Scripture notes – 4th Sunday of Easter – Year B – 21st April 2024

The liturgy this week is not another appearance of the Risen Lord, but words of Jesus said previously during his earthly ministry which give us aspects of what the Resurrection accomplished. ‘The good shepherd’ has been a favourite image for how Christ is involved in our daily lives.

The readings are available online here.

Acts of the Apostle 4:8-12
A selection from Luke’s history of the early church, emphasizing the Easter message. In the verses before this, the first miracle story in Acts is Peter’s healing of a lame man at the Temple gateway. (Acts 3:10). The crowd’s excitement over the healing gives Peter the opening to preach the gospel in a public setting (for the full speech see Acts 3:12-26). This action upset the temple authorities, and Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Council of religious authorities. Our selection begins Peter’s defence of his action, which is both a proclamation and accusation. Luke emphasizes that he spoke ‘filled with Holy Spirit’, which recalls the promise of Jesus that the disciples would be gifted with what to say when brought to trial. (Luke 21:14-15, Mark 13:11, ‘…for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit.’) ‘The name’ in which we are saved is based the Semitic understanding of the name meaning the whole person. Christians have inherited some of this reverence, and we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ meaning not just a verbal sign off, but with the fullness of his life-death-resurrection.

Psalm 117:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28-29
The choice of this psalm is tied to Peter’s quotation from it of the ‘stone which was rejected’ and the other verses are also pertinent. Peter has ‘been given answer’ when he needs words to speak to the Council. It is his trust in God and not in the political power of the time that gives him his boldness. The words ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is another example of Semitic understanding of ‘name’. These words were spoken by the crowds at Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. They of course have become part of our mass. The first and last verses speak of the everlasting love of God, which is taken up in the next reading.

1 John 3:1-2
John’s letter often stresses how the faithful disciples are rejected by the world, even as was the Psalmist’s ‘chief stone’. Here he marvels on the love of God that has let us be called children of God. The paradox of ‘we are already now’ but ‘fulfilment is to come’ is the tension Christians live with as long as we are in this world. We ‘are now’ already children of God but the full experience of this will only come later.

John 10:11-18
Our mass reading is the climax of a longer address of Jesus, starting at the beginning of Chapter 10, drawing several different lessons around the theme of sheep and the care of sheep. The ‘good shepherd’: the Greek word translated as ‘good’ has the meaning of ‘ideal’ or ‘model of perfection’. Not just kindly and caring – though that is included – but more of what ‘shepherd’ means as a metaphor for God.

Jesus used comparisons that were easily understood by the audience he spoke to, and ‘shepherd’ was a favourite symbol for that time. Because Abraham, the ‘Father’ and founder of the Jewish people, was a nomad herdsman and their ‘ideal King’ David began life herding his father’s sheep, a shepherd became a symbol for the rulers both religious and kingly, and was frequently used in the Old Testament. The Pharisees who are addressed by Jesus in this chapter would not have missed the connections and John seems confident that the first readers of the gospel would also think of this background. They would have also known the words of the prophet Ezekiel (in chapter 34) which denounced the greed and callousness of the leaders of his time using the image of ‘bad shepherds’. What Ezekiel describes fits Jesus’ words on the hired workers who don’t really care about the sheep. The listeners could recall that God’s solution to the problem of bad leaders, was, according to Ezekiel: ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.’ (Compare also Psalm 23/22: The Lord is my shepherd.’)

Most of us live in cities with almost no contact with sheep, and between Jesus’ time and ours, the practices of sheep-herding are quite different; but we can take what was important to Jesus in this image. For Jesus to be ‘the true shepherd’ could have a shock value for those for whom God was the shepherd. It could even be seen as a claim to be God. Jesus will go on to stress the closeness of himself with the Father – his favourite word for his relationship within what we call ‘the Trinity’. Then there is a second shock for those thinking in the terms of real sheep: the good shepherd gives his own life for the sheep. This is not what we would expect, or even approve, of someone dealing with herd animals, so we have to stretch it to a human context.

‘Knowing’ is an important theme, and stresses the intimacy between Jesus and his ‘sheep’ – that is, we ourselves. Jesus knows us better than even we can do with our illusions and pride; he can also penetrate to our inner depths lost to consciousness. But it is also important that we know Jesus. I see this as a process in which we always have more to learn and to experience. Ways to progress in this include reading and reflecting on the New Testament, prayer, by receiving the Eucharist, when that is possible. And also interacting with other people.

The ‘other sheep’ were probably in the original context thought of as the ‘Gentiles’ of that time who would be drawn into the flock with the Jewish people of God. It is often used now when speaking of the hope of a union of all Christians. There are also ‘others’ around us now who follow other religions, but whom Jesus also comes to call and care for.

This is not the first time in the gospel that Jesus speaks of laying down his life, for it is important to this evangelist to insist that Jesus not only fully accepted his death, but went to the cross as his own decision in union with the will of his Father. But the reminder that he also had the power to take up his life again is part of our Easter joy.

In our present time, Pope Francis has used the symbol of shepherd, as he spoke of wanting bishops who have the ‘smell of the sheep’ – those who are close to their ‘flock’ and not ‘lording it over them’ or looking for honours. They too would ‘know’ their sheep, and make sacrifices for them. There are still those in our time who ‘lay down their lives’ in their service, like Oscar Romero whom this Pope set on the path to canonisation and who is commemorated on the front of our church.

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection
In this week where we have a vivid image of God’s and Jesus’ care for us ‘as a shepherd’ – what role does caring play in my life? Am I responsive to the needs of others? Do they find it easy to ask for my care?

Or am I maybe ‘over-caring’? Is my identity too bound up with others? Am I taking some independence, responsibility or even skills away from others by doing (or saying) ‘too much’? Has it become a bit compulsive, because it’s part of my identity and the way I feel I’m worth something?

Do I let others care for me? Am I able to ask for my needs to be met? Am I struggling more than I need to?