Readings: Psalm 23 and Acts 2: 42-47
`Dear Theophilus, Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message. And so, Your Excellency, because I have studied carefully all these things from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.` (Luke 1:1-4)
This is the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke. Here is the conclusion: `For two years Paul lived in a place he rented for himself (in Rome) and there he welcomed all who came to see him. He preached about the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and freedom.` (Acts 28:30)
We know that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are one book. Those who formed the NT as we now have it decided to collect all the Gospels together. They decided not to place Luke/Acts last because the Gospel of John was markedly different in its themes and theology from Matthew, Mark and Luke. So Luke`s work was split and the Acts of the Apostles was placed, in the NT canon, after the Gospel of John.
This morning I want to dwell on two things, Psalm 23 and Luke`s `careful study` and telling of `the full truth about everything which (we) have been taught`. I believe the choice of these two biblical texts this morning, a few weeks after Easter Sunday, is brilliant.
Let`s take a closer look at Ps 23. `The Lord is my Shepherd.` These words are almost like a creedal statement, like, `I believe in One God` (in Latin, Credo in Unum Deum`). The Lord is my shepherd. In the whole of the ancient Middle East, the title shepherd was a royal metaphor, an attribute of a king. It is also a communal metaphor, `we are his people, the sheep of his flock` (Ps 100). Moreover, it is an intensely personal metaphor. Here in Ps 23 is the personal dimension of Israel`s faith - a personal dimension stated clearly in the Pentateuch, `Listen Israel, there is no Lord but the Lord our God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all the love of your heart, and with your whole soul and with all your strength` (Deut 6:4-5). God the Creator, the Mystery that launched the cosmos, also cares for and shepherds the individual.
Psalm 23 is the quintessential song, the prototype of all love songs. It is the most loved and prayed Psalm. When we take this song to heart, we know that in the midst of the struggles of our personal lives we have been carried in the bosom of God, protected and given rest. Therefore, it is not only for individuals, it is also for our group, our community. We can and must pray this together as much as in the privacy of our own home.
One translation of the first line is `The Lord is my Shepherd how can I lack anything?` The point is that the verb here `to lack` or `to want` has no object. Nothing is lacking to the individual or the group that trusts the Good Shepherd. A Christian interpretation of this psalm leads us directly to Jesus. Psalm 23 declares, `surely goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life`; today`s Gospel declares, `I have come so that you may have life - life in all its fullness`. In Psalm 23, the images, or better, the fruits of a life that is not lacking, are `rest for me in green pastures`, `leading me to peaceful waters`. The biblical understanding of `rest` is much more than bodily repose. `Rest` conveys `protection` - the `Shepherd` provides the environment in which life flourishes. And lastly, our beloved Psalm 23 gives us a God who is both Shepherd and Host, `you spread a banquet for me`. It tells us of the buoyant trustworthiness of God in every circumstance, `even though I walk through the darkest valley … you are with me`.
In John`s post-resurrection story of the coming of Jesus to the fearful apostles, (John 20:19 ff.), the first gift he gave them was peace, `Peace be with you.` Then he said, `As the father has sent me so I send you`. We may ask, `Where is Jesus sending the apostles?` It seems he is sending them (us) to all the similar places, in our own times and in our own places, that Jesus went, in his own time and his own place. That is, to marginal places like Galilee, to the poor, the outsiders, the sick and all kinds of vulnerable people. By themselves these tasks set by Jesus would be impossible, so he gave them two further gifts. `He breathed on them and said, `Receive the Holy Spirit`.` The Risen Christ knew that without this kind of companionship our way would be impossible to maintain. And so, we ask for the Holy Spirit to come, we ask for this again and again not because the Holy Spirit does not come but because we forget, we fail to remember who we already are. In the Holy Spirit we pray constantly, lest we forget! There`s a lovely phrase in the Orthodox Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, `Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord`.
The third gift given by Jesus on this occasion is forgiveness. We cannot walk the way without forgiving others and being forgiven by others.
In the Acts of the Apostles we have Luke`s Gospel Part Two. Already in Luke`s Gospel we have, in Ch 9:51, the beginning of a long section called, Luke`s Travel Narrative or the Journey to Jerusalem. This narrative is about one-third of the whole Gospel and it is a turning point in Luke. There are two recurring images or portrayals in Luke`s Gospel: the image of `Table` and the portrayal of the `Way`. Let`s look at the `Way`.
In the Gospel, the end of Ch 9, Jesus sets out on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, `Now as the time for him to be taken up into heaven, he resolutely took the road to Jerusalem` (Luke 9: 51). In Luke Ch 24, the Risen Christ leaves his testimony, `that everything written about me in the Law, in the Prophets and in the Psalms, has to be fulfilled` (Luke 24: 44). The apostles, witnesses to Christ`s testimony, now take up the way `to all the nations, all people, all cultures to the ends of the earth. This apostolic testimony is the program for the whole Book of Acts. In doing so the attitude of the apostles had to change. They thought that Jesus the Messiah `would be the one to set Israel free`. They thought that Davidic nationalism and Jewish ethnic and religious identity would prevail over the new non-Jewish converts. The work of the Holy Spirit in Acts is to break down these attitudes. From the very start, the experience of `the way` was a pluralistic one. `There were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under the sun`. There`s a long list in Acts Ch 2. At this precise time in Judea, these foreigners had considerable political power in Jerusalem. Peter had to learn some confronting and hard lesson from the Holy Spirit even though his testimony, recorded in Acts 2 proclaimed the universality of the Spirit, `for you and your children` - the Jewish people; `for all who are distant - the gentiles; and `for those who call upon the Lord our God` - the universal call.
Luke gives a terrific global picture of the original communities-of-the-way in Jerusalem. They followed the apostolic teaching; they lived in a single Spirit of Fellowship. All things were in common, there were no poor among them; they shared the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving prayer. Luke summarises these Communities of the Way on more than one occasion in Acts. The example of their living was part of the Proclamation (Kerygma). Jesus had said to his apostles, `You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem`. It was left for others to carry the Gospel beyond Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And it has come down to us to be Christ`s witnesses in Wembley Downs, in Perth.
If today, we are to continue to take the Way of Jesus to the ends of the earth, to all kinds of people in all kinds of need, we have a lot of work to do. We must prepare ourselves. We must be skilful, competent, pluralistic, just, prayerful, loving and happy. Along with so many spiritual gifts we`ve been given is hope - and hope is the virtue of hard work. To be convincing witnesses of life, we need the kind of effective environment in which life flourishes. We need the Holy Spirit if we`re going to be this kind of witness. We must call on the Holy Spirit: `Come, Holy Spirit! Come! Make us fully aware of the grace of God within us.` We need the encouraging and corrective work of the Holy Spirit within us to break down our misguided attitudes and to steel our drooping hearts. We need that buoyant trust in a loving and protecting Good Shepherd in every circumstance, even as you and I and we together make our way through the darkest valley.