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Easter 4, Cycle A

God takes charge! Historically this has been “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It was celebrated a week earlier under the theme of the goodness of God. This Sunday was historically a day for rejoicing — a celebration of the various ways in which God has been in charge (Providence and its various manifestations in the Christian life and in Social Ethics).

Psalm 23
This famed Psalm attributed to David, but probably not written by him, is characterized as one of the Songs of Trust (see 9:3-12; 11). Many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about trust in God that all the faithful experience. It concerns itself with confidence in God the shepherd’s [raah] protection and providential guidance (vv. 1-2). The reference to “lacking nothing” may be an image evolved to remind worshipers of how Israel was cared for by Yahweh in the wilderness (Nehemiah 9:21). Reference to the soul being restored (v. 3) is not an indication of the psalmist’s belief in the body-soul dualism many Christians have come to accept through the impact of Greek philosophy. The Hebrew term that appears is nephesh which is nothing more than “life force.”

Yahweh is said to lead us in the right paths (v. 3), living righteously not in the sense of faultless conformity to some moral norm but in the sense of remaining in right relationship with him (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371). Thus we need fear no evil. The rod and staff used by Yahweh to comfort (v. 4) were weapons for fending off wild animals or for keeping the sheep from straying. Reference to a table prepared in the presence of one’s enemies (v. 5) suggests a sacrificial meal in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of his people. To have one’s head anointed with oil, as the verse indicates Yahweh will do to his faithful guests, was a custom of showing hospitality to an honored guest. We are Yahweh’s honored guests! Surrounded by goodness and mercy, the psalmist pledges regular worship in the temple where Yahweh resides for the rest of his life (v. 6).

Application: The Psalm invites sermons on providence, on how God cares for his people and leads us in right relationships with him, protecting us from all that harms. (This could be a good occasion for considering the perennial free will-providence dispute. The song does not opt for determinism but makes clear that our freedom is little more than the autonomy a sheep has in relation to the shepherd’s, whose will usually prevails regarding where the flock are to travel.) The status we have as honored guests of Yahweh (v. 5) provides opportunity to preach on creation and anthropology (human beings as in the image of God) or Justification by Grace. The gratitude that flows from this awareness (Sanctification) is also an appropriate sermon theme.

Acts 2:42-47
The lectionary continues to have us consider this second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). This book is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the church (1:8). There is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author is concerned to stress the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so also makes an effort to validate Paul’s ministry. Concerned as it is to stress the work of the Holy Spirit (Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 221), it is not surprising that much attention is devoted to the first Pentecost. This lesson involves the concluding reports of the events of that day.

Following the mass baptisms on Pentecost (v. 41), it is reported that the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread (a common meal that included the Lord’s Supper) and prayers (v. 42). Awe reportedly came on everyone because many wonders were done by the apostles (v. 43). The faithful at that time seem to have shared all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to those in need (vv. 44-45; cf. 4:32-35, a communal practice mirroring the Essenes who are the source for the Dead Sea Scrolls). Much time seems to have been spent in the temple (the first followers of Jesus continued to worship there as devout Jews), and they reportedly broke bread at home, eating this food with glad hearts, praising God and having favor [charis] with all. Daily more and more joined (vv. 46-47) — a theme regularly emphasized in Acts (6:7; 9:31; 11:1, 21; 12:24; 14:1).

Application: A sermon on this text might focus on God’s governance of the church and its growth, helping the faithful to experience the awe the first Christians felt (Providence, Evangelism/Church Growth, and Sanctification). The importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Christian life is also suggested by reference to the time spent breaking bread and eating with joyful hearts (vv. 46-47). Sermons on the sharing of goods by all the faithful and so a concern for the poor (Church and Social Ethics) are also appropriately rooted in the text.

1 Peter 2:19-25
Likely not written by the apostle due to its high-quality Greek, this book was probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD. It is a pastoral exhortation (circular letter) written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. This lesson is from a discourse on the obligations of Christians, in this case on the need for obedience (to masters). In part, this stress on maintaining the social order was an attempt to undercut Roman assumptions about Christians, who like practitioners of other foreign religions, were thought to practice immorality and insubordination to established social relationships.

