The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 8, 2022
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
On this Sunday, we focus on shepherds, lambs, and sheep as image of the divine-human relationship. Mortality, miracles, and the scope of salvation are also themes for today. The readings are filled with possibilities and questions, and require us to use our imaginations as well as to challenge literal understandings of the texts.
Often there are more questions than answers when we read scripture, and today’s readings are no exception. How can we affirm the miraculous resuscitation of Dorcas in the scientific age? Can faith not only move mountains but also raise the dead? What gives us the power to confront the inevitable and necessary losses and challenges of life? What enables us to go through the valley of the shadow of death, when there is no way around it and to live with our fear and terror – or panic and anxiety – knowing that God has the final word and that the good shepherd will guide our path home? Who are the “sheep” and the goats, and is the scope of salvation limited as the Gospel suggests and potentially infinite as Revelation asserts? What about divine universalism and the reality of grace? If grace abounds can grace overcome our unbelief?
The reading from Acts 9 is reminiscent of the gospel account of Jairus’ daughter. (Matthew 9:18-25; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:41-56) In fact, they are companion pieces, likely invoked in tandem by early Christians to demonstrate the mighty scope of God’s power which is active long after Jesus’ ascension. Jesus promised that we can do greater things, and Acts puts that promise in practice. Like Jairus’ daughter, Tabitha (Dorcas) is presumed to be dead and then awakened with a word from the healer Peter. In this story, Peter is following in the footsteps of Jesus, performing marvelous acts through the power of God. This is a wonderful story, but what shall we do with it? In our lives, the dead simply don’t come back to life, especially those who have been dead for significant lengths of time and are defined as “brain dead.” We don’t expect such miraculous events in our churches, even at healing services. As pastors, we have stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to recognize the finality of death. It is not that we lack faith. We simply are unable by our prayers or faith to defy the predictable laws of nature. Nor are we sure that we want zombies in our midst even if they might come back to life in answer to our prayers.
Death stalks us even at church. Death was a reality and threat in the early church as well – mortality and persecution was an everyday reality. I recall being a keynote speaker at a denominational conference when one of the attendees died. She simply fell asleep in one of the continuing education workshops. Paramedics and police spent half an hour trying to revive her. Persons lifted her up in prayer, recognizing God’s presence in death and life. There was no physical miracle, despite our prayers. We can hope that she is in God’s hands and that her family will experience healing in the midst of grief. Were our prayers unsuccessful, or is there a deeper healing of which we are unaware? Or, are there some realities that not even prayer can change.
Miracles, defined as acts of power that transform cells and souls, do occur. Our prayers can be a tipping point between health and illness and life and death. Our prayers can aid in our recovery from illness. Yet, our prayers and their impact appear to occur within an orderly causal matrix, which both limits and inspires. Still, we can pray boldly, trusting God, while recognizing that some diseases reach a point in which death is the only expectation and the best result. Then we must pray for a healing, a sense of peace and wholeness in relationship with God, when a cure is no longer possible.
Although Peter raised Tabitha to life, eventually Tabitha died as did all the New Testament characters. We may pray for a cure but healing is that for which we yearn. We need to trust that nothing – not even death and disability – can separate us from the love of God. [For more on Jesus’ healing ministry, see Bruce Epperly, “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel” (Energion), “Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel” (Energion), and “God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus” (Westminster/John Knox)]
Psalm 23 reminds us that our trust is in God, not necessarily in a worry-free life. Peace is the result of God’s presence in all the seasons of life, not just in times of apparent success. The Psalmist affirms that he will fear no evil, despite the reality of threat. He knows that he must go through the valley, and live with his fears, getting through the journey only because of his confidence in God’s companionship. God makes a way where there is no way, and provides us comfort with what cannot be changed but must simply be endured. Psalm 23 is the source of great consolation to those who reach the end of their efforts: first, God is with us as the “fellow sufferer who understands” (Alfred North Whitehead). Second, aware of God’s presence, we can find wholeness during life’s inevitable crises. Third, when there can’t be a cure, there can be a healing. Healing is the experience of God’s presence – the sense of trust and peace that God is with us in the darkest valley. At nearly 70 and in the wake of pandemic (I hope), I am well aware of my mortality and recognize I need to trust God’s love when I face what no longer can be fixed or escaped.
The author of Revelation gives us a peek into heaven. He describes the angelic host, the Divine Parent, and the Lamb of God, the victorious Christ, and like those who have had “near death experiences,” he discovers that all tragedy, terror, and trauma will be healed through the power of God. The martyrs may be lost to us, but they are not lost to God. God will wipe away ever tear, heal what is broken, and bring wholeness to our wounds. Heavenly hope does not turn us away from the world but enables us to live courageously when all external hope seems to be gone. We will all experience “necessary losses,” (Judith Viorst) but no loss is final in light of God’s everlasting love.
The Revelation passage also posits an infinite number of heavenly choristers. Is this an implicit universalism, inviting us to belief in a wideness in God’s mercy, rather than a narrow gate? God’s grace is generous, more generous than our own limited perspectives. Is salvation possible (eventually) for those who have turned away from God and who have done “unforgiveable” deeds?
John’s Gospel reveals Jesus’ unity with God as the source of our confidence. Jesus reveals God’s nature to us, and calls us to be his own, aligned with God’s vision. Jesus’ sheep are ultimately safe, and their safety lies in their alignment with God’s vision for them and the world. At first glance, this passage appears to separate those who hear and those who don’t and suggests joy and sorrow for the respective groups.
This passage is not necessarily exclusionary. Although it doesn’t prooftext universal salvation, it asserts that no one is excluded from God’s love, and yet we experience this love only when we accept the path of Jesus and its attunement with God’s character and aim for us. Grace is given to all, but some may turn away, forfeiting the experience though not necessarily the reality of grace. When we listen to the shepherd’s voice, we are “home,” regardless of life’s circumstances. Wake up, you are in God’s hands, you can follow God’s way – beginning right now.
Eternal life is happening right now and with it, surprising bursts of insight and energy, congruent with the order of nature. When we experience ourselves in relationship with Christ, we live on earth as it is in heaven! We may still make mistakes, feel anxious, and lose our way, but when we hear God’s voice, we know that the journey is home (Nelle Morton) and that Jesus is our companion each step of the way.
Bruce Epperly is a professor, pastor, and spiritual guide, and author of over sixty books, including MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; TALKING POLITICS WITH JESUS: A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR PEACEMAKERS AND JUSTICE SEEKERS. His most recent book is THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGIES AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM.