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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of a Sheepfold—Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10 (Amy Allen)

God is calling us to life in God’s world together. We are to live as those who recognize our Shepherd, who heed and follow Christ’s call.

Acts 2:42-47
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Most scholars accept that the community described in Acts 2 is more an authorial portrait of a utopic community than an example of lived reality. With little evidence to point to an actual community of shared goods, Luke’s summative portrait of such a community serves more to affirm the virtue of such a lifestyle than to provide a historical witness. Indeed, the patronage of certain households and communities implicit in the larger Acts narrative and letters of Paul seem at times at odds with Luke’s portrait of a community of common goods.

Generally speaking, narratives about utopias (and dystopias) tend to serve a political purpose. Take for example recent works of fiction like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The point of such narratives often seems to be to shed a light on either a virtue or vice that the narrative seeks respectively to affirm or condemn.

In the case of Luke’s narrative, the virtue that Luke seeks to highlight is the ethical use of property. This is no small point for Luke, who emphasizes the need to put one’s commitment to Christ and his mission above everything and everyone else repeatedly in his gospel account (see especially Luke 14:25-33: “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions”).

However, as with most utopian/dystopian visions, the point for Luke is never solely, or I would posit, even primarily about the virtue itself. Discipleship does not hinge upon one’s possession or lack thereof of material goods. Rather, it is about the life one leads with respect to that virtue.

The Lukan author suggests that it is not possible to be Jesus’ disciple (Luke 14:27) without first disavowing oneself of personal relationships and possessions. The community in Acts 2, then, illustrates the manner in which a group of individuals who have disavowed themselves of these things might live together effectively in a new “household” and successfully accomplish the tasks of discipleship: breaking bread together, praising God, engendering goodwill among all people, and adding to the number being saved (Acts 2:47).

Significantly, however, the one accomplishing this task of adding to those being saved is not the community of believers (or any individual among them), but rather, “the Lord” (Acts 2:47). This is a call to humility—and, perhaps, where Luke’s narrative breaks with the classic utopian/dystopian form. The ultimate goodness of our world will not be determined by any human action (or inaction), but rather by the gracious workings of God.

In this framework, the community of common goods becomes a vessel to highlight the saving work of God, but does not purport to be the source of salvation itself. For those familiar with some of the dystopian novels cited above (and the many others in our cultural repertoire), this marks a pointed difference. While human utopias set up the government or church or some other individual or agency as the source through which happiness and perfection are to be attained, Luke centers the focus on the sole workings of God.

Human action and community can highlight or upset God’s work, but can never replace the active work of God in our world. No human or government or agency can ever be our source of salvation.

This is where the lectionary’s pairing with Jesus’ parable of the sheepfold in John’s gospel account is particularly useful. As disciples, we are sheep. We do our best to fulfill our role—to recognize our shepherd’s voice, to follow where we are called, to avoid strangers. Much, if not all of this, may even be intuitive without any real intentionality on our part at all.

God, on the other hand, is our Shepherd. God knows us by name, calls us, and leads us to places of safety, security, and growth (John 10:3-4). God gives us life—and gives it abundantly (John 10:10).

In our current political climate, debates rage fierce about who or what will lead us to utopia and who or what will lead us to dystopia. False shepherds seek our allegiance and personal avarice may influence the voice(s) we prefer to follow.

In the midst of all this, God is calling us, not to personal wealth or accolades. Indeed, if Acts is to be any indication, perhaps to quite the opposite. Rather, God is calling us to life in God’s world together. In the midst of the competing voices and the politics that seek to dominate, may we not fall into the stereotype of mindless sheep or the pretensions of false shepherds, but rather, as the real sheep whose lives depend upon it, may we recognize our Shepherd and heed Christ’s call.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.

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