Sermon for 4th Easter April 22 2018

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year B
April 22, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Jesus told the disciples that he was the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.  In 1st John, this is repeated, and taken a step further: “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

That, surely, is at least one of the ways in which we might lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters – to use what we have been given, or even earned, to help one another.

This is not what our culture is teaching us in these days.  Many think that government has no role to play in helping people, but the prophets were always calling out the leaders of Israel – both religious and political if they did not. 

And we would be unwise to consider that this charge, this obligation, extends only to those who are alive at the same time as ourselves – it extends as well to those yet to be born, to our offspring, to generations yet unborn. 

I am put in mind of native peoples in our own country, and around the world, who are fighting to protect land, water, and life from destruction brought on by industrialization, mining, oil production.  We fool ourselves if we think that the earth and its resources are free to be taken with no thought for others or for tomorrow.  Even the church has been at fault insofar as it prays “that we may use its resources wisely in the service of others,” without acknowledging that such a prayer does not excuse limitless exploitation.  Sometimes, as one of my geology professors said when I was in college in the 70s, the right way to use is to not use at all.

It is this thought that has inspired us to set aside lands and waters as parks and reserves, forgoing the profit that might be made in favor of the grace and beauty of the earth, the protection of places that we recognize, in some deep part of ourselves, as holy, sacred, and deserving of respect and honor.

When God spoke and the earth and heavens came to be, when light shone and waters ran and mountains rose up and life began, God said it is good.  Creation – even we – were created in love, and called “good.”

Jesus once said that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly – as a good thing, as a gift and a grace and a wonder and a joy, to be enjoyed, to be enjoyed in relationship and community, freely shared and blessed.  But if we take it as a thing to grasp and never let go, as often as not, we find it is no longer a wonder and a joy; it is lost, and a piece of ourselves with it.

It can take a lot of courage to stand against the cultural imperatives that too often dehumanize and degrade our sisters and brothers – it takes courage to demand justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry, and safe homes for all, and a living wage, and whatever else is needful for human flourishing.

It can take a lot of courage as well to stand against the cultural imperatives that too often destroy and degrade this earth we call home – it takes courage to stand in front of the bulldozers and in the courtrooms and against the police and the dogs to protect the land and the water and the air and the sacredness of creation.

When such stands are taken, we might be told we are foolish, or blocking progress, or breaking the law, or that our point of view doesn’t matter.

We have conveniently forgotten in our quest for independence and self-sufficiency that we are mutually interdependent and must rely on others and the earth itself for all that we need and desire and dream of.  Why is that, do you suppose?

Somewhere along the line, the church began to tell us that God’s kingdom was hereafter, and not now; in heaven, and not on earth.  If we said the right words, read the right prayers, celebrated the right liturgies, and obeyed, like so many sheep, the leaders of the church, we could be assured of salvation.  This thinking even shaped the way we translate the texts handed down.

And I’m going to give you one example, from the Book of Acts, chapter 4.  Mark Davis, author of the book “Left Behind and Loving It,” wrote a few years ago that the verses we read today are one of the most mis-used passages in the scripture.  And it stems from the choice of the translators in facing the Greek word “so-dzo.”  So-dzo speaks of healing and wholeness and, within that particular context of healing, of saving.[1]

This passage is part of a longer report.  Peter and John had seen a man begging at one of the temple gates, because he could not walk.  They stopped and spoke with the man, and told him they had no money but they would offer him something far better – to be healed in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And so it was.  Meanwhile, the elders of the Pharisees and priests and Sadducees, had been in discussion concerning what to do about Peter and the other disciples, who were boldly telling of Jesus and teaching as he had done.  When this man was healed, they arrested Peter and John and brought them before the council. 

You remember Peter – he who had denied Jesus three times?  And you remember that he and the other disciples were hiding after Jesus was arrested and condemned?  But now, here they were, boldly telling of Jesus, and of his resurrection, and of God’s love, and all the good news we know so well.

Later in Chapter 4, Luke tells us that the council considered Peter and John to be ignorant and uneducated – in Greek, literally, as “non-grammatical and idiots.”  How could they presume to teach, and especially in opposition to the rabbis and priests?

So they questioned Peter and John, as we heard, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  And Peter said, it was not our own power, but by “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified.”

The man they killed, whom they had deemed powerless and of no account, was now named as the source of healing.  Here is the first appearance of the Greek word so-dzo, as healing.

The next time it appears is at the end of the passage: “There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be …”

Why did the translators choose “saved”?  Why did they not use “healed”?

This was a story about healing.  They were arguing about how someone was healed; nothing was said up till now about saving anyone.  It seems to me to be as likely that Luke meant healing here as well as earlier.

But if we say “saved” – there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved – then we open the door to all Christian triumphalism, and all the dangers attendant thereto.  Christian triumphalism encourages us to suppose that because we follow Jesus, we are somehow better, more right with God, more important, and superior. 

We might think that if there is no other way to salvation, we have an obligation to make sure that everyone believes the same as we, and a right to conquer to teach and convert others, and a right to take whatever we want from whomever and wherever we want whenever we want, because Jesus is the only path to God, and if others don’t or won’t recognize him, well, then, they are disposable.

Well, that’s uncomfortable.

So where does that leave us?  Because we do believe that Jesus died to repair the breach between earth and heaven, between humanity and the Creator.  And isn’t that idea worth sharing?  The disciples all thought so.  They certainly were willing to stand up in the temple and in the squares and in the courts and say exactly that.  They surely wanted people to hear that good news, and to give anyone and everyone the opportunity to respond to it with joy and live their lives in love for God and one another, just as the disciples did, just as Jesus taught.

Still, they never took credit for their own actions.  It was not Peter and John who healed the lame beggar; it was the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  They were bold, but in humility.  They were strong, but in faith, not by force.  They loved fiercely, not from self-desire but from a desire to share the love they received so richly from God. 

They didn’t attack the religious leaders; they didn’t insist that the leaders should follow them; they didn’t lead a rebellion; they weren’t revolutionaries in the traditional sense.  They simply acted in love, for the sake of love. 

If others chose not to heed, they didn’t force the issue; they moved on to the next and the next and the next after that, still telling the stories, sharing their knowledge, offering healing and community and welcome.

It wasn’t about conquering the world or their opponents, it was about loving God and neighbor, and sharing the gifts they had received with their brothers and sisters, laying down their lives for the sake of the good news.

It was and still is healing for the world that God freely offers – healing of body, mind, spirit, community, nation, and all earth. 

And we get to be a part of that, which is the greatest gift of all.


[1] D. Mark Davis, Blog: Left Behind and Loving It,  Accessed 4/18/18.

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