INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - Fourth Sunday of Easter
ACTS 2:42-47. The new faith community needed a specific organizational structure to maintain itself. To this end some very practical steps were taken: Instruction by the apostles, the building of friendships, a communal meal and worship.
The sharing of resources was of particular importance.
Most of the early converts were from the poorer classes rather than the wealthy. Note that they were still accepted as faithful Jews. The formal break with Judaism came at a much later date, nearly fifty years in the future.
PSALM 23. Ancient tradition and a title in the Hebrew scriptures claimed that this favorite psalm was from the hand of David, Israel's shepherd king. Though not entirely impossible, it is unlikely. Reference to the Lord’s house in verse 6 indicates a later date, since the temple was not built until after David had died.
1 PETER 2:19-25. When first written, no scripture passages were divided into chapters, verses, paragraphs or sentences. This reading omits verse 18, which modern versions put as the first sentence of a new paragraph. It speaks of slavery as acceptable in the early church.
What follows is an exhortation to follow the example of Christ in bearing unjust punishment and suffering. The last two sentences, verses 24-25, make a direct reference to Isaiah 53:6-12.
JOHN 10:1-10. We have here words which may not be directly from Jesus, but are John's own interpretation of who Jesus was in the light of the many Old Testament references to God as the shepherd of Israel. Nonetheless, they speak to us of the ultimate significance of faith in Jesus as the way to abundant and eternal life.
Abundant living can be defined only by the depth and meaning of one’s spirituality, not in purely materialistic terms characteristic of the attitudes of some sincere Christians.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
ACTS 2:42-47. What we have in Acts, of course, is information gathered, organized, edited or created by a generation Christian wishing to pass on to his reader(s) (Acts 1:1) a favorable impression of the apostolic church as a creditable institution of no danger to the empire. Scholars generally attribute the work to the same author as the Gospel of Luke and treat the two books as a combined narrative. “Luke” also sought to explain why a Jewish religion should be of interest to Gentiles. By the time Luke wrote (ca. 75-80 CE), it had become obvious that the return of Christ would not happen as soon as first anticipated. Luke=s chief concern lay in the development of the church, not in the second coming of Christ (1:6).
A minority of scholars attributes Acts to a second or even third generation Christian writing early in the 2nd century when the church sought to establish an institutional identity and recount its early history when apostles Peter and Paul each had their own proponents as the major evangelistic leader who shaped that history.
Either position must regard the Holy Spirit as the chief protagonist of the book, not the apostles. The problem lay in how to describe this >hero.= So Luke chose to describe the AActs of the Spirit@ by telling how the Spirit=s >helpers= performed because of this inspiration. Notably, they were always successful under the protection of the Spirit; nothing ever went wrong or bad situations always turned out satisfactorily.
This passage describes how the new faith community met the need for a specific organizational structure to maintain itself. Some very practical steps were taken: instruction of new converts by the apostles, the building of friendships, a communal fellowship meal and worship. The sharing of resources had particular significance. Most of the early converts were from the poorer classes rather than the wealthy. Note that they were still accepted as faithful Jews with free access to the temple (vs. 46). The formal break with Judaism came at a much later date, nearly fifty years in the future of events described here, but close to the time when Luke wrote. Was Luke actually trying to persuade Theophilus, presumably a Roman and perhaps with some influence, of the church=s independence from its Jewish milieu, a tribal community which had always been troublesome for the Romans?
In his 1955 volume *The Apostolic Age,* Professor George Caird discussed the problem that holding Aall things in common@ created for the early church. Some members like Barnabas had been very generous (4:34-37); others like Ananias and Sapphira had resisted the Spirit and held back some of their proffered possessions. (5:1-11) There also appears to have been a conflict about the sharing of food between Jews and Gentiles (6:1-6). Caird came to the conclusion that this was an on-going process, not a single concerted action. There was no Asocialism@ in the apostolic church. Then as now, the church was still learning from the Spirit how to be truly faithful to their risen Lord in economic matters as in spiritual disciplines.
PSALM 23. Ancient tradition and a title in the Hebrew scriptures claimed that this favorite psalm was from the hand of David, Israel's shepherd king. Though not entirely impossible, it is unlikely. Reference to the “house of the Lord” in verse 6 indicates a later date, since the temple was not built until after David had died.
On the whole, the metaphor of the divine shepherd appeared in many OT references (Ps. 100:3; Ezek. 34; 37:24). This should not surprise us because the ancient Israelites to whom the OT authors looked for their definitive traditions were primarily a pastoral people with their chief wealth represented by their flocks. During their early history, they depended on flocks of sheep for most aspects of their livelihood including food, clothing, tent, a medium of exchange and the central offering of ritual sacrifice. Even today in the thoroughly urbanized state of Israel, one can still see Palestinian shepherds with their large flocks on hillsides within a very short distance of Jerusalem and Jericho.
There is a second metaphor which memory frequently overlooks in reciting this psalm. Vs. 5 transfers the scene to the obligatory hospitality which every Middle Eastern pastoral society extended to anyone fleeing from enemies. Tribal feuds caused many such flights. A hunted man merely had to touch the tent of anyone with whom he might seek refuge to lay upon his host the requirement of providing sanctuary and sustenance. As seen by the psalmist, the divine host provides far more than is necessary: indeed a feast with sweet unguents poured on his head and an overflowing wine cup.
