In churches that follow the Revised Lectionary Calendar, Good Shepherd Sunday is next week (reckoned the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide), but in the Traditional Use (Missal and Prayer Book) it is observed on the Second Sunday after Easter.
Introit: (Psalm 33) Misericordia Domini. The loving-kindness of the Lord filleth the whole world, alleluia: by the word of the Lord the heavens were stablished, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Ps 33. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful.
Collect: Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life: give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit; and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God. I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgement. (Ezekiel 34.11-16)
Alleluia. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Alleluia.
Epistle: Dearly beloved: This is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (I Peter 2.19-25)
Alleluia. I am the good shepherd: and I know my sheep, and am known of mine. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto the Pharisees: I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. (St John 10.11-16)
“I am the Good Shepherd.” For most of us, that may not have much relevance. Shepherds take care of sheep, and we have little idea what’s involved in that. Yet the early Church cherished this image, and Christ the Good Shepherd was the subject of some of the earliest of Christian art.
In Middle-eastern culture sheep are very important. They provide both food and clothing. The pasturage available demands a nomadic life, so the shepherd must travel with his sheep from one region to another as the seasons change. This creates a close rapport between the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd cares for each sheep, calls them all by name, leads them to pasture and water, finds shelter for them in inclement weather, defends them against predators, and willingly risks his own life for them. Thus the sheep have ultimate trust and confidence in their shepherd. They recognize his voice, obey his commands, and follow wherever he leads. But the shepherd also calls them away from the security of the fold, out into the open wilderness where there are certainly green pastures and still waters, but also wolves and bandits—a valley shadowed by death. Shepherds faced all these perils along with their flock, and they were just as vulnerable—to scorching heat by day, to cold at night, and to human and animal predators at all times. The early Christians readily understood this close bond between the shepherd and his sheep.
The Scriptures are filled with images of God as the Shepherd of his people. Psalm 23 is no doubt the best-known reference: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Here the Psalmist paints the picture of a loving, caring Shepherd-God providing food, comfort, and protection. They knew that they were “his people and the sheep of his pasture.” The prophet Ezekiel wrote that God was angry with shepherds who took advantage of and abandoned their sheep. God declares, “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep …” So in identifying Himself as the good Shepherd, Jesus was, in fact, calling Himself God. He then contrasts Himself with the hired hand, who thinks only of himself and not the sheep, running away when danger approaches (no doubt suggesting to the Priests and Pharisees that they were such hired hands). Being a sheep of His flock means that we enter through Him – the Gate. Christ is the Way to salvation. We know His voice and follow Him. He cares for us, and keeps us safe. And when we wander away, which we all too often do, He comes searching for us.
But if the Lord is our Shepherd, then we are the sheep. Now, it’s not easy being called sheep. Sheep have become the quintessential symbol of mindless compliance. In our fast-paced high-tech world, we do not like to think of ourselves as dull, submissive animals. We are sophisticated individuals with superior intellect and free will; we go where we will and do what we want; and we don’t like sheep dogs yapping at our heels, either. But perhaps we are more like sheep than we care to admit. Like sheep we seem to be oblivious to everything except that plot of grass that surrounds us here and now, as if it will go on forever. Like sheep we are not always aware of the ravenous wolves that surround us in the culture in which we live, or those wolves that come to us in sheep’s clothing. And like sheep we always think that the grass is greener over there somewhere, so we stray from the flock, following our own ways, or whatever bandwagon currently rolls through town.
Our Lord, however, credits sheep with the one important sense of knowing their shepherd’s voice. Sheep are followers by nature, yet they are discerning enough to follow only the right voice. And that discerning ear can mean the difference between life and death! Our Lord says plainly that there are two voices in this world – the voice of the Shepherd and the voice of the stranger. The late Pope John Paul II taught constantly of the clash between the culture of life that heeds the Shepherd’s voice speaking through Scripture and the Church, and the culture of death that listens seemingly to billions of voices but all of which, finally, are echoes of the thief’s voice—the one who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. The Shepherd’s voice leads to abundant life. The stranger’s voice leads to death and destruction. As the weeks stretch out from Easter Day, the intensity of Christ’s resurrection tends to fade, and we may find ourselves being led astray, listening to the voice of strangers, and into thinking there are ways to God other than through the Cross of Christ. But the thieves come only to steal and kill and destroy. There is a way of life and a way of death, and one cannot take both.
Amid the many voices competing for our attention, we may lose the voice of our Shepherd, perhaps following a voice that sounds strong and smart and seductive, down a path that leads us away from Christ. But as hard as it can be to follow the Shepherd, it’s much better than being prey for wolves and thieves. If Jesus is not Lord of our life, then there are countless others who will try to fill that position: celebrities, politicians, ambitions, causes … So how do we tune our ears to the Shepherd’s voice? It always begins with prayer and Scripture. We read and meditate upon His Word, not to interpret it according to our own ideas, but to have our ideas shaped by it.
Jesus is the good Shepherd, and He leads us to what we need: true security, lasting peace, and genuine love. When He is our Shepherd, we experience abundant life that no thief can take away. Whose voice do we follow? What gate do we lead others to enter? With Christ as our Shepherd, we need fear no evil. As we follow Him, goodness and mercy shall follow us. In the end, our only wisdom is to know our Shepherd’s voice. Our most vital skill as sheep is to listen—from that place deep within us where we recognize who we truly are, and whose we truly are.
Tá Críost éirithe!
Christ is risen!
Collect: O God, who in the humility of thy Son hast raised up a fallen world: grant unto thy faithful perpetual gladness; that they whom thou hast delivered from the perils of eternal death, may be brought to the fruition of everlasting joys; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
“The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13.20-21)”
Following are two ancient images of Christ the Good Shepherd from the Roman catacombs, dating from the second or early third century.