Date: April 25, 2021
Bible Text: Psalm 23, Acts 4:1-20, John 10:11-18 |
When I was in third grade my teacher held a mock election. Each of us in the class was encouraged to choose either a cartoon donkey or a cartoon elephant to color and glue onto a wooden stick, which we then waved while parading around the yard outside the classroom. I imagine we also voted for one of the men behind the mascots, but I don’t recall that part. It must have been very cute, a passel of eight-year-olds being encouraged to take interest in the democratic process, the bedrock foundation of our society. After school I eagerly showed my mascot fan to my mother, whose gentle explanation that actually she and my father were voting for the man behind the other animal mascot left me nonplussed. Most of my classmates had chosen the mascot that I had chosen; wasn’t that the right way to pick something? But no, wasn’t what my parents chose the right thing to choose? I felt embarrassed and a little ashamed that I had not known the right man to pick, because I picked the wrong way to pick.
At eight, there were, effectively, two ways for me to choose where my loyalty should go: What my classmates said, and what my parents were doing. Forced to choose, I would choose to follow my parents, but that these two might clash at all was unsettling. I could not know of course that this was only a small taste of a significant part of growing up: choosing allegiances, being confronted with another way to choose, and doing the often painful calculus of holding the two (or three or more) up together to examine why you have chosen the way you have, and whether you must admit a mistake and choose differently.
So one thing I am struck by in scripture is the transformation of the disciples between the gospels and Acts. In the gospels they are largely well-meaning but bumbling, wrongest when they are most insistent, unable to understand what Jesus is doing or saying but doing their best to follow him anyway, losing nerve at the vital moment. I see myself in these disciples. In Acts, they are determined, eloquent, brave. They travel to distant lands to tell people about Jesus. Tradition believes that of the 11 apostles besides Judas, all were martyred besides John, who died an old man in exile on the island of Patmos. I see myself less in them. And I have wondered: What happened?
I imagine some of the difference serves a literary purpose, a choice of the writers. But the other thing that happened is Easter. And the other thing that happened is Pentecost. We will bop around all over Acts for the next month and won’t really follow a timeline, but Pentecost is in Acts 2, and we’re in Acts 4 this morning. That is to say: The disciples we follow for much of Acts have abandoned Christ, known him to be dead and themselves to be cowards, seen him risen, and had the Holy Spirit come over them in wind and fire and language. They are changed people. It may have taken every single bit of those intense experiences, but these are no longer Peter the denier of Christ and John who got his mom to ask Jesus to make him important in heaven; these are Peter and John, healers of the sick and defiers of the Sanhedrin. Which is to say: Peter and John and all the rest once chose one way; and now they have learned to choose another. As sheep, they were wayward; and now they have learned to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. They know him, and they know that he knows them, and they know that he did, indeed, lay down his life for them, and then he took it up again. It is Christ who shepherds them, not the councils or governments or battalions of guards that keep order in Jerusalem. So when the high council, the supreme court for the Jewish people under Roman occupation, tells them not to speak about Jesus anymore, they say no.
Now I just mentioned that all of these people end up martyrs. So I think it is fair to ask what Jesus’ shepherding is, what makes it any different from councils or governments or battalions of guards. And I think it has to do with both direction and capacity. Jesus as shepherd means healing of the body and the mind, and it means that the ones he shepherds are not asked for sacrifice and their deaths are not accepted as collateral damage. It is the hired hand whose negligence allows the wolves to get at the sheep—it is false shepherds who allow or even welcome the death of those who follow them. And Jesus the shepherd, having laid his life down not just in rhetoric but in fact for the ones he shepherds, takes it up again for their sake as well. False shepherds, alternative shepherds, they cannot do this: they can take life, but they cannot restore it; if anyone needs to die for anyone else, it isn’t them. Jesus admonishes his disciples while he is living not to fear the ones who have power over their bodies, but to save their ultimate allegiance for God, who oversees even their souls. Then, in dying and rising, he shows them what the one who oversees their souls will do for them: die to take punishment away from them, rise so that they too will rise. Jesus’ shepherding of us does not ask for our deaths, and it does not end at our deaths.
