The 4th Sunday of Easter: A Sermon


Today’s readings: such a tapestry! Let’s look at three of the threads.

First thread: “The LORD is my shepherd” sings David; in the verse just after today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus: “I am the good shepherd.” “Shepherd” in David’s time was a potent political metaphor. The LORD is shepherd of Israel; the king is shepherd of the people.

The kings liked to portray themselves as good shepherds. Israel’s prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel, heard a different divine verdict. Here’s Ezekiel: “Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…  Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” This goes on for a good bit. Then, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.” (Ezek. 34:2-15) When we hear Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd” we know that Ezekiel’s words were not empty.

Peter, later in the letter our lectionary has us reading, will say “Honor the emperor,” not because the emperor’s doing such a fine job shepherding, but because Peter has just said “Honor everyone,” and the emperor is included in “everyone.” When the emperor and his lackeys overreach, Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd” translates into Peter’s “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). We may have the political leaders we deserve; the good news of the Gospel is that the Good Shepherd has arrived, and Jesus bats last.

Second thread: what do we expect of this Good Shepherd? Two weeks ago I talked about how the petition psalms struggle to hold God, the enemies, and the psalmist in the same frame, appealing to God to do something. Sometimes the psalmist’s confidence that God is doing something takes over the psalm, as in today’s psalm. It wouldn’t take much adjustment for it to sound like a generic petition psalm: “Lord, I’m in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death.” “Lord, I can’t even take a bite without those who trouble me crowding around.” But the psalmist understands—in the gut, not simply in the head—that “you are with me,” and that’s bedrock.

By the way, it isn’t better to pray Psalm 23 than one of the “Get me out of here now!” psalms. The Psalter is such a large collection because we can be in so many places, and wherever we are, we’ll need some words. As the saying goes, “pray as you can; don’t pray as you can’t.”

Nevertheless, the psalmist’s “[nevertheless] you are with me” sets us on a trajectory towards Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v.11, just past today’s reading). The LORD is Jesus’ Good Shepherd, and “with me” turns out to include, not exclude, the cross. Peter in our second reading applies this pastorally: following this Shepherd can mean suffering.

If we wonder what, if anything, our suffering accomplishes, Peter is silent, but we have his colleague Paul. In his letter to the Colossians we hear “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24). There’s no description of the “how,” but it’s clear that the LORD can employ also our suffering for the healing of the world. This in turn shapes what we expect of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

Third thread. Up to this point we’ve been assuming that we’re the known factor as we attempt to understand God’s conduct. But then there’s that verse in the Gospel: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The rabbis have a story we might want to think about.[1]

Rabbi Yehuda of Prague dreamt that he had died and was outside the gates of heaven. An angel read the names of those invited to enter, but he did not hear his name. He begged the angel for an explanation. The angel replied: “But many come here who have never heard their true names on the lips of man or angel. They have lived believing that they know who they really are, but they don’t know. And so when they’re called to heaven by their names as who they really are, they don’t recognize themselves. They don’t realize that it’s for them that the gates of heaven are opened. So they must wait until they know their true selves and so recognize their true names.” At this Rabbi Yehuda woke and, rising from his bed with tears, he lay prostrate on the ground and prayed, “Master of the Universe! Grant me once before I die to hear my own true name as who I really am.”

When Jesus calls me by name will I recognize that name? Holy Scripture thinks that’s a serious question, and so invites us to follow, also so that in the following we make some progress in knowing our own names.

[1] Adapted from a story attributed to Rowan Williams on a now inaccessible website.

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