Easter 4, 8 May 22
A week ago last Thursday I was in the gently rolling border area of Northamptonshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, after a rather overcast morning the sun came out and the sight of sheep and their gambolling lambs was a joy to watch and rather set me up for today. This 4th Sunday in Eastertide which we have long called Good Shepherd Sunday for the very reason that today`s Gospel reading from St. John chapter 10 verses 27 – 30 – one of the shortest Sunday Gospel readings – begins: Jesus said `The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.`
Cast your mind`s eye to looking at a flock of sheep. Here in Britain the shepherd tends to lead from behind, driving the sheep, who have become quite used to the method, from behind and using one or two well-trained sheep dogs. This is in contrast to southern Europe or the Mediterranean and Middle East where the Shepherd leads his flock from the front just as Jesus says about those of us who belong to His Flock: `..I know them and they follow me.`
The life of a shepherd is no easy task for it requires a 24/7 caring for them from birth until going to the slaughter-house. He or she is responsible for the safety and welfare of the flock often foregoing sleep to avoid wolves and robbers taking advantage in the night=-time. Seeing that the vet attends them in time of necessity or sickness. Earlier in St. John`s Gospel chapter 10 verse 11 we find Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd (my capitals) when he says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…contrasting with: The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” Jesus goes on to say that he knows his own and his own know him, just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him and going on to say: `And I lay down my life for the sheep.` Reminding us of our own calling he then continues, `I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.` Jesus is explaining that he has come not just for the First-Chosen people of Israel but for all humanity. Indeed, he comes not just for the Children of Israel and we Christians but, by implication that we too are to seek the unity of His Church which he so desires – and to be welcoming to those who do not yet know the love of the Lord Jesus. As His sheep we too are called to be his missioners !.
Both the Old and the New Testaments use the image of a shepherd and his flock to describe the unique relationship of God with Israel and his Christ with Christians. In his first sermon St. Peter on the first Pentecost – just fifty days after the Lord`s Resurrection, reminds his Jewish listeners that they have crucified their True Shepherd. Because of this he teaches that they need to receive the forgiveness of their sin by getting baptized in the Name of Jesus and acknowledge the risen Jesus as Saviour and Lord..
Notice too how that Jesus does not simply teach us how to live the fulness of life but shows us the way by living the path himself – the path that took him to the Cross for it is through the Cross that he heals the world and transforms it. Just as a good shepherd takes care of, and feeds, his flock so Christ the Messiah, the True Sacrifice, nourishes the spiritual life of the faithful by His Body and Blood and through His Body the Church in the Sacraments we receive. In Chapter 10 of John`s Gospel Jesus, as we know, refers to himself as the “Shepherd” but also as the “Gate of the Sheepfold” showing how it is through Him that we are able to know the Father and receive eternal life which also explains why Baptism is the means of washing away Original Sin and the means also of giving us the gift of His Holy Spirit wherein we are bound to Him to each other and to all Christians of All time as Children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Chris,t by adoption and Grace.
The Good Shepherd always watches over those given to Him or who come to Him and draws them to follow Him because we recognise his voice and he takes us to safety. Remember how Jesus always goes after the Lost Sheep just as he searched out Thomas and brought him back into the fold on that Second Sunday of Easter. Just as he watches over us constantly so too He keeps us nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Communion and safe from harm by means of the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.
How then shall we be faithful sheep of his Flock ? We must hear the Shepherd`s voice and follow Him to become like Him for the obedient sheep of Jesus Christ will treasure His every word and ponder every aspect of His life as we find it in the Gospels. It is in that way that we shall be able to say with St. Paul, who as Saul had been the greatest persecutor of Christians, but after his Damascus Road experience, and conversion of life, was able to write in his letter to the Christians of Galatia (2:20): “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me”
What a motley flock we Christians are. How shall we behave to one another – and indeed to others who are not yet of Christ`s flock ? St. John, the Beloved-Disciple, writes in his First Letter to the whole Church: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever dos not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4, 7-8).
Following the Good Shepherd then is about loving others so that we need to take care of our family, our friends, our Community, our Church, our neighbours (in the widest sense of that term). A great criticism of Christianity is that so many of us Christians are poor lovers – not treating one another with the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. We have all received love and blessing upon blessing from Jesus Christ by His death and resurrection let us then seek to share these gifts rather than fall into the temptation of being hard and judgmental towards others.
I will simply finish by returning to the words of Jesus at the end of the passage from today`s Gospel reading: `The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father. The Father and I are one.`