After a brief hiatus for Holy Week and Easter, the weekly preaching commentary returns just in time for “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are as follows:
The “Good Shepherd” stories in year B begin with Peter’s testimony post-resurrection, ascension, and descending of the Holy Spirit. They include the timeless words of Psalm 23. And pick up the theme of Christ laying down his life, and doing so willingly in 1 John 3 and John 10. Let’s take them in order and see what we see, especially as it might relate to our understanding of discipleship and stewardship.
Our first lesson from Acts 4 begins, “The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’” (Acts 4:5-12, NRSV).
Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit at this point in this week’s first lesson. And it’s with this, that he is able to respond to the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” It’s not totally dissimilar to the questions Christ faced throughout his ministry. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Peter’s questions he was asked when Jesus had been arrested, either. This time though, Peter, because of the Holy Spirit’s presence, answers with authority. He declares, “let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good healthy by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…whom God raised from the dead.”
Peter isn’t just giving God the glory for what has been done, he is confessing and professing God’s on-going work in the world of which he is grateful to be a part of. It’s a great example for all of us as disciples and stewards. The work and ministry we do is not all about us. Rather, it’s a grateful and joyful response first of all for what God has done, continues to do, and will do for us. And it’s also a part of our very lives- living out our baptismal promises through our vocations in service to our neighbors and the world. Part of that, of course, is being so caught up in joy and gratitude that we join in with God as co-creators, and as part of God’s on-going work today in the world. It’s with that mentality that we can truly grow and learn as disciples, and serve and live as stewards.
Our psalm, as it always is for Good Shepherd Sunday, is Psalm 23. Much has been written about it, and much has been written about it on this blog before. Maybe something new will catch our attention as we read these familiar words again today? The psalmist declares, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:1-6, NRSV).
In thinking about stewardship, I am always drawn to the ideas of abundance and provision that I hear and sense in Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” or depending on your preferred translation of Hebrew, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Either way, the psalmist begins with an acknowledgment that God provides and God provides enough, and/or even abundantly. The move towards larger abundance comes towards the end of this famous and relatively short psalm. “You prepare a table before me… my cup overflows.” There is more than enough with God to go around. It’s the theme that makes the story of the Feeding of the 5,000+ so memorable too. Scarcity is turned on its head towards the truth of abundance in and through God. Just as the psalmist’s cup overflows, the baskets will be filled with extra fish and bread after the thousands have been fed. And all of this is possible because of God.
God’s DNA is that of generosity, abundance, presence, and relationships. There is a relationship clearly here between us and God, as modeled by the psalmist and God. When God is with us, we are not alone. When God is with us, there is always a way forward. We may not always know what it is, but together, we’ll figure it out. Sometimes it might take awhile, like it did for the people Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years. But God, though God many times might have wanted to leave and give up, never did. The same goes for us, as we know through God in Christ the Good Shepherd. God walks with us, and does not give up on us. We are not alone. Thus, the relationships at the heart of discipleship and stewardship are possible and matter.
Our second lesson and gospel lesson take the idea of shepherd to the next level- of protection and life, even to the point of being willing to lay down one’s life for another. This act is done willingly by Christ, and that is made abundantly clear in John 10. But first, 1 John 3 sets the stage this week.
We read in the second lesson, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us” (1 John 3:16-24, NRSV).
The epistle writer reminds us of God’s work. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” It echoes Jesus’ new and greatest commandment. But it also situates our call and lives as disciples and stewards in light of response to Jesus’ example and command. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” God’s love is embodied through us. We’re called to live, grow, serve, and love through our words but also our deeds. It’s core to living out our baptismal calls and vocations. Doing so may point to signs of the Spirit at work, and may also show that our very lives in their wholeness are witness to the power, wonder, and most importantly love of our God who creates, sustains, reconciles, and lives in, through, for, and with us. That seems to be the epistle writer’s point in looking at the commandments as they relate to the abiding presence of God lived out in community with God’s people together.
