FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28-29
1 John 3:1-2
John is the Gospel of the Easter season. His writing style is distinctively different from that of the Synoptic writers, and he manages to turn theology into poetry with profound thoughts and familiar imagery. Seven times in his gospel Jesus instructs his disciples with statements beginning with the words “I am.” Each of them are meant to give the disciples some further insight into just who Jesus is and what He was sent into this world to do. Jesus speaks of himself as bread, light, resurrection, etc. Today’s gospel presents what is perhaps the most familiar “I am” statement: “I am the Good Shepherd.” More than any other “I am” statement, Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd reveals his mutual relationships with His Father and His followers. While few of us have any direct experience with animal husbandry or sheep, we all can appreciate the familiar imagery of this Good Shepherd Sunday.
What is it that makes the shepherd “good”? More than once in this rather brief gospel passage Jesus states that He “will lay down his life for the sheep.” Jesus, and the gospel writer, John, are emphatic that no one takes Jesus’ life from Him. Jesus willingly, generously, voluntarily lays down His life for His sheep. In the post Calvary days it will be important for the disciples to remember this important teaching. Jesus knows His sheep, and His sheep know Him. Jesus is not like the person who is merely hired to care for sheep, for whom there is no personal relationship with the sheep. It is clear in our gospel passage that there is a profound relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep, a relationship that can only be described as love. The love that the Father has for Jesus, is mirrored in the love that Jesus as Shepherd has for His sheep, for those who hear His voice. The love of the Shepherd is universal, for He has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” and “these also I must lead” for “they will hear my voice.”
The selflessness of the Shepherd is what makes the Shepherd good; his attention is focused on his flock. A Good Shepherd leads, feeds, nurtures, comforts, corrects, and protects his flock, and these are the responsibilities that should characterize every church leader. Sadly there are far too many examples of shepherds who are selfish, insensitive to the needs of others. They turn a deaf ear to the anguished cries of their flock, and their only concern is for that which will be of some benefit to themselves.
Pope Francis has spoken often about good shepherds, stating that “a shepherd after the heart of God has a heart sufficiently free to set aside his own concerns. He does not live by calculating his gains or how long he has worked: he is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need. For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all that he has. In seeking, he finds, and he finds because he takes risks. He does not stop when disappointed and he does not yield to weariness. Indeed, he is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one.” In a somewhat famous tweet, Pope Francis has stated that “Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He seeks us out and he stays near us even though we are sinners, indeed because we are sinners.”
On this Good Shepherd Sunday Jesus is our model and guide. He is an example for all those who “hear his voice,” not just for those in positions of pastoral authority, but for all Christians. We are called to be selfless. We are called to “lay down” our lives for all our brothers and sisters in need. We are meant to lead and feed, nurture and comfort, not just those entrusted to our care, but all the daughters and sons of our loving God. We are to protect the sheep from physical harm and spiritual harm, from the wolves of this world whose only desire is to consume them in their voracious appetite for evil. May all of us be good shepherds for everyone we may meet.