Apr 22, 2018: 4th Sunday of Easter (B)

1st Reading – Acts 4:8-12

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said:
“Leaders of the people and elders:
If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.

There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

In today’s first reading, Peter is responding to the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem.  He and his Christian companions have been seized and held overnight in jail for teaching the people at Solomon’s Portico (last week’s reading) and proclaiming that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead.

The next day, where this passage picks up, Peter has been brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning about their behavior, including the healing of the cripple.

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answered them, “Leaders of the people and elders:

Recall that just a short time before this, Peter was afraid to acknowledge to a servant girl that he even knew Jesus.  Here, he speaks boldly to the leaders of the community — the same leaders who interrogated Jesus and handed him over to Pilate to be killed.

If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know

Peter specifically directs his response not only to the leaders, but to all the people of Israel.  He is offering testimony to the entire nation.

that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean

This is the direct answer to the question that was posed to Peter in Acts 4:7: By what power or by what name have you done this?

whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;

The fundamental gospel formula, condensed into a few brief words.

in his name this man stands before you healed.

The formerly crippled man (who was healed in last week’s reading) is visible proof before their very eyes.

He is ‘the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.’

Peter quotes Psalm 118:22-24, employing imagery from the world of builders and construction.

The Jewish leaders are like builders who reject a particular stone as unsuitable, but in the pattern of reversal so prominent in gospel stories, this repudiated stone becomes the cornerstone, the most important stone in the building.

There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

This is not a static statement, but a dynamic pronouncement with powerful salvific implications.  Jesus was not raised from the dead merely for his own benefit.  Rather, his resurrection became the foundation from which springs salvation of every kind.  The Messiah has arrived and opened heaven so that salvation is possible.

The urgency of the gospel message is clear: Jesus is the cornerstone of the building, the foundation upon which the entire community rests.  The name of Jesus is the one and only source of salvation, hence no one can afford to reject it.

2nd Reading – 1 John 3:1-2

Beloved:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.

We continue our six-week study of 1 John. The two short verses that comprise today’s second reading are brimming with theological meaning.

Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.

The first of two themes in this reading is the love God has for believers.  The specific kind of love referenced here (agápē) is transformative; it transforms believers into children of God.

“Children of God” is not a metaphorical title, a legal fiction, or adoption human-style. God has gratuitously given men a strictly supernatural dignity, an intimacy with God whereby we are members of his household with the right of inheritance.

“The grace of our Creator is so great that He has allowed us both to know Him and to love Him, and moreover, to love Him as children love a wonderful father. It would be no small thing if we were able to love God in the way that a servant loves his master or a worker his employer. But loving God as father is much greater still.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (died A.D. 735), On 1 John]

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

As children of God, we are a new reality, re-created as God’s children.  Thus we are not accepted by the world, the old reality.  The world, which is subject to sin, recognizes only its own.  It did not recognize the Son of God, and it does not recognize these new children of God.

The implication: believers should expect the same kind of rejection — and possibly persecution or death — that Christ endured.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.

The second theme of the reading is introduced: eschatological fulfillment.  Using the “now but not yet” formula of Christian eschatology, the author explains that believers have been reborn as children of God (“now”), but the transformation isn’t complete (“not yet”).

Not only is the transformation incomplete, it has not been fully made known to them.

“By writing these things John is exhorting his readers to recognize what it means to be born again of God. He tells them that they are now worthy to be loved as children of God, even in this world, and that the adoption of sons is a reality here and now. For since we now know in part and have the first fruits of the Spirit, we already have something of the adoption of sons and can see what the fullness of it will be like when it arrives.” [Didymus the Blind (ca. A.D. 390), Commentary on 1 John]

We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

This sentence is constructed in Greek with a verb that has no subject.  As such, it is unclear what is being revealed: the transformation from the previous verse, or Christ himself.

Regardless, the theological intent is the same.  The believers are promised an even fuller identification with God.  They will not only be his children, they will be like him, and as such, will see God as God is.

There is a Hellenist influence here.  The Greeks believed that a reality can only be understood by a reality that is similar to it.  We will understand God more deeply because we will be more similar to him.

Gospel – John 10:11-18

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”

The 4th Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the gospel reading in each of the three cycles references the theme of Jesus as shepherd.

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd.

This passage consists of two distinct sections, both of which begin with Jesus’ self-proclamation: “I am the good shepherd.”  In the first, Jesus sketches the external behavior of a good shepherd, in the second, he explains the reason for his unselfish attitude.

The introductory words “I am” (egō eimi) suggest that this discourse is a form of divine revelation.  This becomes quite clear in the second section.

The images of shepherd and sheep may sound strange, even offensive, to contemporary ears, since sheep are seen as animals who thoughtlessly follow the command of their leaders.  In the ancient world, where the majority of people were relatively defenseless, the metaphor not only tempered the power that leaders exerted but also reinterpreted the relationship between leader and those being led.

