Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year A

Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year A

Today’s readings focus on what is a key theme in the Johannine writings, namely, Jesus is the way to authentic life. The dualistic outlook on life in general and on discipleship in particular that has dominated Christian thought, theology and creedal statements since the 300s has, in many ways, overlooked the primacy of the mission statement from John’s Jesus: ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’

Acts 2:14, 36-41

Naturally enough the Pentecost refrain plays through the Scripture readings of these post-Easter weeks leading up to Pentecost. We get a glimpse of the mounting realisation within the company of disciples that the death of Jesus did not mark the end of Jesus’ mission to transform lives. On the contrary, it is building up steam over the days before Pentecost and will burst into pure energy and enthusiasm brought on by the breath of the Spirit.

Luke depicts Peter addressing the crowd that had gathered out of curiosity to hear these Jesus people communicating, as Luke puts it, ‘in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability’. The Lectionary editors have omitted Peter’s initial words, thus denying us insight into Luke’s literary artistry. This whole Pentecost address is worth reading as a crafted unit from Acts 2:14 down to verse 36. A few little details help us appreciate what Peter achieves.

Peter starts by addressing the crowd as ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem’ and later in v.22, ‘Men, Israelites’. These are formal modes of address showing respect for the audience. Then Peter, in typical Jewish fashion, quotes Scripture to demonstrate where he is coming from and to allow his listeners to locate and contextualise his argument and to come onside with his point of view. At verse 22 he goes on the offensive pointing out that his audience bears responsibility for condemning and crucifying Jesus. But this does not bother him because he can assert with confidence that God gave Jesus divine backing all the way. After this, he addresses the crowd as ‘brothers’ thereby increasing the level of intimacy with his audience. Finally, he concludes with unmistakable conviction that God made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.

Luke then shows that Peter succeeded in winning the people over. His Greek reads, ‘They were pierced in the heart’ and asked Peter and the others what they should do. Peter replied, ‘Change’ (metanoia) turn back to God and join the company of Jesus through baptism. Luke underscores Peter’s success noting multiple baptisms, but throughout all of this he highlights the work of Spirit as the energising power of change and conversion.

How good are we at recognising that change for the better might well be Spirit inspired?

Rumi the 13th century Persian poet mystic of Islam wrote, ‘There is a voice that does not use words. Listen.’ It takes mindfulness to hear the voice.

In a world riddled with anxiety Jesus is the one to bring deep tranquillity The Responsorial Psalm fits in here as an affirmation that Jesus is the true shepherd who eliminates fear and danger and gives life and nourishment. In a world riddled with anxiety Jesus is the one to bring rest and deep tranquillity to those who are mindful of their commitment to pursue Christian ideals.

1 Peter 2:20-25

The message in this extract is a virtual next step from the reading of Acts 2. The author reminds his community that the life, suffering and death of Jesus have brought healing and new life to them. The way to sign on to this healing is to adopt the values of Christ and follow his example.

John 10:1-10 Today’s gospel reading is the first part of the well-known Good Shepherd discourse. We encounter here the metaphorical language, with its rich spiritual insights, that is typical of the Fourth Gospel. A feature of the literary techniques of this gospel is the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor to encourage imaginative interpretation and reflection that far surpasses literal reading.

The cultural background to this passage is that every village in Jesus’ day had shepherds who would corral their little flocks overnight in a common sheepfold. The shepherds would roster themselves to guard the sheep overnight from predators. The guard would then stay by the gate to ensure that nobody but shepherds could gain access. In a very real sense this was personal care for the sheep who were a precious part of each shepherd’s livelihood. In the morning the shepherds would come early to collect their sheep. They would whistle or call their flock and the sheep would follow the familiar voice or whistle that they identified with. Jesus makes the point that the sheep would never follow an unknown call for fear that a stranger would not take good care of the flock.

Don’t read this literally. Reflect on it carefully with imagination The John writer adds a sentence that indicates his awareness that the Pharisees listening to Jesus would not get his meaning. We assume he is still speaking to the Pharisees mentioned in the last verse of the previous chapter. There is a provocative irony here because the Pharisees fancy themselves as learned, but it is a black-and-white kind of learning that cannot get outside the constricting tramlines of conventional wisdom.

Jesus, by contrast, is a creative poet who processes with imagination what his senses take in and what his heart feels. This is why he teaches so much through parables and pithy sayings. This is why he was so connected with the people he spoke to.

The more telling impact of the writer’s remark is that anyone hearing this figurative language might take it literally and be totally confused as to what Jesus means. The Greek word Luke uses here is paroimίa, which means figurative language with a hidden meaning. In other words, the John writer is putting the warning up on a billboard: Don’t read this literally. Reflect on it carefully with imagination. Without imagination one can be spiritually deaf and blind.

So, Jesus expands on his parable, saying, ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold.’ This hits squarely on a key theme in John’s gospel, namely, Jesus is for us the way to God, the authentic way to living life in its fullness. Although there is no indication in the narrative that the audience has changed it is clear that the writer now has his own community in view.

I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full

Jesus goes on to say that many others who have come as religious leaders have been revealed by their behaviour to be brigands and thieves merely masquerading as shepherds. Here Jesus is drawing on Hebrew Scripture and on Ezekiel in particular. Ezekiel (Heb. = God strengthens), priest and prophet of the Babylonian exile employed the metaphor of the self-serving shepherds who lined their own pockets at the expense of their people. These were the corrupt civil and religious leaders who led their people astray by not endorsing and living out the standards and ideals of the traditions of Moses. They were bad shepherds, promoters of spiritual poverty and death.

The Johannine writer carefully spells out Jesus’ statement of mission and it was to bring life to us all, that is, life in its fullness.

He did not come to bring organised religion with its structures, creeds and regulations or to teach people right from wrong. Rather, he came to bring life, which derives from a fire-in-the-belly kind of hunger and thirst for what is good and wholesome.

This is what Jesus meant in the Aramaic beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right and just, for they will be satisfied/filled.’ (Matthew 5:6). There is deep satisfaction leading to fullness of life in actively pursuing wholeness and goodness. This positive approach to living does not leave room for negatives.

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. - Parker J. Palmer (American author and educator in education, leadership, spirituality)

The broadminded only see the goodness in people and things; the narrow-minded only perceive the evil. - Chinese proverb

The English professor emphasised over and over again to his class the importance of developing an extensive vocabulary. ‘You have my assurance,’ he told the students, ‘that if you repeat a word eight or ten times it will be yours for life.’ In the back row a young woman sighed and, closing her eyes, whispered softly to herself, ‘Steve, Steve, Steve...’

Laurie Woods