One of the first theologians I read in seminary was Lesslie Newbigin, who spent much of his ministry in India, serving as bishop of the Church of South India for over twenty years. I often quote him in sermons and frequently find myself gravitating to his books, of which I own several.
One which I turn to every Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is
The Good Shepherd: Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today's World. Though it was published in 1977, over 40 years ago, it still has much relevance today.
Newbigin contends that the image of the Good Shepherd has been far too sentimentalized in the course of church history. In Scripture, the term shepherd is far from sentimental. It is political. It is used to describe kings and rulers, those in authority. In the hands of those shepherds hangs the balance of every life under their care.
According to Newbigin, the background for Jesus' Good Shepherd image can be found in the
34th chapter of Ezekiel.
In that narrative, God, speaking through the prophet, unleashes a tirade denouncing Israel's false shepherds, who have ruled with force and harshness, profited off the sheep, eaten the fat, clothed themselves with the wool, slaughtered the fatlings; but have not fed the sheep.
The entire 10th chapter of John, of which we read a snippet every Fourth Sunday of Easter, is a response to the Pharisees' negative reaction to Jesus healing a blind man in the previous chapter. The Pharisees were the authority of Jesus' time.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as described in the gospel according to John, stands in contrast to those false shepherds. Jesus uses this image of the good shepherd to challenge the Pharisees, and to teach his followers about the relationship offered and sought by God with God's creation.
In similar fashion, in the reading from Acts, Peter is arrested for healing a crippled man, restoring his ability to walk.
In both these instances, the men that are healed are not only healed physically, but also restored to full participation in society. These stories serve to show that salvation is not just for the hereafter, but also for the present.
As people of God, today's world poses many challenges, many of which are generated by the false shepherds of our time. It's easy to become discouraged and overwhelmed with the negativity, confused by the chaos and conflict, and overcome with sadness and sorrow at the hostility and aggression we witness. Too many people are oppressed, suffering and dying.
The church, as the body of Christ, is called to step in and offer hope to our present world - hope, in the form of the Good Shepherd. We're reminded of that through the words of the hymn, "We Are Called" [Evangelical Lutheran Worship #720]:
We are called to act with justice,
we are called to love tenderly;
we are called to serve one another,
to walk humbly with God.
As a church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America witnesses to the Gospel through the many ministries of service it supports, such as Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, ELCA Advocacy, our Domestic and Global Mission Units, just to name a few. We do this because, to quote Newbiggin, "the Church is the agent of God's kingdom put into the world to fight unremittingly against all the powers of evil."
The nature of God is love, as we learn both in the gospel and the First Letter of John. That love is ultimately made manifest in that Christ laid down his life for us. Thankfully, that isn't a requirement for us, but as Christians and as Lutherans, we share something that can be found nowhere else except in God's church. The reign of God has come into the world in the coming of Jesus. And we are entrusted to be the bearers of that good news, by the witness of our lives and the work of our hands.
On Tuesday, April 17, 2018
, at 7:00 p.m., I will be at Advent Lutheran Church in Mentor, as they gather to engage in Teatime for Peace, an event aimed at unifying people of different faiths and backgrounds to celebrate their likeness as well as their diversity. Through conversations they'll come to recognize common interests, with the hope of emerging as friends. Empowered by friendship and understanding, the goal is to break the bonds of prejudice and bigotry. The Cleveland chapter of the
Council on American-Islamic Relations
sponsor the event.
On Saturday, April 21, the Northeastern Ohio Synod Council meets at the Lakewood campus of Good Soil Ministries.
Sunday, April 22
, I will be off to Angola, Indiana, to meet with my Region Six Bishop colleagues for a day of discussion and retreat. The following Monday afternoon, we welcome First Call pastors and deacons for the First Call Theological Education Retreat. We will spend three days together in worship, learning, and formation. I look forward to this time with our newer rostered ministers.
This week and always, may the light of God's face continue to shine upon us and put gladness in our hearts.
+Bishop Abraham Allende