Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Easter A

Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
(Revised Common Lectionary)

The Acts of the Apostles paints a dynamic portrait of the community of first believers. Allowing for Luke's idealization and attention to outside audiences, we still can see vividly those who had themselves seen the risen Lord and those who had heard directly from their witness busily engaged in routines that had already become established: daily prayer in the Temple, "breaking bread" together (weekly?) in a shared meal, pouring over the Hebrew scriptures for ways of interpreting and understanding the life and fate of Jesus and new meaning for them, and establishing a web of caring.

Although the metaphor of a god as a shepherd of a particular people is not unique to the Hebrew texts among ancient religions, it becomes a dominant meme in the Hebrew scriptures.  Given the experience of being a people without a home-- Abraham called to leave home and go to a new place, slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness for forty years, under recurring threat by nearby superpowers, captivity again, this time by Babylon, dominance by the Greeks and then the Romans and subsequent diaspora-- the idee fixe of God as Shepard to Israel on whose care their very existence depends is especially powerful, as this most favorite of all psalms evokes.

In this letter attributed to Peter, there is a reminder that, as with any new religious group in the Roman Empire, the first followers of Jesus were under scrutiny for loyalty to the Emperor. The content of today's appointed excerpt admonishes Christians: "Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the Emperor." Addressed specifically to believers who were slaves in the homes of wealthy families, the writer urges them to endure punishment when it is fair and even when it is unfair. The example is Christ.

John's narrative develops a venerable metaphor in the Hebrew scriptures-- God and God's anointed servant-leaders as shepherd-- into a description of the role, purpose and legitimacy of Jesus.  John wants to establish that Jesus did not "climb in by another way," but the gate-keeper opens the gate for him...."  The followers of Jesus "hear his voice" and follow behind him, "because they know his voice."  The followers will run after Jesus and shun a "stranger" because "they do not know the voice of strangers."  (Three times John emphasizes that it is the distinctive "voice" of Jesus that inspire and enables his followers to distinguish between him and pretenders.)  John writes that when Jesus saw that those whom  he was addressing "did not understand what he was saying to them" he spoke more prosaically: "I am the gate for the sheep." He then proffers the distinguishing trait that separates him from  any pretenders, ("thieves and bandits"): "The thief only comes to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they might have life and have it abundantly." This is the singular criterion by which the followers of Jesus should judge anything done or said on the name of Jesus!

The texts of the New Testament describe the early community of post-resurrection believers who quickly developed specific routines that did not go unnoticed by their neighbors and community authorities. It was not just what they said that caused curiosity but what they did. Proclamation and action were of equal importance.

It is striking how frequently those who have reflected on contemporary Western life and are usually regarded as postmodern see a certain trait in original Christianity which has faded even sometimes seemingly disappeared. Consider just one, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He wrote: "Christianity is not a doctrine, not I mean, a theory about what has happened and what will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life." (Culture and Value, p. 28) Liberated from Western Medieval and Modern speculative and conceptual priorities, Christianity can return to its original balance of proclamation and action. One feeds the other, one validates the other, both witness to the real, actual needs of people here and now. Wittgenstein spoke even more specifically to this point: "A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer. [Here he inserts the name of Karl Barth !] It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice [in the original German text he uses the Greek word "praxis"] gives the words their sense." (ibid, p. 85) All the work of the church, including and perhaps especially preaching, is closer to the originating experience of the post-resurrection community and has far more impact in its witness when such words as 'love' and 'justice ' describe and cause something that "actually takes place in human life" and truly brings "life... more abundant." The distinctive "voice" of Jesus that always rings true and exposes frauds has one and only one effect-- Life- enhancing, Life-giving, an expansion of the conventional meaning of the word "Life!"

In his passionate testimony, The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event,  John Caputo writes of the always Life-affirming trait of God's word:  "The power of the event that unfolds in the name of God is the unconditional, inextinguishable power of God's Yes.  No matter what."  ""His absolute loyalty to life, his absolutely unconditional judgment-- and promise.  Good, good... very good."  (p. 90) These were the words of God at creation; these are the same words of "the Word made flesh," who was present at creation, John  told us right up front, and now speaks in person/Person.