Listening for the Voice

And, welcome once again.  My humble and surprisingly brief take on the texts for Easter 4.

Acts 4: 5 - 12

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

(Saved…   I prefer the better translation… ‘healed’ as in the repairing/reconciling of relationships. ’Saved’ has lost its meaning under the weight of a little too much American fundamentalism).

We continue to extend the story of the controversy over the healing of a lame man by Peter and John as they enter the Temple. Now all the top brass are on hand to join in the interrogation and possible expulsion of those pesky kids from the Temple, once and for all. And, once again, the cornerstone image from Psalm 118 works its way into the narrative.  

What I think we see playing out here is an argument for those who wish to keep the status quo – religious violence is a good thing, be it sacrifice or the violence of exclusion or other punishment – and those who are re-building and re-visioning what their religion could be if the foundation is the stone that was once rejected, but is now precious in our sight; at least in the ’sight’ of those who understand that this new way, this non-violent way, this inclusive way, is the way that God wishes – and in fact has always wished  that we would follow. And, that now is the appropriate time. Don McLean’s Vincent comes to mind… “They would not listen, they did not know how; perhaps, they’ll listen now.”

As Peter and John discovered, though, as have all who have come after them sharing that same hope, that Mclean’s last line rings truer…  “They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will…”

Now, after you read the notes on the lesson from the Gospel, come back and reflect on McLean. And status quo. And, the ability to see clearly.

1 John 3: 16- 24

“How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.“

This passage is the perfect vehicle with which to shuttle back and forth between Acts and the Gospel. A little more context would be helpful – the case every week in lectionary land – but the prior verses talk about Cain and the culture of death and violence – as described in the texts above and below – which is violence in a sense that includes - but is much broader than - physical violence.  (I apologize for that sentence. Paul got nothing on me, eh?)

In just the quote above, you can see some of the questions that are raised by Acts and the Gospel. For example, ‘the abiding love of God’ revealed in truth and action (or, in a grasping of the truth that compels one to action), what is that if not the ‘voice’ of the good shepherd (see below) that reveals to us what is true and good which in turn lead us into right action.’ Refusing to help’ is a form of the violence of exclusion (again, see above and below). Have we decided already who is worthy of being helped? Do we ignore those who lie outside of the boundaries that we have established?

A lot going on here.  Again, I love the way each text rolls into the other and then back again.

John 10: 11 - 18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” 

It is of critical importance to note that this text is taken out of a larger context. Just before we get the famous admonition from John’s Jesus about his being ‘the good shepherd’ and not some hired hand, we find him in a heated debate with the Pharisees about their own special brand of cultural violence, which is on full display in their expulsion from the community of a man who was blind from birth, but… who can now see. (And, apparently much better – and clearer, in an insightful kind of way - than the Pharisees and the sad crew that is tagging along with this prophet from back-water Nazareth).

This drama begins in Chapter 9. Jesus and his own little band of the blind and ill-prepared, pass by a man who was born without sight. They ask, innocently enough, “Who sinned to make him blind? Him, or his parents?” Jesus replies – after one of the most audible sighs in the history of literature – that no one has sinned, but thank God that we have stumbled upon this incredible object lesson.

Now, I invite you to read the whole story in John’s 9th and 10th chapters (Go ahead, I’ll wait…) but the point I want to make is that healing the man born blind sets off a firestorm of controversy, the bottom line of which is about how we a.) delude ourselves and our ability to tell good from evil, and b.) how we then use that ‘ability’ as justification for ignoring or harming – or worse – those we have so designated as being evil. Hence, this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees:

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

They think they are the ones to define what is good and what is evil, who belongs and who does not.  Which is why in the next breath, Jesus says…

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. 

All of this continues with some liberal mixing of metaphors about thieves and bandits and hired hands – all of the truly blind: the Pharisees, the disciples, etc. – and the good shepherd.  The thing to note – and this takes us back to the letter of John – is that the sheep recognize the good shepherds voice, that is, they listen with their hearts and understand what it is they are to do: simply love. The good shepherd brings true sight, heals hearts and makes love and community possible in ways that transcend what we think we know as norms for life together in the kingdom.

Curious to see how this all plays out in a sermon...