Every week the lectionary includes four different scriptures: A Psalm, an Old Testament Reading, a Gospel, and an epistle, one of the letters of the early church. During the season of Easter, the Old Testament reading is replaced with a reading from the book of Acts. Today we’ve already heard the Acts reading and now we’ll hear the other three scriptures read, and I’ll provide a meditation after each one. After the last meditation, for our response, there will be the opportunity to come forward and receive an anointing with oil for yourself or on behalf of another person.
NRSV John 10:22-39 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” 31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’– and the scripture cannot be annulled– 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
I can’t help getting distracted by a statement Jesus makes in the middle of this exchange. The conversation leading up to it had to do with what it means to be the Messiah, Jesus as the shepherd and protector of the sheep, sheep hearing his voice, and life eternal. But then he goes and closes by saying “The Father and I are one” – which is a rather bold statement, kind of hard to ignore. In today’s world it would be the perfect kind of sound bite to lift out of context, play over and over again throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle, call in endless commentators to give both sides of what Jesus could have meant by the statement and how it will affect his standing with the public. The ticker at the bottom of the screen reads, “Jesus of Nazareth says, ‘The Father and I are one.’”
Apparently it’s the only thing that his listeners at the time were able to hear as well. The text goes on to say that they picked up stones to stone Jesus because he was making himself God, and then, soon after, that they tried to arrest him. But Jesus isn’t flustered. He comes back with a quote from Psalm 82, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’ So if you all have the potential to be like God then don’t be offended when I say that I’m a child of God.”
It’s a pretty wild exchange. The people are about to commit mob murder and Jesus is calm, cool, and collected, poised with rhetorical flair, quoting poetry, escaping from their hands, as the text says.
Jesus is no politician, and he’s certainly not out to win anybody’s vote for the position of Messiah. In John’s gospel especially, he seems to find a way to press all the wrong buttons and say what’s most likely to upset people, or rub them the exact wrong way.
The intense misunderstandings in John, almost always between Jesus and the people referred to as “The Jews,” reflect the intense conflict going on at the time of John’s writing. In what was an early rift for the followers of Jesus, church and synagogue – those Jews who held that Jesus was the Messiah and those who remained centered on Torah as the central revelation of God – were undergoing a parting of ways, a mutual excommunication of sorts. It got pretty ugly at times. It’s almost as if they were speaking different languages, talking right past each other. We’re still working on trying to heal that rift and better understand one another and see if we might have more in common than we first thought.
A paraphrase of Jesus’ statement here, “I and the Father are one,” in keeping with the context of what he says around it, is less “I am God,” and more “When you see what I’m doing, you should see God,” which is good news. God is like Jesus. God is like the shepherd that calls the sheep. God, like Jesus, lifts up the lowly and brings justice to those under oppression. God calls us to follow, even if the path is difficult. When we see Jesus’ overwhelming love for those he encounters, we should see the loving embrace of God for this creation and all of us creatures trying to find our way together on this small planet that is our common home.
NRSV Revelation 7:9-17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The book of Revelation contains both pictures of God’s dream for the world, and pictures of the nightmare that we have made it. When it comes to Revelation, the lectionary is quite protective of us, not including some of the more fantastical visions that happen within the book that qualify for the nightmare side of things. We don’t get the seven seals of destruction, the seven trumpets, the first beast and the second beast, the great whore, and the fall of Babylon. Instead, we get the passages considered more appropriate for a worship setting, similar to this one. Multitudes of people praising God, giving shouts of worship, with the promise that there will be no more hunger, no more tears, and that finally, they will be led beside springs of the water of life.
This passage does allude to all of those other less beautiful things that have been happening throughout this vision, calling all of them “The great ordeal.” The one seeing the vision, John, asks who these praising multitudes are and his guide tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal. They have washed their robes, and made them white.” The great “ordeal,” is elsewhere translated the great “tribulation.” In light of the Psalm 23 passage that will be read next, maybe another way of saying this would be, “These are they who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Like the John passage, there is reference to the shepherd, only here the irony is that the shepherd is the Lamb. The Lamb is the shepherd of all these gathered. Those who have come out of the great ordeal, where the beasts have had their way, are being led by a lamb, who has conquered the beasts. Everyone’s allegiance has shifted to the Lamb which is the figure for the universal Christ, the force in the universe that confronts violence with nonviolence, hatred with love, vengeance with forgiveness. This lamb/shepherd shows people the way to springs of the water of life.
