4th Sunday of Easter

May 7, 2006
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 Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:y

Simple, powerful, but familiar themes run through these texts. One problem with such familiarity is that it might breed a shallow confidence in our understanding of the texts. How many times have we heard Psalm 23? How many times have we heard about the Good Shepherd? And that part about laying down one’s life? The repetition dulls us to the power of the texts and numbs our imagination. The danger is that these themes become the elevator music of our lives. How predictable to hear Psalm 23 read at the conclusion of a funeral? Approaching the texts with fresh eyes in key.

Psalm 23 is less about death than it is about living in, or walking through, the valley of the shadow of death. It is about fear while we are in transition, and we are continually in transition. Death is not simply the end of the life of our bodies, it is the passage of each moment of experience as it fades into the next, each day as it darkens into the next. We are always moving, always walking, in the valley of the shadow of loss. Fear is often the defining quality of our journey. How do we go through this valley with confidence and hope? The Psalm envisions a future beyond the transition as one which is full of life, safety and protection. It is a welcoming future, one in which the Good Shepard will be present with us through all transitions and will be there to welcome us with open arms. We are invited to see the future as homecoming. Everything about this poem has to do with countering our fear with trust in the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd goes with us into our future. It is the ultimate statement of hope.

The John text takes the theme of Good Shepherd to a deeper level. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd goes through transitions with us, willingly. This is one way to look at Jesus’ death. We see him in the garden of Gethsemane, fearful, in anguish, asking that he not have to go through this. But he is not exempt from the valley of the shadow of death; God’s will for him--and for us--is to face the future with trust. Jesus becomes the ultimate example of trust in the face of the unknown future. He even leads the way; we follow him, knowing that, even in fear, he trusts the power of God for his future. He reminds us of the quality of trust as exemplified in Abraham and Sarah following God into an unknown future.

The 1 John text takes the theme even deeper. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Jesus, as an example of letting go in trust, becomes a model of a new community that practices letting go in trust for the good of all. The common good is served by this principle of letting go in order to receive. It is the very definition of the practice of trust. Think of the opposite, hanging on in fear of loss. “But if any one has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Hanging on in fear goes against the very nature of life and resists the power of God. Letting go in trust is a path to new life and invites God’s power.

The Acts text is a demonstration of the kind of power that is available to us if we trust the power of God. The book of Acts begins in fear and quickly turns to power. This power of God is a healing power, a life-giving power. Here we have a story of healing a lame man in chapter 3. Peter attributes this to God’s power, who he calls the Author of life. There he says, “And his name, by trust in his name, has made this (lame) man strong whom you see and know; and trust which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” The religious authorities arrest Peter and John and, in the text for this Sunday, a court scene follows where they are called to give testimony to the unacceptable healing and unauthorized use of power. Their central question is about power: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Their answer is simple: Jesus Messiah, the one that was killed and who was raised by from the dead by God. This is a resurrection power. The speech ends with a problematic verse: “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.” It’s problematic only if it is interpreted from a narrow view. If God’s power is resurrection power, and it was manifest dramatically in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and if that same power is at work in all of life, then, yes, resurrection power is the only way. “Christ” is the name of that power. Salvation and new life come not through the name “Christ,” as if had some magical power in it’s use, but through what the name names: resurrection power.

Process Theology and the Texts:

The texts make the simple case that we are all in continual transition. Life is letting go in order to receive--one moment to the next. We can be either fearful of that process, or trust the power behind it. If we hang on in fear, our lives close in on themselves, leading to death. If we let go in trust, our lives open up to new life. God’s power is a transformational power, which is another word for resurrection power. In the process perspective, God is present in every moment of our lives, giving us possibilities to maximize the intensity and harmony of our experience, and to receive our moments, our lives, into God’s own experience, then giving back to us new and relevant ways of maximizing our lives. Thus, God is present, a guide, a companion, in our moment-by-moment experience of life. Like a Good Shepherd, leading, guiding, loving.

Preaching the Texts:

One sermon idea is to take the theme of the time with the children and carry it over into the main sermon: hanging on too long. We could explore the dynamics of hanging on too long and what that does to our lives. I recently saw someone on the TV program “American Inventor” who had been working on his invention for 20 years. He spent time thinking about it, developing it. He eventually quite his job to focus exclusively on his dream. He ended up spending all his money and his next step was to live in his car, if his idea wasn’t accepted by the program to go on for further development. The problem was that his idea was silly and obviously a bad investment. The judges told him so, all of them feeling badly about rejecting his idea. They were worried what he was going to do with his life now? He was determined to keep going with the idea. He left the studio into, what seemed like, a dead future, trapped by his own desperate determination to hang on to his dream. He was encouraged to let go of the idea and move on with his life.

Many preachers have probably counseled couples who no longer love one another. They bicker and generally make their lives miserable by being together. But they are afraid of the future and hang onto the known present, simply repeating it’s deadness. What would happen if they let go of this long-dead marriage and trusted their future to God’s hands? What new possibilities might open to them?

Some people try to hang onto their youth, getting cosmetic surgery, dressing inappropriately young: too tight, too high, too medicated, too…well, you get the picture.

Many people hang on to Sunday school images of God, angry at a God who controls everything, yet allows so much hurt in the world. For many people, it’s time to move along theologically, letting go of old, childish images of God.

Look at the many things we hang onto in our lives. The preacher could talk about those people who horde and accumulate piles of things in their homes, living very cluttered lives. Or who hasn’t seen the bumper sticker “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” The Pharaohs thought they could take things with them into the next life.

The price of hanging on is to lose the immediacy of experience: we lose our lives. What would a life of trust look like? Letting go opens up new possibilities. Jesus is the example of taking that path of trust in God‘s resurrection power, God‘s transformational power.

Children and the Texts:

Theme: Hanging on too long.

I’m going to tell the story of my brother, when he was young, being fascinated by a bee that had just landed on a flower. He caught it in his hand and came running to show me. Of course he screamed when the bee stung him and immediately let it go. He learned an important lesson: there are some things you shouldn’t hang onto.

There are other examples of hanging on too long. The preacher could bring flowers to pass out to each child and ask them to hang onto the blossom tightly for  a while. Ask them: is this good for the flower? Of course not. What are some other things that we can hang on to for too long? A caterpillar? A butterfly? We could kill them if we hung onto them.

Recently on TV, I saw a man hanging onto the outer safety railing at the top of the Empire State Building. He snuck up there to parachute off it, but the police stopped him. He was just hanging on. How long should he hang on? He either had to let go and parachute down, or climb back over the fence to the police. How long do you think he could stay there, hanging on? Have you ever used the monkey bars? How long can you hang on? Not very long. Your arms get tired.

What would happen if you hung onto your mom’s leg all the time? Or your dad’s leg? That would be silly. Are there other ways we hang on too long? How about hanging on too long to anger? To a friend? To being a child? How long can we hang on to anything? Maybe everything is meant to be let go.

Name some of the things we have to let go of. How about our toys. How being 4 years old. How about our house? Our friends? Our parents? Our bodies when we get old? Wow, we will eventually have to let go of everything. Should we be afraid? It is scary sometimes. But the Bible teaches us to trust God, that even when we have to let go of things, God is there to be with us through all of our experiences of loss.

May you be aware of God’s presence as you preach. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.