May 01, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Mark tells us in Mark 4 that Jesus basically never taught anything without using parables. The Gospel of John famously contains no parables but is instead our sole New Testament source for Jesus’ much-loved “I Am” sayings. But John is honest enough to admit that the “I Am” sayings mostly made no more sense to the disciples than did Jesus’ parables as we find them in the Synoptic Gospels. There surely must have been times when the disciples wanted to shake Jesus and say, “Can you be a wee bit clearer, please!! We could use a little less poetry and more prose, a little less imagery and a bit more good old-fashioned concrete descriptions.” But that was just not Jesus’ style!
John 10 opens with the image of a shepherd with sheep. And the first five verses are all about the shepherd and how his is the familiar and trusted voice for his own sheep. The shepherd makes his distinctive calls and whistles his distinctive tune, and his sheep just know he’s the one they trust to follow. It’s all about the shepherd. He’s the one who comes in through the front gate (and not the one who sneaks in by climbing over the fence). He’s the one who leads the sheep out to pasture. He’s the one whose voice the sheep trust.
The shepherd. It’s all about the shepherd.
But in verse 6 John says that after hearing that, the disciples looked at Jesus with slack jaws and glazed-over eyes. They didn’t get it.
So Jesus explains a bit more. “I am the gate.”
Huh? OK, now it is I, the reader, who is confused, and I imagine the confusion of the disciples only deepened at this juncture. I was expecting Jesus to say what he will eventually say a few verses on in this chapter (though just beyond the boundaries of this week’s Lectionary selection); namely, “I am the shepherd.” After all, the first 5 verses were all about the shepherd. So where did this “I am the gate” image come from and how does it clarify what the disciples found hard to understand in the first five verses of John 10 as it was?
And anyway, how is Jesus’ being a gate helpful? Gates are not real exciting. It’s not the stuff of great art or stained-glass windows (the way the ubiquitous image of the Good Shepherd is). A gate of grey, weathered wood dotted with knot holes and being swung open and shut by some gatekeeper is not as interesting as the human image of a gentle shepherd. Why be a gate?
What’s more, in verse 9 Jesus talks about the need to “enter through me.” But really no one ever actually passes through a gate any more than you could walk right through a door in your house. You pass through the doorWAY, which is the empty space that opens up for you once the door itself is opened or moved aside. But unless you are a ghost, you cannot literally pass through a door or a gate. Indeed, our inability to pass through the wood of a door is precisely what makes the thing useful: exactly because the wood is solid, your being able to lock the door is what prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing.
So what is going on here? Why is Jesus a gate even before he identifies himself as a shepherd? And how does one pass through a solid object? A few thoughts:
First, there is something I read in a commentary a while back. Apparently while doing some research in the Middle East, the Bible commentator ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. “And when they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”
But then the scholar noticed something. “Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in startled wonder.
“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
Here is an image to savor. Perhaps this may explain how Jesus can so freely mix up the imagery of being at once the shepherd and the gate. Perhaps it was possible to be both after all. The gate is the one who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and to keep what is bad at bay. And whether or not the good is kept safe from the bad, the point is that it will be the gate, perhaps the very body of our Lord, that makes the difference.
Actually, it is not certain that this was the precise imagery Jesus had in mind. In fact, verse 3 indicates some kind of actual gate that can be swung open and shut by the gatekeeper, and some commentators have used that feature to this allegory to argue against the notion that Jesus as gate is no more than the shepherd curled up on the ground at the opening to the pen. Again, however, the imagery is fluid enough in these verses that it may be possible to hold both images in creative tension: Jesus may be the gate that gets opened and shut, but perhaps we can imagine that what gets swung open and shut is nothing short of the body of Jesus itself.
However, a main thing to notice in this otherwise lifeless gate image is that it is actually all about life and its flourishing. Thieves and robbers harm and destroy. They take life and livelihood. But as the gate, Jesus protects life in the watches of the night and promotes life during the day by giving the sheep access to green pastures. It is all about life and life abundant, life to the fullest.
It is all about, therefore, that thing called shalom.
But what about that “passing through” part? That seems a little tough to understand whether it is an actual wooden gate or the body of the shepherd. Either way, one cannot literally pass through it—as already noted, you’d have to be a ghost to do that. And maybe that is part of the point, too.
