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God's love pursues us relentlessly

The after-Easter scriptures are wonderful to preach. They concentrate on the love of God, manifested in the Resurrection. They invite us to impress on our listeners that while God has made the ultimate sacrifice quite willingly, we cannot kill God. God laughs in the face of our attempts to remove him from our world, and overcomes our desire to push the holy out of our lives. God will not leave us alone. God’s love pursues us relentlessly, in ways we cannot foretell or evade. God’s love comes for us, like a mother for her crying child, even a child that is throwing a temper tantrum, so that we know we will never be abandoned. In the darkest hour of the darkest night, we are not alone. God is out looking for us, flashlight in hand, calling our names. God is not willing that even one of us be lost, even when we want to be.

Acts 4:5-12
Today’s passage follows the arrest of Peter and John in the Temple (vv. 1-4). And that story needs to be considered before we can get the full picture on our current passage. The apostles had been preaching to the crowd that had gathered when they healed a man “lame from birth.” (See Acts 3:1-10) As the man jumped to his feet, he began praising God, and entered the Temple with them The crowd became sizeable -- after all, who sees a birth-defective man jump down from the litter he’s being carried on and walk away? -- and this, of course, attracted the authorities.

In Jesus’ day, there were many traveling preacher/healers. They were called “magicians” (from “magi” -- those men who came from the East to find the newborn king). They were depended on by the poor especially, who were often desperate for relief from their pain, and had no money for doctors (See Luke 8:40-48). And the combination of healing and preaching was common, because it was understood that relief from sickness went hand in hand with one’s spiritual health. In fact, both in Greek and Latin, one word meant both ‘healing’ and ‘salvation.’

From the authorities’ point of view, every such ‘magician’ had to be appraised. Was he true to Torah? Was he strengthening the Jewish faith, or was he preaching some other form of worship, some other god? Was he playing tricks, or were the cures real and lasting? It was the duty of the Sanhedrin to hear testimonies about those who were found to be deceivers, and to exact punishment. Thus, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin the next day.

When he had an audience in the Temple, Peter had said, “Well, we didn’t do this; God did. We just prayed over him in the name of Jesus, whom the God of our ancestors anointed.” These comments had been aimed mostly at the authorities who were watching -- Sadducees and Temple guards -- as they had always watched Jesus himself when he was teaching. For the people gathered, he adds that those authorities had handed Jesus over to be crucified, even though Pilate had decided to release him.

Peter calls Jesus “the Author of life,” a title which links him to the act of creation. And then he seals their fate by declaring that though Jesus was killed, he was raised from the dead by God. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. The Pharisees ‘knew’ that Jesus was a sinner because he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and Zealots. Jesus was therefore unworthy of such a gift from God, even if rising from the dead were possible. So, they had all they needed to charge the apostles with being ‘false prophets.’

At that point, the captain of the Temple arrested them both and hauled them off to the dungeons.

The next day, the Sanhedrin met to try the apostles. This was the chief body of governance of the Jews and the place where accused heretics (“false prophets” like the apostles and Jesus were tried.1 The question they ask is direct: “by what power or by what name did you do this?” Luke (the author of Acts as well as the Gospel bearing his name) says the authorities often asked this question of Jesus -- “by what authority do you do this?” They are asking a cagey question; only God can heal, and the arresting officers heard Peter say in the Temple that they had healed in the name of Jesus.

Peter, who was one of the first of the disciples called, and one of the small inner-circle within the disciples, answers. He has heard Jesus say on many occasions that the Torah makes a wide latitude around actions which are done in love,2 so he begins slyly: “[I]f we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed… [it is] by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Peter identifies Jesus as “the cornerstone rejected by the builders.”

In doing this, he is directing the attention of the Sanhedrin to Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28. Psalm 118 was evidently sung as an entrance hymn during Temple worship. As the procession of priests and musicians reaches the gates of the Temple, they sing,

“This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.” (v.20)

The next two verses of the psalm point out the features of the entrance as the doors are opened to admit them.

