life calls us to be bountiful channels of Christ in every aspect of our lives. In the spirit of Luther’s On Christian Liberty, we are called to be "little Christ’s," that is, ever flowing channels of the divine love that flows through us to our neighbor.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.