Ordinarily the gate or door needs to be moved aside, it has to yield and give way, in order for a person or a sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. But in a sense isn’t this what Jesus did by coming to this earth? He emptied himself, gave way, he opened himself up by shucking the perks of divinity and glory so that he could come here as a humble servant. He let himself get moved aside–shoved aside, in fact–until finally he was dead.
Yet by God’s power and grace he was raised again. But the resurrected Lord Jesus could do things he didn’t do before and which ordinary human beings don’t do–things like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they were sitting down to eat some bread and fish. Is it too odd to suggest that the same Jesus who said he was a gate through which we need to pass is pointing in some sense to what we need to become in him through baptism? In baptism we die, we drown, we get crucified with Christ, the New Testament claims. Yes, we are raised with Christ, too, but like that risen Lord Jesus we are not the same after our baptismal dying and rising. Having died with Jesus, we now have the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life he has promised.
Jesus is a two-way gate: he not only locks up behind us to keep us safe but also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can know. But whether we are going into the pen or out into the pastures, it is Jesus himself, and his crucified but now resurrected body, that we pass through. We are purified by this baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, re-energized. And this rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced by also the Lord’s Supper. There again we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us–the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life but that, in the ritual act of eating and drinking, passes also through us!
All in all what we find in John 10, and then in the rest of the wider gospel as well, is a marvelous co-mingling of images. We have a living gate, a gate not of wood and steel but of flesh and blood; a living gate that is “swung aside” not because some wood swings on hinges but because Jesus’ body was killed on the wood of the cross. Having been crucified and then raised, Jesus’ new body has the wondrous ability to pass through doors and, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to be passed through as the gateway to new life.
In short, there is just possibly a bit more Eastertide in John 10 than first meets the eye!
As Scott Black Johnston points out in his article on John 10 in “The Lectionary Commentary,” there is some irony in John 10 considering that Jesus makes a big point to say that the sheep know and follow the recognized voice of the shepherd. They don’t listen to a stranger’s voice but they do so to the familiar voice of the shepherd. And yet given all that, how ironic to note that in John 10:6, right after Jesus says all this, we are told that the disciples and others listening to Jesus that day “did not understand what he was telling them.” Apparently even when we recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we don’t necessarily always understand what he is saying to us!
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
Author: Doug Bratt
Some of the Bible’s most intriguing stories involve events or phenomena that are both unprecedented and unrepeated. In those remarkable but rare instances God is uniquely present. However, even those wonderful stories are always only just a beginning.
So when a barefoot shepherd stands before a bush that burns but never burns up, God is uniquely present. Yet it’s only just a beginning. A rag-tag bunch of freed slaves, fleeing their masters, stand in terror before the Red Sea. Yet while God is uniquely present there, it’s only just a beginning.
When a young woman, exhausted by her long trip, gives birth to a son in the midst of ordinariness, God is uniquely present. Yet it’s only just a beginning. At dawn grieving women hurry to anoint a dead body but find only an empty grave. Yet while God is uniquely present there, it’s only just a beginning.
Even in more ordinary places and circumstances that may seem to repeat themselves endlessly, God is present. In fact, we profess that God is present whenever and wherever just two of God’s children come together in Jesus’ name.
So God isn’t just present when God’s adopted sons and daughters gather for worship. God is also among God’s people as we gather in smaller groups. God isn’t just present when Christians celebrate communion together. God is also present whenever God’s people share a meal or some other kind of fellowship. The places and circumstances change. However, one thing stays the same: God’s gracious presence is just a beginning. The only question is, “What does it begin?”
After Jesus ascends to the heavenly realm, his followers gather to wait for God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. What happens on that first Pentecost had neither happened before nor, in some ways, ever since. After all, God Spirit filled Jesus’ followers and instantaneously equipped them to proclaim the gospel in a variety of languages. Yet even that was only just a beginning.
As Will Willimon notes, modern Christianity is sometimes plagued by temporary enthusiasm that quickly burns out. Like eager dieters who sometimes abandon their plans after a few months, some people have short-term religious highs that don’t flower into long-term commitment.
So even when Luke tells us that God converted more than 3,000 people on the first Pentecost, we may be a little skeptical. After all, some outbursts of religious enthusiasm are the beginning of little more than burnout and disillusionment.
