May 7, 2017: 4th Sunday of Easter (A)

1st Reading – Acts 2:14, 36-41

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles,
“What are we to do, my brothers?”
Peter said to them,
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call.”
He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them,
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized,
and about three thousand persons were added that day.

Today we continue with Peter’s address to the people on the day of Pentecost, which we began in last week’s reading.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them,

Note once again the change worked in Peter by the Holy Spirit: he preaches boldly whereas only some 50 days earlier he had trembled at the words of a servant girl.  Peter is speaking for all the apostles.

Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus

When Peter declares that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, he is alluding to two pivotal themes of the Jewish faith. Lord (kyrios) was a term of respect used for someone in a position of authority. It was also the Greek word used in the Septuagint as a substitute for YHWH, the personal name of God.  Since the Septuagint was the version of the religious tradition most commonly read in synagogue services of the time, the Jews to whom Peter was speaking would have make the connection quite readily.

Christ (christos) is the Greek translation for Messiah, or “anointed one.”  By employing these two titles, Peter is making astounding claims about Jesus.

This perfectly coordinates the Lordship testimonies of Joel 3 and Psalm 110 with the Messianic argument of Psalm 16. These presentations were made by Peter to the crowd in Acts 2:32-35, which occurs between last week’s reading and this one.

whom you crucified.”

He follows these claims by placing Jesus’ death at the feet of those who are listening to him.  This is not a condemnation of the Jews — Peter has already stated in his address (Acts 2: 23) “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.” They were instruments of God’s will and decree; a part of his plan.

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,

Peter’s words have moved the hearts of his listeners — not with anger or rage, but with remorse.  They had put to death the Holy One, God’s anointed.

and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?”

The openness with which they receive Peter’s words of testimony and accusation indicates that all the Jewish people were not hardhearted.  Indeed, these people are eager to follow Peter’s direction.

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you,

Repentance (metanoia) is a total change of heart, an interior disposition that would result in a new way of life. Baptism was a recognized external rite that would mark the inner change.  Peter’s exhortation was not something new; a similar message and rite was the core of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:3), and some form of baptism was required of Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith.

in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.

While the concept of baptism was not new, the name in which they would be baptized (Jesus Christ) and the gift that they would then receive (the Holy Spirit) was a significant revelation.

For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.”

The promise referred to here is probably a reference to the promise of the Spirit that is found in the prophetic words of Joel (3:1-2 [Hebrew]), Isaiah (44:3), and Ezekiel (36:26-27).  Initially this promise was made to the ancestors of the Jewish people Peter is addressing; however, now it is made directly to them.

The promise is not limited to them but will be offered to generations after them and to people who do not belong to the house of Israel (“all those far off”).  Here we get a glimpse of the reconstitution of the People of God and the universality of God’s call: Jew and Gentile alike are invited to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and be incorporated into the community through the gift of the Spirit.

He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

Not only that part of the Jewish people who rejected Christ and his teaching, but everyone who is estranged from God.

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.

Three thousand may seem to be an excessive number — it might simply characterize the success of early apostolic preaching.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 2:20b-25

Beloved:
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Today’s second reading has two distinct parts, connected by the theme of following Christ.

Beloved: If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.

Suffering of some kind finds its way into the life of every human being, whether that person is religious or not.  At times misfortune may have been brought on by the one suffering, and at other times the afflicted one appears to be innocent of anything that could have precipitated the misfortune.  Enduring misfortune that is either unwarranted or unjustly imposed calls for virtue.

But there is another kind of suffering: the kind inflicted upon one precisely for having done good.  This is the form of suffering being addressed here.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.

Christians have the example of Christ, in whose footsteps they can walk. The word here for “example” is hypogrammós, which refers to a child’s writing exercise.  In the exercise, the letters of the alphabet are copied stroke by stroke from a pattern — suggesting an image of Christians tracing their own manner of suffering from the pattern set by Christ.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

The section of the reading that begins here may have been a primitive Christian hymn patterned after the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah 53:4-7.

Christ’s innocence and lack of vengeance form the pattern of suffering that we are to imitate.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.

When Christians are persecuted for the good they have done, they must be willing to bear this suffering, perhaps even for the sake of the very ones who have victimized them, as Christ did.

He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

Christ is acknowledged as sinless (verse 22 here; also Hebrews 4:15), yet through God’s choice he came to stand in that relation to God which is normally the result of sin — he became part of a sinful humanity so that his sacrifice would allow our sins to be forgiven (see Romans 6:10-12).

“Christ was nailed to the cross, paying the penalty not for His own sins but paying the debt of our nature. For our nature was in debt after transgressing the laws of its maker. And since it was in debt and unable to pay, the Creator Himself in His wisdom devised a way of paying the debt. By taking a human body as capital, He invested it wisely and justly in paying the debt and thereby freeing human nature.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 430), On Divine Providence, 10,26]

For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

At the time and place of this letter, shepherding was a major occupation.  Clearly the image is of Jesus as the shepherd and Christian disciples as his sheep.  Although at times they wander away from him, they will be safe and will prosper if they follow his lead.

Gospel – John 10:1-10

Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Today’s reading takes place about four months before Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. This discourse appears immediately after Jesus’ healing of the man blind from birth (4th Sunday in Lent, Cycle A). Recall that at the end of that story, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees who were unaware of their own blindness. Here, he continues that addresses to the Pharisees.

Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you,

The doubled Amen, when used in John, is an indication that a very grave matter is being discussed — a matter of life and death.

whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.

The imagery here presumes the practice of sheep herding in the Near East.  At the outskirts of the village one would find a large sheepfold, or pen, in which several flocks of sheep were kept.  A hired hand guarded this enclosure, which had only one entrance, secured by some form of gate.

But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,

Both the gatekeeper and the sheep can easily distinguish the genuine shepherd from the intruder.

as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.

As noted before, several flocks were often kept in a common fold. Each shepherd would call out his own sheep in a particular way, and the sheep would recognize his call and follow him away to pasture. This method of herding sheep is still in use in Palestine today.

Note that the shepherd Jesus is describing does not simply call his sheep — he knows them so intimately he calls each by name.

But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

The sheep would not respond to anyone but their own shepherd, so there was no danger in mixing the flocks at night. The Pharisees do not recognize Jesus, but the people of God, symbolized by the man born blind (John 9:1-41), do.

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, 

In John’s gospel, the expression “figure of speech” (paroimía) is preferred to the term “parable” (parabolē), which is found in the Synoptic Gospels.  However, both expressions denote the same general literary device.  The specific form of the device used here is the allegory, the figurative description of one subject under the guise of another.

they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

Jesus contrasts himself, the shepherd, with those who try to enter the sheepfold stealthily.  Thieves and robbers do not come through the gate because the gatekeeper would realize they do not belong.  Unlike the shepherd, who is committed to guiding, guarding, and nurturing the sheep, these others regard the sheep only as potential objects of immediate profit.

The passage implies that the thieves and robbers represent the Pharisees — quite a harsh judgment.  The religious leaders of the day were not interested or invested in the welfare of the people, as Jesus was.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.

There are actually two brief allegories, each being introduced by “Amen, amen, I say to you”.  In the first one, Jesus identified himself as the true shepherd of God’s sheep. Here, he identifies himself with the gate of the sheepfold.

All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Earlier it was the shepherd or the thieves who went in and out of the sheepfold — now it is the sheep.  Those who go through Jesus will be safe within the pen.  Any other entrance will be the way taken by thieves, and the sheep will be in jeopardy.

A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;

Ezekiel 34 castigates the leaders of the people as bad shepherds who fatten themselves at the cost of the sheep.

I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

“Living life more abundantly” certainly refers to more than peace and prosperity in this life.  Some commentators believe it is a reference to a deep spiritual life lived in union with God.  Others maintain it refers to eternal life.

Connections and Themes

The voices we follow.  We all look for leaders who can guarantee our safety and happiness.  For many people this means someone who promises well-being and prosperity, someone who will eliminate the hardships we face and make life easier for us.  It also means someone who will encourage us and affirm us in our endeavors, someone who will tell us we are on the right path.  There is nothing wrong in wanting leaders, both political and religious, who will speak to us in these ways, but these are only half of the responsibilities of leadership.

Some, though not all, would also like a leader who can challenge them to be their better selves, to go beyond the present confines of possibility and attain a greater degree of self-realization — someone who can show them how to live graciously with the burdens of life and the disappointments all of us must face.  They want a leader who will help them recognize and admit when they are in error and help them correct it. They want a leader who is honest about the complexities of life and is able to guide them in dealing with those complexities.

Authentic leadership.  It has been said many times that authentic leadership is rooted in authority.  But then we must ask: Of what does authority consist? It must be more than might or control, because those are often resented and not really followed.  We recognize the voice of genuine authority because it cherishes, guards, and encourages the best in life.  The responsorial psalm for today’s Mass (Psalm 23) lists the characteristics of authentic authority: it provides rest and refreshment, it guides our steps, it nourishes us, it leads us to God.  Peter, as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles, is an example of authentic authority: he proclaims the truth even if others find it hard to hear, he denounces error even when this places him in jeopardy, he calls for a change of heart even when it makes great demands.

Authentic leadership is patterned after the leadership of Jesus.  It is gentle and familiar, as is the voice of the true shepherd; it has won the confidence of those who follow, as did the true shepherd; it is committed to the enhancement of the lives of others, as was Jesus.  Authentic leadership is willing to forgo its own needs and to deny its own interests in favor of the needs and interests of others.

Those who follow.  Heavy demands are placed on those who would follow the kind of leadership depicted in these readings.  Peter’s audience is told to admit their mistakes and repent of them, to turn aside from the corruption of the world in which they live.  Those who would follow the Good Shepherd must follow him in the dark valleys as well as the refreshing streams.  They must be willing to relinquish some of their own plans and self-determination and entrust themselves to his leadership.  They must never forget they are following a shepherd who has paid the ultimate price on their behalf.  This should be both comforting and challenging — comforting that we have a shepherd that loves us with such devotion; challenging because we might be called upon to follow him to death.  Even in the joy of Easter, we must remember that the price Jesus paid was his own blood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s