The notes in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible say that this psalm may well be one of David’s, it certainly reminds us of David. We remember that David arrived with food for his older brothers, who would soon be engaged in battle with the Philistines. At that moment, Goliath was issuing his challenge for a hero of the Israelites to come forward to do battle with him. David insisted that he could take on this heathen braggart despite the giant’s size. David was laughed at by those who saw him come forward to face Goliath, but he succeeded. He was, in other words, the stone that was rejected, but became the cornerstone (the king of a united Israel). Therefore, the Christ (who is descended from David) can also be seen as the stone that was rejected but became the cornerstone for a new movement of the Spirit. One might also look at Psalm 118:26, which contains the words that the crowds shouted as Jesus entered Jerusalem the last time.

Peter ends by saying “There is salvation in no one else. . .” (v. 12)

This surely must have infuriated the Sanhedrin, for it challenged their authority. They had a lock on salvation: buy a lamb or two turtledoves and sacrifice them at the Temple. Pay your Temple tax. Say the proper prayers, loudly, even on the street corner (as a witness, of course) and you will earn your salvation. But they were well aware that this is not what Jesus preached.

It is tempting for us, as pastors, to preach repentance. We know a list of sins for which we all must be condemned, and we can enumerate them without prompting.

But there’s a problem with that. We may want to stop any number of behaviors we’ve fallen into (I laughed when I saw a T-shirt that said, “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little”). But that’s New Year resolutions. Repentance is when we realize that we’ve gotten ahead of God and turn around to go back. Repentance is when we notice that we haven’t heard from God lately and stop where we are to apologize and turn back to listen. Repentance is when we realize that sin is spelled sIn and put our ego out of the center of our universe and put God back there. It’s not the things we do so much as it’s the condition of our soul. And for that, we need the one name under heaven . . .by which we must be saved.

Here’s the catch. It is not so easy to preach faith. On the one hand, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) But then there is that vision of John the Divine: Jesus, with a two-edged sword where his tongue should be (Revelation 1:16). We may be able to frighten people into better behavior, but we cannot frighten them into loving God and trusting Jesus’ words.

The political situation here in the United States has shown us in plain sight that while we can pass laws against victimizing those whom we fear and hate, this only suppresses the behaviors. As soon as someone in authority demeans others, it frees those of us with strong prejudices and little power to break loose into violent behavior. If we are going to change the world into Christ’s vision, we must love one another. And only the Holy Spirit can help us do that.

1 John 3:16-24
These little letters from John to the whole church are gems of the Good News. They glow with the fire of emeralds. They shine like refined gold. And they preach Good News. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” “By this we [can] reassure our hearts before him, for God is greater than our hearts.” Here is a man who knows that some of us condemn ourselves too easily. We think that when Jesus said, “Do not judge” that he meant only do not judge others. But we are not to judge ourselves, either. We look at the things we hoped to accomplish that have not taken hold. We blame ourselves when others are angry with us. We are ashamed of the times when we were too tired, too overwhelmed, to do what someone else wanted from us. Even the great saints are guilty of this. When the journals of the great souls are opened, we are shocked, sometimes, to see how harsh they were with themselves.

Mother Theresa said, for example, that “God does not call us to succeed, but to be faithful.” And yet, at her death, the Roman Catholic priests who read her journals saw that she often lamented the things she had not done, and her sense of failure when she was no longer certain that she had done what God wanted. She seemed to have forgotten her own advice.

How hard that is to remember! How fearful so many of us are that a sense of accomplishment will of necessity alienate us from God. How many times we think that to tell our children how well they have done, how proud we are of them, that we will spoil them. How many of us in ministry are still struggling to prove ourselves, still seeking to please everyone, still judging ourselves as not doing enough.

I was asked to do a funeral a few weeks ago, and the son of the man we were mourning said, “Dad was a perfectionist who did not suffer fools gladly. I worked really hard to please him, but was never sure I was good enough. I notice lately that I’ve begun to focus more carefully. I guess his perfectionism is finally taking root in me.” As I began to preach, I turned to this young man and said, “Perfectionism is a sin. None of us can ever be perfect, and to insist that we can be puts us in competition with God, who is the only one who can be considered perfect. And even God, we read in the story of Noah, repented that he had tried to kill off all human beings, because he realized we would never meet the standard he had had in mind when people were created.”

