Planning - The Fourth Sunday of Easter
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
The leaders who had Peter arrested for healing the lame man and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus demand by what authority he acted. Peter boldly proclaimed it was by the power and name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and that all salvation there is comes through him.
Psalm 23 (UMH 754 or 137 KJV).
Use response two, spoken or sung. If you will be singing the version on 754, use Tone 1 in E-flat major. Avoid the temptation to sentimentalize this very familiar (and often sentimentalized!) text. Remember that the psalm is a response, NOT a "text" to be preached! Please also see the contemporary musical setting of Psalm 23 by Richard Bruxvoort Colligan.
1 John 3:16-24.
By the authority and power of the Risen Christ, we are led to love not in words only, but also in truth and in action.
The authority of the Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd over his flock, comes from knowing his sheep by name, caring for them, and laying down his own life to protect them. Jesus also notes his "flock" includes people not in "this fold," and he extends the same mission and care to them.
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Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, "Good Shepherd Sunday" (see more on this below, in Atmospherics).
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church continues and concludes on May 4 in Tampa, Florida. We hope you will encourage your congregation to join in daily prayer for and with their delegates and leaders. See 50 Days of Prayer for General Conference for resources available in multiple languages and by multiple means to help you join United Methodists around the world in daily prayer.
May 3 is the National Day of Prayer. (Note: This link is to the Wikipedia article describing the history of the day and providing other links. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, which purports to be the official voice for the day, tends to limit its reach to one stream of Christians in the United States).
May is Christian Home Month, which includes Christian Family Week, May 7-13.
May 13 (Easter 6) is Festival of the Christian Home/Mother's Day.
May 24 is Aldersgate Day.
May 27 is Pentecost, the culmination of the Great 50 Days of Eastertide.
May 28 is the civic celebration of Memorial Day in the United States.
The fourth Sunday in Easter is often called "Good Shepherd Sunday," in part because the gospel lesson for this Sunday has historically taken up some part of Jesus' description of himself as the Good Shepherd from John 10. Psalm 23 is also used each year on this Sunday.
Let me offer two kinds of thoughts about shepherd imagery and worship today. The first applies for all three years of the lectionary cycle. The second applies to Year B in particular.
In all three years, shepherd imagery is important in the texts. For its original hearers, shepherd imagery provided an immediately understood cultural (and in some places, countercultural) metaphor for how God cares for us and a model leadership in the Christian community.
Most people in the North America no longer have immediate understanding of what shepherding involves, much less what it involved in first-century Palestinian cultures. This makes it more likely that people in our context would tend to have distorted or romanticized views of shepherding that may interfere with hearing the practicality and radicality of the claims these texts are making.
That doesn't mean we should move away from the strong shepherd imagery this day. Instead, develop ways with your worship planning team to explain it, perhaps expanding it with reference to other images that may make a more immediate connection in your particular context.
For example, you might think of "cowboy" imagery if you're in a ranching area, or images of coaches who model being with and for the team. If you're near motion picture production or have a lot of movie fans in the congregation, consider images of movie directors, perhaps especially actors/directors. In some places, factory floor leadership (forepersons), union leadership, business leaders, or leaders of movements for social improvement or change may be the most visible public parallels. Whatever you use, try to gather and consider how to weave together images and stories of local people in action, people your congregation knows or can relate to, illustrating some part of the shepherding role. For soundscapes: Although the sounds of sheep in a flock would probably be one of the choices you'd consider, think also about the sounds that people in other professions are cuing in on to help discern their next best step for the group as a whole and for each member of it.
In Year B in particular, the underlying theme is the authority and power of the Risen Lord who is our Good Shepherd. It is not simply that Jesus is caring and committed like a Good Shepherd; it is that this Good Shepherd exercises authority among us. Our role, as his sheep, is to follow him (Acts and I John) and remind others that all the salvation there is comes through him.
Atmospherics: The Texts
The authority question is front and center in Acts 4, which continues to spin out the aftermath of the public healing by Peter and John in the name of Jesus of a man born lame. "By what sort of power or what sort of name have you done this?" (verse 7), the highest religious authorities in Jerusalem ask Peter and John.
Note the language here. The people asking the questions are presumed to be those in authority. They do not ask Peter and John about authority directly, but about the sort of "power" and "name" they used to accomplish what they did. In other words, the interrogators presume only they have authority. Anyone else exercising power or acting under a name they have not authorized acts without proper authority.
That set of cultural and political assumptions, which would have been widely shared in that culture, makes the response of Peter all the more astonishing. He first sets the record straight about what is going on. Peter and John have been jailed and taken to a public trial before the most powerful religious authorities in the land because a sick man has been made well. The authorities are cracking down on two people who have done a good deed for another person (verses 8-9). What kind of legitimate authority would do that?