However, the story of the early church is remarkably different. God converts about 3,000 people … and it turns out to be only the beginning. Among other things, Pentecost’s Holy Spirit equips Jesus’ followers to boldly tell the truth about humanity’s rebellion against God and God’s longing for us to be reconciled to God.
Yet even that proves to be only just the beginning. The truth God reveals to Jesus’ first followers triggers not just mass repentance, but also a remarkable chain reaction of love. After all, Luke reports, “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Of course, Christians sometimes argue about just what this means. Some say it’s a mandate for us to redistribute wealth. Others claim that the early church’s sharing is a symbol of generosity that we shouldn’t take as an ethical imperative. The interpretations of most of Acts 2’s preachers and teachers probably fall somewhere between those extremes.
On the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit fills Jesus’ followers. But it’s only just the beginning. Those followers proclaim the gospel and invite people to receive God’s grace with their faith. But that’s only just the beginning. God converts about 3,000 of those people. But even that’s only just the beginning.
It’s always been tempting for God’s people to receive God’s grace with our faith and then be, in a sense, done with it. After all, we’re at peace with God and will go to heaven when we die. However, becoming a Christian is always only just the beginning. The question is what the rest of the story will be.
Those who preach and teach Acts 2 might invite people to imagine the rest of that story as being part of a group of people who care so much about them that they’d sell everything they had to take care of their needs. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Because God’s Spirit had given them what Luke calls “glad and sincere hearts.”
We live in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented society. We’re so busy building something for ourselves and those we love that we sometimes isolate ourselves from all but a handful of people. Some of us have found success … and loneliness. Others haven’t been so successful … and yet are lonely anyway.
North Americans live in a culture in which a growing number of communities are virtual. Yet we’re sometimes so busy text-messaging each other that we scarcely have time to actually spend with each other. We’ve built our communities on Facebook and Twitter, but when we actually see each other it’s almost as if we hardly know what to say or do.
Yet today’s burgeoning social media seems to reflect a basic longing for community. After all, why is it that some who are so connected to social media also drift into the “hook-up” culture? Why do people who can instantaneously electronically connect to others still go bar- and club-hopping? Maybe that’s in part because we long for the kind of face-to-face community that social media just can’t create.
You and I naturally long to be part of a community that will tangibly both support us when we struggle and give us opportunities to support those who struggle. We long to be part of a community where we can make some kind of difference.
God creates you and me with a need to be part of a community that helps us remember who and whose we are. So we need to be part of a community that both tells the truth about us and allows us to speak that truth. This morning’s text reminds us that such a community has been God’s gift to us from the very earliest days of the Christian Church.
Among the first Pentecost’s greatest miracles is God’s formation of a community out of people “from every nation under heaven.” Yet that makes this kind of community fairly unique. After all, we often call today’s “communities” networks, coalitions or alliances. Individual agendas motivate many of them. We join at least some of today’s “communities” because of what they can do for us.
Perhaps, as Will Willimon posits, that’s why even some churches promote what they’ll do for their members. We promise to babysit your kids, stir your souls with rousing worship services and even help you shed your pounds. And if we don’t give you enough, you can always go somewhere where they’ll do even more for you.
Yet our text at least suggests that from the very start, the church has always been less about what we get and more about what we give. The church doesn’t promise you you’ll get a lot out of this community. We don’t, for example, promise to fight for your interests or somehow make you feel better about yourself.
Our text reports, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Certainly the Lord was graciously saving people from hell. Perhaps, however, God was also saving people from our delusion that we’re on our own to take care of ourselves.
As one prominent preacher notes, we spend our week dominated by questions about ourselves as well as those we love and like. Perhaps as a result, when we come to church, at least some of us are ready to think about someone else for a change. And if even we aren’t ready to do so, the Scriptures have a way of diverting our attention away from ourselves and onto both the Lord and other people.
We believe that God is graciously in worship spaces, because they’re where God’s children meet for worship. Yet as always, God’s presence is only just the beginning. You and I encounter the Spirit of the risen Christ whenever and wherever Christians gather. But that’s only just the beginning of the story that God equips you and me to write as we leave our churches. The only question is what that story will be about.
Paul Harvey was a commentator who had a radio program called “The Rest of the Story. In it he’d often describe some relatively famous event, and then break away for a commercial. After a commercial, Harvey would then fill in the background or aftermath of that story. He’d then close his program by telling us, “And now you know … the rest of the story.”
God is present among God’s people, by God’s Spirit. But that’s only just the beginning. However, we don’t yet know the rest of the story. So what is the rest of the story God will write through us as well as those whom we teach and to whom we preach?
In an article in the April 1, 2015 issue of The Guardian entitled “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Lange writes, “At the end of last winter, a gigantic billboard advertising Android, Google’s operating system, appeared over Times Square in New York. In a lower-case sans serif font – corporate code for friendly – it declared: “be together. not the same.” This erratically punctuated mantra sums up the web’s most magical proposition – its existence as a space in which no one need ever suffer the pang of loneliness, in which friendship, sex and love are never more than a click away, and difference is a source of glamour, not of shame.
As with the city itself, the promise of the Internet is contact. It seems to offer an antidote to loneliness, trumping even the most utopian urban environment by enabling strangers to develop relationships along shared lines of interest, no matter how shy or isolated they might be in their own physical lives.
But proximity, as city dwellers know, does not necessarily mean intimacy. Access to other people is not by itself enough to dispel the gloom of internal isolation. Loneliness can be most acute in a crowd.”
Author: Stan Mast
On this Fourth Sunday after Easter, all three years of the lectionary cycle have us reading Psalm 23. No wonder some parts of the worldwide church call this Good Shepherd Sunday. It is always good to revisit this beloved piece of pastoral poetry, but it does challenge the preacher and this writer, who wrote on this Psalm just 6 weeks ago (see the March 26 “Sermon Starter” on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website) and a little over a year ago (see the April 11, 2016 “Sermon Starter”).
What can we say on this Good Shepherd Sunday that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Probably nothing, but we can try to find an angle into the Psalm that will help people listen in a new way to these treasured old words. It strikes me that a good way to do that is to focus on the verse that is the deepest darkest part of the Psalm. All scholars point out that verse 4 is the linguistic and theological heart of the Psalm, because it assures us that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the worst times of our lives.
More recent translations have changed the famous “valley of the shadow of death” to “the darkest valley,” because the latter translation allegedly captures the Hebrew better. I can’t speak to that, but I will say that the darkest valley of life is the valley of the shadow of death. So rather than being technically accurate in my sermon, I’m going to be pastorally sensitive and stick with the old translation.
Here’s how I would preach this Psalm today. The Good Shepherd has just emerged from that valley by rising from the dead. Now that ever-living Shepherd is with us as we walk through our darkest valleys, especially the one darkened by the shadow of death. That is the greatest comfort in a Psalm full of comfort. What follows are some practical and textual suggestions from a sermon of mine on this text.
Long ago someone gave me a picture of 15 or 20 German Shepard dogs lined up as if on military inspection. They are all intently watching a little kitten walking past them. Below the picture are these words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
What picture does this text evoke in your mind? We are talking about a Psalm written over three thousand years ago. How can we picture it for our 21st Century listeners? In my church’s library there is a children’s book that does a wonderful job of translating this ancient agricultural Psalm into pictures that are relevant to black inner city children. For our text, it pictures a gloomy ghetto street lined with grubby apartment buildings, littered with broken down cars and torn garbage bags out of which crows are eating. As 4 little children walk to school down this street, they have to pass a drug dealer standing on a corner with his spike collared Doberman and a group of teenaged gangbanger with menace in their eyes slouching on a front stoop. It is a striking 21st Century picture of valley of the shadow of death.
When I read this text, I see a different picture, a picture from my trip to Israel several years ago. One day as we drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho, our bus turned off the modern expressway onto a dirt road that led into the desert. We drove for a while through desolate country. Suddenly the earth seemed to open before us, as a huge canyon plunged away from us. It was rugged and rocky and deep, so deep, hundreds of feet deep, that the bottom almost always lay in shadow. Running through it was a sliver of a stream and alongside the stream there was what seemed to be a little path. “What is that?” we asked our Palestinian guide. “That’s the Jericho Road, where the Good Samaritan rescued the man beaten by robbers.” It was a narrow, lonely, and dangerous place. According to our guide, that’s why the locals called it “the valley of the shadow of death.”
It is entirely possible that David had been to that deep canyon as he led his flocks in search of green pastures and quiet waters. Perhaps that place became for him the symbol of all those dark and dangerous places of life where we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
It’s important to read this verse carefully. It says “the shadow of death”—not necessarily death itself, but its shadow as it approaches like a thief in the night. Jean Cocteau paints this chilling picture. “Since the days of my birth, death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.” David is talking about all those times in life when death’s shadow falls across our path—all those times of trouble and sorrow, of separation and loss, of threat and danger.
He says, “Even though I walk through” that valley….” “Even though.” He has just said that the Lord our Shepherd provides for all our needs—makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside quiet waters, restores my soul, guides my in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, so that I will not be in want. And that is wonderful. But don’t think for a minute that because the Lord is your shepherd, you won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. “Even though I walk…, even though the Lord leads me, I will walk through that dark and lonely and dangerous place.”
This is a very important truth, a part of the terrible realism of the Bible. Being a child of God, part of his beloved flock does not guarantee a trouble free, pleasure filled life. That’s obvious. We all know it, unless we’ve drunk too deeply from the well of the Prosperity Gospel. Yet many of us still get angry with God when we walk through the valley in some way. We act as though this shouldn’t be happening to us, as though it is unusual and we’re being singled out and treated unfairly, when in fact it is the common lot of fallen people in a broken world. This beautiful passage is not a promise of deliverance from the valley, a promise that we will be spared such a walk entirely or that we will be miraculously plucked from its depths before it gets really bad. It is a promise that our Shepherd will be with us as we walk through that valley.
Because of that, “I will fear no evil.” So says David. Can you say that? I ask that, because of an experience I had a number of years ago when I decided to preach on Psalm 23. As I began to meditate of verse 4, I became aware that there was at least one evil that I feared deeply. Do you have such an evil that stalks you? Maybe it’s fear of cancer, of losing your children, of divorce, of not having enough money for a comfortable retirement, or of being abandoned? For me it was fear of Alzheimer’s Disease. My father died of it, and there’s more of it in his side of the family. I found myself thinking it more than I wanted to. I feared that evil; it made me walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The truth of this Psalm helped me greatly with that fear.
David says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me….” That is the epicenter of the Psalm. Indeed, it is the center of the covenant of grace that Yahweh made with his all children. “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” As you walk through history, through all the places of your life, even through that darkest valley, I will be with you.
There’s an old song that says, “You got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself; oh, nobody else can walk it for you; you got to walk it by yourself.” That is partly true. Nobody else can walk it for you; we all have to live our own lives and experience the valley of the shadow. But you don’t have to walk it by yourself. There’s One Other who walk it with you, one who said, “Behold, I am with you to the end of the age.”
Do you remember that old spiritual, “On the Jericho Road?” The refrain said, “On the Jericho Road, there’s room for just two.” Well, that is literally true of the narrow path that winds beside that stream flowing through the valley of the shadow of death in Israel. And it is finally true of the valley you will have to walk through—there’s room for just two, you and your Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Oh, of course, others can walk with us for a while, sometimes for a long while, and that’s a great comfort. I recently read a wonderful little novel entitled Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Set in the high plains of eastern Colorado, it is a story about lonely people: two little boys, Ike and Bobby, who have lost their mother to mental illness; their father, Tom Guthrie, a school teacher trying to raise his sons alone and maintain his integrity in a school that tries to force him to compromise; Victoria, a pregnant teenager whose mother kicks her out of the house; and the McPherson brothers, Raymond and Harold, two tough, taciturn old bachelor farmers who have lived alone all their lives.
All those lonely hurting people are walking through the valley, but they get by with a little help from their friends and family: Ike and Bobby with each other and their dad and a dying widow lady; Tom with a female teacher; and best of all, Victoria with the old bachelor farmers who take her into their farmhouse. It is a beautifully told story of the way we can comfort each other along the way. There’s only one thing wrong with it, and that is the total absence of God. God is not mentioned once. He plays absolutely no role in the lives of these people.
