ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Fourth Sunday of EASTER Year C
Year of Luke
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A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 13:14. 43-52
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 100: 1-3. 5. R/. v.3
A reading from the book of the Apocalypse 7:9. 14-17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 10:27-30
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The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament emerged from a number of different communities of new or relatively new Christians. Most likely St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest of these writings and the Second Letter of Peter (though not by St Peter) is the last to be written. In between, we have various writings to Christians in a number of cities, including Paul’s long letter to some house-churches in Rome. Our four Gospels, broadly speaking, were written between 65 A.D. and, at the outside, 120 A.D. We have, therefore, a collection of writings that span about seventy years in time and hundreds of miles in distance. Tiny house-churches were founded by travelling missionaries and these grew in number wherever they were. For each little church was well aware that being baptised into Christ meant being consecrated a missionary. So the house-church on this street sought to establish another around the corner, and that little church looked to the next street. And so a town or city came to have a number of little churches, small in number and different in character. Some were poorer than others; some were more Jewish that others. But as a whole the movement was small and growth was not spectacular even though the New Testament might seem to suggest otherwise. What we can say is that early Christians, when we look at the local picture, belonged to what we would call a sect.
Identifying the earliest Christians as a sect has many considerations that enable us to understand the writings they produced that play such an important role in what we are, what we do, and what we are for. A sect is a relatively tiny number of people within a larger population. It is a focus group, that is to say, it is an exclusive voluntary group of people following a set of beliefs at odds to the general opinions and life-style of those outside. A sect has an inner life. It is often a group that has cut itself off from the mainstream and sees itself as possessing a truth or truths that define what they are. Often a sect is passionately missionary, forever trying to convince more and more people that they have seen the light in an otherwise dark world. Because it is small in numbers and generally holding opinions at odds with the population at large, a sect has an intense inner life, often creating practices that bind the group together and give an identity to its members. It is obvious that sects do not have a great influence on political life or on the day-to-day life lived by those outside. Sects are marginalised and so its life is essentially introverted. Sects live by the utter certainty that they possess the truth, a truth that must be shared at all costs so that the unwashed out there can come to the knowledge that they alone possess. All early Christians belonged to a sect.
The Jewish people gave birth to the Christian sect. There were Pharisees within Judaism; there were Essenes at Qumran, there were Sadducees, and then there were Christians. But only the Christian sect believed that it possessed the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Unlike the faith that gave it birth, Christians saw themselves as offering salvation to the world, not just to brothers and sisters in the local synagogue. It was not circumcision and a special diet that made one a child of God. It was devotion to one Jew whom God raised from the dead. God’s Son offered hope to the whole of humanity, a hope that must be given to everyone on our planet. Of course, when it became a major force in the Empire and received imperial recognition it ceased to be a sect and little house-churches became the Church. What began as a little group of people within Judaism ultimately became a religion. But our sacred books produced by our first fathers and mothers in faith come from what we must define as the sect stage in its history. And our books must be read and celebrated as the literature of a sect with great hopes of increasing and multiplying and converting the earth.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 13:14. 43-52
Paul and his companions with Barnabas departed Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.
And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.
The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. ’”
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. The word of the Lord.
The huddled fearful people behind locked doors did not appear to be the stuff of which a universal Church would grow. In fact, their only desire was to be safe and, as we learn from St John’s Gospel, to go home and back to the day job, as Peter said,
I’m going fishing,
And the other six disciples replied,
We’ll go with you. John 21:1-3
This was not at all what God designed, what Jesus demanded, and what the Holy Spirit could tolerate. So on Pentecost Day the power of the Spirit came, the locked doors were opened, and the street outside became a pulpit. A sect was born and it set about preaching what it alone knew: Jesus is Messiah and Lord. The earliest believers became preachers and, in the face of persecution the little band became a tiny movement and, in what seems like the twinkling of an eye, the word went from Jerusalem to Rome, and to many stops in between. Yet even in Rome, when Paul’s long and difficult letter was received there (probably around 57 A.D.), scholars estimate from chapter 16 of Romans that there were not many more than five house-churches in the capital city.
