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Easter IV, Year B




Sermon at Saint Margaret’s, Budapest (2024.04.21)

Easter IV, Year B


Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-end; John 10.11-18


“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”


Today is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday – conjuring images of white woolly lambs and a loving shepherd carrying one of the naughty ones he has rescued on his back – which is a nice enough image. However, there is a tension at the core of our readings today, and like so many other aspects of the Christian faith that challenge our thinking, this tension is worth pondering, as opposed to glossing it over, or attempting to rationalise it away. 


On one hand we have Jesus, the Good Shepherd who not only loves us unconditionally, but proves it by laying down his life us – both the good sheep and the bad. As the centurion at the cross seems to have recognised, Jesus ultimately died for him too, despite being one of very people carrying out his execution. 


Not only does Jesus epitomise love, but he calls his followers to do the same. His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to love even our enemies and ‘turn the other cheek’ if they do us harm, revolutionised social ethics and radically reshaped the past two millennia of human history. Even people outside the Christian tradition have found the embodiment of love in Jesus’ life and teaching inspiring – as something that seems to come from God himself. Mohandas Ghandi, the Hindu barrister who led the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule, spent time every day meditating on the Sermon on the Mount, which formed the basis of his political ethics. 


God is love. Jesus embodies this love. And this love abides in us through the Holy Spirit. So far so good.


However, the slogan often repeated – ‘that Christianity is really just about loving people’ – is both true and false. If by ‘loving people’ we mean going about our lives while being kind, accepting, giving to the poor, engaging in social activism, and not making any exclusive claims about Christianity in the process – that is actually not the way John defines love in our readings, but a reductionist version of Christian love. 

John, by then an aged man, writes in a grandfatherly tone to the members of the churches he is responsible for, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1Jn 3:18). While he clearly has in mind financially caring for those in need within the church – and by extension, perhaps those outside the church as well – he connects love with obeying God’s commandments.


Wait… what?! Aren’t commandments the thing of the Old Covenant? A few years back I had a conversation with someone who claimed that there are no commandments in the New Testament. While it was a novel claim, it clearly didn’t come from someone who had actually read the New Testament. Here John, makes it clear that our love for God – our relationship with God – is predicated on our obedience to his commandments. ‘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. 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’ (v. 23f.)


Here we run into some tension. Not only does loving one another go beyond being nice and occasionally helping out when needed, but Jesus calls us to lay down our very lives – to sacrifice the things we hold most dear in order to provide for those in need – just as he did for us. Our community here at Saint Margaret’s is amazing – and I am often struck by people’s generosity. But this commandment to love sets the bar far beyond generosity – it involves genuine sacrifice. 


Furthermore, the commandment isn’t simply to love, but also ‘that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ’ (v. 23). 


Now there are a variety of YouTube preachers who offer answers as to what ‘believing in the name of Jesus’ means. But just as liberal Christians can err on the side of a reductionistic understanding of loving your neighbour, so too can conservative Christians err on a reductionistic understanding of believing in the name of Jesus. For John, the commandment includes both.


I love the reading from Acts today. Here you have Caiaphas the former high priest, his son-in-law, Annas, the current high priest, and two of his sons, who just a couple weeks prior, thought that they had finally solved the “Jesus problem” by sending him to the cross. But now, here they are again, dealing with his disciples who were proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, and as a sign of this resurrection power, a man who had been crippled from birth was miraculously healed!


While Peter are John are called upon to give a defence of their actions, filled with the Holy Spirit, their apologia morphs into evangelism. Not only was the man healed by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth – whom the chief priests had crucified, and yet God had raised from the dead – but they proclaim that, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).


As part of their argument, Peter draws from the image of the stone rejected by the builders in Psalm 118, one of the earliest ’messianic testimonies’ in the Old Testament. While originally it likely referred to the nation of Israel, despised by the surrounding nations, here God’s purpose for Israel finds its fulfilment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see NICNT). This stone that had been rejected, had become the cornerstone of the salvation of the world.


In the words of F.F. Bruce, “The founders of the great world-religions are not to be disparaged by followers of the Christian way. But of none of them can it be said that there is no saving health in anyone else; to one alone belongs the title: the Saviour of the world” (NICNT). 


As it was in the first century, so it is today, a claim that is unavoidably divisive. It is perhaps easy to embrace the image of Jesus as a welcoming, loving shepherd. But it is something else to believe that it is exclusively by his name that someone can be saved. 


The challenge is that neither Peter nor John seem to leave us the option to pick and choose. To be in a relationship with God requires us to obey his commandment – and that includes loving our neighbour as ourselves, as well as believing in the name of his son Jesus Christ. 


Amen.

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