A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we set out to read through a familiar passage – one we’ll read in its entirety over the three years of the lectionary cycle.
Today, Christ tells us he is our shepherd – and, spoiler alert, next year, he’ll clarify that he’s not just any shepherd but the Good Shepherd.
Christ isn’t merely some hired hand who runs off at the first sign of trouble but rather the very one who seeks out the lost sheep, who wades into the swift waters to rescue the drowning, who crawls through the briar patch to free the ensnared, who fights off bandits and wrestles wolves to save the lambs.
Far from the clean-faced and bed-sheet-clad shepherds of modern Nativity plays, Christ is the shepherd who, to quote Pope Francis, smells like the sheep. More than that, Christ is the one who lays down his life for the flock.
Thieves and bandits may prowl the land, ready to harm the flock, but Christ is both the one standing over us with rod and staff to protect us and also the gate that leads us to safety.
Hearing this sort of mixed metaphor, the crowd around Jesus is…dumbfounded. As is so often the case with the disciples and the crowds alike, the metaphor seems to go right over their heads – and the people are left with blank stares. They should catch the reference – that David was a shepherd, that the Psalmist calls the Lord God a shepherd, but the people want something a little more cut-and-dry. As Saint John carries on with the story in the verses at the end of this episode (we read that section last year), Jesus is wandering around the Temple for a festival when the Scribes and Elders come to him and demand an answer: Enough riddles and parables, they say. Tell us plainly: are you the Messiah? C’mon, out with it.
Jesus responds that his miraculous works – those glorious signs – testify to his identity. His claim to divine anointing has been on full display, and he has not hid it. Throughout John’s Gospel up to this point, Christ has performed six messianic signs; he’s turned water into wine, healed people at Capernaum and Bethesda, fed the 5,000, walked on water, and just last chapter, given sight to a man born blind. How can there be any more doubt about who he is?
But the surest sign is not a nifty party trick nor even a miraculous healing. No, the surest sign is coming.
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice,” Jesus says today, and again: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
And talking to the religious leaders at the end of the chapter, he’ll say again: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
The surest sign of Jesus’ divine identity is this: through the Word of God made incarnate, we receive life everlasting.
Earlier, in chapter five, Jesus used similar words when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
And in a short time – just a chapter beyond today’s lection – Jesus will travel to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha, and the recently-departed Lazarus. Jesus will cry out in a loud voice, a voice that echoes through the grave and across the divide between death and life, and Lazarus will hear the voice of the Son of God, arise, and walk out of the realm of the dead into life – the seventh of Christ’s great signs. Here, Lazarus, a lamb of Christ’s own flock, though dead, hears the Good Shepherd’s voice, leaves the tomb, and emerges again into life.
All of these miracles, even Lazarus, are only signs, though: they point to a higher reality beyond themselves, to something greater that is to come: Christ’s Resurrection. Lazarus is raised from the dead back to this life, but Christ is resurrected into life everlasting.
Christ, the Lamb who was slain, is the Resurrection and the Life, the Risen One who is worthy of “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might…forever and ever!”
Christ the Lamb of God shepherds us out of scorching heat into the coolness of the shade, to the springs of life everlasting, where all our tears will be wiped away. Christ has come that we may have abundant and everlasting life.
As Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “By giving life, Christ shows that by nature he is life.”
The Good Shepherd calls to us, leading us in the ways of life: to green pastures and flowing, clear water. Even as we walk through the valley of death, beset on all sides by dangers, toils, and snares, Christ our Lord remains our provider. We hear Christ’s voice, even in the midst of the deathly perils of this world, and his voice assures us of new life – because Christ is Life itself.