MAY 7TH, 2017: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
"Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles,
"What are we to do, my brothers?"
Peter said to them,
"Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call."
He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them,
"Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."
Those who accepted his message were baptized,
and about three thousand persons were added that day.
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.
When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
There’s no more important question in all of Scripture than which comes from the Pentecost crowd in today’s first reading: “What are we to do, my brothers?” In other words, “How, in the biblical sense, are we to be saved?”
Most of us aren’t familiar with the “biblical” concept of salvation. As the late Marcus Borg points out in his 2011 book Speaking Christian, we hear the term today within a heaven-hell framework. Salvation for most of us simply means we eventually get into heaven instead of being sent to hell. As a Scripture scholar, Borg clearly demonstrates that our sacred authors’ concept of being “saved” is much broader than the simple heaven-hell framework in which we modern Christians place it. Among other things, the biblical quest for salvation implies we live a meaningful, rewarding life right here and now, long before we actually go through those pearly gates.
It’s within that traditional biblical framework that we must hear Peter’s response: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Notice he doesn’t say anything about getting into heaven or going to hell. He’s concerned only with the here and now.
“Repent,” in this context, seems to be an invitation to change one’s value system; to judge people and situations from a totally new perspective – to acquire Jesus Christ’s point of view, the individual in whose name they’re to be baptized. This 180 degree change of moral positioning results in our becoming a totally new person, someone no longer responsible for the sins the old, dead person committed. It’s also at this point that we receive Jesus’ Spirit, the force that not only points us in the right direction, but also provides us with the determination and power to achieve the goals that new orientation uncovers for us. What more fulfilling, meaningful life could a person experience? That’s how our sacred authors looked at salvation.
Our early Christian writers would have been befuddled by our kowtowing to an institutional authority structure, and relying on obedience to rules and regulations to get us into heaven. The unknown author of I Peter tells us the only thing we other Christs are obligated to do: “. . . follow in his footsteps.”
That’s why John takes the shepherd parables found in other gospels and applies the concept personally to Jesus. Only John’s Jesus speaks about being the “good shepherd,” and goes even further by reminding his community that he’s the “gate for the sheep.” Everything in a Christian’s life revolves around his or her relationship with the risen Christ. That’s the perspective from which we view everyone we meet, every situation we encounter. We’re to filter our relationships through his/her frame of mind.
No wonder the earliest Christians believed the Holy Spirit was essential to their salvation. Only she could mesh the risen Jesus into their everyday lives, making this new creation’s priorities their priorities.
I presume by submitting to an authority system and obeying all its rules and regulations, most of us will probably get into heaven one day. But I also presume a lot of first century CE Jews also were content to take that path of least resistance. They simply did what the priests and proto-rabbis told them to do and were content with their lives.
Then one day a carpenter from Capernaum visits their synagogues and offers them a new path to travel, one demanding a core change in their personalities. They’re to put people and their needs at the center of their lives, and shove rules and regulations into the background.
I imagine many of them were happy to see him leave town.