Friday, April 11, 2008

Some Notes on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Mostly for Saint Matthias')

The Theme of this Sunday is “Christ the Good Shepherd”, as may be seen from the Sentence of the Day (used at Massa as the Alleluia verse before the Gospel), the Psalm, the Epistle, and above all the Gospel. The Gospels for this Sunday in all three years are from John 10 and contain Good SHpeherd sayings. In the Prayer Book lectionary, the Good Shepherd Gospel was read on the Second Sunday after Easter (i.e. the Third Sunday of Easter), as was John 10:11-16 in the old Roman Missal
First Reading: The Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47. This passage concludes the account of the first Christian preaching on the Day of Pentecost. The apostles and the Jerusalem crowd have witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter, on behalf of the apostles, has interpreted the event. Many have turned to Christ and were baptised. The chapter concludes with a summary. The first part of Acts is made up of such summaries and example stories. Our reading is the first summary; it gives us a glimpse of the very early church, of the response of the newly baptised.
What is most noticed — or at least most usually commented on — in this passage are the verses, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds [Gk them] to all, as any had need.” St John Chrysostom once declared that the reason there were no more miracles is that Christians had abandoned this standard and embraced private property. But it is not clear how long,or how strictly this was a rule, and not merely an ideal. In Acts 5, when St Peter condemned Ananias and his wife Sapphira for witholding some of the price they received for selling their land, he said, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” It was in the lie that they sinned. However, while the New Testament does not demand that we live in a commune, it does challenge us to think seriously of why God has given us what we have, and whether we might do more to address the inequalities among members of Christ’s Body.
Psalm 23, a song of trust, expressing confidence in God’s protection, is easily the most beloved of the Psalms. In the biblical text the psalms usually have titles or superscriptions which are omitted in the liturgical psalter. This is one titled “a psalm of David”; nearly half the psalms are ascribed to “the sweet pslamist of Israel” (2 Sam 23.1), though perhaps not all were originally his. The confidence of this psalm does, however, conveythe spirit of David, whom God chose “and took him away fron the sheepfolds; he brought him from following the ewes, to be a shepherd over Jacob his people and over Israel his inheritance” (Ps 78.70-71). From the Gospel passage about the Good Shepherd, Christians have naturally understood this psalm as referring to Christ. So when the Revelation to John says “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water,” it echoes verse 2 of this psalm. St Augustine put the matter simply when he wrote of this psalm, “The Church speaks to Christ: ‘The Lord feeds me, and I shall lack nothing.’”
Epistle: First Letter of Peter, 2.19-25. The 1 Peter here addresses the situation of a person unjustly afflicted with pain and suffering in order to show us the right thing to do. Some commentators say that this passage uses the shepherd-theme, but it seems to me that the appeal to look to Jesus's patient suffering is reallya use of the theme of Jesus the Lamb of God. (But we may ask ourselves whether these themes are really so far apart.)
True as it is that the first thing we should do in our own times of suffering is to remember Jesus' passion, there are difficulties here, which arise particularly when individuals afflict suffering on one another. We are by no means invited to accept passively any and all suffering. However, the verses preceding this passage show that the readers are addressed as a group within society looked on with suspicion, hatred, and even fear by their neighbours; they are advised to “maintain good conduct” so that even if they are maligned, their good works will be known. The immediate situation the writer has in mind is of the slaves of a cruel master. The pasage ends with the reminder that having been saved by Christ for righteousness, we must respond even to unjust suffering with his patience and righteousness, and reminds us that he is our Shepherd and Guardian.
[Like a sheep I must bleat from time to time. This passage contains a verse which I believe to be badly translated. The New Revised Standard Version, which we read at mass, gives verse 24 as: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” “The cross” here renders τὸ ξύλον, which means “tree, wood, timber” (compare xylophone]. This expression, which in the early Church connected the sacrifice of Jesus to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, is also used in Acts 5.30, 10:39, 13:29, and Galatians 3:13 [NRSV uses “tree” in all these passages]. In this verse the translators have explained a metaphor, as they so often do, rather than allowing us to make the connection. True, the NRSV does offer in a note the alternative, “carried up our sins in his body to the tree.” But my experience is that many people have an inexplicable tendency to skip over footnotes.]
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John, 10.1-10. In Chapter 9, Jesus has angered some pharisees by healing a blind man on the Sabbath, and added to the offence by saying, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). When they asked, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (9:40) he replied. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (9:41) Thinking themselves worthy makes them unworthy in God’s eyes.
Now Jesus uses image of the sheep-fold to make his point. Both he and his audience were had been brought up on the image of God as Shepherd of his people (cf. Ps 80.1). In Palestine, sheep roamed freely during the day but were confined to a common enclosure at night, to protect them from predators. The owners of the sheep employed a gatekeeper to see that no unauthorized person got at the sheep. Each morning, each shepherd called his own sheep, who followed him to pasture, and then brought them back at night . Throughout chapter 10 Jesus uses a number of different metaphores or titles based on this image. In today’s passage Jesus describes the true shepherd: the one who comes in by the gate, and is admitted by the gatekeeper. The sheep know him and will follow him, unlike the stranger “who climbs in by another way” (10.1-6). That the sheep “know his voice” suggests an ability of God’s people to recognize the voice of the Lord. How may we learn to recognize him for sure?
At verse 7 he describes himself not as the shepherd, or even the gatekeeper, but as the “door of the sheep” (cf. John 14.6: “I am the way, and the truth and the life”).Through the door the sheep find pasture and safety (they “go in and out and find pasture”). Jesus has come that we may have life abundantly. The “strangers” are thieves and brigands. By speaking of those who came before him, he may mean those who had claimed to be the Messiah; the response of the audience at v. 31, however, might more readily suggest that they took his words as condemning the whole religious establishment.
At verse 11 [note that 10.11-18 is the passage to be read next year] he shifts the metaphor and says “I am the Good Shepherd”. Here the contrast is not with thieves and robbers, but with the hireling, who cares nothing for the sheep. The good shepherd lays down his life for them. In Year C, 10.22-30 is read, shifting the metaphor back to the claim that Jesus’ sheep are those who hear his voice and know him.
The changing of the title sand metaphors in this passage is ijnteresting. As we hear the gospel we should bear in mind the complexity of the images of Jesus as at once Good Shepherd and Lamb of God, Priest and Victim, Suffering Servant and Victorious Saviour.
To end, here is a flippant little tale from some centuries back that was told as a warning against teaching the Scriptures too literally. I have modernized the story somewhat.

from A Hundred Merry Tales, ca. 1525
A certain confessor in the holy time of Lent, enjoined his penitent to say daily for his penance this prayer: Agnus Dei miserere mei, which explained was as much as to say in English “The Lamb of God have mercy upon me”. This penitent accepted his penance and departed.
At the same time twelve months later he came again to be confessed by the same priest, who demanded of him whether he had kept up the penance he had enjoined him the year before. The pentient said, “Yes, Sir, I thank God I have fulfilled it. For every morning I have said, “The Sheep of God have mercy upon me.”
The confessor said to him, “No! I told you to say, Agnus Dei miserere mei, that is, the Lamb of God have mercy upon me.”
“Yes, Sir,” said the penitent, “what you say is true. But that was last year. Now it is a twelvemonth later, and it is a sheep by this time. So now I have to say, the Sheep of God have mercy upon me.”
By this tale you may perceive, that if holy scripture be expounded to the lay people only in the literal sense, peradventure it shall do little good.

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