Reading Ramblings – May 12, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Texts: Acts 20:17-35; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Context: In the Latin (pre-1970) Roman Catholic liturgy, these readings are reserved for the third Sunday of Easter, but the date has shifted now to the fourth Sunday in the liturgical season of Easter. I haven’t been able to track down how or why this tradition began, but it is obviously related to the 23rd Psalm. It might also seem reasonable to have the Gospel from John encompass the first half of chapter 10 instead of the last half, since the first half is his Good Shepherd section. For whatever reason, the lectionary isn’t using that this year, which weakens the Good Shepherd theme considerably. The Epistle reading picks up on shepherd language at one point but it’s hardly enough to carry the theme, even if the scene from Revelation 7 honors and glorifies the Lamb who was slain, but through his death has made possible the salvation of the faithful.

Acts 20:17-35 – Paul’s goodbye address to the congregation he founded in Ephesus is a touching mix of reminding them of the past and preparing them for the future. After his departure from them he will return to Jerusalem, where he will once again face accusations from his opponents that will follow him and necessitate his appealing to the Emperor in Rome for a fair hearing. From Rome he is alleged to have traveled on to Spain before heading back towards Jerusalem, only to be caught up in the persecution of Nero in Rome and executed. His final words here are well chosen. Paul has learned the importance of this. He has to review the past – namely his conduct among them – because in other places (Corinth, Thessalonica, etc.) he has been accused by those who came after him or opponents of the Gospel of being no better than a wandering leech, pawning off fantasies as truth in exchange for personal gain. But this is not what Paul has done. He spent time with the Ephesians and worked to support himself and others rather than relying on their benevolence. He must also speak to them about the future, as he also knows what is likely to happen. Satan will bring others into their midst to confuse or distort the Gospel, or cause divisions among the Ephesians or prompt people among them with strange ideas, seeking to make themselves great. Paul has watched over them as a shepherd but now they must care for one another and should use his own conduct as a model to follow.

Psalm 23 – Perhaps one of the best known passages in Scripture is this short but powerful affirmation of God’s loving care for his creatures. This care spans the speaker’s lifetime, up to the point of death. But it doesn’t stop there. The Lord accompanies the speaker not to or into but through death. On the other side of that journey things are different. No longer is the speaker a metaphorical sheep, but rather a man who can sit at a banquet to be blessed with bounty and richness as those who once sought to destroy him can only watch. This shepherd knows all the needs of the sheep and how to best provide them. Nothing is overlooked, whether physical needs or the emotional and spiritual support to face even death itself. Although the shepherd is no longer an image that evokes strong associations among most Christians, it isn’t hard to identify the kindness and gentleness, the complete and total care of the shepherd for the sheep that should lead the sheep to praise and thank the shepherd, trusting in him completely.

Revelation 7:9-17 – I love to describe this as the great family reunion snapshot, the sight of all the faithful in Christ gathered around the throne to praise him and receive his goodness for all eternity. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked. I like to think that St. John sees even you and I there (and yes, probably himself as well if he looked closely enough!). This is what we look forward, the kick-off party, as it were, to an eternity without persecution and without sin, freed from all forms of oppression or tyranny internal and external. There at the center of it all is the Lamb, the Lamb who was slain but is standing and very much alive now. The Lamb who triumphed over our enemies and is the center of our praise and thanksgiving forever.

John 10:22-30 – Sheep know their shepherd’s voice. Jesus claims that his works bear witness as to his identity; Jesus’ miracles are a second kind of voice in addition to his preaching and teaching. But because his antagonists do not see these works in light of God’s works in the Old Testament, they cannot and will not correctly interpret who Jesus is or what He is doing. It isn’t a matter of whether they have enough evidence – they clearly do! But if they refuse to interpret the evidence properly, to hear the shepherd’s voice properly, then no amount of further miracles will sway them. Those who place their faith and trust in the Good Shepherd (Jesus) rest securely. The Shepherd’s grasp is strong and He will not let them go. Nothing that the Jewish leadership can say or do will change this reality, even if they strike the Good Shepherd and attempt to scatter the sheep. This is what continually confounds the Jewish leadership in the days after the resurrection and Pentecost – the sheep continue to proclaim the voice of their shepherd!

Likewise, there is no power today that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39). We do not ever need to doubt the Shepherd’s grasp, even if we don’t understand where He is taking us at the moment, or would prefer another route, or would prefer to stay and graze. He is the Shepherd and we are not. And if we are confused, or unhappy with what we have to go through at the moment, we rest assured that the Shepherd who has brought us safely thus far will see us through to our final destination around his throne.

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