After calling on slaves/servants [oiketes] to accept the authority of their masters with all deference (v. 18), it is noted that it is a credit [literally charis, which can be translated grace] to the faithful who are aware of God to endure pain while suffering unjustly (v. 19). In keeping with the Catholic character of the epistle (one of the so-called Catholic Epistles), works are related to grace. But no credit [literally kleos or glory] is to be given, it is asserted, if beaten for doing wrong (v. 20; cf. Colossians 3:22-25). We have been called to endure such suffering because Christ suffered for us. He is said to leave an example [hupogra, which literally translates copy or under-writing] (v. 21). Isaiah 53:5, 12 is paraphrased, witnessing that the Messiah committed no sin and offered no deceit (v. 22). When Christ was abused, the author asserts, he did not return abuse. He accepted suffering and entrusted himself to the one who judges righteously [dikaios] (v. 23). Although we cannot be absolutely certain, the use of this term in 2 Peter 1:1 suggests that the author uses the term like Paul and most Jews in the first century, not as pertaining to justice but as referring to right relationships and setting them right (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). This understanding of God’s righteousness helps explain the logic of the following reference to Christ bearing our sins on the cross, so that free from sins we might live for righteousness (in right relationship with God), healed by his wounds (v. 24). The people are said to have been going astray like sheep but now have returned to the shepherd [poimen] and guardian of their souls (v. 25). The language of Isaiah 53:5-12 may be in the background of this description of Christ. Other scholars suggest that we have in these verses an early Christian hymn.

Application: Like the previous week, the lesson invites reflection on the sense in which the faithful are in exile, enduring the suffering of everyday life and of those emerging from critiques by the broader culture like the recipients of the epistle were (Sin). This opens the door to sermons on how we can endure such suffering. Not only has Christ set us free from the burden of our sins and healed us (Satisfaction Theology of Atonement and Justification by Grace), but as made righteous by him we are now empowered to serve and endure the sufferings (Sanctification). Sermons on this theme will proceed according to how Christ’s role as “example” (v. 21) is interpreted (see above). If he is understood merely as someone to be copied, then we must highlight walking in his footsteps, but if we follow the Greek understanding of examples as underwriting, then our teaching of the Christian life is more about how in all we do Christ is with us (“underwriting” us). Shepherds guide but are not imitated by sheep (see Application of the Psalm).

John 10:1-10
Though John may not have written this late first-century work based on the synoptic accounts of Jesus, a comment by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea is relevant for considering the style and purpose of the gospel. He claimed that the author had perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and been inspired to compose a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). This spiritual approach seems evidenced in how the images are interpreted by Jesus in the lesson’s discourse on Jesus the shepherd who gives his life and is the gate/door [thura] to salvation, an account unique to the fourth gospel.

Jesus begins his comments (presumably to the Pharisees [9:40]) by teaching that anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in another way is a thief (v. 1). The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep, he teaches (v. 2). The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the sheep hear his voice. He calls them by name and leads them out (v. 3). When the shepherd has brought out all the sheep he goes ahead of them and they follow. They will not follow strangers because the sheep do not know their voices (vv. 4-5). Jesus is said to have used this figure of speech, but his followers still did not understand (v. 6). Then Jesus says that he is the gate for the sheep and that all who come before him are thieves and bandits whom the sheep will not acknowledge (vv. 7-8). This may be a reference by John’s version of Jesus to messianic pretenders. As the gate [the Greek term used here thura is more properly translated "door"], Jesus claims that whoever enters by him will be saved. The thief comes only to steal and kill, but he has come to give life [zoe], abundantly (vv. 9-10). (This theme that faith leads to life is regularly made in John [3:36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 20:31].) Jesus is then reported as noting that he is the good shepherd (v. 11).

Application: Understanding Jesus as both the gate/door and the Good Shepherd puts a new spin on his role as shepherd. As the only door to salvation (Justification by Grace Alone), and this could be a sermon in itself, it follows that having Jesus as our good shepherd is not properly conceived of merely as following his moral directives. Jesus’ real role as shepherd is to guide us to himself, to the door of salvation (Justification by Grace Alone). But if preachers want to focus on the implications of this for Sanctification, relating the text to the Psalm and points made in its Application above would be appropriate for this text.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen