The Fourth Sunday pf Easter
The Good Shepherd by Jan Luyken. Public Domain.
Here we see the Shepherd functioning as gate for the sheep, keeping out the wolf,
while protecting the flock.
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
After the Spirit's mighty move and thousands of baptisms, people begin gathering daily to hear the teaching of Jesus from the apostles, to break bread, to offer the prayers in the temple, and to share their resources freely with one another. What happens during this period is not merely growth, but multiplication.
(United Methodist Hymnal 754, 136, 137, 138; The Faith We Sing 2058; Worship&Song 3031, 3096, 3106) If you use the Psalter version (UMH 754), use Response 2 singing the psalm to Tone 1 in E-flat major. If you use the King James Version (UMH 137), use Response 2, singing the psalm to Tone 1 in E-flat major.
1 Peter 2:19-25.
Another sign of being in the flock of the Good Shepherd: our capacity to suffer unjustly and bless God even as we endure it.
Jesus is the gate for the sheep. We, his body, join him in calling sheep to safe pasture, protecting them from harm, and offering life abundantly.
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Liturgical calendar: Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Every year this Sunday features Psalm 23 and part of the “Good Shepherd” text from John 10. This is why today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
Today is also Festival of the Christian Home and Mothers Day, and the second Sunday in Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
As our Book of Worship consistently reminds, plan worship for today first around the season, then around the Scriptures, and then to include as coherently as you can other special emphases for the day. If you are in the U.S., by no means ignore or avoid Mothers Day in worship today. But neither should you stretch the readings, the sermon or the hymns to focus on it. Offer some recognition of the day in announcements, consider having mothers of various generations read the Scriptures, pray specifically for mothers in the prayers of the people, and host a reception in honor of mothers following worship. Mothers will be honored, and worship will not have been diverted from its primary scriptural foci for the day and season.
Next Sunday, May 18, is Heritage Sunday (Discipleship Ministries resources) as well as the Sunday of United Methodist Communication’s program, Change the World Weekend.
Heritage Sunday programming for 2014 focuses on the legacy of Thomas Coke, first Superintendent (later called Bishop) of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of his death, an occasion for a variety of celebrations in England and Wales and across the worldwide Methodist/Wesleyan family this May. Heritage Sunday is also an occasion to celebrate Aldersgate Day, when that day does not fall on a Sunday.
Change the World Weekend is an initiative to engage congregations in hands-on ministry in their local communities and support global mission priorities at the same time. Registration and additional information about this emphasis available at the link above.
On May 25, some US congregations may choose to include worship elements relating to the U.S. civil holiday, Memorial Day, which falls on Monday, May 26.
May 29 is the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, 40 days after his resurrection. This was one of only three non-Sunday observances John Wesley retained in the Anglican calendar for use by Methodists in America. The other two were Good Friday and Christmas Day. Most United Methodists today celebrate it on the following Sunday, June 1.
June 8 Pentecost
June 15 Trinity Sunday, Father's Day and Peace with Justice Sunday (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
June 19 Juneteenth
July 4 Independence Day (USA)
Back to School Resources
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Atmospherics: Life in the Flock of the Good Shepherd
The common theme among the texts for this Sunday is “Life in the Flock of the Good Shepherd.” The doctrinal focus for this week is “Jesus is the Sheep-Gate.” The ministry focus is “Living in and with the Flock.”
Doctrinal Focus: Jesus Is the Sheep-Gate
John 10 and Psalm 23 are full of images of sheep and shepherds. In this year’s reading, Jesus does not (yet) call himself the Good Shepherd. He describes how a shepherd calls his sheep and how the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and follow only the shepherd’s voice. At this point in the story, however, his disciples do not yet understand. So he begins to make it plain, to move from story to metaphor.
Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.”
One of the people on a team of shepherds had “gate duty.” This person would literally stand in the gate and function as the gate to make sure the sheep, all the sheep (the “sheep-gate” counted them!), and only sheep, got in or out of the sheepfold safely. The “sheep-gate” was thus, literally, a gatekeeper.
The term “gatekeeper” seems to have largely negative connotations in both the church and the wider culture in the U.S. today. Gatekeepers are looked upon as power brokers intent on “defending their turf.” When leaders, administrators, HR staff or finance officers are labeled “gatekeepers,” it’s rarely a compliment. Administrative and financial concerns are often framed as being at odds with “real ministry.”
