7 May 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Easter 4A (RCL)
1 Peter 2:19-25
Every preacher on these texts will have to deal with the skin crawling opening of the lection from 1 Peter. It’s even worse if you read the sentence that comes before the opening, which speaks of servants being obedient to masters, not only when they are kind and good, but also when they are unjust. We are likely to hear that as instruction not to agitate against injustice. I imagine, though, that the author of this baptism sermon was fully aware that some of his hearers lived in situations they had no hope of changing. In that case, these are instructions for non-violence, being fully conscious of God’s judgment on the situation. It would be some comfort to know that Jesus, even in the midst of his capital trial entrusted himself to the one true judge who judges righteously. At any event it is always helpful to be reminded not to return insult for insult, and to have good theological reason for that.
I suppose this lection was chosen for the last sentence — it is after all Good Shepherd Sunday. Like sheep, we had gone astray, but have returned to the shepherd and bishop of our souls. The Gospel, taken from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, isn’t very shepherd-y. Instead, Jesus calls himself the door or the gate — an odd image. It will make a little more sense when we arrive at the twentieth chapter, when the disciples are locked in a room for fear of the Jews. Jesus comes through the door any and breaths on the disciples and after bidding them peace (twice), he says, “As the father has sent me, even so I send you.” We can’t very well be sent if we won’t go through the door. What a comfort to know that Jesus is the door.
Jesus also adds that if they forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven to them, but if they retain the sins of any, they are retained (for the community?). This is activity that would ordinarily be reserved for the high priest on the Great Day of Atonement. Mary had entered the tomb and seen the two cherubim of the inner sanctum, and now the disciples are instructed to forgive sins. In order to do that, they must be able to enter the inner sanctum, as the author of Hebrews will say, through the curtain of Christ’s flesh.
Jesus says that all who have come before him are thieves and bandits (or revolutionaries), and have climbed over the wall rather than come through the door. If the evangelist is addressing the situation of the Johannine community being thrown out of (leaving) the synagogue, the reference could be to all other pretenders to being Messiah, drawing people away from faithfully following God’s call. Those have only come to kill and steal and destroy. Jesus comes that they may have abundant life.
In order to have that life, the sheep have to hear his voice, and be willing to go out and come in to find pasture. The community must be willing to leave the safety of the fold, and in the case of the Johannine community, leave the safety of the synagogue and the identity it provides, and strike out into new territories. Hence the importance of the sheep recognizing the voice of the shepherd. One has to trust the one leading the community into new places.
That trust is the signal feature of the abundant life promised. If we remain afraid, and locked in the room because of that fear, we cannot enjoy the abundance Jesus promises. We have to be willing to let go of the sins of others, and set out through the open door into new places and let unexpected others come in through the door that had been locked. That new, widening community is the place we discover that abundant life.