The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, Church of the Good Shepherd, Brentwood

“My sheep hear my voice” (Jo. 10:27).

Easter is a season of fifty days, stretching from Easter Day to Pentecost. Pentecost takes its name from the “fiftieth day,” from the feast that comes before it, and the two festivals establish the boundaries of the season. Just when you thought that Easter was over when the last of the candy is consumed, and the last lily has faded, think again! Easter is a season of fifty days.

The Church gives Easter such leeway for a couple of reasons. First of all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an epochal event, with vast implications for human life and Christian faith. Death is not the end. God has raised Jesus from the dead. This celebration cannot be contained on a single day, as if we could check it off and be done with it. In every sense it is the pivot of the year, on which all else hinges. It requires an ample celebration.

Second, a mystery of such proportion requires extensive unpacking. We cannot simply remove the wrapper and comprehend the gift. There are multiple levels, and much to be absorbed. In its initiation rites, the early Church quickly moved to a format that required extensive preparation, and subsequent reflection, for those who were baptized and confirmed at the Easter feast. When God gives a gift it takes time to understand it. His gifts are of such magnitude that one take simply won’t do. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ our very lives are at stake; and though new life is given in a moment at baptism, it takes a lifetime of Easters to receive it and reflect upon it effectively.

It’s in this light that we ought to understand our Gospel today. Jesus has gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication: that is, Hanukkah. One of themes of this festival in Jesus’ day was how God is the shepherd of his People, and so it’s no surprise that the subject comes up in our Gospel. Israel began as a nation of shepherds, driving their flocks from pasture to pasture; not for them the settled life of the people of the fertile plains. So it’s a rich theme in the Old Testament, stretching from the Law of Moses to the prophets. God is the “Mighty One of Jacob… the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel” (Gen. 49:24), in Genesis; the People of Israel pray in the psalms that God will “save your people and bless your inheritance; shepherd them and carry them forever” (Ps. 28:11). And of course, famously and familiarly, in our psalm today, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1)

Not only was God the Shepherd, but the kings and priests of Israel were also described this way. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the founding fathers, were shepherds, as was the great king David. This is how the People of God understood leadership. The prophet Ezekiel in his day prophesied that God would set a true shepherd over the flock, a descendant of David (Ez. 34).

So it’s of great significance, and a piece of a much larger tradition, when Jesus claims in John’s Gospel to be “the good shepherd” (Jo. 10:11). Our Gospel today is a part of that larger discourse, the fulfillment of prophecy, the completion of a pattern set long ago. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the heir of the kings and priests of Israel. He himself is our leader, guide, and defender, the one who brings us to green pastures and living waters.

Now it’s time to remember how Easter is a season where we go deeper, unpacking what’s been revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’re given these Sundays in order to grow in understanding. Good Shepherd Sunday is just such an opportunity, to take off the wrapper and see what we’ve really been given. Jesus does that for us himself at the end of our Gospel when he says, “The Father and I are one” (Jo. 10:30).

This is a breath-taking claim. God is the Shepherd of Israel in the Law and the prophets; now we understand that Jesus himself is the Shepherd, he who is one with the Father. In other words, God has not sent another representative like Moses or David. God has come himself in Jesus Christ. He and the Father are one.

This is the Easter faith: faith we can only come to understand through reflection on God’s mighty acts in raising Jesus Christ from the dead. In the Easter season we need to look more closely, and reflect more deeply, in order to comprehend the mystery of faith. Over fifty days the Holy Scriptures place before us the person of Jesus Christ, inviting us to go deeper. During this season we’re invited to renew our faith in him. Our confirmands are showing us the way, but all of us are called. We need to listen for the voice of the Shepherd, and follow where he leads.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt