This is such a shepherd Sunday.
I started preparing sermons back in the early 90’s, so in preparation for this one, I took a look back. I discovered that every time I preached on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter in year B, I focused on Jesus as shepherd and us as sheep. Naturally. We preach the Gospel.
Now, about that – there are a couple of things to remember. First, we aren’t really sheep. And second, Jesus is not literally a shepherd. But his relationship to us is like that of a shepherd to his sheep.
Today I’d like to look at one of Jesus’s favorite sheep – Peter – and see what Peter has that can apply to our own lives, both corporately and individually.
The lesson from Acts, our first lesson today, comes in the middle of Peter’s story. One day, soon after the day of Pentecost, Peter and John heal a crippled man in the name of Jesus Christ.
“And leaping up, he [the healed man] stood and walked and entered the temple with [Peter and John], walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him.” Wow! All the people! They recognize the healed man as the lame beggar who had occupied the same spot, begging outside the temple, for years. Then all the people run to them, to Peter and John, which is scary for the temple officials. It must look and sound as if a riot is about to erupt. (Shades of Washington D.C. on January 6.)
And when Peter realizes what an audience, or congregation, or at least an impromptu crowd, has eagerly gathered around, it seems an obvious opportunity to preach. What he says in this Jewish temple are words destined to cause him trouble.
“Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this; why do you stare at us as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? Listen. The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate . . .. You denied the Holy and Righteous One . . . You killed the Author of life whom God has raised from the dead.”
These aren’t words designed to win friends among the temple authorities.
So Peter and John are arrested. It’s an interesting confrontation – the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees versus Peter and John and a man who had once been lame, now a strong-limbed man capable of leaping the frolicking.
After our two heroes spend the night locked up, they are brought before the rulers, elders, scribes, Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John (a different John), a man names Alexander, as well as a bunch of the high priest’s relatives. All the big guns.
And they ask our guys -- not “what did you do to this man?,” not “why did you do it,” but “by what power – in what name -- did you do this?”
The authorities cannot deny that the healing has occurred. Everybody – all the people – have seen it.
They can’t question the generosity of the act. Jews were supposed to do good to their fellow Jews.
So the authorities do what kids do even today (and as they no doubt did then). They redirect the focus. They try to discredit the deed by throwing suspicion on the source of the deed. It’s a trick as old as time.
When Jesus was healing, his opponents would accuse him of healing by being in league with the devil. They couldn’t deny the fact that Jesus was casting out devils, casting out demons. And who could deny that a devil-free man was better off than one possessed by demons?
It’s like I remember from a zillion years of raising kids and forty years of school teaching. I’d say, “Johnny, you punched Oscar. That’s not OK!”
And Johnny would say, “Yeah, well, he pushed me.” Or, “Yeah, well, he called me a bad name.”
Now it was my turn. “Right . . .. It’s Johnny’s fault that you resorted to the violence of a right upper-cut? You could have told him that you don’t like being pushed / or being called names.” And I give a lesson in how to say that matter-of-factly as opposed to confrontationally, following that with having Johnny and Oscar, however reluctantly, shake hands.
Or, “Susie, get out of Tristan’s backpack!” To which Susie replies, “Steven told me to do it!”
Who was it – Flip Wilson? “The devil made me do it!”
The temple authorities, then, confront Peter and John. “Under what authority did you heal this man?”
In the face of all those priests and scribes and Sadducees and relatives and assorted temple staff, Peter does not turn tail and slink out. Instead, he answers. Appropriately. Articulately. Eloquently.
None of the disciples – that includes Peter – had taken classes in public speaking. No homiletics. No theology. Peter was never even a member of a debate team.
In fact, we first meet Peter in the New Testament as a young fisherman whose horizons don’t extend much beyond the Sea of Galilee. Had Jesus not come along, Peter would probably have spent his entire life in that small rural area, doing the same thing year in and year out.
But Jesus does come along, and Peter becomes part of Jesus’s inner circle. By extension, Jesus has come along. And we too are invited to become part of his circle.
As a member of Jesus’s circle, Peter is as human as the next guy – if not more so. In Jesus’s three-year ministry, it’s Peter who so often makes foolish comments that Jesus rebukes. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter falls asleep. After the arrest, Peter denies knowing Jesus. What a disappointment he’s turned out to be!
Yet this “disappointment,” this failure, is the rock upon whom Jesus anchors his church. Ever feel like a failure or a disappointment? Look at Peter. Look at the way Jesus’s love overcomes Peter’s failures, overcomes Peter’s having been such a disappointment.
Peter goes from denying Christ to healing in his name – and then to facing down the Jewish authorities who arrest him, and who then end up letting him and John go. The authorities are afraid to punish them at all because they fear the mob of people who glorified God for what had happened. The temple authorities won’t go against the crowd, and therefore not against Jesus.
So here’s my question: Is that like a resurrection? Peter and John are released from jail for the trial, or at least for a hearing. And then, by the power of Jesus’s name which has fueled the mob – they go free! From possibly facing death in prison, they rise to freedom.
Do we, like Peter, rise again and again from failures and stupidities and foolishness to live and move in the grace of God’s forgiveness and love?
Yes, we can. I think Peter would push us beyond saying “yes we can.” I think Peter would direct us to review our Catechism.
I learned mine when I was ten – every morning Mother combed and braided my hair while we stood in the kitchen by the wood stove and the hot water heater. The comb, brush, ribbons, and her prayer book, open to the catechism, sat up on it (the hot water heater, not the wood stove), and I memorized the answers as she taught them to me. But review is always good.
What is the Church? The Church is the community of the New Covenant. That makes each of us a member of that community.
How is the Church described in the Bible? -- The Church is the body of which Jesus Christ is the head and we are the members (the hands, the feet the voice). [Let me say that again.]
What is the mission of the Church? What’s our job? – To restore all people (that includes each one of us individually), to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ.
How does the Church pursue its mission? -- It pursues its mission through prayer and worship, that intentional act that we perform regularly, at least weekly, if not more often.
What is our first duty to God? -- Our first duty to God is to love God.
How do we express that? We worship. We express ourselves through prayer, proclaiming the Gospel, promoting justice, peace and love, and acting with justice, peace and love.
That’s our job. It’s our privilege. It’s the way that we, like Peter, can celebrate our own mini-resurrections from lapses and failures and disappointments.
And that’s pretty good news!
Amen and Alleluia!!