I don’t consider myself a biblical literalist, but I’m rather fond of the word “all,” so when I see it in scripture like this, I like to try and imagine what it would mean if it actually means “all,” just like it says. “I looked, and there was a great multitude that on one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…They cried out in a loud voice, saying, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
I saw a statistic this week that of the 7000 languages spoken in the world today, it’s estimated that half of them will be extinct in the next 90 years. The current rate is one language lost every two weeks, with cultural knowledge and customs and spiritual insights lost with the language. This past week we celebrated Earth Day and there is a direct correspondence between the loss of language diversity and the loss of biodiversity.
The dream of God, the hope, the heavenly vision, is that all tribes and people, and all languages be represented in this chorus of praise to the Creator.
It’s never clear in Revelation when any of this is taking place. Whether it be the first century Roman world, the distant future, or the whole sweep of history collapsed into a single vision. But Christians have a conception of time that brings all this to bear on the present moment. We’re never allowed to exempt ourselves from these things meaning something right now. Our prayer is that the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. Which is to say, we pray that the way things are supposed to be, the dream, heaven, come into reality in the very places where we find ourselves each day – earth.
TNK Psalm 23 A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose; 3 He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name. 4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me. 5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant. 6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years. GNT
If we only have a few passages of scripture memorized, chances are, this is one of them. And for good reason. It’s a strong, comforting and beautiful expression of God’s care for us. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want,” or, as another translation puts it: I lack nothing. Ponder that for a while. God is my shepherd. I lack nothing. This continues the shepherding theme and gives us concrete images of just what that looks like. Lying down in green pastures. Being led beside quiet waters.
It’s a Psalm often read by the bedside of the dying and at funerals. It’s a remarkable thing to read the Psalm with someone whose life is drawing to a close, whose physical body is nearing its last breath. The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. Sometimes the person has already lost consciousness and gives no visible signs of being able to hear what is being said. But the Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; 3 He renews my life; He guides me in right paths for his name’s same. 4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me.
The picture of God as shepherd expands into that of God as gracious host. You prepare a table before me, you anoint my head with oil, a common custom of pouring oil over the head of an honored guest. My cup overflows. There is more than enough being given here.
A number of years ago Abbie and I were leading a retreat for a church group and we asked people to rewrite their own Psalm 23. Instead of the “The Lord is my shepherd,” we invited people to use another metaphor that related to their experience with God, and then continue writing the Psalm with that central metaphor they’d chosen. Anyone who wanted to could then read their Psalm to the group. I remember one person said, “The Lord is my mother. She washes all my dirty dishes and cleans up my messes.” I also remember that when it got to the part of “God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” one saintly elderly Mennonite woman worded her Psalm as saying, “God prepares a table before me, I have no enemies.” It was quite a statement for someone 80+ years old.
Regarding the presence of enemies, there is a word toward the end of the Psalm that gets lost in translation. The word throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for being pursued and pursuing one’s enemies is the word “RDF,” to pursue or chase down. Pharaoh pursues the Hebrew slaves as they escape from Egypt to the Red Sea. Joshua and the different Judges pursue the Canaanite tribes in their military battles. Israel pursues the Philistines. The Philistines pursue Israel. Saul pursues David in an attempt to take his life, the Jews are pursued by the Babylonians who take them into exile. There’s a lot of pursuing that happens. The word occurs over 140 times by my count. It’s all for the purpose of capturing and conquering. Part of the great ordeal, we might say.
But this Psalm, after mentioning, “God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall (RDF) pursue me all the days of my life,” It’s a much stronger word than simply “follow,” which sounds rather passive. This is a case where the Jews get their own scriptures better than we do. The Jewish Publication Society translates this line as “Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life.” If we are accustomed to enemies pursuing us, we must know that goodness and mercy, steadfast love, are also hot on our trails, chasing us down, pursuing us around every corner and refusing to let us escape their sight. We can run from them, but we can’t hide. Some day goodness and steadfast love will conquer us, and we will know more truly than ever that “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”