Tuesday, April 12, 2016

4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The image of Jesus as “the good shepherd” is a popular and beloved representation of Christ.  Even for those of us long separated from this type of agrarian life, the image of a shepherd as someone who is both leader and caretaker is one that we can easily understand.  It’s an image for our Lord that has been used often by the prophets, none have done it better than John’s gospel which we read today, leading us to refer to this day as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 100:1-2, 3, 5
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
John 10:27-30

Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles has us traveling with Paul and Barnabas’ on their first journey to Antioch..  Their first visit to the Synagogue went so well that they are invited to come back the following week.  Our narrative opens with their next visit, only this time their reception is mixed.  This rejection by some of the Jews drives Paul to take their message to the Gentiles in Antioch, where it is much better received.  The disaffected Jews manage to get the Apostles ejected from the city, thus giving rise to the phrase “shaking the dust from their feet” and moving on.  The passage tells us that the Apostles “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”  That joy is reflected in our Psalm as we sing “We are his people, the sheep of this flock.”

Paul and Barnabas were happy because they believed in Christ and his message, and were able to spread that joy to others causing them to believe.  Still, as our story says, not everyone was convinced.  Rather than argue, however, the Apostles chose to move on, and continue to spread their message to those more willing to listen.

Our second reading continues our study of the Book of Revelation.  This week’s passage shows us a great multitude of people, all races and nations, dressed in white robes.  These are those who believe, and they are lead off to “springs of life-giving water.”  This particular vision of John’s resonates deeply with those in the RCIA process, for it depicts baptism to new and everlasting life for these “elect” of God.  For those who have made it through difficult times, God provides comfort and “wipe away every tear.”

Our gospel from John reiterates this promise of eternal life.  In this very short but very significant passage, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice.”  Those of us who believe know his voice and follow him, and in doing so eternal life is theirs.  Further, as it is God himself that has lead them to Jesus, no none can take them away.  This particular passage comes to us at a fairly significant time in Jesus’ journey, placed just after the story of the man born blind, but just before the raising of Lazarus… that last great miracle before his Passion.

Final thoughts:
For as much as we love the image of Jesus as the good shepherd, that “warm fuzzy” tends to quickly fade when we realize that WE are the sheep.  We are the SHEEP?  Wait a minute… that doesn’t sound like a good thing, does it?  I mean, sure, even with the likes of Jesus being our shepherd, it’s still hard to escape this understanding that we’re cast as just “dumb animals.”

Throughout literary history there has been a negative connotation with people being referred to as “sheep.”  People mindlessly following a person or a cause, usually to their self-destruction.  In fact, it’s an image that non-believers like to throw in our faces as evidence of our lack of reason.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Just as we consider Jesus to be above any ordinary shepherd, we, as his sheep, are far above ordinary sheep.  For you see, God has gifted us with reason and free will.  This reason and free will is part of our human nature, and separates us from the other animals.  When Jesus, through John, refers to us as “sheep,” he’s not taking away our reason and free will.  In fact, he’s recognizing it and reinforcing it through our right to hear and to choose Christ.  In fact, it’s a subtle joke against those with whom he is debating in the Temple area (at Solomon’s Portico, where we heard Peter preaching in Acts of the Apostles in our readings two weeks ago):  Those of us who are smart enough to hear the truth will also know who best to follow.

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