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The Way of Salvation

goodshepherdActs 4: 1-14
John 10: 11-18
Psalm 23

Introduction to the reading
The reading for today from the book of Acts follows through on the story from last week.  As they entered the temple for afternoon prayer, Peter and John came upon a crippled beggar asking for alms.  But instead of giving him money, Peter told him to stand up and walk.  And lo and behold, he did!  After the people saw the lame man walking and joyfully praising God, they were utterly astonished.

Peter’s response was, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”  The lame man wasn’t healed by the apostles’ power but by faith in [Jesus’] name and the power of God.

At this point, the officials have heard enough…

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

The first line of Psalm 23, which was our Call to Worship, seems to sum up what it means to be saved.

  • Nothing that life throws our way – not the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death; not the evils of the world; not enemies out to get us -   nothing can keep us from God’s protective love and care.  We are saved.
  • Likewise, in the Gospel reading from John, Jesus declares that he gives his very life for us.  No wolf – no enemy, no dark evil – will devour the sheep under Jesus’ protective love and care.  Jesus saves us.

By the time Jesus was born, the vocation of shepherd had fallen into disrepute.  For the nomadic tribes of the ancient Near East, flocks of sheep and goats were the basis of the economy.  Sheep herding was valued and shepherding was a respected way of life.  But when Israel became a settled people with an agricultural economy, herding was less important.  So, in the 1st century, observant Jews classed shepherds, along with tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers, as unclean, as persons with whom they could not eat or even associate.  It is interesting and important to note that the birth of Jesus was announced first to this marginalized group, to the shepherds abiding in the fields.  And now, in the Gospel, Jesus describes himself as one of them; he redeems the image of shepherd and the importance of the flocks.

But despite the lovely bucolic images we might have of flocks grazing peacefully in flower-strewn meadows, sheep require more attention than any other livestock.  They can’t take care of themselves; they are not well-groomed.  They are docile, feeble and fearful, and they have little means of defense.  Sheep need to be led; they won’t go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not take them.  At the back of the flock, it’s easy to lag behind, become distracted, wander off, get caught in a bramble bush.  But when a sheep strays from the flock and gets lost, it can’t find its own way back home.  Someone has to come to its rescue.  Someone has to save it from what it has done to itself.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sets up the contrast between the good shepherd and the hired hand.  The hired hand doesn’t know the sheep by name and doesn’t love them either.  He doesn’t own the sheep; it’s just a job and not a very respectable one at that.  At the first sign of danger or trouble, the hired hand abandons the flock.  The sheep are on their own and that’s a problem.  But the good shepherd – the ideal shepherd – knows every member of the flock and they know him.  The sheep and the good shepherd have a trusting relationship and a mutually understood language.  The voice of the good shepherd is the sheep’s saving grace.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

We move ahead in time to after the crucifixion, after the resurrection.  In the absence of flesh-and-blood Jesus, the apostles are about the business of spreading the word and doing his work.  And they’re not using the sheep and shepherd imagery.  They’re getting tough, right down to people and how they’ve gone wrong.
Peter and John are clear about the sin that has taken place.  They had already said what it was to the astonished crowd who witnessed their healing of the beggar:  But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. (Acts 3:14, 15).  

And then to the council of rulers and elders:  “…if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

Quite an indictment.  Jerusalem’s leaders are threatened by this new reality that is appearing all around them.  They are shocked that their authority is being questioned by these two uneducated and ordinary men.  And that 5,000 people were converted to this new Way.  Surely something was happening outside the religious leaders’ control and they are worried, anxious…

And yet we hear words of reprieve, of salvation.  Earlier, Peter had said to the crowd: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins maybe wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…”  (Acts 3: 19,20a)   He offers the same to the council:  “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by mortals by which we must be saved.”  

The name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can be their saving grace if they let it be.  It is as if the voice of the good shepherd is once again calling to sheep who have gone astray, who need to be saved from the trouble they have gotten themselves into ...  if they would only listen, if they would only heed.  

Fast forward now to our time.  In these weeks after Easter, we’ve been looking at what it might mean to live as believers in the resurrection of Jesus in a time when churchgoing – like sheepherding in ancient Israel – is on the wane.  We struggle to hear the voice of our good shepherd above the din of hired hands who clamor for our attention and who claim to be looking out for us.  We need saving from the trouble we’ve let ourselves get into; we’ve let go of Jesus; we’ve tuned out his voice.  For instance:

  • Have you noticed how the “evangelical Christians” have become a political voting bloc?  I don’t hear the voice of Jesus in most of what I hear them say and support.
  • By and large – at least in this part of the country – we have failed to attend to the spiritual growth of our children and youth.  There is just too much else for them to do and a lot of it – rehearsals, trips, games, recitals – is scheduled for Sunday mornings.
  • What would it mean for the way we live if we took Jesus seriously and strove to conform everything we do to his Way?  Could we utter a racial slur or a degrading comment in the name of Jesus?  Could we gossip in the name of Jesus?  Could we call somebody stupid, could we be unkind in the name of Jesus?

There’s just so much lamentation we can do until we admit failure … or until we decide to do something.  For salvation is always at hand.  Remember Peter’s words?  Repent, therefore and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…  There is no salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by mortals by which we must be saved.

You and I, my friends, are the believers of our time.  We are the apostles, the community of the faithful.  We are the body of Christ.  Jesus speaks through our voices, our actions in his name.  We have the power of the Holy Spirit to show God’s saving grace to the world, beginning here, beginning now.  And the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
April 22, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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