I preached again yesterday, this time using the lectionary readings. As interesting as I found the passages when I began digging into them, I just couldn’t do anything substantial with them. The sermon below is probably the least satisfied I’ve been with a sermon for quite some time – even my wife said it wasn’t ‘all that meaty’! And regardless of substance, I’m not even convinced it’s especially coherent or that it holds together even at the level of grammar and punctuation! Anyway, I’m still posting the text: not only does it mean my blog remains active (!), but it also shows (perhaps) my willingness to invite (kind) critical comments in an attempt to improve my homiletical abilities.
John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12
Hello, everyone: my name is Terry. Not ‘Terence’; ‘Terry’. It says so on my birth certificate. The name ‘Terry’ apparently originates from Old German and means ‘power of the tribe’ or ‘ruler of the people’. I don’t suppose my parents had such lofty ambitions for me when they named me ‘Terry’, but I couldn’t say this for sure, and they’re not around any more to ask. In fact, I vaguely remember being told that ‘Terry’ was a last-minute change: I was originally going to be called ‘Barry’. I don’t know why my parents changed their minds and, like I say, they’re not around any more to ask. And so I stand here before you today as Terry: husband of Ruth, father of Isaac, son of Elaine and David.
Names are important. At a very basic level, names are simply ways of referring to particular people or places or things. But names often frame our identities, who we are, and our identities are sometimes rooted in our names. Telling someone our name is in some respects an act of revelation: we are telling someone who we are, who we recognise ourselves to be: I am Terry – not ‘Barry’, not ‘Optimus’, not ‘Anakin’, and, once my life story is taken into account, a particular ‘Terry’ at that. By letting you know my name, I’m saying this is how I want you to know me, this is how I want you to address me, and you need my permission and approval if you want to call me by another name.
There are situations, of course, where this doesn’t happen. Cast your mind back to when we were going through Daniel. Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were taken captive by the Babylonians and given new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These four men from Judah were given new names showing they were now going to be defined primarily by the Babylonian Empire, by its culture and politics. I’m not absolutely certain, but I believe similar things have happened to enslaved peoples throughout history: empires move in and shape colonies in the image of the homeland, including assigning different names to the indigenous peoples. And I suppose that, in the English-speaking world at least, many people whose birth names derive from non-Germanic languages feel obliged to change their names so they sound more agreeable to the dominant ethnicities.
And lest you think I’m reading too much into things here, let me say just one more thing on this: Think about a time when someone called you a name, when someone insulted you by using a name that put you down because of your skin colour, because of your height or your weight, because of a disability, your intelligence or your education, your upbringing, your job, whatever. How did you feel, being called by a name you didn’t or wouldn’t choose for yourself, a name intended to shame you or ridicule you, making you look small and pathetic in the eyes of others? How did you feel? Names are important.
This takes us, not too tenuously (I hope), to today’s reading from Acts and the council’s question, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ (4:7). The background to today’s reading and the council’s question is the healing of a man born lame. This man, at least in his forties (4:22), and who had never been able to walk, would sit outside the Jerusalem temple and beg for money. But the disciples, Peter and John, didn’t give him any money this time. Instead, Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk’ (3:6) – and the man stood up, began to walk around, leap about, and praise God, testing the legs that for so long had been mere attachments to his torso. I don’t suppose the sight of someone jumping around the temple was especially common, let alone of a man known for his inability to walk, and news of his healing quickly filtered through to the authorities. The next day, Peter and John and the previously lame man were standing – standing! – before the council to explain what had happened.
What was this council? At this stage in the history of Judaism, it was a formal group comprised of Jewish priests, lay leaders, and people trained to interpret the law of Moses. This is a crude and inexact analogy – and I’m trying to make a comparison without being snarky – but think of this council almost like a jury made from archbishops and bishops, public-schooled politicians and gentry, and government advisors and experts. This council was convened at short notice to ascertain precisely what happened to the man born lame, and to see what threat there might be to the beliefs and practices of Judaism; hence the question: ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’
The Bible translation we use perhaps gives the impression that the council simply wanted a chat with Peter and John and the man, but make no mistake: this was an interrogation, a pre-trial hearing, all to determine whether or not something sinister to Judaism was happening. I don’t know what was going on in the minds of the council’s members as they cross-examined the two disciples, but I can imagine that any member who was a Sadducee was feeling threatened. The Sadducees denied the possibility of resurrection, and so seeing a supposedly lame man jumping around the temple, and hearing Peter and John ascribe this strange phenomenon to a man who had been crucified not too long ago – well, I can imagine the Sadducees found themselves in the uncomfortable position where reality challenges one’s theology. As for the priests and the experts, maybe they were concerned about yet another challenge to their authority, and perhaps their social power, too. But while individual priests and experts in the law may have been corrupt or self-serving, we shouldn’t forget the actual roles were sanctioned by the law of Moses and other ancient texts, and many of the council’s members probably would have been jealous for the God of their ancestors in the face of some new power. ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’
Peter’s response is simple: ‘Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.’ (4:10).
