Today’s combination of collect and lessons invites us to contemplate Jesus the Good Shepherd. The collect: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people…”; Psalm 23, the classic statement of this theme; Revelation’s promise that the Lamb will be the shepherd of this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude; Jesus’ words of promise in the Gospel regarding the security of his sheep. Our first reading looks like the one exception; that’s OK; we’ll come back to it.
“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people—we prayed—Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” There are multiple biblical themes in that prayer; let me notice four of them.
First, Jesus “calls us each by name.” While we properly use “we” a lot (“We believe in one God…” “We confess…” “Our Father…”), the individual relationship with Jesus is equally important. Each of us is different, and so while we have much in common, we’re also irreducibly distinct. So Jesus’ relationship with each one of us will be different. Toward the beginning of Revelation we encounter this promise: “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17 RSV). So the ways in which I’m different are not things to be suppressed or ignored—even if some of them may result in behaviors for which repentance is needed—but part of the “I” that Jesus loves and would transform.
Second, following where Jesus leads assumes a fundamental asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves. Perhaps we’re not tempted to think that Jesus should follow where we lead, but in this egalitarian culture it is tempting to assume that we’re in a position to evaluate the job Jesus is doing—as though as in the Olympics the sheep might hold up numbers at the end of the day. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-10 RSV). So we should expect not to understand some of the things God does, or allows to happen, or asks of us. Child of this egalitarian culture, I like this no better than you do. But I hope we can also recognize the wisdom of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight that any God we could understand would not be worth worshipping.
Third, knowing Jesus’ voice and following where he leads isn’t automatic. Some days it’s easy; some days it’s the last thing we want to do. So we pray “Grant…”, that is, we need God’s help, help which comes through some combination of the Holy Spirit, means of grace like the Holy Eucharist and Holy Scripture, the habits that Holy Spirit is nurturing within us, and the encouragement of other Christians.
Fourth, “follow where he leads” reminds us that Jesus is moving, and that if we’re going to stay with Jesus, we need to be moving too. Think about the ending of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20 RSV) He’s with us always all right, always out in front, us always playing catch-up.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd: it’s a powerful image—but Jesus isn’t done with it. Remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter that we heard last week:
—Simon son of John, do you love me?
—Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.
—Feed my sheep.
The Good Shepherd delegates some of that shepherding work to Peter, and, by extension, to all His followers. After what I said about the asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves, Jesus obviously doesn’t delegate everything to Peter, and church leaders can overreach. But he does delegate, and that’s what we watched in the first reading in Acts.
Sandwiched between Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (which we heard last week) and Peter’s preaching to the gentiles at Cornelius’ house (part of which we heard on Easter Sunday), we’re told of Peter healing Aeneas’ paralysis in Lydda, and raising Tabitha from the dead in Joppa. The way the stories are told—sometimes even their vocabulary—recall Jesus’ miracles. Peter is doing some serious shepherding.
But there’s more. Luke tells us that Tabitha “was full of good works and acts of charity.” Later, when Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.” She’s been doing some serious shepherding as well. And then there are the two disciples who go from Joppa to Lydda to get Peter.
What Holy Scripture has given us in this brief story is a picture of a thick web of relationships through which pretty much everyone shepherds and is shepherded in turn: Peter, Tabitha/Dorcas, the widows, the messengers.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On the one hand the image promises an intimate individual relationship with Jesus. If we stop there we may regard other Christians as irrelevant or potential distractions. But with Jesus saying intimately to each one of us: “Tom, N, N, do you love me?… Feed my sheep,” “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” becomes the charter for a thick web of relationships in which all shepherd and are shepherded, in which Jesus’ love comes to me through others and to others through me. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 RSV).
Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Do we believe this? We show our belief as this image propels us on both an inward and outward journey: intimacy with this Jesus who knows me by name, practical actions—like Dorcas’ tunics and other garments—for Jesus’ sheep. Amen.