APRIL 22nd, 2018: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said:
"Leaders of the people and elders:
If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved."
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God's children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
"I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father."
One of the most difficult things for modern Christians to pull off is to put ourselves in the environment of our Christian sacred authors. What triggers them to write, and for whom are they writing? They certainly aren’t writing for followers of Jesus in the 21st century.
I grew up in the 20th century, a period when we regarded our priests as the community’s “other Christs.” They alone did what the historical Jesus did. They, for instance, could definitively forgive sins and make Jesus present in the Eucharist. No one except priests could do either. Those who wanted to receive the “effects” of Jesus had to have priests around.
During my grade school days, I especially felt sorry for Catholics in communist China. How could they get into heaven? The authorities had killed or expelled most priests. Though someone could make a perfect act of contrition and have his or her mortal sins forgiven without priestly confession, our pastor one day mentioned that he didn’t think any of us could ever make a perfect act of contrition. It was beyond our ability. That meant Chinese Catholics were doomed! (Not to mention those unfortunate Chinese who weren’t Catholic.)
Early Christian communities didn’t have to face those problems. No one person was essential to carrying on the ministry of the risen Jesus. As we know from Paul’s letters, the community together makes up the Body of Christ. It’s not complicated. Different people in that body simply have different gifts of the Spirit, enabling them to minister as the risen Jesus to one another. There’s no clergy or laity. No one is “ontologically different” from anyone else. Should a minister die, the Spirit simply makes certain someone else steps in and takes over that ministry – without that person having to go through years of seminary training.
That’s why, in today’s Acts reading, Peter was able to heal the “cripple.” He’s simply taking over the historical Jesus’ ministry. If Jesus healed, Peter heals. The essential thing is simply to continue doing what Jesus did. One reason Luke wrote Acts was to let his readers know this continuation is going on. These “other Christs” are functioning well. Because they’ve made the Christ the cornerstone of their lives, the historical Jesus has become the risen Jesus.
We need only read I John’s passage to hear the identification the writer presumes exists between the risen Jesus and the members of his community. We, like Jesus, are actually God’s children. But in the future we’ll become even more than that; we’ll eventually “be like him.” These first century Christians are something else!
But they also accept the responsibilities of their uniqueness. Not only do they look at Jesus as the good shepherd in their midst, as other Christs, and readers of John’s gospel, they must also be involved in shepherding. It’s one thing to marvel at how the historical Jesus conceived of his ministry of unifying and caring for people, but it’s a whole other thing to conceive of ourselves in that same position. If he was able to pull this off over 2,000 years ago, why can’t we do the same today?
No wonder the gospel Jesus speaks about “laying down” his life for the flock. Bringing people together is a life-long process, especially when it comes to including “those other sheep who do not belong to this fold.” It takes many “deaths” to make people one. It’s far easier to build walls than bridges.
Our sacred authors never planned to write a collection of proof texts intended to maintain an institution. Their goal is simply to encourage their readers to become the person they describe, not a member of the clergy or laity, but another Christ.