Easter 4b: Shepherds

Acts 4:5-12 Psalm 23 1 John 3:16-24 John 10:11-18
Today is called “good shepherd” Sunday. At a time when we have been learning about who Jesus is, we celebrate Jesus today in his shepherd role, the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

The hired hand is not as invested as the good shepherd. “A hired hand does not care for the sheep.” It is the shepherd whose livelihood truly depends on the sheep; the hired person is one who could presumably walk away and find other work, flock to tend. The shepherd stays with this flock. There is a huge difference in the investment that one has in the sheep. The shepherd might even give up his life for his sheep. Who among us could be that invested in the tasks that we are hired to do? There is a great distinction between shepherd and hired hand.

There is also a distinction between the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus the good shepherd brings great comfort to us. The 23rd psalm gives us words of great caretaking; we are the sheep, gathered into the arms of the shepherd. “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil … thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Our shepherd brings comfort and safety in the face of all danger, even death itself. We are comforted, revived – led – by the good shepherd.

The reading from 1 John reminds us that Jesus the good shepherd is love: Jesus laid down his life for us and we ought to love one another enough that we would lay down our lives for one another. That’s a powerful definition of love, that we might for one another. In a culture in which we love a sunny day, we love a particular movie, we love a musical group, and we love ice cream, it is hard if not impossible to imagine love that means that we would die for one another. This love imagery is Old Testament hospitality imagery: having someone visit your home meant that we took responsibility for the visitor, even as far as protecting the visitor from death. We might die as part of such hospitality. Radical hospitality begins to approach love, but is a far cry from a love proclaimed about movies and celebrities and food. Really? A parent’s love for a child, it seems to me, begins to come close to the pure love that Jesus has for each of us. His is “good shepherd,” radical hospitality, unimaginable love. We are the object and focus of that love.

The gospel describes an enclosed pen full of a single flock of sheep, with a shepherd literally guarding the doorway. We are asked to imagine ourselves in the sheepfold. It is hard to take this imagery too far. Rarely are our lives that contained or the gatekeeper such a clear and specific person. Sometimes wolves get in our pen, and there are others – lots of creatures and people – that we consider “other.” At some point, simple analogies fall apart.

Surely Jesus is the good shepherd. We have many roles; we might have each of the roles depicted in the readings today. “Even we” as “hired hands” are asked to do the work of the shepherd. Teresa of Avila reminds us that we are Christ’s body, Christ’s hands and feet, in the world today. “Christ has no body now but yours.”

How is it, then, that we live out our faith, as hired hands, sheep, and the shepherd?
We are called to recognize the shepherd, to know Jesus’ voice. We begin to recognize the voice of Jesus through prayer, worship, and by reading and studying the Scriptures. We “read, mark, pray, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures.
We are called to see and to seek Christ in all persons. (Uh, oh.) This, too, is a lifetime’s work. Finding Christ in all persons might bring us lessons in prayer, discipline, and humility. There is no way that we could accomplish such love, such faithfulness, on our own.
In the psalm, we are shepherded: “thou are with me.” We have a choice in submitting to the shepherd or not. Sometimes life takes all of our skills. We make a choice. We can think that we are all alone, or we can trust in God to help us. We can give thanks for God in all things. We make this choice over and over again. (God are you with me? Okay, I’ll be with you. God, are you sure this is the path I’m supposed to take? Really? Are you sure? Are you there? I can’t do this. Okay, you do it. Yes, God, you do this for me. Through me. However you want me to live. Yes, God. Thank you, my Lord and my God.)
We choose how to carry out our lives: at home, at work, and in our church. Do we take the role of the hired hand, running at the first sign of the wolf? Or do we become the hands and feet of the shepherd, staying to do the hard work that we are called to do? We are invited to get to know the shepherd, that we might be guided, held, and transformed by love itself.
Thank you, dear shepherd.

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