April 22, 2018

The Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B 2018

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter. And even though the lectionary is on a three-year rotation of readings, there are themes, like Good Shepherd Sunday, that recur every year. One of the temptations of these recurring themes is for priests and parishioners to say to themselves, “Oh, I’ve heard this before, I know what this is about,” and go to our happy place. But what if I told you that the nice platitudes of the Good Shepherd protecting you are not the logical end of this metaphor, rather it is death. So much for going to your happy place!

Peter Gomes, the late Chaplain at Harvard University makes this assertion about this passage:

Remember, though, that in the notion of a metaphor, sometimes the metaphor has limits and you can't go much beyond it. We have to remember that the purpose of gathering sheep together was to protect them for a purpose, and that that purpose was to fatten them up for the slaughter. Those sheep were gathered together because their purpose was to be sold and eaten, and that's it; it's not much fun being a sheep. That's where the limits of this metaphor take us.

Part of what is going on in this Gospel passage is that Jesus is setting himself apart from the Jewish leaders of his day. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for and loves his sheep. The one who will lay down his life for the sheep rather than let the wolves snatch and scatter them or as he says in the passage just prior to what you heard read this morning, protect them from thieves who desire to kill, steal and destroy. Of course the Hebrew people are the sheep in this passage and the hired hands are the Jewish religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, who care not for the sheep, but for their own interests of maintaining power and control over the people.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, lays across the opening of the sheepfold to sleep at night, in order to shield the sheep from the attack of the wolf. The wolf has to go through the Good Shepherd in order to get to the sheep. And the Good Shepherd is willing to give up his life to protect the sheep. The hirelings, the Jewish religious leaders, do not love the sheep, and therefore are not willing to give up their lives for them.

Thus we return to Gomes, who continues:

For us, where the metaphor ends and the good news begins, is that we are gathered and guarded not for the slaughter, and not to be eaten, but for love and redemption. That is where we take leave of the metaphor and embrace reality.

The reality of Jesus portraying himself as the Good Shepherd, is that he is not fattening us up to be slaughtered, but is protecting us because he loves us and desires for us to be saved from the slaughter, the dismemberment of our souls from selfishness and misplaced loyalties.

Finally Gomes says:

What do we do in response to this truth and this reality? As usual, it is the epistle that instructs and amplifies the gospel. The epistle says, in answer to what we do, "We believe in Jesus"—the Good Shepherd—"and we love one another." The two are connected. We love one another because we believe in Jesus, and we believe in Jesus because he is the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

The same John who is reporting, in the words of the Gospel, that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, tells us in his first epistle, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” That word believe is best understood as trust, that we should trust in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that we can trust that if we follow the way of Jesus, God’s love will abide with us and God’s Spirit will make a home in and with us.

But this is not an individualistic piety, me and Jesus, and the rest of the world can take care of itself. Rather this is a communal call to follow Jesus together, just like a flock of sheep follows their shepherd. We are called to love one another just as Jesus has loved us.

John says in his letter, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And this, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” We follow the way of Jesus when we follow the way of self-sacrifice and love.

I always want to balance this call to self-sacrifice with the common sense notion that you also need to take care of yourself. Remember the second half of the great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, you are to love and care for yourself, for you are as valuable in God’s sight as your neighbor. And what good are you to God or your neighbor if you are not whole. After all, that is the root meaning of the word salvation, to become whole, in body, mind, and soul.

Jesus demonstrated this in his life by taking time for himself - to pray, to rest, to rejuvenate so that he could have strength to serve. In the end, he laid down his life in service to the whole world.

And so on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we can give thanks that we have been called together to be a community who follows our Good Shepherd Jesus into pastures that refresh and do not harm, into waters that are calm rather than rough, and to a table that is rich with the provisions of God’s grace.

So that we can love and serve the Lord as we love our neighbors as ourselves.