Thursday in the Fourth Week of Easter, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

When he had removed Saul, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes’” (Acts 13:22).

One of the earliest Christian images found in the catacombs is a picture of a young, beardless shepherd, standing in the midst of green pastures, surrounded by the sheep. The image could reflect Jesus’ parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to go in search of the one that is lost; or it could refer to Jesus’s saying about the good shepherd in the Gospel of John: the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The image could also be taken as an image of Jesus himself, the “shepherd and bishop” of our souls, as he’s called in the First Letter of Peter (1 Pet. 2:25). All of the above is probably true, in terms of this early Christian image; but in any case, the image of the young, beardless shepherd is shaped by the figure of David, the original shepherd king.

David figures prominently in our first reading today, another stylized piece of early Christian preaching from the Acts of the Apostles. Here the focus is on David as king, succeeding to the place of King Saul. Before he was a king, however, David was a shepherd; and the story of how a simple shepherd became the king of Israel occupies a special place in the Hebrew Scriptures.

St. Paul in his sermon today can assume that everybody within earshot in the synagogue knows that story. It’s a pivotal part of the history of Israel. The image of the sheep and the shepherd is shot through the Book of Psalms, traditionally ascribed to David; including, of course, Psalm 23 that I alluded to before, in the green pastures of our catacomb image. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95: 7), we say in Psalm 95, traditionally prominent in the Daily Office. We could multiply examples that point toward God as the shepherd and leader of Israel, reflected through the Psalter ascribed to David, the first shepherd king.

David has a prominent place in this section of St. Paul’s sermon, but here our translators have let us down, making it hard to hear one of the principal echoes that resounds through the reading. “When he had removed Saul, he made David their king” (Acts 13:22): a passage pointing to one of the most significant chapters of David’s life, one that renders the verb simply as “made;” yet the echo is more clearly present and truer to the context if we make it the word “raised up.” Thus, “God raised up David as their king.” It’s the same word, after all, that’s used just a few verses later to describe God “raising up” Jesus from the dead (Acts 13:30).

The history of Israel echoes and re-echoes with the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, the word in our reading is used exactly the same way at multiple points in St. Luke’s Gospel and in Acts as well, to refer to God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead. Here, it applies to God’s action in raising David up to be king over Israel: a broad Scriptural hint that David would foreshadow Jesus, himself the Good Shepherd of Israel. In the fullness of time, the shepherd king, the heir of David’s line, would step out of the shadow of sacred history into the full light of the present. He would emerge from the empty tomb in order to lead the People to living waters.

Here we see why the image of the beardless shepherd would be inscribed on the walls of the catacombs. In a time of challenge for the church; in a time of weakness and seeming insignificance for its members; in a time of persecution and scattering: then the presence of the shepherd king was felt. In our own perplexing time of the Coronavirus we might feel the same need for being “raised up.” We might find, echoing within ourselves, the need for the strong presence of the true shepherd king. Our experience of being part of a scattered flock, or of being one of the lost sheep, might answer to the call of the Good Shepherd. What we find, of course, is that he is in search of us, and will surely lead us home.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee