Easter 7B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for May 12, 2024 (Easter 7B)

Tirage nomination de saint Matthias (Election of St. Matthias by drawing lots),

Tirage nomination de saint Matthias (Election of St. Matthias by drawing lots), 12th century painting in the parish church of the vallée de l’Aisne, France. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Our readings for the last Sunday after Easter mark a pause in time, a moment when the world is about to turn. Our first reading from Acts finds the apostles gathering just after Jesus has ascended into heaven, lifted up into a cloud. Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, we will hear of the Holy Spirit coming down like wind and fire, inspiring the apostles to take the Gospel into the world. But now, as they ask God’s guidance for an uncertain future, they cast lots and choose Matthias to take the place in their numbers left by the departure of Judas, the traitor who betrayed Jesus.

Psalm: Psalm 1

The first of the Psalms begins the book with a promise: Happiness awaits those who walk in the way of God. The 150 Psalms, the ancient hymns of the Jerusalem temple, sing an emotional range from joy to fear to anger to sadness to thanksgiving, but the joy of following God provides a recurring bass line. Psalm 1 also celebrates delight in the law, the Torah, understood not as mere regulation but God’s holy teaching: God showing us how to live in love of God and neighbor.

Second Reading: 1 John 5:9-13

Our Eastertide voyage through the first Letter of John concludes this week in its last chapter. This letter is thought to have been written in the spirit of John’s Gospel by members of the Johannine community decades after the Gospel. Its consistent, uplifting theme assures us in these verses that we gain eternal life through God’s love given us in Jesus: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Gospel: John 17:6-19

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spends the night before his crucifixion praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while the apostles wait and try not to fall asleep. John’s Gospel offers a very different account. In this telling we hear Jesus talking to his disciples after the last supper. Jesus prays for them, preparing them to move ahead after he has gone . Having protected and guarded the apostles – losing only Judas from the flock – Jesus asks God to protect them. Jesus will send them out into the world, as God had sent Jesus out into the world.

Easter 6B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for May 5, 2024 (Easter 6B)

The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1464-1467), oil painting on panel by Dieric Bouts (c.1420-1475), Altarpiece, St. Peter’s Church, Leuven, Belgium. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 10:44-48

Sunday’s readings build on the theme that we heard last Sunday: God’s love pours out on all the world, and we are called to love each other as God loves us. Our first reading marks a key turning point in Acts: The joyful reaction of a Gentile crowd to Peter’s teaching reveals to the apostles that the Holy Spirit comes to everyone, not only Jewish Christians but Gentiles too. Everyone. Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” The answer is clear: Baptism is for all. As we heard in last week’s reading about the Ethiopian eunuch, “Here is water. What is to prevent it?”

Psalm: Psalm 98

Filled with triumphant spirit, Psalm 98 rings out a resounding faith in God’s power to win victory for Israel over all the earth. This is an occasion for rejoicing, calling not only for the people but for all the earth – the sea, the rivers and the hills – to lift up their voices and sing. Consistent with the theme that runs through this day’s readings, God’s victory is not for Israel alone. God will judge not only Israel but all the people of the earth with mercy and equity.

Second Reading: 1 John 5:1-6

Our second reading and Gospel this week continue seamlessly where last Sunday’s readings left off, expanding on similar themes. We are commanded to love one another as Jesus loves us. Now we learn in the First Letter of John that the way to love God – to become a child of God – is by obeying God’s commandments, a direction that follows the Jewish tradition of love for God’s law and teaching. In words that echo the triumphant sentiment of today’s Psalm, we hear that our faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God brings God’s victory into the world.

Gospel: John 15:9-17

Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels all three tell us that Jesus taught – in the spirit of the essential Jewish prayer, the Shema – that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus expanding on this theme. Just as God has loved Jesus, he tells his apostles during his final discourse, so Jesus loves us. Therefore, he tells them, “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Through faith, he adds, continuing the metaphor of the vine and the branches from last week’s Gospel, we go out and bear fruit that will last.

Easter 5B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 28, 2024 (Easter 5B)

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (1626). Oil painting on oak panel by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Hear this assuring message through Sunday’s readings: God’s abiding love is open to all humankind. God showers love upon us as a free gift. The gently humorous story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the first reading from Acts recounts a reality of the infant church: All are welcome, no matter who they are. Even an Ethiopian eunuch – a foreigner with a high position in a strange land, but barred from full participation in Judaism because his physical condition made him biblically unclean – was eagerly welcomed as an equal. With mutual joy, right there on the spot, Philip baptized him as one of the community.

