Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Easter Year B 2009

04 Easter B 09
May 3, 2009

Acts 4:5-12
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is
'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.'
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

Psalm 23
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

1 John 3:16-24
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 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?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

Pink Slips

When you hire someone to work in your business, you motivate them by giving them something that they want. You assume they don’t particularly care personally whether you thrive or you don’t. But if you give them some money in exchange for their labor, they will assist you in your business.

Of course, there are good employees, bad employees and mediocre employees. The best are the ones who do their jobs as if they owned the business themselves, even if their share in its success is far smaller than yours. Bad employees, well, we all know what bad employees are. They’re the ones that grudgingly do the least they can get away with. Some of them steal from the till if they have access to it. Others walk off with merchandise. Bad employees are so common that many businesses build the cost of employee theft of time, money and merchandise into their budgets.

Now we know of employees who stay on the job even when the paycheck stops, at least for a while. We see that particularly in the caring professions. We know of people who provide services to other people, particularly vital services, on a volunteer basis. But these aren’t the employees we’re talking about. We’re talking about sales clerks and factory workers, carpenters and dockworkers. We’re talking about most people that do a job because they are trying to make a living for themselves and their families, not because they particularly believe in what they are doing.

These employees are generally not loyal to the employer once the paycheck stops. If the business is going down in flames, the good employee may make a real effort to put out the fire, but most employees will simply start looking for another job. They might not abandon you completely, they might just get that weekend job or that night job, stick around to see if you land on your feet, but no one blames them for looking out for themselves. That was the deal from the beginning. They never were in it for you. They were in it for the paycheck.

God’s employees are the rulers and authorities of the world, the big cheeses, the presidents and CEO’s, the kings and prime ministers and commanders-in-chief. Of course, many of them have no idea that God is their employer, but that’s okay with God, at least for now. The world by and large doesn’t trust God to run it, just as most of us really don’t trust God to run our lives. Much of the world doesn’t really even know who God is.

So God has what I call a provisional government. Using our own sinful wills as his tools, he hires people to keep some kind of provisional order in the world. They are his employees, and they are just like yours. None of them take the job primarily because they personally care about God or God’s business. They may care or they may not. But they take it mainly for the paycheck, just like any other employee, although the paycheck they get might not only be money; it might also be power or fame.

Some are good employees who treat the business as if it were their own, who at least seem to care about the employer’s success. Others are very bad employees, who steal from the business and only grudgingly do the minimum the job requires. And just like in most businesses, there probably are far more mediocre or bad employees than good ones. And it may even be that God builds into his expenses the theft and laziness of those he employs.

God’s employees are charged with the job of protecting the people over whom they have authority and leading them to prosperity. They get their jobs in various ways. In some places, they seize power violently. In other places they are elected by their people. In the murkier world of multinational corporations, they get their jobs by proving they can deliver profits to the shareholders. But no matter how they get their power, they all have the same job. They are to protect those they rule and lead them to prosperity.

Some of these employees appear to know who is employing them, and may even have some relationship with him. Some believe in God but don’t think God has anything to say about the job they’re doing. Some don’t really believe in God at all. Strangely, it doesn’t seem that their faith or lack thereof has anything really to do with how good a job they do. But that’s the nature of employment, isn’t it. You might have employees who like you and those who hate your guts, but that doesn’t necessarily have any effect on their job performance one way or another.

The reason is of course that they are finally in it for the paycheck.

And just like in your business, if the whole thing goes down in flames, God’s employees are just like your employees. They are not likely to go down in flames with God or with God’s people. Most of them will simply try to get everything they can out of the business and then run. And we can’t really blame them. That was after all why they got into it in the first place.

When Peter told the rulers of Israel that Jesus had risen from the dead, he was telling them that God’s employees, the authorities and powers of the world, good and bad, have all received their pink slips. They have a little while longer to clear out their desks and move out of the building, but they are all let go. They are no longer needed to protect God’s beloved people or to lead them to prosperity. God is doing a new thing and it began and it will end with Jesus.

Jesus was not God’s employee. Jesus was God’s Son, who loved God and was willing to offer all of his time and talent and energy to obeying God’s will. For this reason, God bestowed on him his Holy Spirit, his own power to give life.

Jesus intended to die at the hands of his enemies because God intended him to die at the hands of his enemies. This was, in essence, a divine trick. If everyone saw Jesus bestowing the gift of life, they would know he was from God. God’s employees, the ones Jesus called the “hired hands,” would become frightened that they were about to lose their happy situation and they would turn their people against Jesus. The evil that was in the world, the distrust and rejection of God, would come rushing out of the darkness where it usually hides and publicly kill the Son of God.

The trick worked perfectly. The hired hands revealed their rejection of God’s rule so that everyone could see it. And then, three days later, the man they hung on the cross came out of his tomb alive, and lots of people saw him.

Fifty days later, the disciples who had witnessed the resurrection, having made the decision themselves to give their lives to God, were given the same Holy Spirit that had been given to Jesus. Now they too had God’s power to give life, along with God’s pledge that they themselves would rise again if they were slaughtered by the hired hands and those who believed in them.

Thousands of people heard the apostles’ testimony about the resurrection and believed them. They began to abandon the hired hands, God’s employees, the Caesars and the high priests and the ruling councils and the puppet kings, to follow the good shepherd, the one who laid down his life in order to take it up again, the one who showed the way to the new world God was making. God began to reclaim his world.

Many people saw the apostles doing works of healing and exorcism and even raising the dead. By the time Peter was first arrested by the ruling elders, Israel’s hired hands, thousands more had given up on the world’s rulers and bent the knee to the Messiah Jesus and to the God who offered to become their Father. No longer would fear and hatred and murder and the will to power run the world. No longer would any hired hands be needed, thank you very much. The rule of law was over, the rule of love had come.

So the choice comes to us. Do we trust the hired hands, or do we trust the good shepherd?

God loves you, and lets you make your choice. He will not stand in your way or their way. If you want to trust them to lead you beside still waters, to give you comfort in the valley of the shadow of death, if their rods and staffs are more impressive, by all means go ahead and put your trust in them.

But God is doing a new thing, a thing never before seen. It begins in Jesus, who laid down his life for the sheep, and invites us to lay ours down as well, and for the same reason. Some here have made that decision, and you see them laying down their lives every day, because every time they put aside a selfish goal in order to help the world move back toward God, they are laying down their lives. Every time they give up their opportunity to do something just for themselves, in order to do something to build up the body of Christ at Philippi, they are laying down their lives.

And believe me, the more they do that sort of thing, the more the hired hands and those who follow them dislike it. I want to tell you, friends, if you do a really good job of loving God and every human being in the world, you will be shining a light into a closet full of cockroaches, and you will see them scurry. If you give your life to helping everyone believe in the name of Jesus, you will receive from God the pledge of eternal life in the Holy Spirit. And with that Spirit you will also receive the power to give life. And if you do a really good job, the wolves will come for the sheep, and you might get the opportunity to lay down your life and yes, to take it up again.