EASTER II (SHEPHERD SUNDAY)
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. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful. Glory be … The loving-kindness of the Lord …
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)
“The Lord is my Shepherd.”
Christ as the Good Shepherd is one of the most enduring and beloved images in the Church, with examples dating back to the Roman catacombs of the second century. In glass and stone, in tapestry and mosaic, story and song, prayer and praise, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is very much with us. But amid all the sentimentality, we may forget the radical nature of care that this image represents. What distinguishes good shepherds from bad shepherds is care. The good shepherd cares for the sheep, to the point that he lays down his life for them. That is to say, the care of the Good Shepherd has death and resurrection implicit within it, which is why these readings are appointed for this third Sunday of Easter-tide. For the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the beautiful Collect appointed for today, Christ is identified as “both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life.” He is the shepherd Who wills to be struck, so that through His being struck, He may gather all His sheep to Himself. The mysteries of life and death are taken up into the greater mystery of God, and the theology of the cross carries over into a pattern of holy life—of death and resurrection—in us.
In Middle-eastern culture sheep are vital to existence, providing both food and clothing, and the job of shepherd was entrusted only to the most conscientious members of the tribe. The job was important because sheep were crucial to the tribe’s survival, to their physical health and spiritual well-being. Sheep provided meat and milk for sustenance, their wool was spun and woven into cloth, and their hides were used for fleece and leather. The most perfect lambs, offered as a sacrifice, were not dispensable but precious. The ritual was not easy, but it was essential. For all these reasons, and more, sheep warranted the best attention that could be given them.
In that region of the world, 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, drives away the wild animals with a club or rod, and willingly risks his own life for them. He and his flock sleep under the same stars and are chilled by the same wind and rain, and exhausted by the same burning heat. A drink of cool water tastes as good to the shepherd as it does to his flock. They are in it together, in every way. Something of the resulting compassion is implicated in the story Jesus tells of a shepherd who loses one of one hundred sheep and will not rest till he finds it. 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 face all these perils along with their flock, and they are just as vulnerable—to scorching heat by day, to cold at night, and to human and animal predators at all times. For thousands of years, knowledge of caring for these animals was passed from father to son, from generation to generation. An experienced shepherd would show his son how the shepherd tends the flock and leads them from one grassy area to the next. Jesus, too, learned how to be a shepherd from His Father, and the relation of the Son to the Father establishes the real context for the meaning of Christ the Good Shepherd. He cares for the sheep because they belong to Him. We are not our own, but “the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Ps 95).
The early Christians readily understood this close bond between the shepherd and his sheep, but the full import of that relationship, coming from an agrarian age long gone and far removed from most of our lives, may not hold much meaning for us today. It is not an easy thing for people who seldom see sheep and have never seen shepherds in action to comprehend the rich meaning of this ancient metaphor. But on that winter day in Jerusalem, for those who asked Jesus to tell them plainly whether or not He was the Messiah, His reference to shepherd and sheep would immediately have resonated with what they knew of everyday life … and of the Scriptures.
The image of shepherd and sheep runs like a golden thread throughout the fabric of Holy Writ – from Genesis, when Israel blesses Joseph, calling on “the God who hath fed me [literally, been my shepherd] all my life long unto this day” (Gen 48.15; 49.24), all the way through to Revelation. The Scriptures are filled with images of God as the Shepherd of his people. Psalm 23 is no doubt the best-known reference: “יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר (Adonai ro’i, lo echsar)—The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Here the Psalmist paints the picture of a loving, caring Shepherd-God providing food, comfort, healing, and protection. The Hebrews knew that they were “his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100). 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.
As we hear in Psalm 23, the Mediterranean shepherd leads his flock, never drives them, as in the Western world. Likewise, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me….” The shepherd goes into a field or plateau before his flock in order to clear out the watering holes, and to remove any hazards — snakes or scorpions or sharp objects or poisonous plants that could harm them (“Thou preparest a table before me against mine enemies”). Still, despite the shepherd’s best intentions, a sheep will inevitably get hurt from time to time. Then the shepherd cares for the injured, washing and pouring olive oil on the wounds; and he also applies a mixture of oil, sulphur, camphor and tar to discourage flies and ticks (“Thou anointest my head with oil”). If the animal is uncomfortable or in pain, the shepherd offers an earthenware bowl filled with a mixture of fermented hemp or barley mixed with honey and medicinal herbs to dull the pain and allow time for healing, or alcoholic spirits to recover from deadly chills (“My cup runneth over”).
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.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the image of the shepherd is a symbol of divine rule, and thus of human government, as an imitation of the divine. David, the shepherd boy, divinely anointed, becomes the shepherd King of Israel. Isaiah prophesied of the coming Messiah: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom” (Isa 40.1). So when Jesus, offspring of the House of David, calls Himself the “Good Shepherd,” His hearers would certainly have had all this background in mind. As Dr Robert Crouse observes: “The image of the Good Shepherd is a symbol of God’s universal providence: but, on another level, it is also a symbol of Christ’s governing of his Church, and therefore, we often refer to the Church’s leaders as ‘pastors’, which simply means ‘shepherds’. On that level, the image of sheep and shepherds is perhaps not so generally agreeable an image nowadays, in an age of secular democracy, when it seems that popular opinion ought to govern, and that vox populi is vox Dei.” But this shepherding care is not restricted to the Ordained ministry, but carries over into all the other forms of leadership in the life of the Parish, as well. There is to be the same quality of shepherding care by the Sunday School teachers, the Wardens and Vestry, and so on.
The Church is out of tune with the times; it is not, and cannot become, a real democracy, so long as it claims to preach the Word of God, which is not simply the consensus of popular opinion, and so long as it practises sacraments and disciplines which are divinely ordained, and not simply responses to popular demand. Try as it will to accommodate itself to the intellectual and moral conventions of a secular age – and sometimes, it seems to me, it tries pretty hard – it can never really be successful without ceasing to be the Church … If the Church seeks worldly success and popularity, it seeks its own destruction. This ambiguity of the Church – in the world, not of the world – makes shepherding always a difficult occupation; and the difficulties have perhaps never been more apparent than they are in our own times. Pastors are ordained to preach the Word of God, to administer the sacraments, and to care for souls committed to their charge. They must not be purveyors of the conventional wisdom of this present age, nor reflectors of current popular opinion. They are to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God; surely they dare not be hirelings who work for the daily wages of popular acclaim.
But whatever else might be said of them, Our Lord 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.
There will not always be green pastures to lie down in, for everyone must at one time or another walk through those dark valleys of deep shadows. The bitterness of loneliness or fear or anxiety will threaten to undo us. But regardless, whether in green pastures and by still waters or deep in the very valley of death itself, God is there with us, because Jesus has been there, leading us like the shepherd He describes. Jesus is the Shepherd — and more, He is the Lamb who sits upon the throne, and shelters us with His presence. The Lamb in the midst of the throne is our shepherd, and will guide us to springs of living water, and will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
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 our 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. We live in a world where lots of voices demand our attention. Sometimes they come to us one at a time, but other times they come all at once. Somehow, sometime, somewhere in our being we must make the decision that seeking Christ’s presence is a vital part of our lives. We are called to trust that in seeking God, we draw closer to Him; that in drawing closer to Him, His voice becomes clearer to us. 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.
We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. Today, O that ye would hear his voice!
¡Cristo ha resucitado!
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:
And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.