Our three texts today are embarrassing, each in its own way. The passage from Acts presents the most idealized image of the early Church that you can imagine. A community of over 3000 people devoted themselves to learning from the apostles, fellowship, common Eucharistic meals, prayer, miracles, pious awe, sharing everything in common, spending much time in the Temple, enjoying one another with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and gaining the respect of the people, with the result that the community continued to grow every day. Who of you who has spent any time in church at all would believe this unalloyed evangelistic success? This is an odd passage even for the Bible. It follows immediately upon a passage in which Peter berates sinners to save themselves by accepting Jesus as the Messiah, and it is followed by a long story in which Peter and John get thrown into jail for healing and teaching in the Temple, texts which are much more typical biblical narratives. Then the next thing that happens is that two new converts try to cheat the rule of owning everything in common by keeping some of the proceeds of their property and they are struck dead. The ideal community does not last long. In fact, our idealized text is embarrassingly like a Hallmark Card version of church history.
The text from 1 Peter is embarrassing in two ways. The first is that the lectionary editors start the passage with the second sentence of the paragraph. The first sentence reads: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” The call to endure suffering really refers to the suffering of slavery, which our editors try to hide from us. While this text is not exactly an endorsement of slavery, it certainly is a refusal to criticize it even when the slavery is torture. The second way this passage is embarrassing is that it seems to say that suffering itself is good, and that because Jesus suffered, we also should suffer. This text has been cited to justify abuse of women who are supposed to feel good about the suffering they bear. The sentence immediately following our passage says: “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” The image of brutal men being tamed by the docile suffering of their brutalized women is a deep embarrassment. Like slavery, the debased status of women was part of the general Roman society of the time and we have rejected both on Christian grounds.
The gospel text from John is embarrassing because it likens us to sheep. Sheep are very stupid. They keep their nose down and wander from the path. Sheep need shepherds or they get lost. We surely are not so stupid and dependent, are we? To suggest that Jesus is a shepherd is strange imagery too. Except for the story of shepherds coming to praise his birth, he never dealt with them. Jesus was a town boy whose family was in the building trades. His friends were fishermen, and the activities of his childhood and youth were shaped by the fact that the Romans were building a city close to his hometown. The local economy was devoted to supplying that construction effort. Jesus was far from the pastoral life that dominated the imagery of the older Hebrew Bible. I suggest we just get over the embarrassingly unflattering suggestion that we are sheep and Jesus is a shepherd and ask what the text is about.
The text is about abundant life, of course. Jesus says he is the way to abundant life, and uses two images for this. To reach abundant life is like going through a gate. Jesus likens himself both to the gate itself, and to the gatekeeper. What is striking about our text, however, is the repeated juxtaposition of Jesus as the proper leader to the thieves and bandits, that is, the false leaders that will take the lambs to slaughter. Jesus, the true shepherd, will lay down his life for the sheep, a reference to the crucifixion; but the hired-hand shepherd will flee when the wolf or thief comes.
Who did Jesus have in mind as the thieves and bandits? Our passage comes right after Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees who refused to believe that Jesus had healed the blind man, and who badgered both the man and his parents to renounce Jesus. Those were the bandits he was referring to, people in his own religion, the Judaism of his time, who were dishonest, sneaky, and manipulative. Those Pharisees, remember, threatened the formerly blind man’s parents with excommunication from the Temple if they testified to Jesus, so they kept quiet; their son did not keep quiet, and the Pharisees did throw him out of the Temple. That was hypocrisy. The objects of Jesus’ attack in our passage were the corrupters of religion.
Abundant life, therefore, means true and honest religion, which Jesus defined as doing the work of God the father. What is that work? Doing what Jesus did when he claimed that he, like everyone to whom the word of God comes, is a son of God. Read the rest of John, chapter 10, for this argument. So what was it that Jesus did? What was his work, which he claimed was divine work? The gospel of John makes it very clear that Jesus’ work was to create communities of love that have a double effect. One effect of loving communities is to overcome the alienation among people that manifests itself in hatred and injustice. The other is to overcome the alienation between God and people that manifests itself in our sinful rejection of God and God’s work. This is to say, Jesus’ work was to bring about communities of love of neighbor and love of God. The consequence of Jesus’ work is redemption. Its content is life abundant. Jesus’ work is the gateway to redemption and life abundant, which he often called eternal life.
Jesus brought four things to his work. One was his positive preaching about how to live as friends and lovers together. Regarding our human communities he preached justice and mercy, care and forgiveness, peace-making and humility, all as conditions for love. Regarding our friendship with God, Jesus preached prayer, study of the scriptures, and mutual help through traditional means of grace for the attainment of intimacy with God. We all know these familiar positive points of Jesus’ teaching. Can we not take these as virtues for our own lives?