Psalm: Psalm 22:24-30

This relatively short passage comes from a longer Psalm that begins with the memorable words that Jesus uttered from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the despairing tone of the first two verses quickly turns to the idea we hear in this reading, a statement that resonates with Philip’s warm welcome to the Ethiopian eunuch: God is the ruler of all the world’s nations: those already born and all those yet to come. We live for God, we serve God, we praise God, and we fulfill our vow to God by caring for the poor and feeding the hungry.

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21

The verses selected from the first letter of John for this reading both reflect and add to Jesus’ unforgettable promise as told by John the Evangelist: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you … love one another as I have loved you.” (We will hear that passage, by the way, in next Sunday’s Gospel.) This reading, like the passage from 1 John that we heard last week, assures us of God’s love, and in doing so it calls us to action. “Love one another” is not just a suggestion: It incorporates a covenant promise. If we can’t love our sisters and brothers, how can we make room in our hearts for God?

Gospel: John 15:1-8

For the remaining Sundays of Eastertide, our Gospel readings will draw from John’s account of Jesus’s long farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper. It might seem odd in the joy of Eastertide to return to Jesus’s last gathering with his apostles before his passion and death, but consider this: Now we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises that Jesus made on that tense and fearful night. In this section, Jesus uses the vineyard as an extended metaphor for our relationship with God through Christ: God prunes the vine’s weaker branches in order to make the remaining vines strong and productive. We must abide in God as God abides in us; otherwise we risk being pruned and discarded like the weaker vines. When we abide in God through Jesus, living in God like a sturdy branch on a nurturing vine, we remain strong and fruitful.

Easter 4B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 21, 2024 (Easter 4B)

Ancient Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd..

Ancient Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 4:5-12

The Fourth Sunday after Easter is also called “Good Shepherd Sunday” for its focus on God’s protective love. In the first reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter, brave and bold with the power of the Holy Spirit. He and John have been arrested by the Temple authorities for causing a stir by healing a paralyzed man, then preaching that the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah. Unafraid, Peter tells them that they are the ones who crucified Jesus, whom God then raised from the dead. Quoting the verses from Psalm 118 that we also read recently on Palm Sunday and Easter, Peter declares that Jesus – the stone they had rejected – has become the cornerstone of salvation.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Many Christians know this beautiful Psalm so well – perhaps in the cadences of King James – that we can recite it from memory. But sometimes familiarity robs us of the beauty of rediscovering the details. Try reading it now with fresh eyes and mind. Take it slowly, one verse at a time. Breathe deeply and visualize yourself and your loved ones in each line: walking with God through the green pastures, past the still waters and through the dark valley, then sitting down at God’s table for an unforgettable banquet. God loves us all, always. What could be more comforting than that?

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24

Jesus loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. But wait! “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another”? That following phrase makes things a little more complicated! Just as God loves us, we are to love each other, to help our brothers and sisters in need, not just in what we say but in what we do. We are to be not only sheep, but shepherds, too. Filled with God’s love, we are called to be bold, just as Peter was bold in the first reading. We seek to be fired by the Holy Spirit, just as Peter was inspired.

Gospel: John 10:11-18

If we read this passage from John’s Gospel in its full context, this seemingly simple narrative resonates with the day’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, the authorities confronted Peter and John over their healing and preaching. Here, the Pharisees are angry and alarmed because Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath, prompting people to speak of him as the Messiah. When Jesus responds by declaring himself the Good Shepherd; he is pushing back hard: If the people are harmless sheep, he implies that it is the Pharisees who are the vicious wolves that prey upon them. Jesus declares that he will lay down his life for the sheep and that he will live again.

Easter 3B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 14, 2024 (Easter 3B)

Christ Appears to the Disciples in Galilee

Christ Appears to the Disciples in Galilee (1308-1311), tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-c.1319). Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Florence, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.

First Reading: Acts 3:12-19

Christ, the Messiah, has come for all the world: This promise resonates through Sunday’s readings. In the first reading from Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, have healed a man who could not walk. This astounded all those who saw the beggar joyfully moving about and praising God in the temple. In words that startle us now with their harsh anti-Judaism, Peter tells the crowd that the man was healed through the power of Jesus, the Messiah, whom they had rejected and had killed, but who will forgive them if they turn to him. Language like this, sadly, permeates Acts, which was written a generation after the destruction of the Temple, when Christians and Jews were angrily drawing apart.

