Easter 4 year A

A new kind of shepherd

sermons year A

There are any number of paintings of Jesus surrounded by sheep – sometimes even carrying a lamb or sheep on his shoulders or in his arms.   Perhaps you can imagine one of them – often we see green meadows, perhaps a stream … and usually the sheep are clustering around Jesus and perhaps looking affectionately towards him.   This is the shepherd of Psalm 23.   Even though the psalm was written many centuries before the coming of Christ, the “Lord” is that psalm is taken to be him.   It portrays a shepherd who cares for his flock; who leads them to green pastures where they may rest, and to peaceful waters where they may quench their thirst.   The flock was originally, of course, the people of Israel.   The shepherd shows them what is right – leading them in the paths of justice (righteousness) and protects them from their enemies.   He ‘comforts’ them – which can be understood in its ancient sense of ‘strengthen’, not just ‘soothe’.  

A familiar picture, of course; a source of consolation for many over the years; a reminder of the reassuring presence of God in times of distress.   But that is only one of the images of the Shepherd which we find in the Old Testament.   We see another powerful image of the divine Shepherd in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34.   The people of Israel have returned from exile in Babylon, but Ezekiel says that its leaders have not been good shepherds.   They have ‘failed to make weak sheep strong, to care for the sick ones, or to bandage the injured ones.   They have failed to bring back strays or look for the lost’.   Therefore God says that he himself will be the shepherd of the people of Israel, giving them rich pastures, looking for the lost, making the sick strong.   God will separate his sheep from the goats, as their judge.   But he will also raise up a new shepherd among them, who will be a good ruler to them, like David.   “No more will they be a prey to the nations .. they will live secure, with no-one to frighten them”.

Two images of the divine – or divinely appointed – shepherd, then, from the Old Testament.   One focuses on the care of God for the individual; the other on the care of God for the nation.

Let’s jump several centuries, to the account of Jesus’ life given in the Fourth Gospel.   Jesus is talking to some Pharisees, in Jerusalem.   He has already begun to cause considerable controversy – by healing on the Sabbath, by letting a woman caught in adultery go free, and – in particular – by talking of God has his ‘Father’, and saying that, unlike those around him, he is ‘not of this world’.   The incident described in today’s gospel continues in this vein.   Jesus would have been well aware that in the Hebrew scriptures God is the shepherd of Israel, and that he has promised to appoint someone who will be shepherd of the people on his behalf.   So imagine how radical a step it was for him to say that he himself was this shepherd.   This was one more way, then, in which Jesus showed that he was sent by his heavenly Father to lead the people of Israel – that, in other words – he was the Son of God, the Messiah.

But Jesus went even further.   He distanced himself from any idea that he would be an earthly ruler, like the shepherd of Israel promised in the book of Ezekiel.   No – he said that his care for his flock was so all-embracing that he would not just protect his flock from danger, unlike the hired man, but would even go so far as to lay down his life for his sheep.    So – you see – we are now entering a totally new understanding of what it would mean to be the shepherd of Israel.   Not only that – he said that he would take his life up again after it had been laid down.

I wonder if those who heard him really understood the full implications of what Jesus was saying.   That he was about to break the cycle of sin and death, and open up God’s kingdom – both on earth and in heaven – to all people, from every race and nation.   As he put it – “There are other sheep that are not of this fold, and I must lead these too … there will be only one flock, one shepherd.”

See what a contrast, then, there is between the picture of the divine shepherd we have in the Old Testament – the shepherd who cares for his sheep, and protects them – and in the New Testament in Jesus:   the shepherd who dies, no less, for his sheep, and rises to new life, defeating death, atoning for sin, and opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers.   It is no surprise, therefore, that ‘these words caused a fresh division among the Jews.   Many said “He is possessed, he is raving, why do you listen to him?’ Others, though, said, “these are not the words of a man possessed by a devil; could a devil open the eyes of the blind?”

So here we have the beginnings of the Church; a Good shepherd whose aim won’t be to throw off the Romans, but to bring people to the Kingdom – the reign – of God.   That is why Jesus also talks of himself as the ‘Gate’ to the sheepfold – just as he describes himself as the Way, the Truth and The Life, he is the One through whom we must go in order to learn more about God, to come to faith, and to grow in that faith.

Let’s leap once more – this time to the time when the Risen Christ had met several times with the disciples, but was now having breakfast with them on the shores of Lake Galilee.   Three times he tells St. Peter, “Feed my lambs; look after my sheep; feed my sheep’.   This is, in effect, one of the first tasks given by Jesus to those who were going on to found the first churches. Peter was to be the shepherd in chief, representing Christ on earth; but as disciples we all have a responsibility to care for and feed Christ’s sheep.   We are his hands and his feet – we are his body here on earth.   In other words, the task of Christ’s disciples was not to rally behind the flag of a secular would-be king, but to build up the Church – to care for and nurture its members, Christ’s body.   That is why we see the commissioning of Peter reflected in the crook or staff carried by bishops today – whose task is to oversee their churches, and ensure that their flock is cared for and led well.

Where has all this left us, then?    Let’s go back to the beginning, to Psalm 23.   I hope you can now see Psalm 23 in a new light.   The image of a gentle, caring God who is like a shepherd who knows each one of his sheep by name, is still valid, and indeed has echoes in the Gospel of St. John.   But what we see in that gospel is that Jesus takes the traditional understanding of God’s shepherd, and not only turns it into something new, but makes it refer to him.   The abiding image of the Good Shepherd, now, should therefore be the of the one who lays down his life for his sheep, and then takes his life up again.   The one who takes the burden of the sin of the world on his shoulders, on behalf of all the people of the world, but who doesn’t let it defeat him.  

And so if such is the extent of what Christ has done for us and the world, the least we can do is thank him; love him; and try to see that commission given to St. Peter on the shores of Lake Galilee as extended, now, to us too.   Feed my lambs.   Look after my sheep.   Feed my sheep.   By this – far more than by any words – Christ will know that we love him.   Amen.

Christopher Harrison