Jesus is the gate. Jesus is a gate-keeper, letting sheep, all the sheep, and only sheep, in and out of the fold. He shows us how we, his body, are to help people come in, go out, and find safe pasture, every one counted, cared for and kept safe from the world’s many predators.
Jesus is the gatekeeper.
Not our preferences.
Not our prejudices.
Not even our cherished traditions.
Jesus is the gatekeeper.
And we as his body continue this role for the sake of every “sheep” in the world.
And every person counts as a sheep—if not always yet one of his sheep.
So today we reflect on the ways Jesus acted and still acts as gatekeeper, as sheep-gate.
We reflect on who Jesus let in.
We start with his own disciples and closest associates—fishermen, a tax collector, a political revolutionary or two (Simon the Zealot, maybe Judas Iscariot), a wealthy former demoniac (Mary Magdalene).
We continue, remembering all those outsiders he showed could be insiders, such as the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman, the Syro-Phoenician woman (even if it took some convincing by her to get him to see it), lepers he dared to touch, and children.
We remember his teaching about who his family was—not those biologically related to him, but anyone who does the will of God.
And we remember the stories of his ongoing body, and all whom he through it brought “into the fold”—a religious hit-man (Saul), a God-fearer but still Gentile centurion (Cornelius), a jailer, a demoniac girl, and a wealthy female merchant (Lydia, all in Philippi), and the list goes on.
People of every station, nation, and situation in life have been welcomed into the fold by Jesus, the sheep-gate, counted (and named), protected, and cared for.
Jesus also kept some out: not sheep, but wolves, those intent on robbing, harming or destroying the sheep, at least as long as such harmful intent remained. But even here, for a committed Christian-killer like Saul, Jesus worked to convert the wolf into a sheep, then had another (Ananias) lead him in.
So this is our role as body of Christ in the world, gate for the sheep, all sheep, all people. We let them know this fold is for them. We let them in, count them, protect them, and then give them the opportunity to go in and out of the fold to find pasture. We do not leave sheep out. We bring them in so they can learn the shepherd’s voice and follow. The ones we keep out are those intent on harming sheep.
In Your Planning Team
If your planning team decides to focus on the doctrinal focus for worship today, start by asking them their “gut reaction” to the idea of “gatekeeping.” Then ask them what informs that perspective.
You may find those who are in organizations or institutions that do some fairly regular gatekeeping may have a more positive attitude toward this function, while those who work in more one on one settings, or more entrepreneurial contexts, may have a more negative attitude.
Then ask what kind of setting you perceive yourselves to be as a church—more of a community of mutual care, or more of a set of individuals caring for themselves?
Suggest if it’s the latter, it may be harder to see how a “gatekeeper” would serve any real function. But if it’s a former, a gatekeeper may be indispensable.
Now ask for stories of “good gatekeeping,” gatekeeping like Jesus does, team members have experienced either in the life of the congregation or in their daily lives where they spend the vast majority of their time. What’s been good about it? What good has come from it?
With these conversations as background, you’re now ready to have a conversation about how to focus preaching, prayers, music and artwork today that convey both how our risen Lord is our gatekeeper, and how we, as his body, are graciously enabled and called to continue this ministry in our daily lives and especially as a congregation.
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Ministry Focus: Living in and with the Flock
If John points us to the gatekeeper and how he keeps the gate for the sake of the flock, Acts and I Peter this week tell us much about what the life of the flock itself may be like. The life of the flock is the foundation of the ministry of the flock and all its members as body of Christ, individually and collectively, wherever they find themselves, whether at work, school, home, neighborhood, marketplace, or leisure.
So here are characteristics of the life of the flock found in this week’s readings:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.”
They devoted themselves. They carved out substantial, focused time to learn all they could, to fellowship all they could, including in worship around the Lord’s Table, and to pray with others all they could.
Their learning centered on the teaching of the apostles who passed on the teaching of Jesus. Assuming we have the teaching of Jesus faithfully reflected in the gospels, the apostles’ teaching would have focused on two things: being able to see the kingdom of God at work in the world, and learning how to align one’s life with the ways of God’s kingdom.
