Texts: Acts 4:5-12 + Psalm 23 + 1 John 3:16-24 + John 10:11-18
If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we — you and I — became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.
Or, put more simply, if community built on the ideal of power emanating from the people for the sake of the common good fails, it will not be because of how others used their power, but because of how we gave our power up.
How do you give your power up? Under what circumstances do you find it easier to point the finger and blame others for the plight of the present, rather than to acknowledge your own participation in creating the situation you lament? Is it in your workplace, in your relationships with your colleagues? Is it at home, with your spouse or children? Is it here at church, as we face some of the most challenging conversations of our life together? Where is it that you notice yourself telling a story in which everyone else has all the power, and you are a victim of their actions?
We come by it honestly, our inclination to give up our power. We live in a world that creates wealth by assigning blame. Our litigious society rewards people for seeking out lawsuits that might enrich them at the expense of others by assigning blame for every harm. The constant ideological battle that passes for the news paralyses the nation by blaming elected officials and political parties for every ailment suffered by society, creating a culture of fear and mistrust. Rarely are we invited to consider how we ourselves have participated in creating a climate of mistrust, blame, and powerlessness through our own tendency to gossip, criticize and slander rather than truly listen, discern, and collaborate in building the world we need. Instead we settle for tearing down the world we have and wondering how others allowed things to get so bad.
Power is at the heart of the readings that surround us this Sunday, readings filled with images of shepherds and sheep, readings filled with conflict between people assumed to have power and people challenging the arrangement of power.
In the reading from Acts, we hear that Peter has been brought before the high priest to account for actions that have landed him in jail. If we go back to the preceding chapters we learn that Peter and John had healed a man whom scripture describes as being “lame from birth.” Each day he would rest near the gate near the temple, begging for just enough to get by. Peter tells him, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6) Immediately the man leapt to his feet and entered the temple, praising God. Peter begins to speak to all who had witnessed the miracle, declaring God’s power to restore people and places left for dead. His preaching lands the disciples in prison, and it is against this backdrop that we hear Peter being questioned by the authorities, “by what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)
Of course, the name by which Peter and John have acted, their authorizing agent, is Jesus of Nazareth, a human being located in space and time, living under empire and challenging the collusion of church and state; and also God’s own beloved, the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ — the two natures being inseparable: a human being acting in space and time and the beloved child of God revealing God’s own self to all the world.
Jesus is navigating a very similar situation in the gospel of John. We get only a snippet this morning of the much longer speech in which he names himself the good shepherd. It is an image that pervades the Christian imagination, Jesus carrying the lamb over his shoulders, a shepherd’s staff in hand.
Growing up in Des Moines there was a mural in the fellowship hall that depicted just such a Jesus cloaked in an orange robe holding two sheep, one in each arm, one black and one white. The artwork was created by Pastor Louis Valbracht in the mid-1960s as an intentional meditation on the nation’s deep racial divides. Pastor Valbracht, who grew up right here in Logan Square, whose father was the pastor here at St. Luke’s from the late 20’s through the mid-50’s, wanted to remind my home congregation in Iowa that the same sweet shepherd who called to them by name was also the shepherd of black women and men beaten and bleeding in the streets. The same shepherd who assures us that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
Again, if we read back, behind the passage assigned for this day, we discover that the incident which has precipitated Jesus’ speech about sheep and shepherds was another healing miracle. In this case, a man born blind. When Jesus heals him of his blindness it creates a scandal as those in power demand to know by what power the man has been healed. As the authorities get tangled up in questions of power, the man who has been healed finds his voice and praises God. Jesus explains the miracle using this metaphor of the shepherd whose job it is to find those who have been lost under the present arrangement of power, and to bring them back inside the fold, to be the gate, to be the guard, to do the work and to pay the price, which he does willingly, of his own accord, because of the great love that exists between the God who creates the world and God’s own beloved who redeems the world.
But it does raise a question for us this morning. The Jesus who declares, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, for they will listen to my voice” (John 10:14) is also the Jesus who lays down his life and dies that we might live. This Jesus is both lamb and shepherd, both savior and sacrifice. This is a thorny truth we struggle with as Christians, uncomfortable with the idea that there is a cost to discipleship. That God issues both invitations and commands, which we are free, we are empowered, to act upon or to ignore. Often our objections are framed as resistance to the notion of a God who demands sacrifice. I wonder, however, if our resistance is actually to the reality that all change comes at a cost, the price of which is not determined by a wrathful God but a greedy humanity, which resists all efforts to curb its consumption with threats of violence. If the God revealed in Jesus Christ will not rest until there is “one flock, one shepherd,” then we, who live on this side of the resurrection, bathed in promises made at our baptisms, must listen to the author of 1 John who reminds us:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)
Truth and action, both of which require us to acknowledge our power and to use it in service of those caught up in the world’s lie that the goodness of God’s creation was only meant for some of us, that a safe home, and an abundant table, and a loving family, and a fruitful marriage, and a rewarding vocation, and a peaceful city, and a just nation, and a redeemed creation are entitlements of the few rather than an inheritance for the whole.
Easter life requires us to understand that the risen Christ rises in each of us. That the Holy Spirit breathed onto the church empowered the Acts of the Apostles. That the only hands and feet God has in the world are ours. This is not a form of “subtle works righteousness,” as Lutherans have sometimes worried. Works righteousness is the idea that we earn our standing before God, we earn our place in the reign of God, through our own actions, by our own merit. This is the exact opposite. This is the acknowledgement that we stand under the grace of God, as citizens in God’s commonwealth, because of God’s goodness and mercy and love. That all that we have and all that we are comes to us as a gift, and that to allow others to suffer second-class citizenship in a world intended for equality is to collude with a world order already governed by a hypocritical myth of meritocracy in which we pretend that everyone has gotten what they deserve while we all suffer the tragic consequences of structures of oppression, but some pay with their lives.
Good Shepherd Sunday is not some sweet, sentimental song to make us feel safe and secure. It is the assurance that God sets a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies, and that we live this life in the valley of the shadow of death, but that we do not walk through the valley alone. It is a reminder that the power of God is not the power of this world, which seizes and hoards, but the power of love, which willingly sacrifices.
To acknowledge our power, and to use it, to spend it, to give it up for the sake of those other sheep, those other human lives, those other creaturely habitats, the whole creation called into being by the God who breathed over the waters and made something out of nothing, is what it means to act in the name of Jesus. It is the movement that gives his name any power at all. It is the life of God coexisting with the fragile humanity we all share. How will you use the power of the name given to you in baptism? How will your life, how will our life together, be a testimony to that power?