The gospel lesson for this week begins with one of Jesus’ “I am” statements, and connects it to the act of what it is the good shepherd does and will do. Jesus says, “‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father’” (John 10:11-18, NRSV).
I preached as part of an ecumenical Good Friday service this year designed around the last words of Christ. I was assigned, “It is Finished,” which is Jesus’ last words before his crucifixion in the Gospel of John. In preparing to preach on those three words, I did some reading especially in Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis’ commentary on John and she reiterated the point that “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and no one takes it from him. That comes from this passage. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” John puts such an important emphasis on Jesus’ equal humanity and divinity, and that shows up in this passage. Jesus willingly lays his life down for his siblings. And we are called to do likewise.
He goes to and through the events of the cross, and he does this willingly. We know the whole story. To put it simply this is Good News. The Good Shepherd does and will do what the Good Shepherd does, for us. Just as the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one missing. God does for us. God knows you and me. God knows all of those created in God’s image, and they are each and everyone, beloved in God’s sight. In terms of discipleship and stewardship, this is God’s work and promise which we are invited and called to embody and respond to through the way we live, serve, and love. Those of us in positions of leadership, are shepherds too in our communities and among those entrusted to our care. It’s holy work, and a holy calling. It’s also a great deal of responsibility, which especially in times of this on-going pandemic, divisive politics, and the realities of racism can seem hard to daunting to near impossible at times. But it’s possible, because we are not alone. The Good Shepherd walks with us. We are not the good shepherd, but sheep which the Good Shepherd cares for, and fellow shepherds under the caring and loving eye of the one and only Good Shepherd.
Sunday April 25, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Narrative Year 3, Week 33)
Narrative Theme: Ethiopian Eunuch Baptized
Focus Passage: Acts 8:26-39
Gospel Verse: Luke 24:44-47
The narrative lectionary continues to move through Acts this week and we find ourselves with Ethiopian Eunuch who reads the scriptures, comes to believe and be baptized by Philip when stopping along the side of the road. It’s a famous story, but I wonder with our reading this week what we might sense or discern related to discipleship and stewardship in a new way in this familiar story.
The story begins. “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him” (Acts 8:26-31, NRSV).
Philip answers the Spirit’s invitation and follows the call to go and see. He’s intrigued. God is about to do something new here. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch’s response is equally faithful and wise. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The response is that of one who wants to be a disciple and to learn and to grow. It’s the sort of response we in ministry hope that everyone who is part of the faith might say or exhibit in some way. It’s inspiring. It’s honest. And it’s an invitation to be part of relationship and a deeper one at that, walking alongside and with God and God’s people. Put another way, this is accompaniment in action. Philip is showing us the way of how we are called to accompany others.
The story continues with the scripture that the eunuch had been reading. “Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth’” (Acts 8:32-33, NRSV).
What a strangely fitting passage to be reading that calls for the eunuch to ask Philip the question which will lead Philip to testify and teach about who our God and Savior is. “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:34-39, NRSV).
Philip preached and taught, sharing the Good News with the eunuch. He did the act that we all as disciples are called to do- to point to Christ and God in Christ’s life, promises, presence, and salvation. And then, as the questions emerged, the opportunity for a deeper life together emerged with the question about baptism. So by the water and the word, Philip welcomed the eunuch into the baptized life, and the eunuch for his part left that day a baptized disciple, sent to serve and point to Christ, and to live and share through joy and gratitude as a rejoicing steward created in God’s image, and beloved by God.
The Narrative recommends pairing this story with a portion of the story of Jesus’ appearance on the Road to Emmaus, where he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” just as Philip would do for the eunuch, and hopefully we all do to those entrusted to our care. We read from Luke 24, “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47, NRSV).
In whatever direction the Spirit leads, may you proclaim the Good News about God in Christ boldly, lovingly, honestly and with deep gratitude and joy. Remember, the Good Shepherd is with you always, and as you might be a shepherd to those entrusted to your own care, you aren’t alone as you do God’s work together. May the promises and love of God hold you, be made known through you, and made real for you this week and always.