7 May 2017
“‘The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.’” In the name …
This is the Third Sunday after Easter, but it is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. We follow a three-year cycle of readings in the church, and each of those years on this particular Sunday shares one portion of John Chapter 10, the passage about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This is the first year of that three-year cycle so we read today the first ten verses of this amazing passage.
Most everyone loves the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and most everyone can recognize it. The Good Shepherd was a favourite of believers from the earliest times of our faith, and this is why it became one of the earliest images of Christian art. If you do a Google-search for the images found in Priscilla’s catacomb in Rome, for example, you’ll see there a very young looking Jesus. There are a couple of sheep beside Him and He carries one over His shoulders. This painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may date to only about a hundred years after His life. This is the beginning of Christian art and Jesus looks exceptionally ordinary.
Which isn’t really all that extraordinary. If you remember last Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s speech was very, very early Christian proclamation, and it spoke clearly about Jesus as a man. It then became Peter’s job to convince those people in Jerusalem that this man was also more than a man, that Jesus was the man through whom God acted. Peter had to make the case for faith, for seeing with the eyes of the soul, because those people in Jerusalem had only seen Jesus the man. He didn’t have a halo surrounding His head and He didn’t glide across the ground when He moved. Jesus was a man. His ordinary nature was emphasized because that was how Jesus was perceived by all those in that Jerusalem crowd, and also, we can’t forget, by His first followers. We’re used to thinking of Jesus as in heaven, but for those first believers Jesus was thought of as they had known Him – as a man.
What’s interesting is that the painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in Priscilla’s catacomb places her hope for eternal life in that very same ordinary Jesus. There’s a woman depicted, maybe even Priscilla herself, to one side she’s getting married, to the other she’s giving birth. In the center, she’s shown with her arms raised heavenward in a gesture of prayer. And the focus of that prayer is Jesus. Not a glorified, all-powerful heavenly king kind of Jesus. Instead, it’s the very young, very ordinary looking Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
The earliest Christians had heard the Gospel story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. They knew the account of Jesus caring for His sheep, and not only for His sheep, but for all the sheep. The story seems to be based on the practice of shepherds of smaller flocks bedding their sheep together in a common corral. The gatekeeper would allow the shepherds to enter in the morning, and the shepherds would then call their sheep. The sheep would recognize the voice of their particular shepherd and follow him and only him out of the corral. But Jesus the Good Shepherd wasn’t only concerned about His sheep. There was the threat of thieves who would try and sneak into the corral at night, not through the gate, but over the fence. Jesus worried not only about the fate of His own flock, but of all the sheep. It wasn’t only about what the sheep could provide for Him. The Good Shepherd cared for all the sheep regardless of any benefit they could bring. It was the nature of the Good Shepherd not His profit that motivated His compassion.
The earliest Christians heard this story and they heard it as a story of hope. That’s why Jesus the Good Shepherd is painted in Priscilla’s catacomb. Jesus the Good Shepherd was a source of extraordinary comfort for those first Christians who were grieving the death of loved ones. The message that Jesus cares for and loves not only His own, but everyone, and that Jesus loves anyone unconditionally, greatly impressed those first generations of believers. Theirs was a God of surprising compassion. And again, this wasn’t some supernatural, glorified Jesus. The painting shows a very ordinary Jesus, but one who had spoken God’s extraordinary promise.
This moves our Easter attention past the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead and lets us consider the teaching that when God raised Jesus He ratified everything Jesus did and said. Jesus was condemned to die because the Jewish authorities saw Him as a false Messiah and the Roman authorities saw Him as a rabble rouser who dared to be not impressed by their empire and power. When God raises Jesus, He reverses both of these human judgments and reveals the truth of Jesus. This is what Peter was talking about in today’s Lesson when he told the Jerusalem crowd that when God raised Jesus that they should know with certainty “that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)
This means that Jesus the Good Shepherd is really what God is like; He is not a false anything. And it means that when power and might like that of ancient Rome or any power of any age that stands against this idea of uncompromising compassion stands against the nature and will of God. For the first Christians this was not a burden to bear or to work around; this was a source of great hope to rely upon. It eased the pain of death and promised that on the other side was a far better kingdom. And we today are still drawn to Jesus the Good Shepherd. It’s a message that continues to inspire. So in a world where power versus power is constantly in the news and compassion is too often forgotten, let us remember that Easter reaffirms the message of our Saviour as the Good Shepherd. Let us pray that in our lives we may stand with Jesus in the way that we choose to live and the way we choose to treat ach other. For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo