The Fourth Sunday of Easter is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The readings for today are so overwhelmingly about the Good Shepherd that it seems that the preacher should not ignore this. But here’s the thing: I don’t really want to talk about sheep today. So I’m not going to.
Instead, I want to talk about the 300 pound gorilla in the room.
Do you know the video of the "Invisible Gorilla?" It’s a psychological experiment that makes a pretty interesting point about what we see and don’t see, sometimes right before our very eyes. Basically it goes like this: people are asked to watch a video and to count how many times a group of people pass a basketball back and forth. Back and forth. Once, twice, three times…focus.
And then a gorilla walks by. (Or rather, some guy dressed up like a gorilla.) But half of the people don’t see him because they are so focused on the people passing the ball.
Half of them do not see the gorilla! I know that seems unbelievable. I know you assume you would. But would you? What do we not see, right before our very eyes, because we are focused elsewhere?
So why am I telling you this today? Well, there is a subtext that never gets talked about on Good Shepherd Sunday or even during the Easter Season usually and that is this reading from Acts. Actually, these readings have been there all along, since Easter morning, kind of like a gorilla plodding along.
But it’s been hard to notice because we’ve been so focused on Jesus. Which makes sense, since it is Easter and all and we are Christians and it is Jesus, after all, who was raised from the dead. That is the task we’ve been given: to reflect on what that means. Concentrate. Kind of like counting how many passes of the basketball are being made. Focus. First, we noted Jesus’ absence at the empty tomb on Easter Day. And then we saw him encountering Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter. And then on the Third Sunday of Easter, eating broiled fish with his friends. And now, the Good Shepherd of the sheep.
But here is the thing: in the meantime, Peter has been up to something in Acts each week. He’s been kind of like that 300 pound gorilla walking by us, and maybe we’ve not seen him. He has been there week after week in this Easter Season while our attention has been on Jesus.
On Easter Sunday he was boldly preaching about the God who “shows no partiality.” And then we got a glimpse of the community that he helped to shape and that shaped his emerging spirituality: a community where no one claimed private ownership, where all things were held in common. There was not a needy person among them. Can you imagine that?
And then we saw him healing in the same way that Jesus healed. That’s pretty amazing when you stop to think about it: the disciples weren’t just sitting around remembering Jesus. They weren’t just sitting back praying to him. They ultimately got up and out of that room where the doors were locked; and they overcame their fears to do the work that Jesus had been doing—the work God now gave them to do. Peter is the lead guy: preaching, teaching, healing in the name of Jesus.
What I want you to notice with me today is that this is Peter at his very best. We are used to seeing Peter at his worst, whenever he gets it wrong. (Which is a lot of the time.) We are used to Peter who swears he will be faithful to the end and then denies knowing Jesus when the chips are down. But something has changed.
It’s like when you run into someone who used to have a beard and has shaved it off; or used to be clean shaven and now has a beard. Or has gained thirty pounds, or lost thirty pounds. Or has gone gray, or found their original color in a bottle. You look at them and you think: I know you. But something has changed.
Peter has changed. And the narrator is clear about what it is: it’s the Holy Spirit. Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit. He’s not so scared anymore. He’s stopped twitching every time the rooster crows. He and the other disciples are now doing the work Jesus called them to do in the first place when he called them by the Sea of Galilee: they really are fishing for people, healing the sick, bringing good news to the poor, announcing God’s salvation for the world.
So today, Peter is addressing the Sanhedrin, the very same religious authorities that previously scared him into running away and denying Jesus. Annas the high priest is there and Caiphas; remember them? Peter has been arrested by the Sadducees who are “much annoyed” because he has been “teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” (4:2)
The work they are doing is drawing people to Christ—in fact the healing of just one man in chapter three led to five thousand people coming into the community. Now that sounds great until you remember that Peter is not centuries away from the crucifixion at this point, but just weeks and months from it. The very same people who had Jesus killed, the very same leaders who didn’t want to see people laying down their palms on Passover when Jesus came into the city on a donkey, those very same people are not all that thrilled about a crowd of 5,000 people who are now proclaiming: the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia!
So the Sadducees are very much annoyed and probably pretty anxious. One might expect the Peter we all love and know to say: “sorry, my bad…I don’t know the man.”
But something has changed. Peter has found his voice. He doesn’t care anymore about what the Sanhedrin might do to him. He knows now who he is, and that with God’s Holy Spirit empowering and equipping him for the work of ministry he does not need to live in fear anymore. He proclaims Easter: not as an intellectual affirmation, but in his guts he knows that death really does not get the last word.
We spend so much of our lives in fear of what will happen next. What will happen if we do this or if we don’t do that. We might get sued or we might get reprimanded. Peter models for us a different way to be in the world. He is no longer afraid of what people may say about him or do to him. Something has changed.
The old Peter would have said: “I don’t know the man, I don’t know the man, I don’t know the man.” But now, filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “let me tell you about my friend Jesus. Let it be known to you all that this isn’t about me, this is about Jesus Christ. The one you crucified. The one that God raised from the dead…”
Now here is the thing about this 300 pound gorilla. I think it’s the Easter story we need to be living. Because we can tell people with our lips that Jesus is risen from the dead. We can tell them that the tomb is empty, that Thomas put his hands in Jesus’ side, that Jesus ate some broiled fish. We can even tell them that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.But until people see us living like Easter people—until they see us changed, Easter is nothing more than a theory. The story in Acts is in fact the Easter story we need because it is focused on what the risen Christ is doing in and through us as we find our true voices, rooted not in fear but in trust.
Now here is the thing: not everyone will be able to see that, even if it’s right before their very eyes. But that is not our concern. Our concern is to be living it out. Our work is to be Easter people.
And maybe even to be as obvious as a 300 pound gorilla about it.