Frances writes :- It is said that once the Romans understood how to make concrete there was no stopping them. Certainly from that time they knew how to built stable roofs over vast expanses, techniques which would have to be rediscovered by medieval church builders as they learnt how to place keystones in an arch to give the downward and outward thrust which keeps the entire structure in place.
What is clear is that Luke, the writer of Acts (4:8-12), had observed this construction process and was immediately inspired to use it as a metaphor for the Christian community, borrowing from psalm 118, referring to mutual dependence and sharing. Jesus, he said is the stone rejected by you the builders, but which has become the keystone. In other words, unlike the pagan builders of many a temple, the Jews had not appreciated the way in which Judaism was simply the walls, the outward structure, awaiting the keystone (Jesus) who would keep the entire edifice in permanent position.
The sense of mutual dependence this conveys is continued throughout our readings, as we see in the gospel, (John 10:11-18). Jesus compares himself to the shepherd/owner of a flock; insisting on his absolute commitment to the flock, even to the point of dying for it; as indeed, a shepherd might in defence of the flock against a wolf pack.Palestineat this time was not the well cultivated, benign country of the rural Cotswolds, but was still inhabited by wild animals, lions, bears, wolves and other pack hunters, so we can appreciate as did the original hearers of the words the power of the metaphor. True shepherd and flock in this story are inseparable; bonded together, mutually dependent, which perhaps explains why shepherds in ancient times were a bit of a race apart, strong, determined and alert. The true shepherd really did ‘know’ his sheep, he was easily able to distinguish one from another, recognising their needs and ministering to them.
Jesus will stretch this metaphor far further than expected however, applying it to the relationship between himself and the Father and then his relationship with us; his flock; the Christian community. Let’s just allow his words to seep into our minds. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. What a mutuality of understanding and belonging is expressed here! The intimacy, awareness and commitment existing between God the Father and Jesus, his Son is what we too, members of the Christian Church are sharers in. Total union; grafted into the divine, each believer is a mutual sharer in the community of the Trinity, in the life of God himself.
Original hearers of this gospel would have been forcefully reminded of the words of Ezekiel the prophet, speaking for God as he lashed out against the false shepherds, the rulers of Israel, who led the people astray and into destruction and slavery (Ez 34). Now, in his life and death on our behalf, we finally learn in Jesus, the extent of God’s commitment to us, his absolute and irrevocable taking of us to himself in the sufferings of Christ. At the end of our reading this is enforced again by Jesus’ remark this is the command I have been given by my Father.
Our reading from 1 John (3:1-2) gives us a further insight by which we ordinary Christians are to understand and ponder on God’s relationship with us. Our translation says think of the love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children. Actually, this word lavished is absent from the Greek and a better translation is the simpler ‘see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God’. This latter wording makes clearer the sense which John is trying to convey, since it reminds us of God’s relationship with the world – ‘God so loved the world…’ that is, this is the manner, the How of his being God, that he gives himself in the Son. Here in 1 John, this is reiterated, we are reminded that God gives us himself, not something else which might indeed be expressed through a ‘lavish’ gift. God in Christ has loved us with the love that is of his own essence, his being, quite literally promising that we shall be like him because we shall see him a he really is. What an immense promise! What a thrill this must have been to John’s first hearers in western Turkey, poor men and women, often freedmen and women, some still slaves, but frequently people with something of an identity crisis, looked down upon by the wealthy and the elite of their cities and who lived surrounded by so many representations of the pagan gods. Here at last, in Christ they were given a new identity and status, a sense of infinite worth, sons in the Son, heirs of God’s kingdom, a certainty amidst a world of uncertainty with famines, wars and earthquakes and centuries of disparagement. Belonging; that was the key to the Christian community and it’s our heritage too. Our mission is to enable it to become a reality in the lives of our fellow Christian brothers and sisters.