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May 14, 2000
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Festival of the Christian Home
Mother's Day

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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The Greatest Power of All

What comes to mind when you think of the word power?

Perhaps you think of power in economic terms as in the worldview that says, "Everyone has their price."   Or maybe political power comes to mind. Someone with lots of political "clout" is able to change whole communities.  The year 2000 in the US will see alliances of economic and political power during the presidential election process.  Whoever thought a national election would see billions spent on political advertising?

There's lots of power when you combine economic and political power.

Some people think of power in terms of military might.  Power is represented in that image of a giant mushroom cloud hanging over the earth.  An atomic chain reaction is a huge source of power.  That power can be used to "tear down" or to "build up".  The specter of atomic power has loomed over humanity like a giant sword of Damocles.  Whether used for good or for evil, atomic power used in any form requires an extraordinarily watchful eye -- precisely because it is so powerful and so unpredictable.

There is a relatively new power that has emerged in the last few years.  It has taken the world and the stock market by storm.  It has been the fastest growing segment of our economy.

Do you know the power I am talking about?

The internet of course.  The power of Microsoft is so significant in this field that the US Government is involved in litigation to break the company up.  Remarkable as it might seem, Microsoft can tangle the government up in court because it has more money to spend on the case than the government!

A software company in California (where else?) grew so fast and needed so many new software engineers that it offered a "signing bonus" of a brand new BMW.  Any new software engineer could drive the BMW for two years.  There were other perks as well.  [Report on CNN, 2/22/00]

The phrase, "power of the internet" has become a contemporary byword.


The flip side of all this power is "powerlessness." One of the buzz words for our time is "empowerment."  "Empower" has replaced "educate" as the thing people, institutions and nations need.  We need to "empower" students to learn... "empower" the church to act in the world...  or "empower" people to exercise their citizen rights.  

Powerlessness is one of the worst conditions to befall a person or a people. When Moses was speaking his last words to Israel before their entrance into the promised land, he warned them of the consequences of straying from God:

"Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on; you will strain your eyes looking for them all day but be powerless to do anything." [Deut. 28:32]

The prophet Isaiah points to the only true source of power for the powerless.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. [Isa. 40:28-29]


These words from Isaiah lead us to an absolutely astounding statement Jesus made in our gospel reading for today.  If true, Jesus' words point us to the greatest power of all in the known universe.  Listen once again:

"... the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father." [10:17-18]

Now, anybody can lay down their life.  History is filled with inspiring examples of people who have given up their life for a cause.  But no one has been able to "take it up again."  Some people like Harry Houdini have said they would find a way to "take it up again," but no one has ever succeeded -- until Jesus!

Five times in the short gospel lesson Jesus says he will "lay down his life."  Then he tells the gathered crowd that he does this, "in order to take it up again!"   And here is the striking part of his affirmation. "I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again."

The word "power" used here is translated "authority" in some versions. [NIV, NASB]  The meaning is quite broad, and gives the sense that Jesus has jurisdiction over death and that he has ability or strength to overcome death. The anchor point of all this speaks of Jesus' intimate relationship with God and his unique place in history.  Jesus makes the point that he has received a "command" from his "Father" to lay his life down and then take it up again.

Here's the essential point.  All the power this world can muster -- whether military, economic or political can not give life. As a matter of fact, it is evident in the course of history that the development and use of power has been more to take life than to enrich it.  In other words --  power as you and I have come to know it is adept at "laying life down", but it has never come close to reversing death!

All of this goes to the heart of life's meaning.  Life is a gift and only God can give the gift of life.  From the very beginning of the biblical drama until the end, scripture turns on the fact that God creates, sustains and renews life.

The words are awesome when you reflect on them:

"...the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." [Gen.2:7]

Life is a beautiful, precious, vulnerable gift from God.  We could quite comfortably refer to our life as "God's breath." When life as we know it comes to an end, there is nothing within all the realms of human power that can reverse the situation.  Because, as everybody knows, death is irreversible. 

It is true that great gains are being made to improve both the quality and length of life.  BUT...  none of these gains or advances in knowledge can give the gift of life.

I recall a discussion with a graduate student in biology years ago.  He was telling me of his belief that science would one day "create life in a test tube."  I had two simple questions for him.  [1]  Is science going to use anything besides the test tube?  (That is create life exnihilo in the tube?)  and [2]  Who wants to live in a test tube?


Now I would like you to think about a question with me.


Why in the world would Jesus want to lay down his life?

Hang on to your pew and let this sink in:

"I lay down my life for the sheep!"

Jesus didn't lay down his life to impress the powers that be.  He didn't lay it down to bring about history's greatest event.  He didn't lay down his life as an example of what it means to be a martyr in a great cause.

It was "for the sheep" -- that is, it was for the followers of Christ.  Later on in John chapter 10, Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me." He laid down his life for you and for me. And just as he laid his life down for the sheep, so he took his life up again for the sheep.

As everybody knows, death is irreversible -- unless.

Unless God can once again breathe life into the one who had died.  Listen to the rest of the words Jesus spoke in John 10 when he talked about his followers.

"...My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.  [John 10:27-28]

Jesus came as the "Good Shepherd" who gives his life for the sheep.  The sheep, as defined by the Good Shepherd, are those who hear his voice and follow him. He makes the point to his Jewish listeners, that there are sheep beyond the limited circle of Israel that belong to his fold.  These will also listen to his voice and become a part of the flock of God.

