postmodern preaching

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

  • Acts of the Apostles 4:5-12

This excerpt from the Acts follows two dramatic events.  Peter and the others have pronounced in the name of Jesus a man lame from birth to be healed.  And, they have used the attention this event drew that attracted 5,000 men and uncounted (!) “others” to hear their message and believe.  By now, the religious establishment is annoyed (4:2), and has Peter and the others arrested and put on trial before the High Priest and his family as well as other “rulers, elders and scribes.”  Luke’s account of this trial follows closely his account of the trial of Jesus.  However, this time, in complete contrast with Peter’s cowardly behavior when Jesus was in custody, Peter now boldly and eloquently asserts that the same Jesus, whom they had arrested and crucified, was raised from the dead by God, becoming “the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner.”

  • Psalm 23

The best known psalm appears frequently in the Revised Common Lectionary not because it is an all-purpose, sentimental favorite, but because it so aptly and vividly conveys truths about God’s behavior toward us and the precise nature of our dependence on God, as sheep to their shepherd.  Robert Alter explains that what makes this psalm so effective is its “concreteness,” (The Book of Psalms, pp 78-80).  The verb to “lie-down,” for example, is “a specialized verb for making animals lie down….”  The verb translated “restore” is the same verb to describe “someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life.”  The verb translated “anoint” is closer to “moisten,” Alter writes, relaying a more sensual, tactile sense of comfort than a formal, sacramental gesture.  The images of the good life (v 5) evoke familiar memories of abundance, security and complete well-being.

  • I John 3:16-24

While Luke-Acts is a carefully crafted two volume work by one author, the connection between the First Epistle of John and the gospel that also bears that name is not certain.  However, the writer of this epistle is clearly inspired by the major themes of the name-sake gospel.  Two themes and a corollary are clear in this excerpt: love is the concise definition of God (“God is love”) and this love is so thorough that Jesus “laid down his life for us and [therefore] we ought to live our lives for one another.”  He considers “truth and action” to be two sides of the same coin.  The real test of understanding of and loyalty to God is in our actions: “we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another….”  This is what unites us in communion with God, the Spirit and other believers.

  • John 10:11-18

Jesus is depicted as the ideal shepherd.  He knows each one by name and they know and trust his voice.  He risks whatever is required, including his own life, for their safety.  He took the risk voluntarily and it cost him everything, but he also has the power to take up life again.  Because Jesus can say “the Father knows me and I know the Father,” those who follow his voice can have complete confidence and trust.  Some do not yet recognize his voice, but Jesus wants to bring them into his fold, so “there will be one flock, one Shepard.”

It was not just the outrageous claims Peter and the others made publicly about Jesus, it was what they did that got so much attention.  That man, lame from birth, whom they pronounced healed, had become a walking, talking exuberant (“rejoicing”) witness.  The huge crowd this incident attracted, 5,000 men and uncounted “others” (!),  were now convinced of this message about Jesus.  Peter addresses the huge crowd, many of whom saw and participated in the sham trial and gory execution of Jesus and tells them that the import of what they did and saw is a release of love so unlikely, so undeserved, so pure it could only be from and of God.  And the spontaneous response is action. 

In his brilliant study Derrida and Theology, Steven Shakespeare distills Derrida’s grappling with the reality of pure gift this way: “The gift is not a mystical presence we encounter, but a rupture within thought and being….”  “The impossible is not a disabling paradox, but an urgency in thinking and acting.” (p. 150)   Peter and the others in today’s epistle testify to a “rupture” of love so distinct and clear that causes “an urgency in thinking and acting.”

The writer of the first epistle of John insists: “Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As Robert Alter so vividly illustrates, the staying power of the most beloved psalm, 23, is due to its concrete, everyday verbs.  The verb translated “restore” describes that moment, (which if ever experienced is never forgotten!), when someone is one gasp of breath or two away  from death, but is rescued.  The verb “anoint” evokes a sensation of soothing, relaxing comfort achieved by the touch of a human hand.

Writing in the April 2008 edition (vol.24, no 2, pp 225-244) of the the journal Modern Theology, (see link at right), Norman Wirzba responds to an essay by Jean-Louis Chretien, “Body and Touch,” and observes this about the experience of touch:

it ” is co-existent with a living being.  It defines us a creature that must touch and be touched to be.  Bathed in the mystery and complexity that life itself is, touch alerts us to what is so primordial as to elude our best efforts at comprehension.  We simply cannot imagine a human being without touch altogether”

The scriptures insist that we should expect to know love as concretely as the memory of a human touch.  And this equates, Wirzba, continues, echoing John’s epistle, in a particular way:

God’s way of being, as revealed to us in the history of Israel and the incarnate Christ , is in a way that is ‘for others’.  And God’s way of being ‘for others’ is meant to be our way, too, not in some abstract [‘theological ‘or ‘spiritual’ sense], but in the unique touch of a human hand on the aching body of another person whom we already know or will encounter for the first time today,”

“Let us not love in word or speech, but in truth and action,” which are one in the same thing.  If we want to look for a hint as to how to be open to God’s love, consider the details of the relationship of a shepherd with his sheep.  Likewise, the love of God, which we can share with others, is not abstract or thematic, but quotidian, simple and direct– “the unique touch of a human hand on the aching body of another person….”


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