The hope of our faith is “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us…” And of whom is John speaking? God. John is speaking of God. In the very next sentence, he explicitly says “God’s love.” In the next paragraph, he expands on that, saying that “God is greater than our hearts” -- by which he means that God’s love is bigger and wider than ours. We are children of a God who loves us and wants to give us “whatever we ask” because we want to live within the commandments we have been given and want to please God. This life is not a life of grim and relentless self-criticism. Nor is it supposed to be a life of self-destructive listing of all of our short-comings. God’s commandment is to believe in the name of Jesus and to love. Jesus did not say, “Love others more than yourself.” He said “Love your neighbor as yourself. How, then, can we live a life of love if we don’t love ourselves?

If we cannot trust a listing of our good deeds, how do we know we are succeeding in following Jesus?  John goes on, “[W]e know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Unfortunately, in today’s world, many of us feel that we cannot say that God’s Spirit lives in us, guides us, loves us enough that we can be certain that God loves us and wants the best for us. We are told that we are naïve, or self-righteous, when we say that we know that we are loved by God. We hear people, people with wide audiences on TV, mock the idea of people hearing from God, receiving guidance in how to live and love others. We know that we are not perfect, and sometimes we are like Paul, crying out “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19, NRSV) But our failures do not define us.

The reason we must not judge either ourselves or others, of course, is that we are not a finished product. We may be just a first draft at this moment. In any event, we are bound to find a design flaw or two as life goes on. Perhaps this is why patience is the first fruit of the Spirit.

John 10:11-18
I saw a holy card one day at the local Christian book store. It showed a young Jesus, a lamb on his shoulder, smiling as he strode along. I loved it. He looked vigorous, his hair short and curly, his beard nicely shaped, his skin tan, his muscles showing as he propelled himself with a shepherd’s staff.

“I am the good shepherd. I am not a hired man, I own these sheep. If I must, I will die driving the wolf away from my flock.”

Most of us have never been anywhere near a sheep. A great many of us have never worn pure wool, for that matter. We have no idea what a sheep smells like (earthy, a little oily with the lanolin they naturally produce). We have no idea that if a storm comes up, sheep will run before the wind, and if they pile up on a fence or in brush, they will keep pushing, wildly, while those in the front suffocate under the pressure. We don’t know that sheep will not drink from running water -- and if they are desperate enough to try, the lanolin in their wool can keep them buoyant enough to be swept downstream. They are not smart. If you look them in the eye, they stare back vacantly. Sweetly, but not brilliantly.

So, it’s no compliment to be called the sheep of God. We are like sheep, though, in that they will follow their leader wherever they are led. They like to be in a crowd rather than alone. And if things are not going well and they are frightened, they will mill around, bawling.

It was no compliment to be called a shepherd, either. Usually, the owner did not tend his own flock. He sent one of his younger children to watch the flock or hired someone with good references and experience to handle the needs of the sheep. And Jesus’ comments about the hired hand speak for themselves. Furthermore, those who tend sheep have no way to take a hot bath for weeks at a time. When the grass is green, the sheep are kept in a meadow until they’ve torn up and eaten most of the grass, and the shepherds stay in the fields with them. There was also the possibility that the hired hands would kill a lamb and eat it or sell the meat and wool to others to supplement their meager wages. The reputation of hired shepherds was not good.

Those who owned the sheep would often go together to put their sheep to pasture. The flocks would each have their own ram to lead them, but they would be pastured together. When it was time to separate out the flocks and return them to their owners, the shepherds would call for their flock, and the sheep would follow them, because they knew their owner’s voice.

Jesus used this metaphor because the people he talked to knew about sheep. They lived in a pastoral community. Even if they had never owned a sheep or a lamb, they would have seen them in the Court of the Gentiles, because the Temple authorities had given permission for lambs to be stalled there for sale as sacrifices. They would know how loud they can get when frightened, and their frantic bleating would have bounced off the stone walls and floor.

