"One flock, one shepherd . . ."
On the walk back from the now empty tomb and her encounter in the garden with the risen Christ, we can only imagine the jumble of thoughts, images, and ideas that were swirling in the head of Mary of Magdala. What had just happened to her? Who was this person, alive, dead, and alive again? Who was the teacher who had healed her, traveled with her, and who now told her to speak to the other disciples of his rising? Soon her friends, Jesus' companions, were asking those same questions. How can we understand and speak to others of our rabbi?
Peter already had declared that their teacher, Jesus, was "the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16) But clearly Peter had not fully understood what that meant. Peter did not realize that, to be the Messiah, was to be the one who would lay down his life, "undergoing great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests . . . killed, . . . and raised." (Matthew 16:21) When Peter had tried to silence Jesus -- he himself was rebuked and silenced.
On this Fourth Sunday of Easter the gospel lesson shifts from historical recounting of the events following to resurrection to Christological reflection. The goal is to assist us as we, like Mary and the disciples, seek to understand what happened and is happening to us, the flock of the good shepherd.
In the years, decades, and centuries, to our own time, the followers of Jesus have sought for ways to express, in words and images, who was and who is this person Jesus Christ. John, for example, opened his gospel account with the grand vision of the one who was before all time and through whom all things came into being. Jesus was the very Word of God made flesh. And they turned to the images Jesus had taught them about himself. He told them that he was the vine and they were the branches. He told them that he was the bread of life and living water that would quench their thirst forever. And he taught them that he was their shepherd; they were his flock.
Some of the earliest images of Jesus found in churches and tombs were not portrayals of Jesus on the cross, or the infant in the manger. Rather, they picture Jesus as the gentle shepherd. And what may be one of the earliest paintings of all is of a very young Jesus, dressed in a short white tunic, who has draped a lamb over his shoulders. "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me." (John 10:14) A sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Easter may explore what it means to understand the risen Christ as our shepherd. And what kind of flock are we to be?
I think that it is fair to say that most of us do not have much experience with shepherds or with sheep. Every September the county in which I live holds The Great Frederick County Fair. I never want to miss the animal barns: cows, pigs, and of course the sheep. In each pen are lovely, wooly sheep being taken care of the 4H boys and girls. Just outside of the barn there will always be one of the 4H members washing, combing, and trimming their lamb. I love the fact that sheep really do say, "Baaaa." But I am afraid that is my only contact with sheep and their caretakers.
When Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who had everyday experiences with lambs, sheep, goats, and kids. Even if they made their living as a carpenter or fisher, they knew or watched the shepherds all of the time, moving the sheep and goats from the pens to the fields. They drank the milk of those animals, turned that milk into cheese, and eventually ate the animals. Those animals provided not just daily nourishment, they were essential for important religious rituals. All of Jesus' friends and followers had grown up telling and re-telling the story of Moses and the flight out of Egypt. Each year they heard the call to "take a lamb for each family" (Exodus 12:3b) and prepare the Passover meal.
As you prepare to explore these important questions with the portion of Christ's flock that you serve it is important to recognize that this passage not only offers us a functional description of what God in Jesus will do for us. Jesus is also making an ontological statement. He is not only describing what a good shepherd does and will do. He is making the claim that he is the good shepherd. Therefore, it must have seemed quite strange and startling for Jesus' friends and followers to hear Jesus tell them that he was the good shepherd. After all, they knew who the good shepherd was -- God. The scriptures were filled with images of God as the shepherd of the chosen people.
The Psalm appointed for this Sunday is perhaps one of the best known references, "The Lord is my shepherd." (Psalm 23:1). The Psalm paints the picture of a loving, caring God/shepherd providing food, comfort, and shelter. They knew that they were "your people and the sheep of your [God's] pasture" (Psalm 79:13). The prophet Ezekiel had told them that God was angry with shepherds who took advantage of and abandoned their sheep. God declared, "I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God." (Ezekiel 34:11, 15) How could Jesus say that he was the good shepherd? Are we to conclude that he was, in fact, God?
Jesus' lengthy exploration of what it means to be and who is the good shepherd is a response to a group of Pharisees. Over and over again people were trying to understand who Jesus was and where he came from. "Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? . . . Who do you claim to be?" (John 8:53) Then, after being driven out of the temple, Jesus passed a blind man begging. As a sign of who he was, Jesus explained that the man's blindness was not caused by his sin or the sin of his parents. Rather, "he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (John 9:3).
Understandably, the man's healing caused quite an uproar. The Pharisees were not only enraged that the man had been healed, but that the healing had occurred on the Sabbath. Who would do such a thing and who could do such a thing? After the man proclaimed that he believed Jesus to be the Son of Man, Jesus declared that he had come "so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." (John 9:39) Was Jesus, those Pharisees charged, accusing them of being blind?
Jesus then described the divine sheepfold. To be his followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them. It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.
Like Ezekiel, Jesus then contrasts himself with the hired hand. The hired hand, he explained, thinks only of himself and not the sheep; running away when danger approaches. (Was Jesus suggesting to the Pharisees that they were hired hands?) Jesus then explains that not only is he the shepherd who will give up his own life for the flock, but he has done this willing. It may have looked like he was captured and executed by the authorities, but in reality, "No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." (John 10:18)
What does it mean to be a sheep of Jesus' flock? It means that we enter through his gate. Jesus is the way to salvation. We know his voice and follow him. He cares for us, keeping us safe. And when we wander away, which we know we do all too often, he comes searching for us.
These are wonderful, comforting images, but this passage includes one other challenging thought. The good shepherd decides who is in the sheepfold, we do not. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold." (John 10:16) The Pharisees and the disciples alike thought that they knew who the chosen ones of God were. But this shepherd is telling them, and telling us, that there will be "one flock, one shepherd" and it is God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, not we, who bring together that flock.