The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday, so called because the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.
Under normal circumstances, many churches underline the theme by choosing “shepherd” hymns for this Sunday’s worship -- often metrical versions of Psalm 23. In the three years of the lectionary cycle, the Gospel passage for Easter 4 is always from John. Each year differs slightly, but never fails to include Jesus’ application of the metaphor of the shepherd to himself. This year John tells us that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”. If his hearers did not understand, how much harder must it be for us who live in a highly urbanized world? In New Testament times, shepherds were a familiar sight. Today, even in rural areas, shepherds are few and far between.
Despite this, thanks to the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm, the language of sheep and shepherd has remained familiar and comforting to many church people. Yet this very familiarity can prevent us from grasping its essential feature. Sheep have a poor image in the modern world -- foolish, easily frightened, inclined to bolt -- so that shepherds have to control them, assisted often by dogs nipping at the heels of the witless sheep. Shepherds in biblical times, however, did not drive their sheep; they led them, to sources of fresh water that they were unlikely to find for themselves. It was also the shepherd's job to protect them from hazards too great for the sheep to anticipate. It was the shepherd's superior wisdom and care that made this possible. Without it, the sheep could be expected to “go astray, each to his own way” (Isaiah 56:3).
The message is not an entirely easy one for a modern audience. We are resistant to being driven, and not much better disposed to being led. Yet, as the crisis of the corona virus has demonstrated, we are easily frightened into accepting instructions, and like sheep, following the crowd. The image of the Good Shepherd runs counter to all this. Like the shepherd, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. Our task is to be able to recognize His call, and then to follow the divine Word as it uniquely comes to us through Christ. Both ready acceptance of fashionable political ‘wisdom’ and individualistic attempts to pursue a spiritual path of our own devising, threaten a dangerous wandering from the will of God as revealed in Christ.
In this year of the Lectionary, the brief passage from Acts gives us a sense of the excitement and urgency with which the first converts heard this call. Two thousand years on, there can hardly be that same urgency. Yet the passage also gives us a clear indication of what has lain at the heart of Christian practice from the earliest times -- “teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers”. Under current restrictions we are forbidden to engage in Christian fellowship and the breaking of bread, and thus denied the age-old blessing of corporate worship. Of course, private prayer remains possible and important, but to follow the Good Shepherd at the present time means acknowledging that the absence of the Church’s corporate life is a huge loss, and praying that we may recover its importance when normality returns.
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