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APRIL 21, 2013: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Readings: 

Acts 13:14, 43-52
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
John 10:27-30

Every biblical author works from an agenda: an idea which has been spinning around in his or her head long before stylus is put to papyrus. Almost always, something has happened in the community for which they write, something which needs an answer, or at least a little clarification. As I've mentioned often before, if there is no problem, there is no scripture.

One of the major problems which Luke addresses in his double volume work (his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles) is, "Where did all these Gentiles come from?" A movement which began in the early 30s as 100 percent Jewish has, by the mid-80s, become almost 100 percent Gentile. Has this been a mistake? Had Jesus intended this drastic switch from the beginning, but played it close to the vest, sharing his plans with only a chosen few?

It's clear that some first century Jewish critics of Christianity believed the change from a Jewish to a Gentile movement had been Jesus' idea from the very start of his ministry; a way of leading faithful Jews down a road to the extinction of their religion. For them, it was part of a huge anti-Jewish conspiracy.

Luke disagrees. He acknowledges the switch in membership. But he contends this change is due not to some anti-Jewish conniving, but because Jesus' reform of Judaism was rejected by mainstream Jews.

Contradicting Paul's own appraisal of his ministry in the first chapters of Galatians, Luke, throughout Acts, has the Apostle always proclaim the faith first to Jews, then, only after their rejection, does he turn to non-Jews. We hear this Lucan methodology clearly set forward in today's Acts pericope.

Having arrived in Pisidian Antioch on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas first go to the local synagogue and speak about Jesus of Nazareth. Though the pair was originally well received, eventually they encounter opposition from the synagogue's leading members. At this point Paul delivers Luke's thesis: "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles." The rest is history.

This dramatic change in evangelization led our Revelation's author to speak of a "great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race and people, and tongue" standing before God's heavenly throne. No longer is salvation limited to one group. Everyone can participate in the faith of Jesus.

This switch from a Jewish community to a Gentile community also helps us better understand what John is trying to convey when he speaks about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. At this point in salvation history - the mid-908 - it's the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus who is shepherding his people. It's the risen Jesus' voice to which the sheep are listening. It's that voice which is presenting us with the will of the Father.

The historical Jesus was limited by his culture and religion. Eventually his earliest followers discovered that the risen Jesus was free of both those elements. They didn't give up evangelizing when their own people rejected their message. They simply rethought the basics of Jesus' reform, and adapted his message, making it understandable to a people he had never historically addressed.

Most of us, with a little study, can become experts on what the Good Shepherd said in the first third of the first Christian century. But it takes insight and faith to hear what the Good Shepherd is telling us in the first third of the twenty-first century. Perhaps that's why Paul, in I Corinthians 14, reminds us that prophets are an essential element in every Christian community.