Readings: 4th Sunday of Easter

17 April 2015

4th Sunday of Easter

Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3.16-24, John 10.11-18

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Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

"BY WHAT power or by what name did you do this?" the "rulers, elders and scribes", faced with the healing of the crippled man outside the Temple (Acts 4.5-7), ask Peter and John. The answer is more detailed and troubling than their question about permission and regulation expected.  Peter replies that they have done this in the name of Jesus, crucified at the instigation of the local religious rulers; raised to life by God. Physical healing is only the beginning; for Peter's claim is that nothing less than salvation is at stake (Acts 4.12; see Joel 2.32). 

The name of Jesus resonates through the New Testament as the source and energy and mandate for all that the Christian community does - its worship; its care for the material needs of its members, and those beyond; its challenge to corrupt structures of power (John 5.15,16,23; Acts 2.38, 3.6, 9.34, 16.18; Romans 10.13; Philippians 2.9-11). Believing in the  name of Jesus is the first commandment that the writer of 1 John gives to his audience, the second being the commandment to "love one another" (1 John 3. 23).

Jesus himself, notably in the "I am" sayings of John's Gospel, builds a web of meaning around this name (the true bread; the true vine; the gate; the good shepherd; the resurrection, and the life). Of these, the most poignant must surely be his claim to be the "good shepherd" (John 10.11, 14). This is not just because listeners familiar with animal husbandry would have engaged readily with the picture. Suddenly it is about them: people who know Jesus, and are known to him by name. Unlike other leaders more committed to their own interests than to the wellbeing of those under them, he will never desert them or cease to care for them, even to the point of death (John 10.14-15).

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John Milton seized on this contrast between good and bad shepherds to criticise the "hireling" clergy of the Laudian Church who, in his view, failed to teach and protect God's people (Paradise Lost IV.178-193; "Lycidas" 113-131). There is a critique of the powers of the day in Jesus's words, too, more enduring and more profound than Milton's. Every good shepherd will lay down his life to save the sheep from danger, but Jesus has made a deliberate choice. At its heart is the eternal love which binds him to his Father and overflows into the world. The Gospels illustrate this overwhelmingly through narratives of healing, consolation, and restoration. In one of the most moving of these scenes, Jesus meets Martha, who has come to find him on the road to Bethany, anguished because he has arrived too late to prevent Lazarus's death (John 11.17-27).  The present and the end of time come together as Jesus asks her whether she believes that he is "the resurrection and the life" (John 11.25-26). Her answer is powerful because it does not anticipate that Lazarus will be raised to life: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (John 11.27).

THAT contract of faith has shaped our funeral liturgies, appearing twice in the Book of Common Prayer - as an introit sentence, and in the collect from which Sunday's collect is adapted. With such confidence, there is no reason to fear any power on earth. Yet we would not be human if our courage did not often fail, and our ability to see beyond the present situation let us down. The point is, however, that it is not our courage; and this is what the Jerusalem authorities grasp but are nevertheless disconcerted by as they confront Peter and John, whose "boldness" is not consistent with the sort of "uneducated and ordinary men" the authorities were accustomed to browbeating. This is what happens to "companions of Jesus" (Acts 4.13).

The recipients of 1 John are assured that, if they show love "in truth and action", their hearts will not "condemn them" and they will have "boldness before God" (1 John 3.21). Most churchgoers are no longer invited, as the 1549 Prayer Book and Series 1 and 2 put it, to be "bold to say" the Lord's Prayer because their Saviour has "commanded and taught" them to do this. The word deserves to return with the force given it by Charles Wesley, whose rapturous realisation of the gift of salvation, "And can it be", comes to a rousing climax with inspiration from 1 John 3.21:

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in him is mine!

Alive in him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

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