4th Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 13:14, 43-52 Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 John 10:27-30
In the Gospel narratives Jesus disputed with some Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Samaritans, et al.), and with some Gentiles (the Gerasene Demoniac, the Syro-Phoenician Woman et al.). Likewise did the first Jewish Christians engage their co-believers and Gentiles in disputes over Jesus and his Gospel teaching. They were still very much Jews in how and where they worshiped. Paul had been on both sides of the religious argument. His was a radical conversion, having been formerly an over-zealous persecutor of the Gospel community (see Acts 8:1 & 9:1-2), and later became a genuine apostle having personally encountered the Risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9:3ff). After many years of prayer and study, he became arguably the most famous and accomplished of all the Apostolic Christians. In today’s episode, we read of the second of two consecutive Sabbath synagogue visits in Antioch of Pisidia (in modern day south-central Turkey). Omitted from today’s text (see Acts 13:14b-42) is a very fine contrived summary sermon of the history of God’s work through the Jewish People including Jesus’ ministry, teaching and Gospel message. The message was so well received that the people sought Paul and Barnabas to return again the next week, which they did. The second visit (today’s episode) drew the ire and disdain of some other synagogue members. They resented both the message of Jesus raised from the dead and, it seems, the offer of universal salvation more inclusive than that offered by the Mosaic Law, i.e., Paul preached “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (see verse 39). The Good News of the Gospel message both appealed to some and alienated others. In both cases, the offer of salvation changed lives as the audience had known it. For those who embraced the Gospel message as true, there was new found and unending hope. For those who rejected it as false, there was anger at the suggestion that their Jewish faith and culture needed to change (read: evolve, mature, grow, adjust, reform, renew, integrate, etc.). Paul and Barnabas preached a Gospel message of growth and change, a dynamic Gospel. They respected no one’s feelings or religious sensitivities more than the truth and hope of the Gospel message. Perhaps some in today’s Church who are simplistic or act as if they live in bygone eras likewise need to hear the prophetic edge of the Gospel to both free them from oversimplified religious beliefs, and even superstitions, as well as to instil into them the freedom and wisdom by which to engage the 21st Century! Healthy faith must grow and change OR it will necessarily stagnate and become less and less relevant. The Gospel must be proclaimed and lived in era-appropriate terms. The Gospel was and is both conservative and liberal. It saves and conserves that which is crucially important; it frees and liberates us from those things of life and religion which enslave and manipulate. It takes loving, prophetic wisdom, hope and courage to distinguish one from the other.
The text from Revelation is a vision of what became of all who lose their lives in religious persecution for the sake of the Gospel, ultimate salvation in God’s presence! Those who were “sealed” for God were numbered (in the verses immediately before today’s lesson) to be “one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel.” This line is misinterpreted much too strictly by the religious literalists and fundamentalists who are unsophisticated in their use of this entire book. The number 144,000 is a metaphorical number which connoted in the ancient imagination an essentially limitless number. In other words, there is room for everyone in God’s salvation. The people of Israel came to signify the entire human race, the new Israel, the newly redeemed people of God, both Jew and Gentile! Some religious groups today profess that only their own members and, then only some of them (literally 144,000 maximum), can find admission into God’s Kingdom. That is simply silly; don’t be fooled into such a minimal definition of God’s salvation. Receive rather the Gospel of Universal Salvation! Let Christ’s Paschal Mystery – the very reason we are observing this Easter Season of 50 days – be big enough to save the universe and all within it!! Alleluia! Alleluia!
The Gospel lesson is an echo of last Sunday’s dialogue between the Risen Jesus and a newly chastened and humbled Simon Peter. Where Jesus encouraged Peter to “tend my sheep” and “feed my sheep”, today the lectionary takes us back to John’s 10th Chapter where Jesus elaborated on the metaphor of sheep and shepherd. The emphasis was not on the description of what it means to be sheep (according to some, sheep are remarkably smelly and unintelligent animals!), but rather on the relationship between shepherd and sheep. The sheep trusts their shepherd and the shepherd genuinely knows the sheep. It is a relationship of leadership, participation, salvation, affection and all that goes with living life fully. In this case, the shepherd offers the sheep something other than a regular fleecing and ultimate slaughter. The Good Shepherd offers eternal life!
The sheep must focus upon this saving shepherd. Acts focuses on how the Apostolic Church followed the power of God’s Spirit. The Easter Season is sort of a balance to Lent. Lent was a preparatory season for the initiation of the elect and for a renewal of our Baptism-Confirmation commitments. The Easter Season is a season of remembering our acceptance of God’s Holy Spirit, as did the Jewish festival of Pentecost remember and renew the acceptance of God’s Spirit originally experienced at Mount Sinai. Pentecostal acceptance of God’s Spirit replaced the Torah with a divine enthusiasm among all the baptized. By what signs and by what evidence do you see God’s Holy Spirit active in your daily life? How does God’s Holy Spirit reveal it’s power in the preaching and ministry of the Church?
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!!