Fourth Sunday of Easter



First Reading: Acts 4:8-12; Response: Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2; Gospel: John 10:11-18.

Luke’s Acts of Apostles was probably intended to be the second volume of his gospel. It narrates the origins of the Christian movement, beginning from Jerusalem after Pentecost and ending in Rome with St. Paul under a kind of house arrest. Luke’s two books are both dedicated to Theophilus — a convert to Christianity and probably the patron/sponsor of the expensive endeavor which is so easy for us and so inexpensive — writing. This was a rare skill in the first Christian century, and the materials necessary for writing were beyond the financial means of most people.

Theophilus is a Greek name meaning Beloved of God. The Latin form is Amadeus. The German form is the elegant sounding word Gottlieb. The early chapters of Acts narrate the ascension of Jesus, the novena preceding Pentecost and Pentecost itself. Simon Peter is a major actor in the first 12 chapters but not afterwards. From chapter 13 to the end of Acts, the author concentrates on the work of Saul/Paul of Tarsus.

The context of today’s first reading is the trial of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. The high priestly families, who were deadly enemies of Jesus, became deadly enemies of the apostles and The Way, an early name for the Christian way of life. Luke mentions some of the leaders: Annas and Caiaphas, Jonathon, Alexander. The apostles were arrested after the commotion arising from the healing of a handicapped beggar and the conversions resulting from this spectacular miracle.

The high priestly families were especially outraged because the apostles claimed that the same Jesus, whose destruction they had long planned and accomplished, had risen from the dead. Our reading is part of Peter’s defense of the activities of the apostles. Peter does not mince words as he addresses the powerbrokers in the temple. He claims that the healing of the beggar was empowered by the name of Jesus, “whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” He applies, to Jesus, words of Psalm 118, “He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” The eloquence of Peter the fisherman and businessman is really the eloquence of the Holy Spirit and of Luke composing the defense speech many years after the events portrayed. A short creed closes our reading. “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name in heaven given to the human race by which we are saved.”

Psalm 118 responds to the first reading as the people chant three times, “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” This response is also included in the third stanza of the psalm with this addition, “By the Lord has this been done and it is wonderful in our eyes.” Just as wonderful is to see in Peter’s speech the weaving of the Old Testament into events of the New Testament. The words of the response originally may have been the words of King David thanking God for his victory over the rebellion of his son Absalom. In the New Testament, the same words witness to the victory of the Son of God over the powers of evil.

In the second reading, despite the troubles with which the author of the 1st Letter of John has to face in his Christian community, today’s reading is all positive. The author recalls the Father’s love, which caused us to be children of God. With surprise, he adds, “Yet so we are!” In Roman’s 8:15, St. Paul goes further, when he assures Christians that they can address God with the same affection Jesus displayed when he called his Father Abba. The outcome of this privilege: “We are God’s children now. What we shall be has not been revealed, for we shall see him as he is.”

Theologians have a name for this, the beatific vision.

Good Shepherd Sunday. Like the rest of the New Testament, the parable of the Good Shepherd is intimately connected with the Old Testament in concepts and vocabulary. The term shepherd is widely used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for rulers and, most importantly, for God. The best known example is Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” The Gospel of John breathes the Godness of Jesus even more than the other three gospels. John uses titles for Jesus that are also titles of God in the Old Testament. He begins with the title God in the first verse of his gospel, “. . . and the Word was God.” Other titles either directly or indirectly: I AM, light, king, shepherd, etc.” The point is that when John uses such titles for Jesus they are his claims that Jesus is God. The parable of the Good Shepherd is an echo of and a development from Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel brings the word of the Lord to the shepherds of Israel, the religious and civic leaders.

They had the duty to feed their sheep, the people over whom God set them to serve. Instead, they preyed on their flock to fatten themselves. When their sheep strayed, there was no one to gather them in. The Lord said, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to rest. I will seek the lost, strengthen the weak, and watch over the fat and the strong.”

John begins his parable with a comparison. “I am the good shepherd,” implies that there are not-so-good shepherds. He compares the good shepherd to the hired man who does not own the sheep. When danger threatens, he flees. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Words attributed to Jesus at the end of the parable explain, “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” His death and resurrection are the means by which he shepherds his flock. In the Gospel of John, he lays down his life without protest. In the other gospels, he begs to escape the death that lies in wait for him, but there too, in the end, he submits to his Father’s will. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus insist that his resurrection is by his own power. He is Lord of life and death. Jesus does not forget the basis of his power – obedience to a command from his Father. The Good Shepherd is a universal shepherd, no one excluded. “I have sheep not of this fold. These also I must bring, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”