And that is tragic, because, as the old hymn puts it, there comes a time “when other helpers fail and comforts flee.” Then there’s room for just two on the Jericho Road through the valley. At the end of his life Moses puts it in a powerful way in Deuteronomy 31. Humanly speaking, Moses has been the guide for God’s people through that desolate wilderness of Sinai. They are about to cross the Jordan and battle enemies for the Promised Land. But their leader is about to die. As Moses hands the reins of leadership over, he says to Joshua and all Israel: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
“You are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That’s a very important ending, because it gives us a vivid picture of how God is with us, or who this God is. I remember that children’s book on Psalm 23. As those children walk through the valley of the shadow that is an inner city street teeming with crime and violence, they are with each other. But they are just little kids, so that isn’t much comfort. If their grandmother walks with them, or better yet their friendly neighborhood beat cop, there will be a considerable difference in their comfort level. That’s why David adds, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
He picks up on the two simple tools of a shepherd’s trade to convey what a wonderful thing it is to have Yahweh as your shepherd. The rod was a shorter piece of wood, a bit like a police officer’s nightstick, only bigger and rougher. It was an extension of the shepherd’s right arm, a symbol of power and authority. He might use it to throw at a coyote, or to beat a lion, or to guide a stubborn ewe, or to count the flock. It was an instrument of authority.
The staff was longer, a more slender piece of wood with a hook on the end. It was an instrument of support. The shepherd might lean on it himself or use it to rescue a drowning sheep from a raging river by hooking it around the neck with the crooked end. It was a symbol of concern and compassion.
When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil because our Good Shepherd is with us, using his rod and staff to comfort us. Help your listeners to see Jesus Christ striding along beside them, climbing rocks and wading streams, fighting a roaring lion or smashing a coiled serpent with his mighty rod, supporting them with his staff of compassion, reaching out to rescue them from danger with the crook of his loving concern. As Psalm 62 puts it, “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.”
That’s the comfort he gives—not just an arm around the shoulder and a gentle, “there, there, it will be all right;” not a soft pillow or the deadening of our pain; but all the power and love of the Good Shepherd to whom we belong.
1 Peter 2:19-25
Author: Scott Hoezee
If even once you have seen the photo, you know you’ll never forget it. Not so long ago in this country, it was both legal and commonplace to post signs in public places designed to cordon off some people from others. And so a drinking fountain in a hallway might be labeled “Whites Only.” A little farther down that same corridor you might find a public restroom labeled “Coloreds.” Eventually in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a key way to protest such segregation was exemplified by Rosa Parks, who silently took a “Whites Only” seat on a bus. Other such examples abounded eventually.
The photo to which I just made reference (see below) was taken at a lunch counter in a diner in Greensboro, NC, and I was reminded of it vividly about 6 months ago when I visited the Civil Rights museum in Atlanta. They have even recreated the lunch counter there and you can take a seat on a barstool yourself and put on headphones to get an idea of what transpired. Because back then the barstools along that lunch counter were “Whites Only.” But one day some black students—accompanied by sympathetic white students–sat down there anyway. The manager refused to serve them, of course, but they also refused to move, sitting in silence. Eventually the other customers began to hoot and jeer and curse at these people. But they sat stone-faced. So, just to add to the fun, first one person and then another began to pour ketchup and mustard onto the heads of these people. Then someone tore open a bunch of sugar and creamer packets and emptied them out onto the already-sticky heads of the protesters. Then someone snapped the now-famous photo. There these hapless people sat with mustard streaming down their cheeks, their hair matted with ketchup, their faces blotchy with coffee creamer and sugar. They took the abuse, but they did not move.
At Martin Luther King, Jr’s urging, the Civil Rights movement tried to achieve non-violent civil disobedience. But this idea hadn’t originated with Dr. King. King was himself a student of Mahatma Gandhi, who pioneered the method known as Satyagraha, which means “loving and truthful firmness.” Satyagraha, Gandhi said, is a way to be strong but not with the strength of the brute but with the strength one gets from God. As such, Satyagraha aimed for the vindication of the truth “not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.” But as Gandhi knew, not striking back at those who strike at you requires enormous reserves of self-control. Still, Satyagraha said that if words alone did not convince someone, then perhaps they would be convinced by humility, purity, and honesty. An opponent, Gandhi said, had to be “weaned from error by patience and sympathy.” Those who stand against us must be weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated.