Peter answers the second part of the question, the part about the name. "It is in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, that this man has been made to stand before you healthy." The authorities had crucified the one who was deemed illegitimate. God raised him. And now this man is well because of him.
Who has true authority? Surely not the builders who rejected the stone (verse 11). Salvation in every form is by the name of Jesus. Though he was rejected by earthly authorities, he was vindicated and given all authority by the One who is Authority.
In that moment the authorities were shown up and stripped of their power to do anything about either the healing or the continued proclamation about Jesus. Too many people knew this man had been healed by Peter and John and were praising God both for the healing and for the men who enabled it. There was no way to deny the healing and no viable way to punish Peter and John without exposing themselves to public ridicule or uprising. The Risen Lord was the authority, continuing to exercise his authority over disease through his church.
The direct public confrontation of Christian faith with cultural authority is often downplayed or dissuaded by cultural and Christian leadership alike. But it was exactly this that fueled the abolition movement, the labor movement, the temperance movement, the women's rights movement, the Confessing movement in Nazi Germany, the civil rights movement, and the movements that led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa. Such movements were on the offensive, not the defensive. And they held the intellectually rigorous high ground, not content to retreat into mere tradition or to act as the defenders of the positions that had legitimized the powers that be.
These are disciples of Jesus Christ transforming the world!
Where and how does the powerful ministry and authority of the Risen Lord come under "official scrutiny" where you are? How have folks where you are offered ministry in the name of Jesus boldly, ready to answer, and, filled with the Spirit, to expose the foolishness of the powers that be? How will you and your worship planning team incorporate such stories and images in the reading or preaching of this text today?
I John is a hard word about submitting to the authority of the Risen One wrapped in counsels of love. The apostle reminds us it is not enough to say we believe in Jesus. We must act on our faith in practical, hands-on, and self-emptying ways in obedience to Christ's command. If we follow this Good Shepherd, we will lay down our lives for one another (verse 11), because that is part of how he himself has commanded us to love one another (verse 23).
We don't love one another because we feel like it. Let's be honest. Very often we do not feel loving toward one another at all. We do it because Jesus is our authority, and we keep his commandments.
If we find we are feeling good about our relationship with God, that is only because we have actually kept the commandments of Jesus in the first place, John reminds. "Boldness before God," as the Scripture puts it (verse 21), or "Christian self-esteem," we might say, is not based on wishful thinking or feelings of goodwill, but on actually keeping the commandments of our Risen Lord who abides with us as Spirit if we obey.
Acts may feel more comfortable by comparison. It may be easier to ask someone else to recognize the authority of Jesus than to do so practically ourselves, especially if the someone else really needs that lesson! But I John might remind us that Peter and John could not have done what they did unless they were already as submitted to the way of Jesus as this text describes we must all be. Peter was "filled with the Spirit" as he delivered his reply to the authorities precisely because he had been obedient both in healing the man in the name of Jesus and declaring the resurrection of Jesus and the opportunity for repentance and discipleship to him publicly. Peter and John had shown genuine love for this lame man, who was not even yet a brother in Christ, and were close to laying down their lives for him as they had been arrested, beaten, and now were on public trial. Their holy boldness, I John might say, was the direct result of their humble submission to Jesus.
We really do need to hear both sides of this story, don't we? We need to be reminded of our call to public witness and personal submission to Christ's commands, our call to bold proclamation of the faith and the practical living out of it with one another. These two texts, in tandem today, do just that. And they both do that as reminders of the supreme authority of the Risen Lord.
Why is the "keeping the commandments" part of this hard to hear? For some in the United States, it runs against basic cultural instincts for individualism and independence. For others, it reminds us of those who used their supposed superiority literally to "lord it over" others as masters over slaves. The language of "keeping commandments" too often for too many people has reflected relationships of unjust dominance and oppression. The images that come to mind when we think about those who give "commandments" are profoundly negative, perhaps even mean; and when we think of "keeping commandments" ourselves, we may think of passive, or even passive-aggressive resignation.
That is not what "keeping the commandments" means -- not for observant Jewish people and not for Jesus, who was himself Jewish. The verb "keeping" is better translated "observing"; that is, becoming well-practiced in implementing Christ's commandments. The noun "commandment" translates the Hebrew word, Torah, which means "instruction" or "teaching" in the way of life. Keeping the commandments of Jesus is demanding; it demands our all. But what the Good Shepherd demands of his disciples is exactly that we become experts in his Way, that we entrust ourselves to him, and love one another in truth and action as he has loved us.
Keeping the commandments of Jesus is not burdensome, although it is challenging. It is not oppressive, although it may cost us our lives. And it is not tyranny. Rather, it enables us to live with boldness, with spirits free and open before God, because we know as we keep his commandments our hearts cannot condemn us. But none of this is possible unless we do keep his commandments, unless we actually submit to becoming experts in his Way.
Who in your midst lives in ways that show they are keeping the commandments of Jesus themselves, not simply studying them or thinking about them or expecting others to keep them? What do these people have to say about the boldness or freedom of spirit they find as they do keep his commandments? How do these people love in truth and action, not just in words? The idea here is not to put these people on the spot or on a pedestal, but rather to learn from their stories some of what has animated their choices to live in this way and what has happened around them because they have. Perhaps one or more of these persons might suggest a hymn that sings their experience or that keeps them following on the way. What your worshiping community needs to know is that this is both possible and inspiring. You can help them experience some of that inspiration in connection with this text in worship today. When the authority of the Risen Lord becomes personal, lived in daily life and relationships, remarkable transformation takes place.
Year B brings us the second pericope of the "Good Shepherd" sermon from John 10. Last year at this time, we read verses 1-10, where Jesus calls himself "the gate for the sheep." This year's reading (verses 11-18) begins "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd puts his life on the line for the sheep."
Too often this text, when translated "lays down his life for the sheep," means only "dies for the sheep." That's not what the word means here or where we saw it in today's reading from I John.
Death isn't the main point. Life is.
The good shepherd's life is invested for the good of the sheep. If that means at some point the shepherd has to die, so be it. But the real test isn't death; the real test is ongoing, reliable support, day in, day out, good times and more challenging times. One wolf is not much of a threat for a decent shepherd. A good shepherd knows how to fight off the occasional wolf, and does so willingly, and if need be, regularly, as part of the job of caring for the sheep.
It's about a real investment of life for the good of the flock. And it's about real relationships with them, too, face to face, by voice and by name. There are no "generic sheep" in any good shepherd's fold. There are no "generic disciples" in the fold of Jesus. There is each one of us, called and known by Jesus by name. He lays his life on the line for us -- not just his death, but his life, then and now in the power of his resurrection by the Holy Spirit. His life invested for us, in us, that's his authority (verses 14-15).
Verse 16 has been the source of a variety of interpretations. Some see the sheep "not of this fold" as referring to Gentiles, who may later become part of the church. Others see it as referring to people even outside the church proper, but who will still respond with knowing obedience to the voice of Jesus. Either way, Jesus assures that those "not of this flock" will be brought into the one flock under the one good shepherd.
Verse 17 is enigmatic. "This is why the Father loves me. It's because I put my life on the line so that I might receive it back again." Here and in verse 18, "put my life on the line" does refer more explicitly to Jesus' death, but not in a straightforward way. The point of these verses is not that he will die, or even that he will be raised from the dead, but that even when facing death, he himself is putting his life on the line. No one is snatching his life from him. No one is forcing his hand. He is putting his life out there himself, and he will receive it back again himself.
The point is he puts his life on the line, because that's what a good shepherd does; and he is The Good Shepherd. As I John reminds, if we're keeping his commandments, we'll do the same.
Three questions for your worship planning team to consider with this text, then: First, where do you see Jesus, today, calling people by name? Second, where do you see Jesus, today, continuing to lay his life on the line, continuing to invest for the good of his sheep and those not yet of this fold? Third, where do you see others where you are putting their lives on the line, investing their lives into others, not shirking the occasional wolf, but continuing to be faithful?
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This is not a day to help the congregation feel "warm and fuzzy" like sheep, but rather to affirm and challenge them to be like the Good Shepherd. The texts are about action and about how that action is to be done.
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Greeting: BOW 381 (John)
Greeting: BOW 456 (Acts)
Opening Prayer: BOW 393 (Acts, John)
Opening Prayer: BOW 460 (Psalm, 1 John)
Opening Prayer: BOW 437 (Acts)
Canticle: UMH 646, "Canticle of Love" (1 John)
Prayer: UMH 457, "For the Sick" (Acts)
Prayer: UMH 460, "In Time of Illness" (Psalm)
Prayer: BOW 506, "For the Church" (Acts)
Prayer: BOW 507/508, "For Creation" (1 John)
Prayer: BOW 518, "For Others" (1 John)
Prayer: BOW 529, "A Prayer of Saint Patrick" (Psalm, John)
Prayer: BOW 546, "For Those Who Suffer" (Acts)
Prayer of Intercession: BOW 399, Week 4 (Psalm, John)
Prayer of Thanksgiving/Intercession: BOW 398 (John)
The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Eritrea, Ethiopia
Great Thanksgiving: BOW 66-67
or A New Great Thanksgiving for Eastertide
Dismissal With Blessing: BOW 376 (Acts, Easter)