The lessons chosen for the 4th Sunday of Easter are taken from Acts, chapter 4; the 23rd Psalm; First John chapter 3; and the Gospel of John chapter 10. The Gospel reading should alert us that we are moving away from resurrection accounts such as we have had them from the end of the synoptic Gospels and John and into new terrain. So first a word about that.
We have been using the word symphony to speak of the way four lessons have been chosen, or orchestrated, so as to bring forth the stunning music of God’s word week-in and week-out. OT, Psalm, Epistle and continuous reading of the Gospels, over a three year period. The challenges are obvious: cover as much of the Bible as is possible (a Bible in which the OT is about 7 times larger than the New). Read through the Gospels in years A (Matthew), B (Mark), and C (Luke) with John spliced into key moments of the year. Since there is a good deal of farewell discourse and kindred material in John’s Gospel, it suits the Easter Season particularly well. As we have seen, the OT selections are usually keyed to the Gospel by way of accordance, typology, figural anticipation and correspondences of various kinds. The call of Nathaniel and the call of Samuel. The waters of baptism and the waters of creation. Elisha and Peter. And so forth.
The Epistles are sometimes chosen to come alongside the OT-Gospel pairings, or they represent a continuous reading through an individual letter. The Catholic Epistles and Revelation appear in Eastertide. So too portions of the Acts of the Apostles, which would otherwise fall to the side. The psalms are chosen Sunday by Sunday to reinforce one or more of the other lessons. This Sunday is a good example. What better psalm for John’s discourse concerning the Good Shepherd than Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. God’s presence and victory through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the table set in the presence of enemies, the green pastures of a garden with an empty tomb from which new life springs forth.
In Easter the OT-Gospel pairing, so familiar from other times of the year, falls to the side. One might assume that the correspondences between a continuously read Acts and First John and the Gospel of John would be happenstance, depending on just where we happen to be reading as we move along on three different tracks. But some care has been taken to select the portions of Acts over years A, B, and C so they fit as best as is possible with the other readings. One should not be surprised to find correspondences between the Gospel of John and the First letter of John, since they have typically been taken to have the same author, John the Evangelist, “the beloved disciple,” John the Apostle, or one and the same, as has been traditionally held. Comprehensiveness, proper associations, continuous reading and proper fit with the liturgical season are four goals and they are a challenge to accomplish. But then again, all scripture is God breathed and profitable for instruction, so even where the selections conform to principles other than direct association, the attentive reader can see important reinforcing themes and contours.
In Easter, after three Sundays of Resurrection narratives, passages from John chapters 11-17 are read for the final four Sundays of the season in years A,B, and C: Jesus’ farewell discourses on the Good Shepherd, the True Vine, the Love Commandment, Protection in the Name, and so forth. This Sunday 1 John 3, Psalm 23 and John 10 all speak of the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
Beyond this we can also see minor associations of various kinds. Let me highlight just a few. Note the repetition of the word commandment at the close of the Epistle reading from 1 John. The command of the Lord is that we believe on his name, and that we love one another in that name. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of the commandment he has received from the Father who loves him. In whom he abides and in just the same way we abide in him. The commandment he has received is the power to lay down his life. Jesus goes to death in the power of God, not as a victim, but as the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep that are his own. With the intention to enlarge the flock and bring in all the sheep who are his very own. God’s commandment to Jesus is the power to lay down his life and receive it back again from the Father. Such are the good commandments of a loving Father.
1 John speaks of the commandment we receive in turn from Jesus, to love one another and to believe on his name. Acts picks up with the episode from last week, where a man lame from birth has been healed by Peter. After a night in prison he and John are brought up before the leaders of the community and asked to explain by what power—note the same word—the man born lame has been restored. The power consists in the name of Jesus Christ, the name 1 John speaks of in terms of a commandment given to us, to believe on his name, which enables us to abide in him and do his works by the Spirit. It is that Spirit which speaks in and through Peter. The psalmist speaks of a revived soul, of being guided along right pathways for his name’s sake.
Then there is 1 John’s emphasis on love. Love in action. Not just in speech, but flowing from the active love of the Father for Jesus, which Jesus foregrounds in his Good Shepherd discourse. The Father loves the son, and that love is expressed by the Son in his gift of his life for the sheep he loves, who are his very own. This love has the power to surmount the human heart itself! That heart we believe is the source of love, but which can falter and even condemn us. No, the love of God is the love of God expressed in his son’s giving of himself and it is greater than our hearts, because it is of God himself. Once that surmounting love is granted by the Spirit, it gives us boldness and a receiving spirit, to take on what God has to give to those who abide in his love.
And as we have come to expect, the psalm often builds bridges across more than one text, and how true this is of the 23rd psalm. There is Peter in the midst of imprisonment and public challenge. And there is a table unseen but carefully spread out in the presence of those who seek to trouble him. The cup running over is the Spirit’s empowering. Bringing good health to the man born lame and to all who come within the range of the name of Jesus Christ. The shepherd’s rod and staff are signs of the concrete life-giving and spirit-protecting love of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Who is no hireling doing a job from a distance or for personal profit, but enters into the valley of the shadow of death where the sheep need protecting, lays down his life and by that act of love takes it up again.
So on a Sunday where we hear selections from Acts, 1 John, John’s Gospel and the Psalter, though the pattern and manner of selecting is different, rich are the linkages, correspondences, key themes and contours all the same. Thomas Cranmer was right to understand that it would take five verbs to describe how scripture makes inroads, in the collect he composed for Advent. “Grant us so to hear them,” he said, “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.” That we might embrace and hold fast the gift of eternal life. A collect he wrote with an eye to the lesson for the day, taken from the 15th chapter of Romans.
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
The symphony of scripture has this power, and we witness it in full orchestration again on this 4th Sunday of Easter.