They gave time to fellowship. This was certainly vital for this early community in Jerusalem, since many of them were pilgrims who may have met there for the first time. While they all shared a common Jewish heritage and now a common baptism and discipleship to Jesus, there was much they did not share, including language, culture, and assumptions about how their faith would be lived out. The point of this verse in Acts is they devoted the time needed, despite these differences, so they could function as community together.
They gave time to “the breaking of the bread.” Some translators have rendered the Greek, “breaking bread,” and thereby interpreted this phrase to point to sharing regular meals together. However, the Greek uses the definite article both for breaking and bread. It is “the breaking of the bread” in Greek. That construction had a more particular meaning in Christian communities by the time Acts was written: celebrating Holy Communion. They gave time to celebrating Holy Communion, just as they gave time to learning from the apostles and building community with one another. This suggests they gave this considerable time, a central place in their gathered worship. It was not an “add-on,” but a primary reason to gather for worship in the first place. The Emmaus story from last week’s gospel reading (also written by Luke) suggests one reason for this. Jesus was made known to them, too, in “the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35, exactly the same phrase in Greek).
They gave time to the prayers. While it is likely these first Christians prayed ex tempore as well, both individually and collectively, the Greek construction here, “the prayers” points to something else. It points to joining with the liturgical prayers (set times for prayer with particular prayers and Psalms to be prayed at particular times) of the Jewish people. These hours of prayer were not considered obligatory upon all Jewish people, but were obligatory for the priests to offer, wherever they were, and likely most rabbis in synagogues did as well. But now, this practice of “praying the hours” came to characterize the prayer life of all of these new Christians in Jerusalem. These “hours of prayer” became the basis of what would be more fully developed as “the daily office.” The United Methodist Hymnal includes guides for such praying at morning and evening (UMH 876-879). The Book of Worship adds resources for noon and night as well (568-580).
By giving time to the prayers, these early Christians signaled and fulfilled their vocation to be a “royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Prayer was not just about them or for them. Prayer was something they devoted themselves to do, with the whole people, for the life of the world.
“Fear came upon all because of the omens and signs happening through the apostles.”
The word for “fear” here in Greek is phobos. While it can be translated “awe” (as NRSV), its basic meaning is simply fear. What was happening was “ominous,” signs with a cosmic significance, even as Peter’s sermon had announced (the moon turning to blood before the Day of the Lord, Acts 2:19-20).
- “People were sharing everything they had, selling their possessions, and giving the proceeds to people in need.” There was a practical reason for this. The bulk of the crowd at the Pentecost festival was not from Jerusalem, but many of these new Christians were now going to live as part of this new Christian community in Jerusalem. There were no systems in place to allow this sort of mass relocation to occur. So these Christians created their own, sharing and redistributing everything they had so all among them could be provided for. The guiding principle behind this action in Jerusalem remains the guiding principle for Christian stewardship everywhere. Our “possessions” are never simply “our own,” but are rather intended primarily for us to use to build up the common good.
“Every day they were gathering in the temple, breaking bread from house to house, and sharing in the prayers.”
This expands on the description in Acts 2:42, particularly regarding teaching, fellowship and the prayers. The reasons to gather in the temple were twofold: teaching and the prayers. The temple was a noted place for religious teachers to teach and their students to learn. It was also the central place in all of Judaism for offering the daily prayers. Indeed, when Jewish people offered the prayers from any other location, they would do so facing in the direction of the temple.
The phrase “breaking bread from house to house” lacks the definite articles of the phrase “the breaking of the bread” in verse 42. Here it thus primarily refers to sharing meals in each other’s homes as part of building and strengthening the overall fellowship of the church.
Enduring pain while suffering unjustly, conscious of God (I Peter 2:19)
At first glance, this may seem entirely out of step with the characteristics of the flock of Christ described in Acts 2. But I Peter makes the point this is a critical text of Christian character and identity. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his steps” (verse 21, NRSV).
To be sure, some have misused this understanding of Christian calling to justify requiring persons to say in abusive relationships, doing nothing to seek to escape them or bring the perpetrator to justice. This is not what I Peter is describing. He is instead describing acts of persecution or oppression from officials that may come from time to time against Christians because they are Christians, as had already happened in numerous places by the time I Peter was written. When such persecution comes, the role of the community is to help each other endure in the face of it.
