Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Easter
In last Sunday’s Gospel John told of Jesus directing the disciples to fish from the other side of the boat, which resulted in a great haul. He instructed Peter to feed and tend his sheep — ”my sheep”— he said. Jesus did a very ordinary thing by cooking a fish breakfast on the shore and inviting the fishermen to come and eat.
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses the image of shepherd, a very familiar experience for the people of his time. A shepherd directs the sheep to pasture land so they may eat and be safe from harm. One of the most difficult tasks for a shepherd is to keep the sheep safe. The shepherd literally lays down at the entrance to the enclosure through the night. In the morning he calls to the sheep and they follow his voice. In last week’s Gospel Jesus told Peter to “feed” and “tend” his sheep.
Recently, Pope Francis admonished the bishops that they must tend the sheep, but more than that they need to “smell like the sheep.” That is a tall order, but it carries the same message that Jesus gave Peter. To be a good shepherd means to be in the midst of the flock. There are many active verbs in these stories: “cast your nets,” “come and eat,” “feed and tend the flock,” “call the flock to follow,” “live” in the midst of the flock.
Jesus leads us out as his flock to create the world. But he is more than a shepherd, he is actually the gate. He is the way to enter a new space, the space where we do what he calls us to do, show by our deeds who it is we follow. He knows each of us. He cares for us personally. It is Jesus’ voice which calls us to greater concern for each other and for building a community of trusting relationships so all can benefit. As Jesus knows and cares for us, so should we know and care for each other. That is the space he wants us in. We need to create that space even in the midst of a pandemic. We need to remember there is a good shepherd who holds each of us in his care and helps us to know we do belong.
Christ makes us his sheep, we do not make him our shepherd. God is the one who initiates a relationship to us. God seeks us out long before we seek Jesus. When we listen to Jesus we enter through Jesus, the gate, to a new world. To enter through Jesus is to know him enough to follow his lead in my life. We have relied overly much on the intellect as the primary faculty of understanding when we need to experience the way God moves in our lives.
This pandemic has reminded us how interdependent we really are. Is the voice of Jesus our shepherd in the fragility, the fear and the courage of others? If we can listen and learn, maybe we can end up becoming our best selves as we get through this together.
Today happens to be Mother’s Day, a time for recognizing and showing gratitude for all they do. Mothers follow the lead of the good shepherd to provide for their family’s needs, providing nourishment and care for all, family and guests. Mothers cook and gather the family for meals where all experience a sense of belonging. (As I travel to and from Loretto on days like this it is heartwarming to see homes where there are many cars and recognize that there are individuals who come together for this special celebration.)
As a final thought. We can unambiguously affirm our gratitude for the eternal life God gives us, for the enduring assurance that no matter what the future holds, God’s hand is holding us, and nothing can snatch us away. The Good Shepherd truly provides for and protects us, the sheep, who follow his lead.