Our faith will be enriched by trying to understand the difficulties of those early Christians and how they struggled to make the message of Jesus known, often in the face of state opposition and the indifference of populations that had temples and gods on every street corner. So the journeys outlined in today’s reading from Acts are much more than a lesson in geography.
Today’s extract from Acts begins with a note that Paul and his companions had arrived at the city of Antioch. After a visit to a local synagogue, Paul and Barnabas spoke with some Jews who had joined the Christian movement. Jewish Christians had fled to that city following the death of St Stephen in Jerusalem. It was in that city, the third most important in the Empire, that believers were first called Christians. It was Barnabas, a Cypriot, who had taken Paul under his wing and brought him to Antioch. Barnabas and Paul worked there for a year before returning to Jerusalem with financial relief when a famine threatened (read Acts 11:19-30 for details). Our reading concerns their second visit to what was the capital city of the (Roman) province of Syria. By omitting a major speech delivered by Paul to the synagogue community our Lectionary does us a disservice. The issues at stake here embrace much that goes to the heart of how the first Christians moved from being a Jewish sect to becoming a community that was capable of growing into the Church to which we belong today.
A Boundary Marker
Circumcision was and is a boundary marker. While it is likely that men in the ancient Middle East, where there are great stretches of sand, might find that circumcision would prevent discomfort, it is not entirely clear while it should become a boundary marker. The Bible, the holy book of Jewish people, demands that males be circumcised but the practice most likely began long before Abraham appeared on the scene. What is certain is that the practice became a boundary marker, an indication of who this people were: the people of the covenant. The story of beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants is the story of circumcision as boundary marker that marked them off from the ungodly nations all around them:
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.
Circumcision is a divine command, not a matter of hygiene. A healthy boy must be circumcised on the eighth day even if that day is a Sabbath. When anti-semitic powers sought to repress Jewish people they often banned the practice of circumcision. Almost every one of their religious practices were banned by Antiochus IV (ruled over Judea 175 - 164), among them circumcision, inciting the revolt of the Maccabee brothers. Faith often proved stronger than repression:
According to the decree [of Antiochus], they put to death the women who had their children circumcised and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
I Maccabees 1:61-62
Circumcision was not optional in the time of Jesus; nor is it in our time for devout Jews. You may remember St Luke’s attention to detail:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. Luke 2:21
It was circumcision that caused the split between the earliest Christians and the upholders of the Jewish faith that had given them birth. The question was whether it was necessary to take on Jewish identity in order to become a Christian. As Jesus was circumcised, so non-Jewish men who sought to identify themselves as Christian, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah, must submit to the God-given command and be circumcised. This was the greatest crisis that has ever confronted the churches of Jesus Christ. The question was this: Did Gentiles, non-Jews, have to be circumcised in order to be baptised? Did God require a boundary marker in order to recognise the faith of a non-Jew?
Jewish people were odd, according to public opinion, in other ways besides their practice of male circumcision. There were inclined to huddle together in cities and towns outside Israel were they created was is called the Diasporas. Like other peoples down through the ages when they found themselves in exile from their motherland they tended to create a ghetto. They were not given to mixing with the natives who, in Jewish eyes, “did not know God” and “were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods”, as St Paul so helpfully points out in his letter to Galatians Christians (4:8).