It may also be noted we have what might be considered a bit of a counter-example (though I’d consider it complementary) in Paul. As a Roman citizen, Paul had rights not to be flogged or kept in chains without due process, rights he pursued all the way to an appeal to Rome (starting in Acts 22:22). In other words, we see in Paul an example of a Christian who certainly had allowed himself to suffer unjustly, and saw it as no badge of dishonor, but also stood up for the justice that was rightly his.
In Your Planning Team
- If you’re going to build worship around today’s ministry focus, keep in mind that five points may be a bit much to use in one worship service. Pick at most two or three of the above to highlight in worship, and make provision for the others to be addressed in other areas of your congregation’s life this week—education, email, social media, small groups, and so on.
- To determine which of the five to focus on, discuss all five in your planning team. Ask team members to share how they have seen each of these five in play in their own lives and in the life of the congregation and wider community. Then choose one of these that is generally well observed by many where you are, and at least one or two of these that may have gotten the least general notice. Part of your job as a planning team today is to help the invisible become visible. Sermon and testimonies can lead the way. Plan to talk about the characteristic of the flock your team most identified first, something nearly everyone could plainly see, then move into the least noticed ones, thus helping more people in your congregation recognize maybe even in their own lives or the lives of their co-workers or neighbors what they may not have seen before. There are in fact disciples and groups of disciples living this way everywhere. They just need to be named to be seen, celebrated, and learned from.
- Remember, all throughout this season, the ministry focus is not primarily about preparing people for “jobs in the church” or even official ministries of the congregation. It’s about preparing disciples to live out their discipleship in all of the ways and contexts they are on mission with Christ in the world. Considering the actual amount of time people spend on congregation-related activities per week, the primary locale where they live out their discipleship is likely to be work, or school, or their neighborhood, places where “church programs” as such may have little if any impact (or even competence!). So the focus of your efforts during this season should probably be less about “what can we help people discover they can do for the church, or through the church” and much more on “how can we help people discover how they can be the church wherever they are.”
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Embodying the Word: Confessions of Faith for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
If your congregation has fallen away from using creeds or confessions of faith in worship, or simply never adopted the practice for a particular service, the Easter Season is a good time to reclaim or start. Week after week, the Scriptures boldly declare the resurrection of Jesus. Why shouldn’t the body of Christ respond with an equally bold declaration?
The key is to declare them boldly. No mere reading. No muttering. The creeds and confessions of faith are there for the whole worshiping community to proclaim aloud, with confidence and joy!
Psalm 23 is usually something we pray or sing. Today it could easily function as something we confess in response to the word proclaimed, especially if you have focused on John. See the variety of United Methodist options in the Scripture notes above.
A Modern Affirmation (UMH 885) would be a fitting confession if you are focusing on Acts and I Peter.
The World Methodist Social Affirmation (UMH 886) resonates with the images of suffering found in I Peter.
- BOW 450 (John)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
And also with you.
Jesus calls us by name and leads us.
We follow him because we know his voice.
- BOW 393 (John)
- BOW 466 (Acts)
- BOW 396 (Psalm, John)
- BOW 399, Week 4 (Psalm, John)
- BOW 518 (Acts)
- BOW 519 (Acts)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Kenya, Tanzania
Unison Reading of Psalm 23
BOW 145 (Psalm)
Poem or Hymn
UMH 342 (Tune: ST. PETERSBURG, 153) "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin" (Psalm, John)
- BOW 66-67
- UMH Word and Table II, p. 13-14: inserting the following at the asterisks
first *: You created us in love and made covenant
to be to us a shepherd
restoring our souls and leading us in paths of righteousness.
When we rebelled and went astray, you did not desert us.
You sent the prophets to call us back to you.
When we were in exile, you returned us to the land of promise.
second *: He called his disciples,
proclaimed your reign of love and justice,
ate with the lost,
suffered death upon the cross,
and made himself known to us in the breaking of bread.
third *: By anointing of the Spirit
you prompt us to follow his voice and
lead us to share your abundance in a needy and wayward world.
Dismissal with Blessing
- BOW 186, "An Indian Blessing" (Psalm)
Deacon or assisting minister: BOW 559 or
Go forth to love and serve God and your neighbor in all that you do!
Elder: BOW 561 or 565
BOW 565 (Acts)
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