Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good Shepherd - a sermon; and another Priscilla

The Good Shepherd from the
Catacomb of Priscilla (see Note below)
Wonderfully encouraging 0830 service in Church today. I think it was a record attendance of about 50 - a year ago it was 10-20 (and of course there are 2 other much bigger services later in the day.  I was preaching and FWIW here are the texts and my talk:

Acts 4.5-12 NIV
The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem.  Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is 'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation  in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

John 10:11-18 NIV with corrections in purple

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me because I lay down my life—that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Lord open our hearts and minds to your love. Bless anything I say that is true, and correct my errors in the minds of these kind hearers, through your Holy Spirit. Amen

Horace Rumpole, doughty and shambolic barrister was a great comic creation of John Mortimer.  Once Rumpole was about to defend a case and he turned to the prosecuting counsel and said:
“I don’t know if you’ve appeared before this judge before. He’s mean, deaf, vindictive, unjust and quite the nastiest little judge you’ve ever come across”
“Mr Rumpole” said the Judge, “I’ll have you know that the acoustics in this court are excellent and I can hear every word that is said on Counsel’s benches”
Rumpole turned to his colleague: “See what I mean”
But compared to Peter, Rumpole was being meek and mild.
Peter and John had healed a lame beggar in the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth by the Temple Gate and then preached an inflammatory sermon to the assembled crowd. They were arrested and the following day brought before the authorities who they had publicly accused of delivering up and denying before Pilate. Far from being chastened, they could hardly be bolder

As everybody in the court knows, Peter is quoting from Psalm 118. It begins harmlessly enough:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;     his love endures forever.
But listen to this (v6-10)
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.     What can mere mortals do to me?
The Lord is with me; he is my helper.     I look in triumph on my enemies.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord     than to trust in humans.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord     than to trust in rulers.
All the heathens surrounded me,     but in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
Later on (v14-17):
The Lord is my strength and my defense;     he has become my salvation.
Shouts of joy and victory     resound in the tents of the righteous:
“The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!
The Lord’s right hand is lifted high;     the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”
I will not die but live,     and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
And now (V 20)
This is the gate of the Lord    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;     you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected     has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,     and it is marvellous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;     let us rejoice today and be glad.
Lord, save us!     Lord, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (remember Jesus' triumphal entry)  From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,     and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession (triumphal entry again) up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;     you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;     his love endures forever.
Well! 
When they saw the boldness of Peter and John (St Luke tells us) and realized that they were unlettered, ordinary men (the Greek word is idiwtai), they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “If it is right in God’s eyes to listen to you, or to him, you must judge! As for us, we cannot but speak about what we have seen and heard.”

Telling the judges that they must judge – boldness certainly.

Peter ran away once, like the hired hand Jesus speaks about. But now he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and like his Master will lay down his life for his sheep. God has kept his promises, the new creation has begun and just as in the first creation (as the prologue to John tells us) “without him was not anything made that was made” so in the new creation: without him will not anything be saved that is saved. Everyone and everything that is created is created through Jesus, whether they know it or not. Similarly everyone and everything that is saved is saved through Jesus.

Now there is some quite controversial material here and I don’t want to get drawn too far into the discussion about to what extent people need to know, during their earthly life, that they are being saved by Jesus.  We can’t read too much into the word “name” because in Jewish thought your name isn’t simply a set of characters that point to you – it’s much closer in this context to you unique identity.

We know that “Not everyone that says to Jesus ‘Lord Lord’ shall be saved” and we also know that for example Moses and Elijah are saved even though in their earthly lives they could not have called on Jesus by his name.  CS Lewis in The Last Battle has Aslan explain to a faithful servant of the supposed God Tash that “all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service to me … if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for his oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not… and if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves.”  This is of course similar to the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25.31-46) when the people who are judged are unaware that they are serving Jesus or not as the case may be.

I think we can be certain of four things:
  1. Jesus wants everyone to be saved. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me.” (John 12.32)
  2. Everyone who is saved is saved by Jesus but some people who are saved do not know that it is Jesus who is saving them during their earthly life (Mt 25.31-46)
  3. Salvation is not compulsory and the loss of “eternal life” is an infinite loss.  Whatever the risk may be, whether it’s 10%, 1% or 99%, a risk of an infinite loss is infinitely bad. Jesus talks about this risk as like being thrown on the rubbish dump “where the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48), about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13.42, Lk 13.28), about “being burned in the fire” (Jn 15.6).
  4. God is not incompetent and He is ultimately in control, but He has called us to be his witnesses and his co-workers (1 Cor 3.9 2 Cor 6.1) and to bear fruit (Luke 8:11-15; Matt. 13:18-23). We have to be sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Sprit but in the end we have an awesome privilege and responsibility to help bring people to faith and sustain them in faith.  We cannot but speak about what we have heard and seen.
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Note: I'm excited to learn of the Catacombs of Priscilla which, it seems, contains the oldest surviving image of the Good Shepherd. She seems to have the wife of the Consul Acillus (AD 80) who became a Christian and was killed on the orders of Domitian (probably in the last years of his reign which ended in 96AD). It seems to me quite probable that she took the name Priscilla in honour of Priscilla the wife of Aquilla who (St Luke tells us) were Jews expelled from Rome on the orders of Claudius (reigned 41-54). Paul seems to have come to Corinth in AD 50 so if, as I strongly suspect, Priscilla wrote Hebrews it would have been some time around 55-65 AD. At least the elite Roman Christians would have known who wrote it, even if it was not recorded in the documents for prudent reasons given the upcoming persecutions.

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