The scene again changes to the temple (vs. 6) where the psalmist expresses his delight in continuing to worship as long as life lasts. While this psalm is a favorite for use in modern funerals services when Adwelling in the house of the Lord@ becomes a heavenly image for us, the psalmist considered death as a terminal point to be avoided if at all possible (vs. 4). Nevertheless, who can gainsay the measure of comfort which people still find in this most familiar of psalms.
1 PETER 2:19-25. When first written, scripture passages were not divided into chapters and verses, nor into regular paragraphs and sentences. The selected reading omits verse 18, which modern versions put as the first sentence in a new paragraph. It refers to slavery as acceptable in the early church. It also renders much of what follows somewhat irrelevant. Slavery was, after all, the economic base of Roman society during the early Christian era. Does it not seem inappropriate to cleanse our scripture readings of verses which we wish to ignore, perhaps because they may not be applicable to our modern political economy or just make us uncomfortable? Or is the injustice of which the passage speaks also applicable to the millions of refugees of our time?
This selection comes early in the hortatory section of the letter (2:11-4:11) dealing with the duties of Christians in the world as it was at the time the letter was written. Its exhort the new converts, many of whom would have been slaves, to follow the example of Christ in bearing unjust punishment and suffering. Today, such an attitude is problematic, to say the least. Yet in the past few weeks of 2005 we have seen it powerfully revealed in two very publicly displayed deaths of two people Terri Schindler-Schaivo and Pope John Paul II.
Although Jesus has sometimes been described as both a political and religious revolutionary, this passage seems to warn against resisting the evils of slavery. One of the causes of the fall of Rome identified by historians was the empire=s dependency on a slave economy. Yet, here we have the church allying itself with the contemporary system much as we do in relation to capitalism today.
In the last few sentences, vss. 21-25, there is a direct reference to Isaiah 53:4-12. The two passages can be compared almost word for word. The early church searched the ancient prophecies of Israel for anything they perceived as references to Christ. Obviously, the Servant/Messiah, which they interpreted as the meaning of that passage, have great significance for them. The imitation of Christ has been a powerful motif for Christian behavior since NT times.
In the closing words of vs. 25, the author changes the metaphor from servant to shepherd, a title found in the gospels and presumably one which Jesus applied to himself. But there is a further extension of the metaphor. The Greek text links *poimén* (shepherd) with *episkopos* (KJV = bishop; NRSV = guardian). Could this have any relation to the developing institutional church of the 2d century or is it simply a limitation of the knowledge of Greek among the 17th century KJV translators? The later church developed the concept of its spiritual leaders on as guardians of the faith on Christ=s behalf. It received its most extensive application in the view of apostolic succession of the priesthood and the papal role as AVicar of Christ.@ This concept of ministry still exists in many parts of the church in the 21st century.
JOHN 10:1-10. Would Jesus have spoken of himself in such words as these? Or is this John's own interpretation of who Jesus is in the light of Old Testament references to God as the shepherd of Israel? The claims in vss. 7, 9 and 11, AI am the gate for the sheep .... I am the good shepherd,@ suggest that John created this discourse following his consistent model represented by several other AI am ...@ statements (light - 9:5; living water - 4:10; bread of life - 6:48; true vine - 15:1; the way, the truth and the life - 14:6; the resurrection and the life - 11:25).
All of these statements have theological rather than historical significance. They relate directly to the purpose of the gospel to elicit faith in Jesus as the Word who became flesh, the Christ and Son of God. It is not a mistake to regard them as a remembered sayings of Jesus himself. Nonetheless, we must remember that John wrote for an audience of second and third generation Christians and catechumens some sixty years after the resurrection. His concern was to bring many who had not seen Jesus in the flesh to a strong faith effective for a life of discipleship. He believed that the risen and glorified Christ was now alive in every Christian believer. However we regard them, these statements speak to us of the ultimate significance of faith in Jesus as the way to an abundant life of discipleship here and now, and eternal life in the age to come (vs. 10).
In the details of this passage we also find an understanding of the life of humble Palestinian shepherds far removed from our romantic but highly urbanized view of what a shepherd=s life was like. Every village in the Judean uplands had a common sheepfold where flocks found shelter at night, especially in winter. Stealing sheep was not unknown. Thieves, whether human or animal, would not usually enter by the gate, but over or through a breach in the wall (vss. 1-2). Every morning each shepherd stood at the gate and called his own sheep from the communal flock. Responding only to their own shepherd=s peculiar call, the sheep filed out to be led away to feed wherever pasture could be found (vss. 3-5). Often it was necessary to lead the flocks far into the hills to forage for grass. If too far from the village to return at night, the shepherd sheltered his flock out on the hills in a rude fold with low stone walls. But there was no gate, so the shepherd himself lay down across the opening to protect his flock from marauding animals or thieves (vss. 7-9).
Shepherds were not highly regarded in the social strata of the ancient world. One reason for this lay in the unique odour by which they could be easily identified because they spent so much time with their sheep. Uneducated in a formal sense and frequently exposed to dangers few others would risk, not many sophisticated urban Jews would feel comfortable in their company. To appreciate this humble existence to such an extent as to call himself Athe good shepherd@ speaks of the empathy Jesus might well have had for the Galilean shepherds whom he knew intimately. It is difficult not to believe that this is not just a vignette with which the evangelist was familiar, but the recollection, albeit theologically interpreted, of Jesus himself.