The second component of Jesus’ work was his skilled denunciation of hypocrisy. Again and again Jesus exposed the corruption of the institutions and teachings of his own religion by hypocritical leaders. He attacked the selfishness that led to the exploitation of the poor and powerless, a selfishness that decorated itself in the trappings of righteousness. This denunciation of hypocrisy was one of the principal offenses that got him in trouble with the authorities. Is it not incumbent on us, too, to name hypocrisy when we see it, particularly in our religion?
The third component of Jesus’ work was actually helping people usually by healing the sick and demented. He took sickness and sin to be symptoms of a broken world that needs redemption. The healing of these is itself a sign of God’s work to complete and redeem creation. We too can be healers of sickness and restorers of sinners to grace, can we not?
The fourth and most important component in Jesus’ work was his own loving and winsome person. People who met Jesus loved him. Not everyone, of course, not those caught in the bonds of hypocrisy. But sinners loved him because of his own manifest love for them. Rich people loved him, poor people loved him, flagrant sinners loved him and the very righteous, whose only flaw was an inability to release their possessions, loved him. He worked so hard with his disciples, teaching and reproving them, but always loving them; and they loved him in return. Read the 14th through 17th chapters of John to see how Jesus’ love brought his disciples to be a community of love and friendship with one another and with God. Jesus’ disciples know the voice of their Lord, as the sheep know the voice of their own shepherd, because they love that voice, and love the love in that voice.
Our own spiritual lives are good if we fervently pursue justice and mercy, care and forgiveness, peace-making and humility, all these virtues that make for positive loving communities. Our spiritual lives are better if, in addition, we go through the purifying fires of rooting out hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in our institutions, our leaders, and friends, is dangerous to reveal. Hypocrisy in ourselves is painful to reveal. Yet we cannot face God without the honesty to admit who we are, save by the welcoming mercy of God that overlooks our self-deceptions and simultaneously shines light upon them. Jesus taught that our temptations to hypocrisy are Satanically inspired. In matters of honesty, our spiritual lives include a war against the Enemy.
Our spiritual lives are even better if, in addition to the positive virtues of love and the ruthless unmasking of hypocrisy, we actually do something to help people. Jesus taught that service to others is essential to spiritual life. The virtues proper to a loving community are hollow, in fact hypocritical, if they are not practically expressed in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, making peace, deconstructing the structures of oppression, and building a more just world. Devoting our lives in service to others in the name of God is essential to our spiritual lives.
Our spiritual lives are filled to abundance, however, if in addition to all these we are in love with Jesus. Christians find eternal life most abundantly in loving Jesus. Although we are at some distance from Jesus compared with his immediate disciples, we can hear his voice in the Bible. We can feel his love in our contemporaries who are filled with the love of Jesus. We can cultivate our imagination in meditation and prayer to understanding how Jesus could love us personally. We are each unique, with our own situations and personal relations, our own stations and ambitions, our own foibles and sins, our own gifts and dark secrets. To understand the love of Jesus for us personally, we need to imagine him addressing each part of us, companioning us in our peak experiences, bearing us up in our deepest sins and failures, working with us day by day. This imaginative life of sharing love with Jesus is the heart of Christian spiritual life. All our virtues, our truth-speaking, and good works feed into this spiritual imagination of divine friendship. The power of that spiritual imagination opens us to God. For, the love we find for ourselves in Jesus our friend is the love God has for us. And as we reciprocate that love in our love of Jesus, we learn to love the Creator who gives us this world.
Now we can understand the passage in 1 Peter about suffering. Our world is full of suffering, and that is among the gifts of God: not all gifts are happy ones. But by enduring the sufferings of life we learn to think with Jesus how he loves us and how we love him, and thus we learn better how to love God. And as for that embarrassing idealized view of the church that could not last, it serves as an ideal by which we test the fruits of Christian love. We measure the depth of our understanding of Jesus’ teachings, our grasp of his critique of hypocrisy, our commitment to his work, and our mutual devotion and friendship, when we see the effects of our spiritual life tending toward that ideal. That ideal sketches the fruits by which increasing abundance of life is measured.
Though we balk to think of ourselves as sheep, we do know the gate to abundant life. We know Jesus, the gatekeeper, and can respond to his call. Although the shepherd takes us over demanding paths of virtue, confession of hypocrisy, and works, it is his winsomeness that attracts and leads us. What I have called the knowledge and love of God in imagination is what the tradition has called the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Christ, the Good Shepherd, is alive with us in God’s Spirit. It is our privilege, and great happiness, to follow him.