FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (2020)
Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 36-41
1 Peter 2:20b-25
This Sunday is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, even though the lectionary curiously stops short (verse 11) of what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous “I am” statement: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Instead, today’s gospel passage gives us the first “I am” statement: “I am the gate for the sheep.” [The other eight verses of this Shepherd discourse will be the gospel for Monday’s Mass.]. The Collect (opening prayer) sets the tone for the entire Mass: “Almighty ever-living God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven, so that the humble flock may reach where the brave Shepherd has gone before.” Today’s liturgy is about shepherds who are good, and sheep who are willing to follow them because they are good. Those who “steal and slaughter and destroy” are not good, and should not be followed or listened to, for the Good Shepherd, Jesus, came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”
The imagery of sheep and shepherds would most surely resonate with the people of Jesus’ day. It was a culture in which sheep and goats were widely raised for milk, wool, and meat. Flocks of sheep and their keepers were a common sight, and they provided natural and familiar references that are obvious throughout the whole of Scripture. What is less obvious is Jesus stating that He is the “gate.” Jesus is the right means of access in and out of the sheepfold; anyone who comes in another way is a “thief or robber.” It is through Jesus that we are saved, it is through Jesus that we enter the sheepfold where our redemption waits.
One of the happiest redeemed sheep in the fold is the person of Peter. We remember well his disposition of fear in the days before the resurrection. So frightened was he that he ran away from the “gate,” he denied he even knew Jesus, and he locked himself in a room “for fear of the Jews.” With the resurrection, and its accompanying gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter becomes a changed man, preaching boldly in today’s first reading: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Further, in the letter that is ascribed to him, which is our second reading, Peter reminds his listeners, and us, that the shepherd Jesus “handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
What we celebrate during this Easter season is the power of the resurrection. It was that power which changed Peter and all the apostles and saints that have gone before us, and it is meant to change us as well. By entering through the sheep gate that is Jesus, we are meant to be invigorated by the Spirit that animated the apostles and turned them into evangelists who preached the good news of the Master to all who would listen, and even sometimes to those who didn’t want to listen. If we think we are not called to be shepherds, Sr. Carolyn Osiek has an insight that might be helpful. She writes: “Both because of the assimilation of the shepherd to the person of Jesus and because of the reference to hired shepherds, our constant image of the shepherd remains an adult male. Yet anyone familiar with shepherding in traditional Mediterranean societies knows that men usually have other tasks, and the shepherding is often entrusted to children, both male and female, as soon as they are able. Perhaps loosening our mental images of who can be the “good shepherd” might help us loosen other images of shepherding in our contemporary sheepfold.”
Let us all, then, be good shepherds, like the shepherd so beautifully described for us in today’s psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.
May goodness and kindness truly follow, and flow, from us all the days of our lives, and may we look forward to that day when we enter the sheepfold of heaven where we will dwell in the house of t