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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Easter 4B/24

Psalm 23

John 10:11-18


The Beautiful Shepherd 

On the fourth Sunday of Easter of every year, we experience a shift in storyline and timeline. We’ve been hearing about the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, but today in our gospel reading we hear from a pre-crucified, pre-risen Jesus as he delivers a portion of his Good Shepherd discourse (which is read in its entirety over the 3 year lectionary cycle). The aim of this narrative U-turn is to help us understand, like the first disciples, what happened on that first Easter and what is happening now to us who are the flock of the Good Shepherd.

Indeed, some of the earliest images of Jesus found in churches and tombs are not of him as an infant or on the cross but of Jesus as a shepherd. One of the very earliest frescoes is of a very young Jesus, dressed in a short white tunic, with a lamb draped over his shoulders. 

But for all the pastoral or bucolic imagery the idea of the good shepherd might evoke, what we hear today was in fact communicated in a very tense and highly-charged situation. Jesus is teaching in the temple on the heels of restoring the sight of a man who had been born blind, and on the Sabbath no less. Moreover, this happened during the Feast of the Dedication, which was the commemoration of the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BC against the vicious and vile oppression of the Jewish people by King Antiochus IV, and the subsequent restoration of a horribly defiled temple. 

Jesus’ good shepherd discourse is part of the argument and debate between him and the highly offended temple authorities, which ends with accusations of blasphemy and an attempt on Jesus’ life by stoning. 

I have wondered why Jesus would proclaim himself a “good shepherd” in such a setting and circumstance. Was it because he wanted to draw a connection between himself and some of Israel’s most significant figures, such as Jacob, Moses, David, and Rachel who were actual shepherds? Or with the Lord God who himself identifies as the Shepherd of his flock Israel? But then again shepherds could be a rough and disreputable lot, who were considered ritually impure and thus excluded from the temple. 

The imagery of the shepherd is so deeply embedded in the history of Israel and Hebrew scripture, that when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd, though speaking figuratively and symbolically, he speaks to people who knew quite literally what he was talking about—for good or for bad—which perhaps was part of the problem and why the import of his teaching was lost on them.

I wonder too if such meaning is also lost on us, though for want of little to no experience with sheep, shepherding, and shepherds. I have a little experience with sheep from when I lived in Ireland. A flock grazed right outside my back door, and I was able to encounter and watch the sheep and their shepherd up close. Sometimes the sheep would nibble at me as I had my tea. Fr. John and I don’t do much social media at all but we do follow a real life shepherdess in England. Where she lives is indeed pastoral and picturesque but her work is hard and extremely demanding at times. 

For many of us here today, and as Christians, perhaps the most familiar imagery of shepherds and sheep comes from Psalm 23, which along with the Good Shepherd discourse is also always read on the fourth Sunday of Easter.  Jesus would have known and prayed Psalm 23. Can you imagine with me what it would it be like to hear him sing to the God of Israel as his faithful Shepherd: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Reflecting upon Israel’s exodus to the promised land, Jesus affirms his own deeply personal and intimate journey with the Father as he prays: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 

And surely these words would have been on Jesus’ lips in his passion to the cross: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

Jesus would have also had a sense about the similarity between four-hoofed sheep and two-footed “sheep”. Both of us are social creatures who derive their identities from belonging to particular groups, forming attachments and aversions within flocks and communities. Jesus would have known that the hoof tracks of sheep are never straight but winding, and that they and we get lost and wander aimlessly or purposely from safety to danger. He also knew that for the most part sheep cannot be driven—the flock will only scatter—and that sheep, like people, driven though we are by self-will, must ultimately be led. 

In ancient Palestine, shepherds often worked alone and grazed  their flock in remote uninhabited regions, which meant they were on guard 24/7 against attacks by wild animals, thieves, and bandits. They helped birth and bury their sheep. At night, to protect the flock, a shepherd would lay down across the threshold of the sheepfold or enclosure, his body becoming the actual door or gate across which either friend or foe, or sheep or beast would have to cross; for this very reason, in allusion to the cross and resurrection, Jesus say, I have power to lay my life down, and I have power to take it up again. In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus speaks of laying down his life for his two-footed sheep—us—not once or twice but five times, such is the consequence and assurance of his promise: I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 

Jesus is indeed “good” but not simply because he takes his job seriously, does it well or is especially morally upright; as Bishop William Temple wrote, it is possible to be morally upright and repulsively so! Rather, as the Greek word kalos means, Jesus is good because he is beautiful, noble, and worthy of praise. We find this same word in Genesis when God speaks the creation into being and pronounces it “good”: beautiful, noble, and worthy. 

Jesus presses on causing division among his listeners: 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. What do we think upon hearing these words? Who are the other sheep that Jesus speaks of, that do not belong to this fold, that perhaps are not even “Christian”? In the good shepherd discourse, and throughout the gospels, it is made abundantly clear that the work of gathering the one flock belongs to Jesus and the Father, from whom he receives commands, and yet who are one. 

Essential to our discipleship is to open our ears and listen for the shepherd’s voice, and then follow where it leads; and to open our hearts to other sheep and a wider more inclusive flock; to lay down our bias and judgment and yield our faith to its Source. Any person or people may participate in the porous and metabolizing maternity of Christ, and be delivered to new life under the shepherd’s faithful watchfulness, protection, and love. When Jesus says in his discourse, I am the gate, he speaks not in the singular but in the absolute: I am every gate, gateway, and passage of life. Whatever threshold you are standing at today, are about to enter, are part way through or about to exit, Christ is its gate.

Traditionally, the fifty day feast of Easter was called a mystagogy, meaning it was a time of deepening initiation into the paschal mysteries; from first encounter to growing understanding to intimate relationship with Jesus. We can consider that the whole of Eastertide a mystagogical gate through which we are led and delivered to the risen life of Christ.  

Lastly, the root meaning of the word “shepherd” is to feed; so may it be, O living and sustaining God, who spreads a table before us that we are fed by the body and blood of the Shepherd who is beautiful, noble, and worthy of praise. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.