Readings: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18
The Psalm, and the reading from John`s gospel are very familiar. They conjure up warm and fuzzy pictures of a long-haired bloke in a dressing gown cuddling a cute little white lamb. Indeed one of my favourite children`s bedtime stories was `The Little Lost Sheep` with its repeated tag line `Don`t worry, your shepherd will find you`. The intended message from all those images is one of gentle love and care, and very appropriate too. The image it portrays is a bit difficult to reconcile with shepherding in the first century, or today for that matter.
In reality shepherds lived a harsh and sometimes dangerous life. They were personally liable for the welfare of the sheep which were grazed in small flocks over rough country. Both sheep and shepherd were subject to the dangers of exposure, wild animals and thieves. Furthermore, shepherds were not really socially acceptable, they weren`t one of us, that was the point of their inclusion in the Christmas story - all are welcome.
In many instances the shepherd was the owner or at least had a share in the flock thus ensuring commitment to the task, and John emphasises this with his comments about `hired hands` who put their own interests first, who could not be relied upon in a crisis, whereas the owner was prepared to put his life on the line.
Farming circumstances today are very different. Anticipating today`s lectionary readings and what I wanted to say, Shane Wright wrote a piece for last Monday`s West entitled `What the demise of the shepherds of old can tell us about automation.` (1) He notes that the introduction of fencing on Australian squatter properties in the last half of the 19th century saw significant changes in flock management, leading to an almost total decline in the need for shepherds. Unfortunately he did not choose to expound on the lectionary much beyond that point.
Possibly, the essential nature of flock management has not changed much between first century Palestine and now. The flock requires nutritious feed, potable water, protection from predators, maintenance of health. Then and now, achieving these things requires a high degree of commitment and without it there will be no profit and the venture will ultimately fail.
The illustration does not have the same impact for us as it did when Jesus used it. There are many people in Perth who have never seen a mob of sheep in a paddock, never mind grazing in station country. The concept of farming in the biblical manner is no longer meaningful and we have to use some imagination, but the basic concept of care remains. There is an interesting perspective in John`s story. The shepherd analogy would probably have caused the listeners to recall David the shepherd king. The historical hero who cared for his people and led them to victory over their enemies. It`s a sub theme about engaged leadership which can be interpreted as a commentary on pastoral leadership both inside and outside the church. It distinguishes between those who are engaged with the flock, concerned for its welfare, keen to achieve positive outcomes, and those `hired hands` who simply perform the task strictly within its defined parameters. This latter group do not engage, there is minimal empathy, they certainly do not rock the boat, indeed, they only ever tell you what they think you want to hear.
The implications of the sub theme are that if you really want to bring about change in the congregation, the community, the world, you have to actively engage within those spheres. Carpark meetings are brilliant vehicles for venting and spreading fake news, but only rarely do they actually achieve anything positive and they can be quite destructive. Participation is the only road - gather information, communicate, join like minded colleagues, become a delegate or candidate, march if you must.
Feel free at this point to break out into song - `can you hear the people sing . . .` I didn`t set out to draft a call to arms as such, but it does fit comfortably into the lectionary for today. Yet again John is exhorting us to `follow in the way` . Doing so is an act of free choice, it`s a personal decision to try and live life in a particular manner, to live in the character of Jesus. Like all choices it will have consequences but they are of secondary consideration. The primary attention is to the God of light and love; it`s a matter of faith not feelings. There is a bit of a rub here for us because we live in a community which is far more concerned with feelings than commitment to anything of substance.
Today is celebrated in the Catholic Church, and in some Protestant churches, as Vocation Sunday. This provides a point of focus each year on challenging congregation members to the priesthood and/or service of the church. Whilst as protestants we perceive ministry somewhat differently, the setting aside of a specific day would give us an opportunity to review our mission both as a congregation and personally. There could even be an opportunity for members to share how they are engaging with the world in all its complexities, providing another means of opening our eyes to what is being done amongst us.
John writes, `I know my sheep and my sheep know me . . `(2) He is acknowledging that there is responsibility on the part of both the leadership and those who are being led. There is a shared responsibility for the declining relevance of the church, or for its ongoing life. You cannot pin everything on `them`, we too have a constructive part to play.
The Epistle, 1 John, follows a similar theme to the Gospel in that it is an exposition on love for our fellow man - love which is expressed in action. I would put it into quite different language and say that it is about being involved, committed to our fellow human beings. This is a commitment which creates a duty, or perhaps a desire, to try to meet the needs of the world as we are able; to treat others with respect. He writes, `. . . dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.` (3) Action means actually doing something. `In truth` is an attitude, so it means doing that `something` with good grace. This really says a great deal about the manner in which we are to advance the great commission to love and to serve. The church militant and triumphant has no role to play in this scenario, quite the opposite.
