A reflection for the fourth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 10: 11-18

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Reflection

Given the theme of this Sunday, ‘The Good Shepherd’, I took myself off to the Porch Fields in Trim to try and get a photograph of a flock of sheep to use as a backdrop during our online service. I had hoped to get a shot of the flock but, of course being sheep, they didn’t oblige and were scattered over a large area. Hence the need for shepherds in biblical times to gather the flock and bring them to safe pasture.

Shepherds and sheep are a recurring image used throughout scripture in the Psalms, the prophets and other writings. They were a very natural illustration to use, because everybody was familiar with sheep farming in that rural economy. There is a vulnerability about sheep, which need protection, especially in a country where wild animals roamed.

In our Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel, the Shepherd is used to criticise the role of Israel’s leaders. These Shepherds were accused by God of failing to care for their people as they should, serving their self-interest and enriching themselves at the expense of their people. They were accused of failing to strengthen the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed or seeking the lost.

In this prophecy, God declared that he would rescue his sheep from these faithless shepherds and care for them himself. In the continuation of this chapter, God said: ‘I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David.’ This is one of many prophecies of a Messiah, a new King David, to be chosen by God to lead his people.

When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he clearly drew on Ezekiel’s prophecy when he compared himself to a shepherd who cares for his sheep as opposed to a thief who comes to destroy. The context of this discourse is relevant. In the preceding chapter, Our Lord was in conflict with the Pharisees when he healed a man who man been born blind. The pharisees condemned Jesus because he performed this compassionate act on the Sabbath Day. Later, the Pharisees ejected the formerly blind man in anger because he said that Jesus was from God. Unlike those uncaring religious leaders, Jesus went out of his way to care for the weak, the sick, and the lost.

More than all the good and caring acts our Lord performed, his greatest saving act to rescue the lost was his death on the cross. In our reading, he clearly foretold his violent death, saying: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ A shepherd’s job was to protect the sheep from harm, especially attacks from wild animals. Unlike a hired hand who would save his own skin first, the Good Shepherd was willing to meet the danger head-on and, if necessary, suffer the fate that was meant for his flock. We know that Jesus willingly did exactly that when he went to the cross for us.

Have a look at this photograph:

Stained glass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trim.

Most of you will recognise this as the centre panels of the stained glass window above the gallery in this cathedral. It rather neatly encapsulates our scripture readings. On the left is King David, seated with a royal crown, holding a harp and a book – the Psalms, which are attributed to him. David, who began life as a shepherd, is the ideal king who symbolised the coming messiah.

On the right, we have the ‘Good Shepherd’ portrayed in a rather unusual way by the artist, Edward Burne-Jones. He looks adventurous, a Robin Hood-like figure striding out bravely. He carries a lamb, reminiscent of the parable of the lost sheep. At his feet are two more sheep, clearly dependant on his care and protection.

Not very obvious at first glance are the items the shepherd carries. From his belt he carries a water bottle, symbol of living water and baptism. In the pouch of his bag are a flagon of wine and a loaf of bread, symbolising his body and blood, which we receive in the Eucharist in remembrance of Christ’s passion and death for our redemption. Jesus said: ‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again’. In demonstration of the Father’s love, he died for us and rose again and is alive for evermore. The version of Psalm 23 we listened to earlier has a refrain: ‘And I will trust in you alone, for your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home’.

Christ is the Good Shepherd who leads us through life. He is the one in whom we trust, who cares for us and carries us through good times and bad and will eventually lead us home. May we me know his loving presence with us to guide us throughout our life’s journey. Amen.

Collect for the fourth Sunday of Easter

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Prayers of intercession

God our Father,
We praise you that through Jesus Christ
you have broken the power of sin and death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Through Christ, the Good Shepherd,
you lead us from darkness into your glorious light;
you lead us from death to life eternal.
Hear the prayers we offer to you.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

Father, we give you thanks and praise
for Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Help us to hear his voice and to follow him.
We pray for all who share his pastoral ministry,
all ministers of your word and sacraments.
We pray for our parish, for this diocese and Pat, our bishop.
Help us to reach out in love and care to all.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

We give thanks for all who seek
to bring peace and unity to our world.
We pray for world leaders, for our country,
our president, our government and health service.
Guide them in the management of the Covid pandemic
and in the effective delivery of the vaccination programme,
especially in countries which lack adequate healthcare.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

Father, we give thanks
for all who have cared for us and provided for us,
for those who have taught us the faith
and been examples to us.
We pray for our families and friends.
Support and strengthen all parents as they care for children
and seek to guide them in your ways.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

Father, we pray for all who have lost their way in life.
We remember those who have lost faith
in themselves, in others, or in their God.
We pray for all who are finding life desperate
and are disillusioned or fearful.
We ask you to comfort and bless all who are struggling
and those who feel unable to find help or hope.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for all who are ill,
those in hospital, those undergoing surgery or treatment
and those who struggle daily with their health.
Grant them your strength, peace and healing.

Lord hear us; Lord graciously hear us.

We rejoice that the Good Shepherd gives us life eternal
and that nothing can separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
We join with the fellowship of the saints
and our loved ones departed to praise you.
We commend them and ourselves to your unfailing love.

We offer these prayers,
though the Good Shepherd,
Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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