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Scripture In Depth
Fourth Sunday of Easter A
May 3, 2020
Reginald H. Fuller

Reading I: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

The first lection here gives the tail end of Peter’s kerygmatic sermon at Pentecost (a substantial part of which was read last Sunday) and goes on to indicate the response of his hearers.

The conclusion of the sermon sums up the whole kerygma in a single christological formula: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Such a statement puzzles those who approach the New Testament with the presuppositions of later dogmatics. 

It looks like “adoptionism”—the view that Jesus was a man who was made divine at his resurrection, the later heresy that a colleague of mine once wittily defined as the theory that Jesus was a man but graduated in divinity with honors.

This, however, is to read back the later ontological Christology of the patristic church into the Hebraic parts of the New Testament. Hebrew thought viewed matters in functional rather than ontological categories (see Gregory Dix’s book Jew and Greek).

  “Lord” and “Messiah” are functional terms, meaning that from the Resurrection onward, the risen and exalted One exercised the functions of Messiah and Kyrios.

Henceforth he rules over his people, forgives them, nourishes them with his word and sacraments, and commands their obedience.

All that God does toward his people is done through Christ. All God’s acts bring along with them, as it were, the salvation that Jesus wrought in his earthly history. It is as important to say that Jesus is Lord and Messiah as it is to say that Jesus is Lord and Messiah.

The response that preaching evokes is, “What should we do?” The answer is, “Repent and be baptized.” Repentance in this context does not merely mean sorrow for past individual sins but a radical reassessment of Jesus and his significance. 

By crucifying him, Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him. For them, he was not the emissary of God, the bringer of salvation, but either an impostor or a deluded fanatic. Now they must reassess him: he is the emissary of God and the bringer of salvation. Baptism is the event in and through which converts are brought into the sphere of his salvation. 

They receive forgiveness of sins, which again has a far richer meaning than the remission of individual peccadilloes—it means God’s eschatological salvation in its wholeness. And they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for baptism “adds” them to the Spirit-bearing community.

Responsorial Psalm: 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6

The theme of Christ as Good Shepherd, which used to belong to the second Sunday after Easter, has been transferred to this Sunday. This, the most familiar of psalms, introduces the shepherd passages in the second reading and the gospel.

In the original psalm, it was Yhwh who was the Shepherd. When the Greek-speaking Christians adopted the title Kyrios for the exalted Christ, as a translation of the Aramaic mari (cf. Marana tha), the consequence was that many of the passages in the Greek New Testament that spoke about YHWH-Kyrios were transferred to Christ-Kyrios.

This did not involve any compromise of Old Testament Jewish monotheism. It meant that henceforth the exalted Christ is that aspect of the being of God that is turned toward us in saving action. 

Ultimately, of course, this would lead to the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Meanwhile, even the earliest Church believed that God acts in us through the exalted Christ. Through him God exercises his Lordship, which includes his work as Shepherd, the one who nourishes and defends his people.

Reading II: 1 Peter 2:20b-45

This is the traditional epistle for Good Shepherd Sunday. We recall that the materials used in this letter were taken from a baptismal homily. The author is exhorting his readers to be patient. He holds up Christ in his passion as an example, quoting an early hymn that draws upon the Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 53.

But, as so often happened when things were quoted, the author continues to quote when he gets beyond the point he wishes to make, and speaks of Christ’s passion not merely as an example of patience but as redemptive: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”

Note that  the Revised Standard Version has “tree,” an early Christian designation for the cross, recalling with defiant apologetic the Deuteronomic curse on all who hanged upon a tree.

Christ’s wounds bring healing, and by his redemptive death we are enabled to die to sin and live to righteousness.

At this point the writer turns from the hymn to his readers. He recalls their conversion and tells them that, having strayed, they have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian (the Greek word is episkopos, “bishop”) of their souls.

This last phrase throws an interesting sidelight on the development of the church’s ministry by the time 1 Peter was written. While formally it was the ministerial designations (shepherd-pastor and bishop) that provided christological titles, it was really the other way around.

The church’s ministers are bishops and shepherds because it is through them that the risen Christ exercises his shepherding and overseeing.

Gospel: John 10:1-10/b>

There is a long and complicated history behind the discourse of the Good Shepherd. It begins with a fusion of two parables (vv. l-3a and 3b-5).

In the first parable the picture is of a sheepfold into which two parties seek to enter—a prowler and the shepherd himself. The second parable concerns the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd on the one hand, and the stranger on the other.

The combined parables are followed by an allegorical interpretation in which the Johannine Christ successively identifies himself with the gate and the shepherd.

Today New Testament scholars would regard the two parables as originally separate and possibly authentic parables of Jesus. The fusion must have happened in oral transmission, while the allegorical interpretation would be the work of the evangelist himself.

The first parable is a challenge to Israel’s religious authorities. Will they accept Jesus’ message? This challenge must belong to the final part of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.

In the second parable, the situation is earlier in Jesus’ ministry. He can offer no external credentials for his authority, but there are those who respond in faith to his message because they hear in it the authentic voice of God.

In the last analysis, both identifications of Jesus—gate and shepherd—make the same point. The risen Christ is the One who nourishes his people in his word and sacraments, giving them life and enabling them to have it abundantly.

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984, 86-88. (Revised Edition).

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