It is no wonder that Gandhi has sometimes been called the most Christian non-Christian who ever lived. Indeed, as Louis Fischer wrote in the classic biography of Gandhi, for many years Christian missionaries to India tried to convert Gandhi to Christianity. Gandhi, speaking in a soft voice, often tried to do the same for them! It is also no surprise, then, that even the Christian preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. saw in Gandhi’s words some of the same dynamics that come through the Bible in places like I Peter 2.
Our Lectionary passage is in some ways about what we today might call the mission enterprise of the church. Peter directs us to think of missions in a very different way from how we usually conceive of mission activity. Because Peter suggests that sometimes our most eloquent witness comes not through what we say but through what we do not say. Sometimes we carry out the mission of the gospel not so much through formal programs we launch on the world as much as by how we react when the world inflicts its program on us.
The passage has a bit of a controversial history, however. First, we confront here something that weaves all through the New Testament; namely, the apparent tacit acceptance of slavery (though the Lectionary would have you not notice this by not starting at the logical spot in verse 18). Peter appears not to bat an eye over an institution that we explicitly reject–indeed, we now reject slavery on biblical grounds. That fact alone makes us squirm a little. We wonder why Peter didn’t flat out say what we would now say, and that is that it is morally reprehensible to own another human being, to treat a person as chattel, as property.
But I Peter 2 challenges us even more. Because Peter not only tells slaves to stay put and be obedient, he tells them to suffer in silence even if a given slave’s master is an evil tyrant who beats and verbally abuses his slaves. Peter goes so far as to say that the real test of Christian character comes not when you have a kind master who treats you well but when you have a wretch of a master who is grossly unfair and unjust. This is the feature to this passage that has long worried Christians who are passionate about social justice issues. Because Peter seems to be saying that the best way to be a Christian in unjust circumstances is not to protest, not to seek change, not to confront the abuser. Instead Peter says to just take it. Just stand there and take it the way Jesus took it. But many find that troubling.
What can we say about this and how can we preachers apply this passage fruitfully today despite these issues? Here are a couple ideas:
First, in our conduct before the eyes of the watching world, all of our words and actions need to be a grace and never more so than when we are hurting or suffering. Because the second idea is that we should expect some measure of suffering in this life and when we do suffer, we need to connect this to the cross of Christ.
We begin with the need to be a grace. Twice in this passage the Greek word charis or “grace” occurs in a most intriguing way. It happens in verses 19 and 20. In verse 19 where some translations render the Greek as “it is commendable” if someone suffers unjustly, the Greek literally says that if we suffer unjustly but, for the sake of God, endure it without hitting back, then this reaction is “a grace.” At the end of verse 20 when Peter says that suffering for doing good is “commendable before God,” the Greek again says this is “a grace before God.”
Most commentators are quick to point out that although this is the exact same word used when the Bible speaks about being “saved by grace,” the precise meaning of charis in I Peter 2 is different than that redemptive gift of God. That is true, of course, but having made this distinction, too many commentators then act as though there is no connection between saving grace and this version of grace, and I think that’s a significant mistake.
The New Testament makes clear that all who receive the saving grace of God should, as a result, lead a life filled with little gracelets. Getting graced by God in Jesus makes us gracious people in return. We lead good lives and do good things not because we are trying to earn our way into God’s favor after all and not even only because we are grateful to God. We exude gracelets because this is the inevitable result of having received the big Grace that saved us. Getting graced by God is like getting dipped into a vat of perfume: the residue of the fragrance should waft off of you from then on.
Peter is saying that when the world throws its worst at us, when we get unfairly criticized, this is when we need to be the most mindful of our God and of the grace he has given us in Jesus. But this is not “grace under pressure,” as you sometimes hear that phrase used. This isn’t some generic poise or the ability not to get flustered. The grace we show when we are persecuted connects directly to how we got God’s grace in the first place: through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Our memory of how Jesus willingly suffered without lashing back prevents us from striking out. And when we can resist that natural tendency to seek revenge, then this is a grace in God’s sight. God sees it as a grace because we ourselves display the result of our having received the grace of God. The grace Peter talks about and God’s grace are linked.
Those mustard and creamer-coated people at the lunch counter weren’t trying to witness to Jesus necessarily, but something in their example does highlight what Peter writes in this passage. It may have been difficult to discern at the time what good, if any, just sitting at the lunch counter was doing. But it is all-but certain that they did more good doing nothing than if they had turned around and started smashing mustard jars on the heads of their jeering and leering persecutors.