Jews were, therefore, noted as that rather peculiar people who worshipped one God, and not he many gods that pagans turned to. Jews insisted on a holy day every week, honouring the Sabbath when everyone else went to work. They practised peculiar eating habits, shunning pork and any meats containing blood:
If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
They had odd laws such as loving your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) and many socially progressive laws that did not trouble their pagan neighbours:
You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Leviticus 19:14
Each of these eccentric demands came with a notification of who issued them: I am the Lord. Jewish lifestyle came from above, from the God who had created heaven and earth. Jews believed in something called sin, a word that occurs nearly 450 times in Jewish and Christian holy books. Then there are all those domestic regulations about clean how to cook this and that. In short, the first Bible book that Jewish parents and catechists offer to children is the Book of Leviticus’
Jews were, then, oddities and their way of life were boundary markers. To be a Jew marked one off, far from the madding crowds, and safe in the arms of your own ghetto. But you had the blessing to know that of all the nations on earth yours alone was holy, yours alone lived in the arms of God, a holy people like no other. Moses was instructed to drum into the hearts and minds of the people of Israel the first profound statement of their catechism:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord you God am holy”. Leviticus 19:2
Jewish Christians like Paul were determined to bring the God of the Jews into the pagan world, to declare that all peoples were the concern of God, and to do this by scrapping all the boundary and identity markers that made Jews sure that they were Jews, God’s special people.
Paul and Barnabas
According to St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, as the Christian movement spread beyond the confines of Jerusalem, it had to face the question of the admission of non-Jews to the Jesus movement. It is interesting to note that Saul, soon to be Paul, when he a devout and learned Jews, became a Christian by special heavenly intervention, he was instructed by a Jewish household in Damascus and this persecutor turned apostle “confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 9:22). Obviously, the message of Jesus was for Jews only for Paul “proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues” (notice the plural. The many Jews in Damascus, as elsewhere, tended to keep to themselves and it was to these that Paul spoke after he accepted Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
Peter came up against a problem when he received a request from Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, a town on the Mediterranean coast. He was a centurion in the prestigious Italian cohort of the Roman army Roman army. He was one of those people attracted to Judaism, a devout man who feared God and who gave alms and said his prayers. Peter was challenged to admit this man and his family into the Jesus movement and his vision of creepy-crawlies came down from out of the clear skies to overcome his reluctance to admit pagans, even devout pagans, into the household of Jesus. The whole story is in chapter 11 of Acts and it ends with a policy statement from Peter:
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”.
So we have Paul immersed in the Jesus story in a strictly Jewish environment and Peter moved by divine intervention to realise that no one is outside the embrace of God offered to the world in Jesus Christ.
And then there is Antioch.
We have seen that circumcision was the physical sign that one was admitted into the covenant and carried with it the onus of obeying the sacred Torah handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. Paul expresses the matter with utter clarity:
I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. Galatians 5:3
But in his travels with Barnabas and the experience of meeting with non-Jesus people who were anxious to join the Christian movement, Paul began to realise more and more just what baptism involved. He came to understand that baptism is a seal, a branding, that indicates that one belongs to God. Baptism is a stamp that identifies one as a member of Christ, as circumcision marks a man as a member of Israel. Circumcision is an outward physical sign in the flesh; baptism is a matter of the Spirit. It an identity sign, by which one is known to belong to Christ. It is a “badge”, a symbol that one is incorporated and belongs to the community of those who have received the Holy Spirit and are to be found, not in the synagogue, but around the table of the Lord participating in the Lord’s Supper.
By baptism we become a new people, a people who are in the process of being made holy as the Holy Spirit guides the Body of Christ, the individual and the community. By baptism we are adopted as children of God:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as son and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:14-17
Baptism is an initiation into the whole Christian life because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lay claim to the one baptised and insist that the baptised be seated at the table of Communion, the Eucharist, that sustains the life that is given by the sign of the waters of baptism.
