Fourth Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 25th Apr 2021 in the category Resources
Parish of the Good Shepherd, Chard, 25 April 2021
Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.’
A verse from the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd’ Revelation 7.17
In the name of the Father …
The image of the ‘good shepherd’ – which you have as the wonderful dedication of your parish – comes to us from very deep in the history in the Scriptures. It is a rich and evocative image, and has been used in many different ways. It was woven deep into ancient Israel’s experience of God. It appears over sixty times in the Old Testament. Gradually God himself came to be seen as the only true Shepherd of Israel. And later, God’s messiah was also described as shepherd of His people. Like God, He would feed, guide and protect them, and oversee their unity.
This is the background against which Jesus appears as a shepherd. He desired to share the condition of human beings, to give them truth for food, to give them life for drink, to lead them to salvation. His compassion was for ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mk 6:34). In one parable He was even prepared to leave the whole flock and go in search of one measly sheep that was lost (cf. Lk 19:10), in order to bring it back to safety through the Father’s mercy.
Thus in Jesus Christ these two Old Testament themes came together – God himself as the Shepherd of Israel, and God’s messiah as the true shepherd-king of all humanity. In time the good shepherd became one of the key images of Christ’s relationship both to the Church as a whole, and to the ministry of those, His bishops and priests, who extend His ministry in the world, which is why this Sunday is particularly given to prayer for vocations to the priesthood.
So far, so good: end of short lecture.
But we needed the bones of that background to be able to focus in on the gospel passage we have just heard, which we hear – or something very close to it – every year on this Sunday in the middle of Eastertide. In it the Lord identifies himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’ twice. After the first time He says He will lay down His life for His sheep; and after the second, He says He knows his own and they know Him.
Neither of those things is true of your average shepherd, now or in ancient Israel. Sheep then, as now, were a precious commodity and were the source of many different products to be bought and sold – for woollen cloth, for food, for drink, and of course, this being ancient Israel, for sacrificial animals – sheep and lambs. Nothing was wasted. But what kind of shepherd would die for a commodity, for their own livelihood; laying down his actual life was not a job requirement of a shepherd. And which shepherd knows each one of these notoriously herding animals by name? Why have a dog and bark yourself? Even less so what Jesus called a hireling – the kind who stole what they did not own. Israel had known too many false kings, and leaders and even false prophets like that!
But these two definitions of ‘Good Shepherd’ that Jesus gives – dying for the sheep, and knowing them intimately – are by contrast the hallmarks of Jesus’s attitude, signs of the responsibility that flows from His mission. He was sent by His Father precisely to seek and save the lost, and to gather together the scattered children of God. ‘Fear not for I have redeemed you’, says the Lord in Isaiah (43.1). ‘I have called you by name. You are mine.’ Therefore, Jesus’s behaviour turns the image of an ordinary shepherd upside down, or rather He turns it God’s way up! Jesus takes responsibility for God. Like God himself Jesus is the servant of His people’s welfare, the protector of His people’s safety, the guide of His people’s understanding, the feeder of their souls, the overseer of their unity. Jesus takes responsibility for God.
And then we notice deep in in the middle of the gospel passage a verse that takes us deeper into the reality of all this: ‘I know my own and my own know me’ he says, ‘in the same way as I know the Father and the Father knows me, which is why I lay down my life for them’. All of a sudden Jesus makes this stunning comparison: he lifts us up directly into the relationship and understanding that the divine Father and the divine Son have with each other! He is at the very least implying that the relationship between Him and us involves our discovery of self-giving love and our dedication to him. And we also see that it is because Jesus’s surrender of his life to the needs of the sheep is undertaken by divine love (not just a great human love) that is why He has the power to take up His life again in the resurrection.
We are now a long way from thinking how to look after sheep! So how can we have confidence to follow this path in our thinking? I have a clue.
Twice in the Gospel passage Jesus uses a rather unusual word to describe the sheepfold: αὐλὴν (aulén) in Greek. It’s not the usual word you’d use. In fact it means something like an architectural courtyard or an atrium, just like the portico inside the Temple precincts in Jerusalem where we’re told Jesus was teaching on the feast of Dedication (which incidentally gives its name to the altars in the Temple). Jesus appears to be making a distinction and drawing a parallel between the stone-built sheepfolds on the hillsides of Judea and the monumental precincts of the Temple (teaming of course of sheep and lambs for blood sacrifice). He is in effect saying not only ‘I am the door to the sheepfold’, but ‘I am the door to the Temple’ – the entrance to the way that leads through sacrificial death and resurrection to life with the Father. This this the way he wants us to walk, a way of safety, life and peace. That would also help us to understand His prophetic words in chapter two (vv.19-22) when He talks about ‘the temple of His body’, its destruction and its rebuilding.
In order to lay down His life, Jesus our high priest had to become the sacrificial victim. The Good Shepherd had to stoop and make himself a sacrificial Lamb. He ‘who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29) had to stoop and make himself like ‘the Lamb who was dumb before its shearers’ (Is 53.7). Only that way, by the power of His divine love, could He who had laid down his life to redeem us take it up again to sanctify us. Only that way could the Victorious Lamb become our Eternal Shepherd, and guide us to springs of living water (Rev 7.17).
Friends! we are to be receptive and trusting towards our shepherd, but we are not sheep! We are called to become like the good shepherd. We are raised up in the Lord to call others to know Him who laid down His life for them, and that their sins are forgiven! We are called to gather others into the one flock of Christ. All of us – whether bishop, priest, deacon; lay, married or single; monk or nun, whatever we are – need to become shepherds in the image of Christ, so that He can lead us all into the Temple of his glory.