Psalm: Psalm 4

In contrast with the many Psalms of anger and lamentation that call on God to crush and destroy the foe, Psalm 4 raises a more quiet and trusting confidence that’s echoed in the Taize hymn: “O Lord, hear my prayer … when I call, answer me.” The Psalmist sings for a people who face severe persecution from enemies, yet stand strong in confidence in a loving and faithful God. We join our voices with theirs, asking that the light of God’s countenance shine upon us and give us peace.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

Echoing the themes of this week’s passage from Acts, the author of the First Letter of John assures members of the early church that God’s love revealed to us through Jesus makes us the children of God, and that the world will eventually come to know this. Meanwhile, the writer concludes, doing what is right keeps us in relationship with God through Jesus and thus free from sin, for there is surely no sin in Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

This week we read a resurrection story from Luke. We pick up just after Luke’s account of two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus but did not recognize him until he broke bread. Now the disciples are together again, and Jesus suddenly appears among them and wishes them shalom. Their first response is not joy but surprise and terror, as if a ghost had materialized in the room. Much as he had done for Thomas in John’s Gospel, Jesus invited them to touch his wounds. Then he asked for something to eat, and he took a piece of fish, perhaps to show that he is no ghost but flesh and blood. Jesus declares himself the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures, and says that repentance and forgiveness of sins will go out in his name to all nations.

Easter 2B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 7, 2024 (Easter 2B)

Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection

Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection (1308-1311). Tempera on wood panel from the Maesta Altarpiece of Siena by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35

Christ is risen, and we move forward with joy into the 50 days of Eastertide. Throughout this fifty-day period, our Sunday first readings will be selections from the Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke’s story of the life of the early church. In his Gospel, Luke consistently emphasizes Jesus’s command to shun riches and to serve the poor, the weak and the oppressed. It should be no surprise, then, that in Acts Luke presents the practice of sharing all possessions and caring for the poor as the customary lifestyle of the apostles. This practice would be a hard sell in 21st century politics, which might give us food for thought as we ponder Jesus’s promise of good news to the poor.

Psalm: Psalm 133

Sounding a theme that resonates with the sharing lifestyle that Luke presents in the early church in Acts, the Psalmist celebrates the joy of a community that lives in unity like brothers and sisters. The earthy image of anointing oil running down Aaron’s head, beard and robe may sound odd to our modern ears. But, like the familiar Gospel story of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive ointment, this reminds us that the most desirable luxuries are not to be hoarded but abundantly shared.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2

Our second readings during Eastertide will take us through the First Letter of John. Although this letter was almost certainly not written by the evangelist we know as John, its emphasis on love and on Jesus as the Word and the Light is consistent with the style of John’s Gospel. This document may well have originated later in the same early Christian community that gave us John’s Gospel. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” Sunday’s verses tell us, adding the assurance that, when we confess our sins, God will forgive us and restore our righteousness through Christ.

Gospel: John 20:19-31

Jesus has died. Christ has risen! And now Jesus begins appearing to the disciples, often in mysterious ways that defy imagining. The doors are locked. The apostles are terrified. Then Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room, and their fear is transformed to joy. Thomas, who had missed Jesus’s first appearance to the others, remains doubtful. For this he is remembered forever as “Doubting Thomas.” But Jesus understands. And Thomas, too, like all the others, goes on to testify that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that we all have life in his name.

Easter Sunday B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 31, 2024 (Easter Sunday B)

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (c.1833), painting by Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858). Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading or Alternate Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! On Easter we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death through resurrection with alleluias and shouts of joy. In this reading from Acts, Luke’s story of the early church, Peter is visiting the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, who is considering becoming a Christian. Peter has just had a vision in which God told him that he should join the Roman family at table. No food is now to be considered unclean, a signal from God that salvation through Jesus’ life, death on the cross and resurrection is meant for everyone, not just Jewish Christians. God’s Good News in the Gospel shows no partiality, Peter tells Cornelius’ family. Forgiveness of sin through God’s saving grace is available to every nation, to Jew and Gentile alike: Jesus is Lord of all.

Alternate First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
The Prophet Isaiah imagines a sumptuous feast, a table loaded with rich food and fine wine, set out for all God’s people as a celebration of victory over death. Isaiah foresaw this as a national feast in the context of Israel’s dream of return from exile. It echoes through the ages for us as an image of God’s saving grace through Jesus. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” Amid the joy of the Resurrection and Easter Day, this affirmation that we repeat at Eucharist resonates for us as we praise God in gladness and rejoice in God’s salvation.

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

This hymn of exultation in God’s goodness and mercy may have originally served as a processional hymn as the congregation came up the steps surrounding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, singing out their gladness. Celebrating the people’s triumph as God saved them from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand at the first Passover, it is filled with both joy and gratitude. We, too, are overjoyed at our salvation. We are delighted at our victory over death. We are grateful for God’s goodness and mercy. As with ancient Israel, God has heard our prayers, laying a new cornerstone for a just world. This is the day that the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad!

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Near the end of Paul’s first long letter to the Christians of Corinth, he offers thoughts that serve well for our contemplation on Easter Sunday. Paul points to the central place of the Resurrection in Christian belief: Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day and seen by the Apostles and by hundreds of followers. Everyone who saw the risen Christ, he writes – including Paul himself, forgiven despite his unfitness as a former persecutor – now proclaims to the whole world that God’s saving grace comes to us through the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Gospel: John 20:1-18

Like four witnesses discussing a memorable event, each of the four Evangelists tells the story of the first Easter morning in a slightly different way. John’s Gospel gives particular weight to Mary Magdalene, describing her in beautiful, tender verses as the one who discovered the empty tomb and then, after the excited men had come and left, remained there and thus became the first person to witness the risen Christ. In a narrative similar to other Gospel accounts of the risen Christ’s mysterious appearances, Mary did not recognize Jesus until he called her name. Then she became the one sent to proclaim the good news of his resurrection to the rest.

Alternate Gospel: Mark 16:1-8

Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, tells of the events of Easter morning in brisk, concise language, as is the style of Mark. The sun has risen, and three grieving women get up early to take spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ beloved body. When they arrive, worrying about who will move the heavy stone that bars the door, they find to their amazement that it has already been rolled away! A young man dressed in white tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here. … he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It’s not surprising that they were terrified: They ran away and told no one. And there the original version of Mark’s Gospel ends without another word, leaving us to wonder what comes next.

Easter 6A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 14, 2023 (Easter 6A)

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Here is the reassuring message of Sunday’s readings: The God who made us all is with us always, watches over us and hears our prayers.

Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens

Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens (1877), wall painting by Anton Dietrich (1833-1904), in the auditorium of the Christian-Weise-Gymnasium in Zittau, Saxony, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

Even after the resurrected Jesus has gone back to the Creator, God remains in the world through the Holy Spirit. As today’s Collect sums up, God’s promises exceed all that we can desire. Our first reading from Acts tells us about Paul in Athens. He tells a crowd of skeptical Greeks that their altar to an unknown God actually celebrates our God, who made the world and is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Psalm: Psalm 66:7-18

Sometimes when bad things happen, it may feel as if even God’s presence has failed to protect us. This portion of Psalm 66 at first seems to suggest that God tests us with heavy burdens, standing aside when enemies ride over us and we must go through fire and water. This is a theological idea that we would rather not hear. But then the verses turn back to hope and faith: God hears our prayers and does not reject them. God keeps watch over all the people and, at the last, brings us out to a place of refreshment, a spacious place of relief.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22

This passage from the first letter written in the name of Peter offers fascinating glimpses of the early church working out its theology at a time when many Christians faced persecution. Echoing the hope of Psalm 66, these verses assure us that we earn blessing when we suffer for doing the right thing: Just as Noah and his family endured the flood so that humanity could survive, our baptism – which Noah’s flood prefigured with salvation through water – now saves us.

Gospel: John 14:15-21

Jesus’s Farewell Discourse continues. In this week’s passage Jesus continues to assure the apostles that, while he is leaving soon to return to the Creator, he will not leave them orphaned. Even if the world no longer sees Jesus, the apostles will see him. Jesus promises that God will send an Advocate – the Holy Spirit – to remain with them forever. And, in memorable words that remain a favorite quote from John’s Gospel, Jesus concludes this passage: “If you love me, keep my commandments … They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Easter 5A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 7, 2023 (Easter 5A)

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60

The resurrected Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, we hear in John’s Gospel on Sunday. No one comes to the Father except through him.

The Stoning of St Stephen

The Stoning of St Stephen (1520), tempera painting on canvas by Vittore Carpaccio (c.1460-c.1525). Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

These deeply held ideas make it all too easy for Christians to imagine that we are the chosen ones, who alone reap the benefits of salvation. Whenever Scripture makes us feel this way, it’s time to dig into the details for a clearer understanding. In Sunday’s first reading we hear of the death of Stephen, traditionally the first martyr of the church. Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons, argued with fellow worshipers in the synagogue. They regarded his talk of Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the prophets as blasphemy. When Stephen declared his fellow Jews “betrayers and murderers” for their role in Jesus’s crucifixion and death, their anger overcame them and they stoned him to death. Stephen’s last words echo the hopeful cry of Psalm 31 that Jesus repeated on the Cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Psalm: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Think about this: Both Jesus, dying on the cross, and Stephen, dying under the pounding weight of stones thrown by his community, uttered this same verse from Psalm 31. Even in the painful moment of death by violence, they confessed their faith. The Psalmist, too, seeking refuge and rescue, trusts in God’s fortress-like protection and steadfast love. He asks God for safety from enemies and persecutors; he begs God to listen, to be his stronghold, his rock and castle. He asks God to listen and to save him.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

Writing for the persecuted church in Asia Minor a few generations after the crucifixion, the writer of the first letter of Peter turns to the Psalms and the prophets to find ideas similar to those in Sunday’s Gospel reading from John. These verses recall the words that the Prophet Isaiah had used to promise that the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt on a mighty cornerstone, a living stone that the builders had at first rejected. He calls on Christians not to stumble and fall on this stone as Isaiah’s people had done, but to grow into salvation like infants nourished on pure, spiritual milk, to proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus, who called us out of darkness into his light.

Gospel: John 14:1-14

For the last three weeks of Eastertide we will hear excerpts from John’s long account of Jesus’ last talk with the disciples before he is betrayed, arrested and crucified. In Sunday’s passage, Jesus tells them that he is going to go ahead to prepare a place for them. He tries to reassure them, telling them not to let their hearts be troubled; but they worry all the same, fearful because he is leaving and confused about what he means. Thomas asks how they will know the way, and Jesus responds with these familiar words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is Jesus’s comforting word to his fearful disciples. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to be afraid. To know Jesus is to know God, right now and right here as we seek God’s kingdom on earth.

Easter 4A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 30, 2023 (Easter 4A)

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Every year, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season comforts us with the image of God as our Good Shepherd, gathering up all humanity in protective divine love.

El Buen Pastor, The Young Christ as the Good Shepherd

El Buen Pastor, The Young Christ as the Good Shepherd (1660-1665), oil painting on canvas by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Click image to enlarge)

That metaphor is implicit without being named in Sunday’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church as told by the Evangelist we know as Luke. We hear of the evolution of the young church as a caring flock, inspired by the Holy Spirit to become a loving, sharing community, taking care of each other as they pool their resources while sharing the good news of the Gospel with the world.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Our Good Shepherd is always with us, comforting us and protecting us not only in the green pastures and still waters of good times, but also when we are fearful and afraid, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Did you notice that we sang this Psalm just a few weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent? Our Lectionary readings return to it often: Five times in every three years we hear its assurance that God’s goodness and mercy are always with us. When you’re feeling lonely and afraid, try sitting quietly with these verses. Breathe deeply and feel the Shepherd’s comforting presence.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25

The Lectionary spares us a disturbing surprise by passing over the verses that precede this reading, but in these times we might do well to face that reality: The writer advises readers to honor the Roman emperor; then issues a startling directive to those who are slaves: “Accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” The passage we read today goes on to evoke Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, reminding the early Christians suffering persecution that Jesus suffered and died unfairly, having done no wrong. Like lost sheep, we go astray and suffer, the writer says; but we know joy when we return to Christ, our shepherd and guardian.

Gospel: John 10:1-10

John the Evangelist expands on the shepherd image here as Jesus continues his argument with a group of Pharisees. Jesus calls himself the gatekeeper for the sheepfold, the protective guardian whose familiar voice reassures the sheep. Jesus is further portrayed as the knowing sheepfold gate that opens to allow those protected to enter, while closing to keep out those who would steal, kill and destroy his beloved sheep. Then, in the following verse that we do not read this Sunday, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”