I am belaboring this because we as a nation seem to be confused about what a good shepherd is. It seems to us that our shepherds, the ones who keep us safe, do so by figuring out the right ones to kill, that there are people whose deaths mean that the rest of us are on average safer, either because the dead individual was an active threat or because that kind of person is broadly dangerous or because it means that the shepherds we have chosen need to be able to kill some in order to defend us. And I can’t necessarily speak to the whole nation. But I can speak to the church. And what I wonder is if fifteen hundred years of cooperation between religion and the state, of comfort and power for Christians in the west, has not dulled our, Christians’, ability to distinguish a good shepherd from a bad one, the Good Shepherd from false ones or hired hands, the death of the one who lays down his life to take it up again from any death at all.
Our government is not our shepherd—not even when it’s headed by Democrats. The police are not our shepherds. The military is not our shepherd. Jesus is our shepherd.
I want to imagine a couple of scenarios with you. Imagine for instance the Garden of Gethsemane—this was just over three weeks ago but I know you still got it—and the city council comes in with a few dozen police, and the disciples say to themselves, “We thought this guy was fine, but now we see that he is dangerous and criminal; thank goodness he is being arrested or we would never have known!” They do not follow the trial or see his crucifixion.
Or imagine this scene in Acts: Brought before the city council and forbidden from preaching, Peter and John say to themselves, “The council is what keeps our city at peace, so we had better do what they say; we can always talk about Jesus at home, when no one is around.” They apologize to the council and do not preach again.
It is always an option to listen to authority rather than God. Most people probably will approve of listening to authority: it’s good sense, it’s pro-social, it’s citizenship. And yet these scenarios don’t sit right, do they? We know that in these cases the council and the guards are not right, that they must be disobeyed or understood as in error. How is it, then, that American Christians have lost this instinct? How is it that we want the councils and the guards to be right, or right enough, over and against the dead? How is it that one of our highest elected officials can speak of a murder victim as though he were the Son of God, laying his life down for those of us who cannot save ourselves? How is it that we can see this killing as an aberration, as though the other nine hundred killings must all have been fine? How is it that if the teenage girl has a knife, perhaps she should be shot? How is it that we can think that other cities, police forces, senators might be a problem, but ours are good? Do we know who shepherds us?
When Peter and John are brought before the council, the council tells them not that they must publicly deny Christ but that they simply have to stop doing what they’re doing, just to let it be, and Peter and John say no. They are not hostile; they didn’t want to pick a fight with the council. They simply explain that the council will have to decide for itself whether they should be listened to instead of God, but they themselves are not able to stop talking about what they have seen and heard. Given the choice between the animal mascot fan that they once always chose, that all their friends are choosing, and another one that will get them in trouble, they choose the second, because they have learned through trial by fire who their shepherd is, whose voice they follow, who truly keeps them in the palm of his hand.
In the very next chapter of Acts—this isn’t spoilers because the lectionary doesn’t include it, don’t worry—Peter and John are arrested for preaching again, and the scene repeats itself. “Didn’t we tell you not to do this?” Some hushed discussion. “We told you not to do this!” And the two disciples respond, “We must obey God rather than man.” They haven’t broken any laws, exactly, but they’re causing trouble, so this time they’re whipped, the subtext being “be glad it isn’t worse.” Even reasonable authority becomes unreasonable when it’s disobeyed. But Peter and John know who their shepherd is, and what they have to do.
Who we follow determines for us what is necessary. Who shepherds us describes the limits we live in. Who, deep down, holds our deepest and most instinctive loyalty, will determine what we choose when the time comes for choosing. And that time, like the kingdom of heaven, is here, has been here for years, longer than we’ve known. We have to know who is our Shepherd, and who is just a hired hand. We have to follow. We have to trust that the pain or confusion that comes when we consider that we were mistaken is a grace, is something through which Jesus will lead us, and that we will be truer, braver, more whole, on the other side. But for us there is no one else. There are other folds, but no other shepherd; and he is the only one who can make us all one. Let us trust him. Let us trust him. Come what may, let us trust him.