Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Acts of the Apostles 4: 5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18

Each event in both volumes of Luke's narrative, gospel and Acts, builds skillfully on the others. This excerpt from the Acts follows two very dramatic developments. Peter and the others have pronounced a man lame from birth healed in the name of Jesus. And, they have used the attention he drew to attract 5,000 men and uncounted women to believe their message. The religious establishment is "annoyed" (4:2), has Peter and others arrested and put on trial before the High Priest and his family as well as other "rulers, elders and scribes." Luke's account vividly recalls the trial of Jesus. However, this time, in complete contrast to Peter's behavior when Jesus was in custody, he now boldly and eloquently asserts that the same Jesus, whom they had crucified but God raised from the dead, is "the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner."

The best known psalm appears frequently in the Revised Common Lectionary not because it is an all-purpose, sentimental favorite, but because is vividly conveys powerful truths about God's behavior toward us and the precise nature of our dependence on God, as sheep are to their shepherd. Robert Alter explains that what make this psalm so effective is its "concreteness," (The Book of Psalms, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, pp 78-80). The verb to "lie down," for example, is "a specialized verb for making animals lie down...." The verb translated "restore" is the same verb to describe "someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life." The verb translated "anoint" is closer to "moisten," Alter says, relaying more a sense of sensual, tactile comforting than a sacramental gesture. The images of the good life (v. 5) are familiar memories that evoke abundance, security and complete well-being.

While Luke-Acts is a carefully crafted two volume work by one author, the relationship between the first epistle of John and the gospel that also bears that name is not as certain, although the author is clearly inspired by the major themes of the gospel. Two themes and a crucial corollary are clear in this excerpt: love is the concise definition of God "("God is love") and this love is so thorough that "he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." He considers "truth and action" to be two states of the same element. The real test of understanding of and loyalty to God is in our actions: "we should believe in the name of God's Son Jesus Christ and love one another...." This is what unites us in communion with God, the Spirit and other believers.

Jesus is designated as the complete shepherd. He knows each one by name and they know and trust his voice. He risks whatever is required, including his own life, for their safety. He took the risk voluntarily and it cost him but he also has the power to take up life again. Because Jesus can say "the Father knows me and I know the Father," those who follow his voice can have complete confidence and trust. Some do not yet recognize his voice, but Jesus wants to bring them into his fold so "there will be one flock, one Shepard."

It was not just the outrageous claims Peter and the others made about Jesus, it was what they accomplished. The man, lame from birth, whom they had announced was healed had become a walking, talking exuberant witness. Among the huge crowd this incident attracted, 5,000 men and uncounted "others" were now convinced of their message about Jesus.

The writer of the first epistle of John insists: "Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

As Robert Alter so memorably illustrates, the staying power of the twenty-third psalm is due to its concrete, everyday verbs. The verb translated "restore" describes that moment, which, if ever experienced, is never forgotten, when someone is a breath or two from death but is revived, saved. The verb "anoint" evokes a soothing, relaxing, comforting memory only achieved by the touch of a human hand.

Writing in the April 2008 edition (vol. 24, no 2, pp 225-244) of
Modern Theology [see link below], Norman Wirzba responds to an essay by Jean-Louis Chretien, "Body and Touch" and observes this about touch: it "is co-extensive with a living being. It defines us as a creature that must touch and be touched to be. Bathed in the mystery and complexity that life itself is, touch alerts us to what is so primordial as to elude our best efforts at comprehension. We simply cannot imagine a human being without touch altogether." The scriptures insist that we should expect to know God's love as concretely as the memory of a human touch. And this equates, he continues, echoing John's epistle, in a particular way: "God's way of being, as revealed to us in the history of Israel and the incarnate Christ, is in a way that is 'for others'." And God's way of being "for others" is meant to be our way, too, not in some abstract, theoretical ["theological" or "spiritual"] sense, but in the unique touch of a human hand on the aching body of another person whom we already know or will encounter for the first time today. "Let us not love in word or speech, but in truth and action."