In verses 22-24 there is a discussion around confidence. Following `the way` produces a spirit of self-confidence in our relationship with God. Love does not generate subservience, rather it produces people free and able to be themselves. Verse 22 . . .`and receive from him everything we ask . . .` has long been the justification for attitudes best encompassed in that old Janis Joplin favourite `O Lord won`t you buy me a Mercedes Benz`. Such a position is clearly a self-serving misinterpretation of the passage. John is not giving a forecast of material well-being, but a way of affirming the sufficiency of God and his love. He is saying we get what we need when we engage in the life of God and are doing his commandments. Those commandments, the ones which really matter are - Believe in Jesus Christ; Love one another.
Now let`s reflect on Luke`s discourse in Acts chapter 4. A pair of fishermen prepared to expound their beliefs before the religious governing council of their country. They had already had a night in jail for doing what they thought was the right thing. Now they were arraigned before a council where nepotism had free reign; a council whose definition of justice embraced whatever best suited the members current self interest, individually and collectively. Addressing these worthies was an exercise in real courage.
Picture the scene. A large room with the 71 members of the Sanhedrin seated in a semi circle on a platform elevated well above the main floor almost akin to a mezzanine floor. The persons being interrogated were embraced on three sides within a semicircle of intolerance. It was a room designed to intimidate.
We should remember that Luke wrote the story over fifty years after the event and what`s more he would have had his own objectives in mind when he finally put pen to paper. Did the event occur precisely as recorded? Does that matter? I think that the experience was such that those present would have been well able to recall the scene. It would likely have become the stuff of local legend: how Peter the fisherman stood up to the Sanhedrin. The actual words used are a different matter, the language is pretty sophisticated for a fisherman, even one subsequently described as the foundation rock of the Christian church. As is always the case when looking at texts this old it`s not the detail which matters but the intent of the story.
Luke has Peter perceive that whilst the council purports to be asking about the healing of the lame man, the Sanhedrin`s real concern was with Peter and John preaching about Jesus as having been resurrected from the dead. The question was `. . . by what power, or what name, did you do this?` (4) Peter chooses to interpret the question directly as one of power, or authority: Who authorised this act? He knew the Sanhedrin could not deny the authenticity of the healing. After all, the man was standing there amongst them, the crowd knew the man and had witnessed the miraculous event. Peter and John choose to declare that the power behind the act of healing was Jesus, the one the council had crucified.
This is all pretty dramatic stuff. It was clearly successful, because with some platitudes about not doing it again the pair were released.
They were in a very cosmopolitan environment and we can see in the overall story Peter recognising how people in other cultures have engaged with God. He recognises that God is always bigger than our experiences and our religion`s limited understandings. In 2018 our greatly increased knowledge and exposure to even more diverse cultures and their religions has allowed most of us to shrink back from global supremacy claims for our God, over the gods whom others might worship. Luke is postulating that we need to recognise God, and the spirit of God whenever and wherever God`s light shines.
Bill Loader writes:
`For some this melts into a kind of loose tolerance which in the name of harmony claims that all religions are the same. All paths lead to God. Informed by the Christian tradition such a stance is intolerable. The name, the power, the love we hail in Jesus and see as the heart of God will be the means whereby we detect the light. It is not any light. It is the light of divine love; and wherever claims are made, whether outside Christianity and within it, which cannot bear the name of Jesus, at least in the sense of reflecting his understanding of God, we must with integrity say, no. There is no salvation, no wholeness, in any other than the one whose name and ministry Jesus represents, whatever label, Christian or non-Christian, it bears. In this spirit we may find ourselves seriously distancing from some claims made about God and some religious movements, including Christian ones, which do not bring wholeness but harm. More importantly, in this spirit we will find ourselves holding hands with bearers of the true light which shone in Jesus, whatever their label or cultural or religious allegiance. This the basis for true ecumenism and the only hope if the world`s religions are going to be bearers of peace instead of conflict in our world.` (5)
I cannot close without noting that today is `Earth Day`. An international call to cherish this our planet earth, to help clean up its pollution, to advocate for a sustainable future. This too is a reflection of our regard for God, for all his creation. Love as reflected in care extends beyond the human condition, here too the light of God is shining.
1 The West Australian, 16 April 2018 Opinion - Shane Wright
2 John 10:14
3 1 John 3: 18
4 Acts 4:7
5 Prof W Loader, First Thoughts on Year B Lectionary Readings