MAY 3, 2009: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Readers of the Christian Scriptures can never forget Rudolph Bultmann’s insight about the first Christians:
“After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the preacher became the preached.” “Things” changed drastically after Jesus died and rose. Before that double event, Jesus crisscrossed the country preaching a reform of Judaism. As far as scholars can tell, he rarely, if ever, preached himself. That doesn’t happen until his original followers began to reflect on the significance of the risen Jesus in their daily lives.
Not a word of our Christian Scriptures was written during Jesus’ preaching. Everything, including today’s three passages, was composed between 20 and 90 years into the “preached” era. We presume the historical Jesus never promoted or even accepted the titles which our sacred authors later gave him, even the “good shepherd” image John has him apply to himself in our gospel pericope.
In a culture in which one constantly came into contact with old-time, herding shepherds, it was only a matter of time before someone referred to Jesus as the shepherd in his or her life. “I am the good shepherd,” the risen Jesus states.” I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father; for these sheep I will give my life.”
One aspect of John’s shepherd imagery that we frequently overlook is contained in Jesus’ next words. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must lead them, too, and they shall hear my voice. There shall be one flock then, one shepherd.”
Scholars presume when John’s Jesus talks about those “other sheep” he isn’t planning on all Christians giving up their various denominational beliefs and joining the church to which each reader of the gospel belongs. Rather, he’s sharing his dream that all Christian communities (especially those who didn’t agree with John’s liberal theology) be united in faith and actions by their common belief in the risen shepherd among them. Ecumenism was already alive and kicking more than 1,900 years ago.
A few years before John developed his shepherd theology, Luke promoted his rejected stone theology. Though the concept dates back to Psalm 118 (today’s responsorial Psalm), Luke most probably employed it in its present form because of the experience of many in his community. No one can carry on Jesus’ ministry without coming face to face with the rejection Jesus suffered.
Luke encourages his readers to look beyond such rejection. “This Jesus,” he writes, “is ‘the stone rejected by you the builders which has become the cornerstone.’ There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole word given to people by which we are to be saved.” Rejection is part of the dying process by which we will eventually transform the world. (Before condemning to hell those who don’t believe in Jesus’ name, remember Luke is addressing only his community. He’s not directing these words to non-Christians. Were he speaking to us Catholics, he’d say something to the effect that no one is saved just by being Catholic, but only by imitating Jesus’ death and resurrection.)
The author of I John reinforces Luke’s rejection concept. “The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized the Son.” If they did it to him, they’ll certainly do it to us.
Yet the most significant part of the author’s insight comes next. “Dearly beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light. We know that when it comes to light we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Those who imitate the risen Jesus will one day be just as risen as he is.