Easter 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.... You know the rest!
There is no denying that sheep and shepherds play a huge part in the imagery of Scripture. This is natural given the times and places in which the Scriptures were composed — sheep and shepherds were as central to the economies of those times and places as retail sales are to ours. I suppose we can be thankful for that; otherwise we might be stuck with, “The Lord is my supervisor,” or “He maketh me to shop in the bargain basement.” I don’t think we would want to pray, “The Lord is our Walmart and we are his customers.” And when Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, I don’t think he was thinking about being as a sales clerk!
No, instead of mercantile imagery, we are blessed with a wealth of pastoral images, of sheep and shepherds; and most importantly of a shepherd who is also himself describe as a lamb — the Lamb of God. In fact, John mixes up all sorts of pastoral imagery in his gospel and his epistles, and this imagery is carried forward into the last book of our Bible, that is also attributed to John: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; he is the gate of the sheepfold through whom the sheep enter and leave in safety; he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock; and he is, at the end, the Lamb again, with the marks of slaughter upon him, the innocent by whose bloody death the guilty are acquitted and reconciled with God.
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Most of us, I’m willing to guess, have little experience of sheep beyond owning a wool sweater or two — so what are we to make of this flock of images? When we say that the Lord is our shepherd, and when our Lord says that about himself, what do we mean, and what is he getting at.
Well, what we mean is that we belong to him. When we pray the Psalm that says, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture,” or “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are reaffirming our relationship with God is one of dependence and trust. We belong to God, and if we are wise — or at least as wise as sheep can be, which isn’t much — we will follow our Good Shepherd and put our trust in him.
For that is what we mean when we accept Jesus as our Shepherd — we belong to him and we know that he cares for us. We know his voice, when he calls us each by name. We trust him and we know that he will not lead us astray; or if we do, as sheep will often do, wander off ourselves, we trust that he will seek us out and bring us back, even if it is only one percent of us who wander off and get into trouble — and don’t you wish that only one percent of us were ever in trouble at some point in our lives.
We also know that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold: our safe passage into the fold for the night, to be kept safely from the wolves and lions of this world; and out through that gate by day to go to those lush, green pastures, to recline beside the still, calm waters, or to be fed on the herbage that nourishes body and soul.
And ultimately, we know that he is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life to protect us. He doesn’t run away when he sees the wolf coming — even if it means he will die in the process of protecting the sheep from that ravenous danger. For this is no ordinary shepherd — this is one who not only will lay down his life for the sheep. He is one who is able to take it back up again — no one takes it from him, but he lays it down of his own accord, and he receives it back from God his heavenly Father.
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And this is where we leave off our woolgathering and reflecting on sheep and shepherds, and the penny drops and the light-bulb goes on, as we recall, after all, that we are not sheep, and Jesus is not a shepherd. We are human beings, made after God’s image and in God’s likeness, and Jesus is himself that perfect image, the only-begotten Son of God. And yes, even though we are not sheep and he is no shepherd except by way of a parable — still we are his and he is ours: we belong to him, and he did in fact lay down his life for us, and took it up again; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, but raised from the dead by the power of God. That is the truth, the truth that we affirm every week as we say those words of the Nicene Creed.
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And this truth impels us to do more than merely to believe, merely to say those words week after week, even more than to believe it and to share it. For we are called not merely to follow our shepherd, but to grow up into him — to become shepherds ourselves, shepherds to each other. John gets into some of that mercantile imagery, after all, when he challenges and chastises “anyone who has the world’s goods and yet sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help.” We are called to emulate the greatest love one human being can show for another,
to lay down our lives for each other, just as Jesus laid down his life for all of us — each and every one of us both a sheep and a shepherd, bearing one another’s burdens, as the Apostle Paul would also teach.
John teaches us that it is by these loving actions that we will know that we abide in God, and God in us. This is nothing other than the power of God, who is love, love made real, love come down from heaven, love shared among the sheep of God’s pasture — not sheep after all, but children of God, God present among us by the power of the love we share.
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The Apostles knew this power fresh from God. How many people had passed by that crippled man who sat at the Beautiful Gate — how many of the very members of the high-priestly family before whom Peter and John now stand, accused of doing a good work of healing — how many of them, Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander and all their kith and kin, had passed by that crippled man and never given him so much as the time of day. And yet, Peter and John with healing him. Peter and John told him they had no money to help him out — but what they had, they gave him, freely and without any conditions: they gave him the name of Jesus, and the power of that name healed him of his infirmity. No wonder the selfish priests are confounded by this act of generosity; they are hired hands, who had no real love for the sheep;
they were ready to sell out the Lamb of God to the Roman wolves so as to keep their precious peace.
Yet, here, even here as Peter and John stand before them, the grace of God is shown forth and even they — Annas and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all their relatives and colleagues — they are given yet one more chance — and it won’t be the last one! — another chance to repent and believe, as Peter, filled with the boldness of a sheep become a shepherd, confronts them and shames them with the Name of Jesus strong upon his lips.
This, my friends, is what happens when we follow a Good Shepherd, and grow up into his likeness, caring for each other with the sacrificial love that gives and gives and never counts the cost. This is the Paschal mystery, my friends, the mystery of Easter, that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in pardoning that we find pardon, that it is in dying that, behold, we live. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.