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Easter 4C RCL April 21, 2013

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10: 22-30

Last Sunday’s reading from the Book of Acts told us the story of Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ. Saul, the persecutor of the Church, becomes Paul, one of the most faithful followers of Jesus.

Now the focus shifts to Peter’s ministry. Peter is in Joppa. There is a faithful and generous disciple called Tabitha in Aramaic and Dorcas in Greek. The text tells us that “She was devoted to good works and charity.” Tabitha has died. Her body has been washed and has been laid out in an upstairs room. The community of Jesus’ followers sends two men to Lydda to ask Peter to come to them. Peter follows them back to Joppa. They take him to the room where she is lying.

All the widows from the community are there, weeping. They show Peter clothing that Tabitha has made for them. Widows were often poor in those times, and Tabitha has clearly ministered to these women. They love her deeply.

Peter asks all of them to leave. I believe that he does this, not to be cruel, but to have quiet in the room so that God can work in a concentrated and powerful way. Then Peter kneels down and prays. I believe that he is praying for God’s presence and healing for Tabitha.

Peter stands up, turns to the woman’s dead body, and says, Tabitha, get up.” She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up. He extends his hand and helps her up. Then he calls in all the members of the community to see that she is now alive.

This is a wonderful and important story. Tabitha is a beloved woman who is carrying out a key ministry to the widows in Joppa. The Revised Common Lectionary, which we started using a few years ago, was developed because we wanted to include more stories of women in our readings. This is one of those stories.

Also, the ministry of healing was a powerful part of the life of the early Church.  Many contemporary Christian communities are being called to lively ministries of healing, and we do have services in the prayer book involving the laying on of hands and anointing with oil for healing. These can be used at any time. Many parishes offer these services on a regular basis. As we read through the Book of Acts during the Easter season, we see how vibrant the ministry of the early Church was. The deeds of people like Peter and Paul and Tabitha demonstrated the love and healing of Christ and drew people to the community of faith.

Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved parts of the Bible, Many people can recite it from memory. In powerful and comforting words and images, this psalm tells us that God is with us in everything and that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation reminds us that Christians thirty or forty years after the death and resurrection of our Lord were encountering persecution. Here we have the vision of thousands of people, many of whom have suffered for their faith, worshipping God.

Today’s gospel comes at the end of the passages in which Jesus has been saying that he is the Good Shepherd. He is not a hireling who runs away when the wolf attacks. He knows and loves the flock and he knows each sheep intimately. When he calls our name, we answer and follow him. We know his voice.

It is January. It is the feast of Dedication which we would know as Hanukkah. This feast celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians in 160 B. C., which freed the people from foreign rule and allowed the temple to be restored to their control.

Scholars tell us that as we read this passage, we need to be aware that some of the religious authorities were genuinely interested in what Jesus was trying to teach and what he was trying to accomplish. Others were suspicious of Jesus and were trying to trap him. Both groups  were present in this encounter. They are asking Jesus how long he is going to keep them in suspense. Is he the messiah or not?

The question about whether Jesus is the messiah is an attempt to put Jesus into a known and defined category. But Jesus goes beyond categories. What sounds like a simple enough question does not have a simple answer.

I believe that Jesus is saying that he is calling everyone to be a part of his flock. He is the one who calls us to be his sheep. But we have to respond to his call. And the response is not only intellectual. It is a response of every part of us—our minds, yes, and also our hearts, our feelings, our will, our ethical and moral selves, our physical selves, all parts of us.

When Jesus calls and we respond to him because we know he is our Good Shepherd, it’s because we know that he is everything to us that is described in the 23rd Psalm. He gives us everything we need. He leads us to good pastures and pure water. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even when all we can see is the next step, we know that he is with us, and somehow, though we may wonder how we will ever make it, we are not paralyzed by fear, because we know that he is walking with us.

Being a part of his flock, being among his sheep, is not just an intellectual exercise; it’s experiential. We have to live it in every part of our being. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”

And then he says, “The Father and I are one.” This is the key of John’s gospel. In every action and word of Jesus, we are seeing what God is like. We are seeing God walking the face of the earth and loving people and healing people. Not just some people, but all people.

Most of us have not been shepherdesses or shepherds. Few of us have has close relationships with sheep or flocks of sheep. Yet we instinctively know what this image of the Good Shepherd means. He takes care of us, He is with us, No, he can’t protect us from every harm that happens in a fallen creation. But he goes through it with us, and it always leads to new life.

What a gift we have received, that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.

May we listen for his call, May we follow where he leads.  Amen.

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