The power belongs to Jesus, the name is Jesus Christ of Nazareth – or, better, the Messiah of Israel, who is Jesus from Nazareth. This name is important: the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’ (Matt. 1:21) and names a person recently crucified but who now, Peter says, but who now is raised from the dead: alive, transformed, resurrected. What’s more, says Peter, the fact that a previously lame man can now stand up and walk around and leap about is evidence the man named Jesus from Nazareth is alive. The fact that a man who once had never walked a single step in his life can now tear around the temple like a six-year-old playing football in a park should prove to the council that Jesus from Nazareth is alive and the Messiah of the God of Israel.
And lest the council be in any doubt: God’s Messiah has come, and the Messiah’s name is Jesus. This name ‘Jesus’ is the name by which and through which God makes God known to the world. The name ‘Jesus’ is the name given to the only human who reveals exactly what God is like, exactly who God is, and we can know this, says Peter, because Jesus had died and now lives his risen life at the side of his Father in heaven. This name ‘Jesus’ is not merely important, but all-important, because, as Peter concludes, ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ (4:12). Do not reject God or set yourself in opposition to God any longer, says Peter, but listen to God’s voice as spoken by the risen Jesus, and know God by the name of the person in whom God is revealed: Jesus.
Let’s move now, hopefully not too tenuously (again), to our Gospel reading from John. Here, Jesus names himself as ‘the good shepherd’ (10:11). Unlike bad shepherds (see Ezek. 34), unlike hired hands, the good shepherd is concerned for and protects the sheep in his care, even to the point of giving his life if necessary – though, of course, this would be rather extreme! I want to home in on verses fourteen to sixteen in particular, because in these verses are similar themes of listening to God and knowing God that I tried to draw out a moment ago from Acts 4. If names are important, telling others who we are and how we wish to be known, then what is Jesus saying by naming himself ‘the good shepherd’? How might Jesus’s words here encourage us and challenge us in equal measure? Here are some basic ideas to get us started.
First of all, Jesus says here that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him (10:14). This doesn’t really mean much more than the shepherd knows which sheep belong to the flock in his charge, and that the sheep recognise the shepherd as the one who is taking care of them. The encouragement here is that Jesus knows you and that, if you are already a follower of Jesus, you know him. The challenge here is not to follow any other shepherd. To continue the shepherding imagery, there will always be other shepherds, other people, who appear to have more food, more means of protection, more space to grow, but who ultimately are bad shepherds. The good shepherd is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.
Second, when Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, he is not speaking merely of his awareness that the sheep exist, or that he knows how large his flock is. In an earlier part of this chapter we didn’t read today – thank you, lectionary! – Jesus says he calls his sheep by name (10:3): he knows each and every sheep in his flock, and each and every one of his sheep knows Jesus is their shepherd. And not only do the good shepherd and the sheep know one another, but Jesus says this knowledge between them is ‘just as’ that between Jesus and his Father (10:15). When Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and when Jesus says he knows the Father and the Father knows him, he presupposes a depth of knowledge and a level of intimacy that is hard to put into words and, it seems, can only be conveyed through the Word made flesh, that is, Jesus himself. And with this depth of knowledge and level of intimacy comes the possibility of truly hearing the words of God spoken with the voice of Jesus. The encouragement here is that this depth of knowledge and level of intimacy with God in the name of Jesus is available for us all: Jesus calls each of us by name. The challenge is to take the plunge and press on in our discipleship, living out the intimacy of our life with Jesus in front of everyone around us, just as Peter and John did.
Third, Jesus says he has ‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold’ (10:16). In context, Jesus means people who hadn’t been born Jews, that is, people from the nations who would hear and listen, really listen, to the good shepherd’s voice. And in hearing Jesus’s voice, and by listening to his words, these people would become part of the people of God for whom the shepherd would lay down his life. Each of us here today who confesses Jesus as Lord in some way has heard him call our name and responded in faith through the Holy Spirit. We have but one shepherd, we are part of the good shepherd’s flock, and we are drawn ever more deeply into the intimate relationship Jesus has with his Father. The encouragement here is that we are well-placed to hear what God is saying to the world and pass it on; we are well-placed to demonstrate God’s love for the world by speaking and acting in the name of the risen Jesus. The challenge, of course, is to admit we’d rather not.
Names are important.
They tell others who we are and how we wish to be known. Our Bible readings
today from John 10 and Acts 4 show that God, too, has given us the name by
which God is known: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the good shepherd who laid down
his life for the sheep, the good shepherd who took it up again as the Messiah
of Israel and saviour of the world. And because we know Jesus as both saviour
and shepherd, let’s listen to his voice and, by the Holy Spirit, do all we can
to encourage and challenge one another to follow wherever he, and he alone, leads.
There is, after all, no other name given under heaven by which we must be