Sermon: “Love, Not in Word or Speech, but in Action”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
Let’s look at Psalm 23.6: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” As I have noted previously, the word “follow” (radaph) is more accurately translated as “pursue.” Also “surely” (‘ aa) is more accurately translated as “only.” Furthermore, the word translated as “dwell” (shuy) can also be translated as “to turn” or “return.” Thus, the verse may be rendered as “Only goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will continually return to God’s presence my whole life long” (Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-psalm-23-25).
I like the imagery of the alternative translation. God doesn’t just follow us with goodness and mercy – God cares so much for us that God actively and continuously pursues us with goodness and mercy. And though we often leave God’s presence through our foolishness and willfulness, we continually return for “The Lord is our shepherd” and “he revives our soul.” Ideally, we will come to remain in God’s presence for longer periods of time.
The reading from Acts 4 begs for additional context. It begins by telling us the rulers, elders, scribes, and the members of the high-priestly family were assembled and made the prisoners stand in their midst, whereupon they asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
What prisoners and what have they done? In the preceding chapter, Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray. A man lame from birth had been carried in; he asked Peter and John for alms. Peter answered, “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.” Peter took him by the hand, raised him up, and “immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” People “were filled with wonder and amazement” (Acts 3.1-9; NRSV). Peter then addressed the people (note the following references to the resurrection of the dead):
You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you (Acts 3.12-16; NRSV). Peter continued to teach. But wait a minute! Is this the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times immediately after Jesus was arrested? Is this the same Peter who hid behind locked doors with the other apostles? Yes, and no! This is the post-resurrection Peter who met with the risen Lord and who, along with the other apostles, received the gift of power from on high, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter has been transformed.
Chapter 4 begins by telling us that Peter and John were arrested by the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees who were “much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4.1-2; NRSV). Peter and John were clearly a threat for the account tells us many who heard believed – about 5,000!
So now Peter and John have been asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” The account tells us:
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 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. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.
Peter was empowered, emboldened, by the Holy Spirit such that he was able to speak Truth to power!
When we combine these words with the words of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6; NRSV), we may find ourselves wondering about other cultures and religions. With that in mind, let us now turn to the gospel.
John 10.4, Jesus, in speaking of the shepherd, says, “When he has brought out all his own [from the sheepfold], he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (NRSV). What if the sheep recognize the voice, God’s voice, but do not yet know that it is God’s voice, do not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and have not yet been baptized by the Holy Spirit?
I believe this was the case with Cornelius In Acts 10, we read: “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Vs. 1-2; NRSV). An angel of God appeared before Cornelius. In terror, Cornelius asked, “What is it Lord?” The angel instructed him to send for Peter. At the same time Peter had three successive visions of a sheet being lowered from heaven which contained all kinds of unclean animals. Peter was commanded to get up, to kill, and to eat.
Upon arriving at Cornelius’ house, and hearing of Cornelius’ vision, Peter began to speak: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10.34-37; NRSV). Peter then proclaimed the gospel – Jesus’ death, his resurrection, that all who believe “in Jesus receive forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10.43; NRSV). The Holy Spirit then fell upon those who heard, and they were baptized. Cornelius was a righteous man, but God wanted Cornelius to have more; God wanted Cornelius to know Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit – to receive the gift of the Spirit.
In John 10, Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (Vs. 15b-16; NRSV). Cornelius was a sheep from another fold – he was a Gentile, a Roman soldier, a centurion of the Italian cohort.
John Kavanaugh, S. J., tells the story of team-teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy with Professor Albert William Levy, a philosopher, dear friend, and agnostic Jew who was not a follower of Jesus Christ. After noting Jesus’ words, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Kavanaugh asks, “Could this be applied to all those who are not Christians but are nonetheless open to the fullest reality of Christ? Could it be that the way he leads them and speaks to them is through the very movement of the human heart itself, which has now been reclaimed by the heart of the Word made flesh?”
Kavanaugh further relates how Professor Levi shared with him that “as much as he would like it, he had not been given the gift of faith.” Nonetheless, Professor Levi “had been given the gift of humanity, lavishly so – one shared with and transformed by Jesus.” Before Professor Levi died, Kavanaugh asked him two questions: “Are you open to all the truth there is to be known? Are you open to all the good there is to be loved?” He replied, “Of course. How could I not be?” Kavanaugh closes the story by noting, “Not only was he a child of God. In his own way, he heard the voice of the shepherd” (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/4EasterB042521/theword_kavanaugh.html).
When we hear and follow the voice of the Shepherd, we live our lives in the love of Christ. In the epistle, we encounter this question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” John further says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth … And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us” (I John 3.17-19, 23-24; NRSV).
May we hear the voice of him who calls us each by name, and may we follow where he leads. May they know that we are Christians by our love.