This Shepherd has journeyed into the powerful realm of death.  There are some remarkable words in Luke that describe this journey into death like this, "Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last." [Lk. 23:46]

Jesus gives up his own "breath of life" in order to take that life up again in victory over that which was the greatest power of all.  To his followers, the Risen Christ now gives that life which can never be destroyed by the power of death.  When Jesus came to his gathered disciples after his resurrection, the gospel of John uses the imagery of the divine breath.

"Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." [John 20:21-22]

Though these words are Jesus' commission to the disciples, they speak to the infusion of life only God can give.


As it turns out, the greatest power of all is the power of faith in trust in Christ that reverses the destructive power of death.  Think about this... the price of gaining political, economic or military power can be very high.  Amazingly the greatest power of all is a gift.

"I give to them eternal life... and they shall never perish!"

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

[For those who may be focusing on Mother's Day or the Festival of the Christian Home, the imagery of the incredible love of the shepherd for the children of God is quite applicable to the love of a committed mother.  The Shepherd Psalm speaks of an environment which transfers to the nature of a genuinely nourishing home.]

This Sunday is traditionally known as "Good Shepherd" Sunday and the texts all point to the care and nurture God has toward us.  Peter's statement in Acts that there "...is salvation in no one else..." points to the broader Hebrew "Shalom."  The salvation of God is the wholeness God intends for our lives.  The Psalm is a description of what it is to "rest in the Lord."

However, the cost of salvation is great.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The image Isaiah uses of sheep and shepherd is that of sheep who stray and a shepherd who seeks the sheep.  Finally, the whole burden of sin of the willful, straying sheep is laid on the shepherd. [Is. 53?]

The epistle will call the redeemed sheep to accountability in that they are to be for each other what the shepherd has been for them. The community of faith in some sense becomes the environment of rest and refreshment the Psalmist describes in Psalm 23.

John 10:11-18

This gospel text is the most complete description of the ministry of the Good Shepherd.  Undershepherds, or those who with the Good Shepherd, help care for the flock are called to model the life and ministry of the Good Shepherd.  These qualities are important:

            * The Shepherd gives up life for the sake of the flock
* The Shepherd reaches out beyond those who are "already in the fold."

Then there is one thing no one but the "Great Shepherd"  can do -- namely to lay down his life and take it up again.  This one statement and the ability to actually "take up" his life again is the source and foundation of the message the apostles are preaching as well as the source of the community's life.

Acts 4:5-12

The earliest church immediately encountered conflict with the religious authorities of the day.  Peter, who had denied Christ in fear on the night of his arrest, now empowered by the Holy Spirit stands and confronts the high priest and officials with the message that Christ is the source of salvation.

This is an age old conflict.  Peter and John had been able to bring the healing of Christ to a crippled man and the authorities rather than rejoicing, arrest the apostles.  "Where did you get the power?"  "Where did you get the authority?"  The conflict calls to mind the conflict between Jesus and the authorities.  This is all "as advertised."   Jesus told his followers that they could expect the same treatment he had received.

1 John 3:16-24

The heartbeat of 1 John is the injunction of Christian brothers and sisters to have for each other the love of God.  It is clear to the writer, "...he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." 

There are very practical results to the love of Christ in the life of the believer.  When one brother or sister is in need, those who are able are bound to help.  The love we have for each other in the church has to be more than "talk" -- indeed, the one way we have of knowing that our life of faith is authentically rooted in God is the way the love of God is active in us.

The last verse of the text takes this to the point of obedience.  If we are obedient, we are children of God -- this is how we "...know that he abides in us."


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 23)

Leader:   We come to praise your name, Shepherd of our souls!
People:  From your hand we have received life's treasures;
Leader:   You have given us rest in our toughest times,
People:  Renewal when life has brought us low.
Leader:   You give us guidance when life is confusing,
People:  And show us the way we should go.
Leader:   Your goodness and mercy shall surround our days,
People:  And our spirits are yours forever and ever!  Amen!

A Prayer of Confession
Eternal God and Creator of life, we confess today that we all too often loose sight of who you are.  And when we loose sight of who you are, we loose ourselves. When we loose sight of who we are in you, we loose sight of who our brothers and sisters are.  O Lord of everlasting grace and mercy, renew our sight and restore our insight by the power of your Holy Spirit who breathes new life into our spirits.  With humble hearts we seek forgiveness and restoration.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Hear O People of the Lord, all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  As we confess our sin we are new persons once again in Jesus Christ. Receive the good news, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.   Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Our hearts are filled with praise this day, O Great Shepherd of our souls, for your care for us is beyond our ability to describe it.  You lead us beside tranquil places if we will but come to you.  Your provide for all our needs, if we will but look beyond all our wants.  You fill our days with good things and lead us through the times of trial and despair.

We are those who possess great treasures from you hand and our lives overflow with the beauty of the earth, the joy of human love and the divine love which will never let us go.

O Giver of every good gift, fill us today, we pray with a new vision of the magnitude of your gifts to us and a new appreciation for the joys of life which can not be bought with earthly coin.

We who are your people here on earth, join our hearts with the communion of saints and the chorus of angel choirs in declaring your praise.


A Prayer of Dedication
O Great Shepherd of our souls, you have given to us the precious gift of life.  Then in your Son Jesus we have  the gift of life everlasting.  How can we even begin to thank you?  Please look upon these meager gifts as tokens of our love for you and give us grace to share your gifts with others.   Amen.