Wednesday, May 3, 2017

4th Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday

Shepherd imagery and references  are found throughout scripture.  Moses was following a lost sheep when he first encountered God in the burning bush, David was out tending the sheep when Samuel came looking for a new king for Israel.  Even Jesus made references to shepherds and sheep in his teachings and parables because it allowed him to connect with his audience.  This imagery is so rooted in our societal DNA that it still resonates through our modern urban cultural experience.  This coming 4th Sunday of Easter is better as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because we hear the very popular and beloved story of the Good Shepherd from John’s Gospel.


Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10-1-10

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up shortly after where we left off last week.  As we remember, Peter was speaking to the crowd in Jerusalem about Jesus and the events that are still fresh on their minds with his trial and crucifixion.  This week we pick up the narrative with Peter, very much filled with the Spirit, explaining to the crowd what they must to in order to be saved… that is, to repent and be baptized.  Though no direct shepherd imagery is depicted here, the message is clear that salvation comes from following Jesus.  Our Psalm reflects what Peter is preaching as we sing the favorite Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

Our second reading, continuing our study of 1 Peter, reminds us that we have “gone astray like sheep” and  need to return to our “Shepherd and guardian.”  Here Peter is reminding us that in our journey of following Christ we may experience suffering along the way, but in those times we also have an example in Christ, who through his own suffering enabled us to be redeemed.  We are reminded that the mission Jesus took on was because we had strayed, so like a shepherd, Jesus came to gather us together.

Our Gospel from John continues on the “lost sheep” theme.  Here we are reminded that all sheep know the voice of their shepherd and will follow him.  In this case, Jesus is the shepherd, and those “sheep” that follow his voice are the ones who will be allowed into paradise.  A shepherd, by the nature of their job, is also the gate keeper to their pens.  Only those sheep who recognize the shepherd’s call will come to the gate, but the shepherd also knows his own sheep, so those whom he doesn’t know will not be let in.  It’s a reciprocal relationship… the sheep know their shepherd, and the shepherd knows their sheep. 

For those familiar with the trade of shepherding, like many of John’s audience, this is a clear image that makes sense.  But John’s message, like so much of John’s gospel, speaks both on the surface and on a much deeper level.  Jesus is clear in explaining that those who are HIS sheep will be let in, but those who are pretenders will not.  It is these pretenders to whom John is serving notice… that Jesus as the gate keeper knows his sheep, and those who are not following him will not be let in.  Jesus continues to say that those who try to force their way in are like thieves and robbers.  This rebuke is directed at the religious establishment who by Jesus’ view, are failing in their mission to be good shepherds.  While verse 11, which we don’t hear today, reinforces the idea of what a good shepherd does, I think the important take away for today is not the role of Jesus is in this scenario, but how well we are playing our role as sheep, which if we take  out verse 11, brings our focus back to what is expected as us as sheep, rather than what is expected of the shepherd.  

Final thoughts:

Any number of scholars and theologians have speculated on how and why Christianity spread as it did throughout the world, and still continues to do so today.  I believe it is due in part to Gospel stories like this.  Agricultural images like that of farmers or shepherds are universal ideas that cross most cultural and geographic barriers around the world.  With Jesus using these images to help us connect with God in a very basic way and allowing us to see his universal nature.  Even as our cultures continue to evolve into more urban and technological forms, these basic agricultural trades still exist and remain a necessary part of our human experience and critical to our survival as a species.  The story of the Good Shepherd resonates deeply with us because it not only connects with us on a cultural level, it connects on a deeply spiritual level.  Being able to see Jesus as a good shepherd helps us to more readily connect with him and follow him.  What’s right and wrong are easily understood, but more importantly, his great mercy is shown in his willingness to come after us when we go astray, and lovingly guide us back to his flock.

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