Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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To Shepherd and To Build: Acts 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18
Each of our two readings for the day, Act 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18, has a different and interesting central metaphor for how we are to understand Jesus. Through Christian history, both of these metaphors have taken root in Christian community. If you spend some time among Christians, at some point, you will encounter art and songs and simple short hand for Jesus that includes these phrases. There is even a low-cost loan program from the national office of the United Church of Christ called the Cornerstone Fund. It's a fund that helps church better use their real estate serve God and neighbor. It makes sense that they use a construction metaphor for Jesus as their name. There are churches all over the country... all over the world, really, that have names like Good Shepherd, Shepherd of the Hills, Chapel of the Shepherd, and Shepherd of the Valley. Plenty of Christians understand Jesus as their guide and protector. No wonder so many churches are named shepherd. This Sunday in the church year is even called Good Shepherd Sunday. That probably means "shepherd" is an important metaphor.
The great thing about metaphors is that they have layers of meanings. And, they can be important to different people for different reasons. It's probably worth taking some time to explore just what these two metaphors- Jesus as cornerstone and Jesus as shepherd- have to say to us today. The foundations of the world we know are ever changing. We look for guidance on how to understand Jesus and follow him in a world so different from the one he knew. What does it mean for us to have Jesus as a cornerstone and to follow Jesus as a sheep follows its shepherd? How do these stories live in our everyday context?
First, the cornerstone. The book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It is a collection of stories about Jesus' disciples and their ministry after the resurrection. There was conflict at the end of Jesus' life in Luke. The conflict continued through the early ministries of his first followers. The apostles Peter and John were leaders, and therefore, targets in the early movement. This part of Acts 4 tells a story of a time they arrested and go to trial. They have continued Jesus' ministry of healing, which garners them attention from people who are suspicious of their actions. You see, there was an official religious process to being healed. You went to the temple. Officials in the temple examined you. It was only after this examination and their verification would the community accept that you were healed. In Acts chapter 3, Peter and John bypassed this process, healing a man with mobility issues as they themselves traveled to the temple. They did so without communal authority and they did not direct him to seek official healing. They simply healed him, and then preached about that healing in order to teach people something more about Jesus. As you know, when people work outside of the accepted systems, the people who run the systems don't always like that.
An important thing to remember is that much of the conflict during Jesus and the earliest disciples' ministries was a conflict among people of the same faith. Jesus was Jewish and offered a critique of the practices of many leaders in his tradition. In following his example, Peter and John also offered a critique of their leaders. Now, a generous reading of this courtroom scene would admit that priests, Sadducees, and the captain of the temple had a right to question anyone who was preaching and healing in this place of worship. This was their holy space, they had a responsibility to make sure that anyone healing and preaching there did so in good faith and in accordance with their traditions. They had the right to question anyone who preached or healed there, especially if a preacher was openly critical of their practices. We shouldn't be surprised when they ask John and Peter what gave them the power to heal. We shouldn't be surprised that they want to make sure the healings happen in their God's name.
This is where we are reminded that following Jesus often means being willing to be in conflict with your own leaders. It also means being willing to tell the truth about how you experience God, even when it differs from how others experience God. When Peter and John explained how they could heal the man at the temple gates, they can't help but talk about Jesus. You see, even though Jesus is no longer with them physically, the Holy Spirit is living in them and empowering them to continue Christ's own mission. Peter, though he knew he could be punished, told them about his mission. He told them how Jesus had taught them to heal and taught them about God's beloved kin-dom. He told them about how God had proven stronger than death in the resurrection. And, he reasserted his deep connection to their shared tradition by citing Psalm 118. He believed that this Psalm of Thanksgiving said something about how to understand Jesus. A stone that builders once rejected was actually strong enough to be a cornerstone. Jesus was that cornerstone.
This means that Jesus was the foundation of all they did. Jesus inspired them to heal and to work outside of structures that left little room for grace. Jesus taught them to recognize people in need and to help them, even when it was inconvenient. Jesus modeled truth-telling for them, showing that the truth is important enough that it is worth the risk of telling it. And, he showed them a vision of God who would not let death the last word. Each of these lessons became the foundation for their ministry and for the beginning of the church. With a cornerstone that they could be sure of, they were able to build upon their foundation. We, as inheritors of their traditions, are called to keep on building.
And, what of our second reading, Jesus' description of the Good Shepherd? There are many stories of sheep and shepherds in whole Bible in general, and in John in particular. As members of an agrarian community, the people who listened to Jesus would have responded well to these images. They were shepherds and farmers. They understood the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. Their livelihoods depended upon competent shepherds who could care for the flocks that provided for their food, their religious sacrifices, and their ability to trade with others. It was wise for Jesus to teach using an example of sheep and shepherds. They understood what it meant to care for a flock.
John 10 is actually a story similar to Acts 4, but instead of Peter and John being questioned, it's Jesus. He has just healed someone outside the bounds of their traditional healing rituals. This healing shocked everyone. The leaders of the community, though they don't arrest him, are still suspicious of his power. Jesus takes this time to explain where his power comes from and how he's going to use it with a metaphor that the people understood. Like Peter and John who call up on the Psalms to explain Jesus as a cornerstone, Jesus calls up on the imagery of the shepherd in Hebrew Scripture to explain his ministry. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, he was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. There is a shepherd in the book of Ezekiel, too. That shepherd sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Jesus had sought out this wounded man and healed him. There is also a shepherd in Isaiah. This shepherd comforts and heals his sheep. That is the core of Jesus' ministry: Offering comfort and healing. Jesus said he is a good shepherd. He will do all of these things. He is more than a hired hand. He will call out to his sheep and they will know him. He will sacrifice himself for them.
Throughout John, Jesus functions as this good shepherd. Jesus called out the names of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, first when he healed Lazarus, and second, when he showed Mary that he had risen, inviting them to his flock. He made sure his sheep were safe when he left his disciples in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. He found his sheep when he found each one of his disciples, and called them to ministry. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. Importantly, though, Jesus wasn't the only shepherd. In the days after the resurrection, Jesus told Peter he needed to be a shepherd, too. In John 21, Jesus said, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." He told him, "Tend to my sheep." He said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd. His followers are shepherds, too.
We have Christ as a cornerstone for our ministries of healing and proclamation. We are called to be shepherds and tend to Christ's sheep. We have in these stories, examples of the forebears of our faith risking censure, at best, and imprisonment and death at worst, by following their calling. Ours is a time when there is a great need for builders and shepherds. Ours is culture less concerned with tending and feeding, and more inclined to separating and destroying. As our social safety nets are threatened with budget cuts and our neighbors are threatened because of the color of their skin and the content of their faith, we need people who are willing to stand up, like Jesus, John, and Peter did. People who are willing to be instruments of healing and nurture instead of destruction and greed. There is going to come a time when each of us will have to answer questions about who calls us to such work. May we be willing to live like Jesus is our cornerstone. May we be up to the task of serving as his shepherds.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5130
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3628
J.R. Daniel Kirk: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3630
Mitzi J. Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1250
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.