It is a growing understanding in the mind of Paul that when he came to Antioch with Barnabas he questioned whether it was necessary to be circumcised, and to accept the identity and boundary markers that set Jewish people apart. There was a Christian identity marker (baptism) and a Christian boundary marker (Eucharist) that created a new person belonging to Christ. Jews and Greeks, pagans and synagogue people, are utterly transformed into a new people of God:
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. I Corinthians 10:13
These matters are difficult to grasp but they were what Paul worked out - in Christ we are a new creation. When he came to Antioch in Pisidia he and Barnabas spoke to “Men of Israel and you who fear God” (pagans who were attracted Jewish faith but had not accepted the full Jewish package). But quite soon both of them were confronted with a Jewish community that were not open to the freedom of the sons and daughters of God that is at the heart of Christian discipleship. The speech (Acts 13:16-41) caused some excitement and “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:43). The following Sabbath “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44). But there were many Jews who were deeply disturbed by Paul’s startling pronouncement:
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers and sisters, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Acts 13:38-39
On the other hand, many Gentiles rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord spoken by Paul. Many believed and ”the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region”. The more the good news that people were acceptable to God without having to adopt the burden of Jewish practices, the more hostility grew and Paul and Barnabas were driven out.
The same happened at Iconium (Acts 14:1-7). At Lystra Paul healed a man crippled from birth and so excited the people that he and Barnabas were declared to be gods. When Jews came fro Antioch and Iconium they stirred up a mob who stoned Paul and left him for dead. The next day he and Barnabas set off for Derbe where they made “many disciples”. Then they headed back to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch “to “strengthening the souls of the disciples” (Acts 14:22). A remark of Luke’s at this point is of great importance for many reasons:
… having appointed elders for them in each church, praying with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Acts 14:23
From each little house-church in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch elders were appointed. From the beginning, pastoral care was a concern. Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch,
… and when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples. Acts 14:27
So the scene is set. Paul had proclaimed in towns and cities in Pisidia that God in Jesus had opened “a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Many Jewish Christians in Antioch demanded that Gentile converts adopt Jewish identity and boundary markers, particularly circumcision, dietary restrictions. Then, as Luke records, the matter came to a head:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. Acts 15:1-2
The result was that a consultation took place in Jerusalem that resulted in a compromise but was, in fact, a victory for Paul’s position on the matter. Gentiles were no longer to be troubled by Jewish demands. Read Acts 15 for the details. The decision recommended by James the brother of the Lord and incorporated in a letter to be read simply advised Gentile Christians “to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). A delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, and the findings of the Jerusalem council were joyfully received. Paul and Barnabas “ remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also” (Acts 15:35). And there, according to Luke, the matter ended. Only it didn’t.
Peter versus Paul
The Gentile, that is the non-Jewish, Galatian churches, in the absence of Paul, were visited by some conservative teachers. They insisted that the gospel of Jesus welcomed the admittance of gentiles but on condition that males were circumcised and everyone observe the demands of the Torah of God as laid down by Moses. The matter exploded when Peter came to Antioch.
Paul reports what happened in his letter to Galatians churches. It is, by turns, a very angry letter and a letter of great tenderness. The central issue is this: Are we saved by Faith or by adhering to Jewish Law? Addressing the people he calls “foolish Galatians” (a Celtic people), Paul asks bluntly whether their faith came from The Holy Spirit (received in baptism) or from works of the law. Abraham lived long before Moses and he didn’t come to God through works of the Mosaic Law. He had faith! He gave up his home, abandoned his native land, and travelled to wherever God directed him - all of this by faith in God. Abraham heard the gospel in that he was declared righteous before God on account of his obedient faith. Faith in God comes now through possession of and by the Holy Spirit and those who are baptised are blessed by God as just as Abraham was. Scripture itself screams out,
The righteous shall live by faith!
By “faith” Paul means faith in Jesus Christ who has come from God and given us the gift of the Spirit. It is Christ—his life, his death, his resurrection, and his coming again— saved humanity from all that is evil.
What drove Paul to so much anger in the first part of the Galatian letter is this:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Galatians 2:11-14
“We believe in Christ Jesus”, Paul declares, and that is the end of the matter. Paul left Antioch and never returned to that city. He left the Antioch Christians to the unchristian gospel practised by Peter. Perhaps fifty years later the Gospel according to St Matthew was written in Antioch and that Gospel had to confront the scars left by the crisis that drove Paul and Peter apart.
If Peter had won, if Paul’s understanding of God and of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit had been rejected, then the whole of the unwashed world would have had to become Jews in order to become Christian. Christianity would have remained a sect within Judaism. That is why the theological argument between Paul and Peter was and is crucial: we are saved by God’s determination to save us from ourselves, not by our own attempts at goodness. We come to God because we are carried to God in the hands of Jesus.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 100 (99): 1-3. 5. R/. v.3
R/. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing! R/.
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people,
and the sheep of his pasture. R/.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
R/. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
Psalms 93 to 99 are celebrations of the rule of God over all creation. For the most part the image is of the Lord who is king, robed in majesty, judge of all the earth, before whom all peoples must bow down and kneel, in whom the earth must exult and rejoice, and whose triumph over all other gods is displayed in the sight of the nations.
Psalm 100 is in the same vein of praise and seems to be a summary of the “kingship” psalms that come before it in the Psalter. All the earth is called upon joyfully to join in the service of divine worship. The invitation is to join in the liturgy of the Temple (“come into his Presence”) and to sing songs of praise. To experience the Presence we must know who it is that calls us: Know that the Lord, he is God!
Most of all we must not approach the throne with fear for we, everyone, are the sheep of his flock the flock of which he is the Good Shepherd. The nature of this Good Shepherd inspire love, and hope, and an enduring faith:
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
A reading from the book of the Apocalypse 7:9. 14-17
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
The word of the Lord.
Today we are invited to take a ringside seat on eternity. In A question had been raised in 6:17. When the day of wrath comes, on that day who will be able to stand? Who will be deemed worthy to stand before the throne of God and before the lamb? Who will be clothed in white robes (indicating the righteous lives they have lived)? Who will a carry palm branches in their hands (indicating that they have run the race and won the palm of victory)? The multitude representing every nation, tribe, people, and language is such that no one can number them. The heavenly choir, the angels around the throne and all the elders fall on their faces before the throne and worship God:
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. Revelation 7:12
Thus all who have suffered from persecution at the hands of the empires of this world will take their places before the heavenly throne and win the spoils of victory. As the reading today declares,
These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood
of the Lamb.
Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
What the seer is revealing is that Jewish and non-Jewish Christians who have been persecuted by forces representing the imperial power of Rome will in the end be victorious. Their perseverance in the face of persecution will bring them safely home and for eternity they will be sheltered by God’s presence. God’s son, himself a shepherd who suffered much at human hands, will continue his shepherding and he will guide them to springs that never dry up and God himself will take a handkerchief and wipe away every tear from their eyes.
What we must realise is that the images we find in apocalyptic writings are gleaned from the Old Testament. The poetry of Hebrew Scriptures provides a vocabulary of pain. There are, too, visions of well-being often due to good shepherding by God himself. The persecutions of the Roman emperors the likes of Domitian who reigned from 81 A.D. to 96 A.D. probably gave rise to the Christian response found in the John’s Apocalypse. Some scholars see Nero’s (ruled 54 A.D. to 68 A.D.) slaughter of Christians in Rome as the instigation of the work; even Claudius (41 A.D. to 54 A.D.), who expelled the Jews from Rome, is suspected by some to have caused a Christian prophet to pen this robust declaration of victory. Trying to work out the date when these visions saw the light of day is well nigh impossible. What is certain is that in the face of persecution those Christians who persevered believed that their sufferings would end in bliss and that God would see them safely home and their enemies duly consigned for oblivion. Babylon is the code name for Rome in these dire pages and those undergoing persecution will have rejoiced at the vision of Babylon’s demise:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She has become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
Evil has its comeuppance:
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
death and mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire;
for mighty is the LORD God who has judged her.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 10:27-30
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one. The Gospel of the Lord.
The context of chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, from which today’s Gospel is taken, is the Feast of Hanukkah. This feast celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), as recounted in I Maccabees 4:36-61. The feast is a fitting background to the discussion of the Good Shepherd, an occupation that Jesus claims for himself in our Gospel reading today.
Dying on the cross, Jesus prayed. According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, he cried to God,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1
I hope that under his breath he may have remembered the first line of another psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd.
The mantle that Jesus adopts in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel is the mantle his Father wears. The last line of our reading is a defining moment:
I and the Father are one.
The God who is ‘Our Father’ is to be found on earth in Jesus of Nazareth. If the Father is the Good Shepherd, then Jesus is our Good shepherd. The business of shepherds and shepherding is mentioned 92 times in the Hebrew Bible and 23 times in the New Testament. There is only one mention of a shepherdess:
While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess.
But according the Jewish tradition she was one of the four most beautiful women in the world. She married Jacob and had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, and in birthing Benjamin she died. She is buried just down the road fro where Jesus was bor. As she died bringing he son into the world, so Jesus died, thereby bringing many daughters and sons into God’s world.
It is hardly surprising that shepherds, good and bad, feature so frequently in the imagination of a people whose wellbeing depended entirely on what the land could provide. Kings were always expected to shepherd their people with all the care and kindness a good shepherd lavishes on animals on which the lives of many people depended. Unfortunately not many kings merited the word “good” and the prophets were loud in their condemnation.
We may take Jeremiah’s judgement on King Jehoiakim, the son of that most excellent King Josiah, as an example of a bad shepherd:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbour serve him for nothing
and does not give him his wages.
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
But you have eyes and heart
only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.
Jeremiah wrote what the word of the Lord predicted for this worthless king, who battened on the sheep entrusted to his care:
They shall not lament for him, saying,
‘Ah, lord! ’ or ‘Ah, his majesty! ’
With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried,
dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem.
On the other hand, God, who is responsible of all who walk the face of the earth, is pictured by Isaiah in a most tender image of a caring shepherd:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young
It is, however, Ezekiel who adopts the image of the shepherd to undo the reign of unworthy kings and who decides that there will be in future but one king who will look after the sheep. Against the woeful kings he has this to say:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!
While “the shepherds of Israel” were living a life of luxury the sheep entrusted to their care were abandoned:
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. Ezekiel 34:4-5
There is only one thing that must be done, if God is to be God:
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. Ezekiel 34:7-10
The flock, abandoned by those appointed by God to see to its welfare, will have a new shepherd, a Good Shepherd, for “thus says the Lord God”:
For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
What Jesus claims to be in his argument with “the Jews” (the religious authorities and their supporters) is that he is the Messiah (10:24-25) and that his is the voice to which the sheep respond. For he knows his sheep and they know him. He does not live off the sheep; he lives for his sheep. In fact he is the Good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11). In doing so, he gives them ”eternal life” (10:28).
“Eternal life” in John’s understanding is not life in heaven beyond the grave. It is life now, transformed by the Presence of the Son and experienced in the power of the Holy Spirit. The promise of Jesus to send the Spirit is fulfilled at Pentecost. After washing the feet of his disciples Jesus explains,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Through Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist the new life that issues in life beyond is lived now. As Jesus says,
I will not leave you orphans.
It is customary on this day when we meet the Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading, to reflect on the need for shepherds in our time and place. So today is Vocations Sunday. The first and primary vocation to be celebrated this day is the vocation of all Christians given in baptism, sustained in the Eucharist, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The community of Christians, in God’s name, call on some among them to ensure that the Word is preached so that everyone is aware of that to which all are called. It is, therefore, for churches to ensure that everyone called to be a disciple is fit to serve. Those called to be “servants of the servants of God”, whether men or women, married or unmarried, must be equipped to do as Jesus did on that Sunday afternoon when he walked the way with two companions to the village of Emmaus. When we listen as they share with us the Scriptures our hearts must burn within us. When they break the Bread, in their breaking of it, we must recognise that it is the Bread of Life. There is only one pattern for ministry among the people of God. It is this:
… whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.