Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

Creation is our Home, the Abiding Place of Nurture and Sustenance Dennis Ormseth reflects on the manner with which we regard the creation around us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024, 2027)
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

On the Sunday before Earth Day, this Sunday’s texts offer rich counterpart to those of the last Sunday, when we saw how the mode of Jesus’ presence with his disciples following his resurrection is full of consequence for the church’s care of creation: the meal they share becomes the touchstone for our orientation to the earth. This Sunday’s texts provide further occasion for reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, now considered as a whole, for its implications for care of creation.

For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of the God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. As the “good” or model shepherd, Jesus thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his]own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The model character of the Shepherd is elaborated further in the Psalm. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus ‘holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61). It is therefore significant that the metaphor of the shepherd is also deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature “ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).

What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with their Creator, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba’s felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,

“A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep” (Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 60).

The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.”

Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But this Sunday that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, as narrated in the third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple where they engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death (Acts 4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the collected authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who “does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13); the one ‘who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick,” and ask “how this man has been healed” (Acts 4:9).

Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of  “ecological degradation,” he suggests that

“people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile” (Wirzba, p 89).

Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days. May his presence inspire us and guide us in loving care for the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.