In ancient times, the Hebrews were nomadic shepherds. They depended on their flocks for meat and milk and wool. The death of a lamb was no small thing, because they could not easily replace it. David was said to have been keeping his father’s sheep when Samuel came to anoint the one God had chosen to be king over God’s people. In this way, the king came to be seen as the shepherd over Israel. It was an honorable thing.

But in Jesus’ day, shepherds had fallen in the estimation of the people. They were unclean in the eyes of the Temple authorities. And they were rather poor, so the cost of a ritual bath (necessary if one were to enter the Court of the Men and offer a sacrifice to be restored to favor with God) was too high for most of them. (This helps account for John the Baptist’s popularity; there was no charge for being washed in the Jordan.)

The gospel writer quotes Jesus as saying “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep…. I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus and God are, as John says at the beginning of the Gospel, “of the same substance.” (John 1:1-2) We cannot say that Jesus was brought back to life by the Father. Jesus has the power to take his life up again, even after we were sure he was dead and buried. John says that “[Jesus has] received this command from [his] Father.”

Many years ago, I heard a professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas say that he had heard a sermon in which the pastor had held up a filthy glass. It was unusable, he said. What did we think God would do with such a filthy piece? He set it down on a table, and got out a hammer. “God will smash this glass,” the pastor intoned, “because it is no longer suitable for the purpose for which it had been made!” With that, he drew back his arm to aim a smashing blow to the glass. But as he brought down the hammer, his other hand put a metal pot between the glass and the hammer. The reverberation was impressive! “But Jesus has intervened,” he shouted, “and saved us from the wrath of God!”

“Now,” the professor asked us, “what’s wrong with that story?”

We were all new to thinking theologically. Some of us shrugged. We all looked to one another for a clue.

“What’s wrong with that story is that Jesus was both man and God. Jesus does not need to come between us and God, because God does not want to destroy us. Jesus cannot come between us and God, because he is God -- in carne -- in the flesh! That’s the meaning of the word INCARNATION. God became a man in order for us to know and trust God. God did not demand that Jesus die horribly. God came and laid down his life, willingly, so that we would know how much we are loved by God.”

It was a profound moment. The class was silent for several long seconds before a number of people started to talk, all at the same time.

The early church struggled to understand the crucifixion. How could God be present in the form of a human man? How could God die? Could God suffer? (Yes, God suffers when we suffer, sheds tears when we are devastated.) The councils of the church considered the problem over and over, developing several creeds that said plainly that God shows us three faces: the face (persona) of the Creator, the face (persona) of the Savior, and the (persona) of God the Spirit (pneuma, in Greek; meaning breath, wind, or spirit, and related to the Hebrew ruha used for the breath, spirit or wind that moved over the face of the waters in Genesis 1). We expire (breathe out the breath of God) when we die. We are alive because God has breathed into our flesh. When we die, we expire (breathe out) the spirit, which goes back to God, where it lives forever. We are inspired (breathe in the breath of God) hopefully, as we preach.

“No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own free will.”

There is one curious idea in this passage. John quotes Jesus as saying “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” We may ask, “Who are those other sheep?” Since Jesus was talking to his (Jewish) disciples, most of us were probably taught that Jesus was talking about us, the non-Jewish (Gentile) disciples of Jesus. These words do not exclude the Jews from the salvation (healing) Jesus brought to us poor sheep-like creatures.

Neither can we confidently exclude others who are neither Jewish or Christian. Jesus does not name those sheep. All we know is that “they do not belong to this fold.” So we’d best be careful. We wouldn’t want to exclude those other sheep that Jesus claims to have died for. We need to remember that the great commission tells us to “Go out and make disciples of all nations.” And not to make excuses that God didn’t mean for us to convert those we dislike.


1 There were 71 members of this body, which was seated in a semi-circle (thus the reference that Peter and John were made to “stand in their midst”).

2 This is not to say that Luke’s words “[he} was filled with the Holy Spirit” may be ignored. It still takes the power of the Holy Spirit to bring words from our memories or experiences to our mind at just the right moment.
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