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

The Greek used here for “good” (kalos) means noble, rather than skilled.

This is not an exaggeration to make a point; the Israelite shepherd frequently risked his life to save his sheep.

A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.

Contrasting himself with a hireling suggests that there is some kind of deep relationship between him and the sheep; a relationship he will further describe in the next section.

Jesus is not like the shepherds who were condemned by the prophets (Ezekiel 34).  They not only failed in their responsibilities, they worked for their own interests and actually took advantage of their charges.  Jesus, on the other hand, is willing to lay down his life for those in his care.

I am the good shepherd,

The second section begins with a repetition of the theme.

and I know mine and mine know me,

In the ancient Middle East, shepherds did not “drive” their sheep, they led them. The sheep were very close to the shepherd, almost like pets. They knew the voice of their own shepherd, and would only follow him.

just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;

The first section depicted Jesus in human terms, as a conscientious shepherd who is willing to protect his sheep to the point of risking his own life.

This second section places this image within the context of a much higher christology.  This shepherd is intimately related to God.  In the Hebrew mindset, to know another is more than being acquainted with that person; it implies the sharing of an intimate relationship.

Jesus has stated that he has this kind of mutual, intimate relationship with his sheep; here, he goes on to say that this relationship is based on the mutual, intimate relationship he has with God.

and I will lay down my life for the sheep.

Obviously Jesus laid down his life for his followers in an analogous but deeper, more profound way.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.

The universality of Jesus’ shepherding is clearly stated.  He is willing to care for and die for other sheep, who, though they are not yet part of his flock, they are nonetheless his.

These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Sheep, even when they are mixed within another flock, can recognize the voice or sound of their own shepherd.  Jesus is saying that these other sheep will recognize him and will then be brought into his flock.

In the end, there will be one flock and one shepherd.

This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. 

The death of Jesus looms large in this reading; this is the third time it has been mentioned in just a few verses.  It is a vicarious death; he voluntarily lays his life down for others.

I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”

The reading doesn’t leave us with his death, but with his resurrection.  It states that God loves Jesus for his willingness to lay down his life and to take it up again.  The high christology can be seen in the apparent control that Jesus has, not only over his death but also over his resurrection.  He has the power to take up his life again.

He has received this power from God.  The universally salvific death of Jesus is the work of the Father through the Son.

Connections and Themes

Easter.   The readings during the Easter season all geared toward the mystagogical catechesis, the instruction that unpacks the hidden mystery experienced in the sacraments of initiation received or renewed on Easter. The chosen readings provide us an extended meditation on the mystery of the resurrection and on our own incorporation into that resurrection through the mysteries of initiation.

This week, two major themes emerge: the one who saves, and the power of salvation.

The one who saves.   The images are striking.  The one who saves is not a mighty warrior who comes in military array.  There are no weapons, there is no show of force.

The one who saves is the one who was rejected.  It is the one who was hunted down, humiliated, tortured, and hung naked on a tree, there to die in shame.

The one who saves is the cornerstone of the building, holding it together, forming a firm foundation so that the structure will not collapse.

The one who saves is a lowly shepherd, entrusted with sheep, not with affairs of state.

The one who saves is an unlikely Savior.  Nonetheless, it is in his name that the crippled man is restored to health.  It is in his name that people take refuge and ultimately rejoice.  He has the power over life and death: both his own, and that of his sheep.

This characterization of the one who saves should give us pause.  Perhaps we look in the wrong places for a savior.  Perhaps we have appropriated the mindset of our day and believe that evil can only be corrected through force.  Perhaps we think it is necessary to be in the public eye and accepted according to popular standards in order to accomplish something worthwhile.  Perhaps we have chosen the wrong stone to hold our edifice together, the wrong leader to ward off threats to our peace and security.  Perhaps we need the insight that comes from Easter faith to see things as they really are.

The power of salvation.   What looks like a healing is more than a mere cure.  The man who was crippled now walks in the power of the name of Jesus, a name that itself means “savior” (Matthew 1:21).  The cure is merely an outward sign of a much deeper inner reality.  The saving power in this name is for all people, even for those sheep who do not yet belong to this fold.  Furthermore, it is for all time; God’s mercy endures forever.

This saving power, this mercy, is nothing less than steadfast covenant love.  It is the kind of love that broke open the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus and overflows as healing grace; it is the kind of love that compels the shepherd to put himself at risk for the sake of the sheep.  It is a love that recreates us as children of God.  This love has already taken hold of us.  Through baptism we are God’s children now; Easter celebrates this reality.  What we will eventually become has not yet been revealed.

When salvation is brought to its fulfillment, there will be a great illumination and we will recognize the marvelous dignity that is ours.  We will see that we have been made like God, and we can now act as God acts.  We can bring the saving grace of God to a world in desperate need of healing.  We can do this in our families, in our local communities, in the workplace, in so many situations of our lives.  Is it any wonder that we would cry out: Give thanks the Lord… God’s mercy endures forever?

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