This Fourth Sunday of the Easter season is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday because in each of the three lectionary cycles, the Gospel reading invites us to reflect on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In each cycle the reading is from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel.
Today’s reading falls between the stories of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus. Both stories were proclaimed in the Gospels in this year’s season of Lent. Following the controversy that ensued when Jesus healed the man born blind, Jesus directs his allegory about the sheep and the shepherd toward the Jewish religious leaders of his time, the Pharisees.
Our world today, is full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it online. Yet, the basic conflict we experience is not truly on our streets much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart.
Jesus knew this at least as well as we do, for his world was not much different from our own. Indeed, many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us even today. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the world today still has its share of “thieves and bandits,” as Jesus calls them in our Gospel account today, ready to snatch and scatter the flock.
We in the West like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we just stop the boats to keep others out, and that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be solved. All we need, we are tempted to believe, is a little common sense and some well-honed negotiating skills. After all, that is how deals are done. Yet events of the past few years must make us doubt our most cherished convictions. We do not have our act together. And, we remain as vulnerable to our own sinfulness, gullibility, and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries.
Left to our own devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians populating this post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. Surely, we share precious little DNA with ewes and rams after all. Yet as one animal behaviourist also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together” with our animal cousins. So, like it or not we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit.
The shepherds of Jesus’ day endured sun and rain for days or weeks on end and were often as dirty and smelly as the flocks they tended. No smartly-styled business casual attire for them. But unlike their charges, shepherds then as now were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying the thirst of their flocks. The shepherd knew his sheep as no one else. And the sheep followed him, as Jesus tells us, “because they know his voice.”
Jesus speaks of himself in this Gospel passage as “the gate for the sheep.” Shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening or aperture of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor; his own presence stretched out, as on a cross, bridging the disciples’ –and our own — base insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
It is all too easy to lose direction — to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives. It is all too easy, in other words, to go astray like lost sheep. But it is just then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, our own included, but it does not make us notorious sinners. In the letter from Peter, the final line tells us we are lost sheep returned to the fold and to the shepherd and guardian of our living spirits.
We are all fed by the God of mercy and forgiveness. The shepherd speaks to us, calls us individually by name. The Shepherd knows us, calls us by name. He leads us no matter our condition, no matter our individuality. His voice welcomes us to the family, calls us home. This Shepherd does not separate us according to colour, to language, to national origin, nor even by religious tradition. His sheep know his voice and follow him, trusting him to bring us where we belong. It is the voice we must listen to hear. Christ’s voice always brings us together with each other and with the Life of God. What unifies leads to unity with the Trinity. What divides does not. In all this we walk by faith in the Risen One. For he lives!