May 3, 2020: 4th Sunday of Easter (A)

Introduction

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is commonly referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, because the gospel readings on this Sunday focus on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Each year we read a passage from Chapter 10 of John’s gospel, in which Jesus describes his willingness to lay down his life for us, his “sheep.”

1st Reading – Acts 2:14, 36-41

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles,
“What are we to do, my brothers?”
Peter said to them,
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call.”
He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them,
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized,
and about three thousand persons were added that day.

Today’s first reading is a continuation of Peter’s Pentecost speech, which we began last week.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them,

The passage begins just as our reading from last Sunday began, with verse 14.

The Acts of the Apostles is the second volume of a two-volume work. The first volume is the Gospel according to Luke. In Acts, Luke consistently shows an interest in what we might call church structures. He shows authority being duly delegated. Notice here, immediately after Pentecost, that Luke shows Peter as the primary spokesperson for the Eleven.

Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus

The reading jumps forward to verse 36, to resume from last week.

When Peter declares that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, he is alluding to two pivotal themes of the Jewish faith.

  • “Lord” (kyrios) was a term of respect used for someone in a position of authority. It was also the Greek word used in the Septuagint as a substitute for YHWH, the personal name of God. Since the Septuagint was the version of the religious tradition most commonly read in synagogue services of the time, the Jews to whom Peter was speaking would have made the connection quite readily.
  • “Christ” (christos) is the Greek translation for Messiah, or “anointed one.”  (Christ and messiah are synonyms.)

By addressing the “whole house of Israel” and by claiming that Jesus is both “Lord and Christ,” Peter is making astounding claims about Jesus. If they continue to reject Jesus, they will be rejecting the God of Israel and the messiah he promised.

whom you crucified.”

Peter brings his famous Pentecost sermon to a climax by contrasting what God did to Jesus with what people do to him. God raised Jesus, exalted him, and made him both Lord and Messiah.

People crucify him.

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,

Peter’s words have moved the hearts of his listeners, not with anger or rage, but with remorse.  They had put to death the Holy One, God’s anointed.

and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?”

The openness with which they receive Peter’s words of testimony and accusation indicates that all the Jewish people were not hardhearted.  Indeed, these people are eager to follow Peter’s direction.

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you,

Repentance (metanoia) is a total change of heart, an interior disposition that would result in a new way of life. Baptism was a recognized external rite that would mark the inner change.  Peter’s exhortation was not something new; a similar message and rite was the core of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:3), and some form of baptism was required of Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith.

in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

While the concept of baptism was not new, the name in which they would be baptized (Jesus Christ) and the gift that they would then receive (the Holy Spirit) was a significant revelation.

For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.”

The promise referred to here is probably a reference to the promise of the Spirit that is found in the prophetic words of Joel (3:1-2 [Hebrew]), Isaiah (44:3), and Ezekiel (36:26-27).  Initially, this promise was made to the ancestors of the Jewish people Peter is addressing; however, now it is made directly to them.

The promise is not limited to them but will be offered to generations after them and to people who do not belong to the house of Israel (“all those far off”).  Here we get a glimpse of the reconstitution of the People of God and the universality of God’s call: Jew and Gentile alike are invited to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and be incorporated into the community through the gift of the Spirit.

He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

Not only the subset of the Jewish people who rejected Christ and his teaching, but everyone who is estranged from God.

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.

Three thousand may seem to be an excessive number — it might simply characterize the success of early apostolic preaching.

Of course it is not Peter, but the Holy Spirit, who is responsible for the success of Peter’s words.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 2:20b-25

Beloved:
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Today is the third installment in our six-week study of Peter’s first apostolic letter. This reading has two distinct parts, connected by the theme of following Christ.

Beloved: If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.

As we know, Peter’s letter is addressed to people who have already accepted Christ. It seems that his audience is also enduring suffering of some kind.

Suffering finds its way into the life of every human being, whether that person is religious or not.  At times misfortune may have been brought on by the one suffering, and at other times the afflicted one appears to be innocent of anything that could have precipitated the misfortune. Enduring misfortune that is either unwarranted or unjustly imposed calls for virtue.

But there is another kind of suffering: the kind inflicted upon one precisely for having done good.  This is the form of suffering being addressed here.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.

Peter is trying to give meaning to their suffering by reminding them that Jesus, though innocent, also suffered, and his suffering resulted in their salvation.

He exhorts them to follow the example of Christ, and walk in his footsteps. The word here for “example” is hypogrammós, which refers to a child’s writing exercise.  In the exercise, the letters of the alphabet are copied stroke by stroke from a pattern, suggesting an image of Christians tracing their own manner of suffering from the pattern set by Christ.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

This line is the transition to the second part of the reading, which may have been a primitive Christian hymn patterned after the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah 53:4-7.

Christ’s innocence and lack of vengeance form the pattern of suffering that we are to imitate.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.

When Christians are persecuted for the good they have done, they must be willing to bear this suffering, perhaps even for the sake of the very ones who have victimized them, as Christ did.

He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

Christ is acknowledged as sinless (verse 22 here; also Hebrews 4:15), yet through God’s choice, he came to stand in that relation to God which is normally the result of sin. He became part of a sinful humanity so that his sacrifice would allow our sins to be forgiven (see Romans 6:10-12).

“Christ was nailed to the cross, paying the penalty not for His own sins but paying the debt of our nature. For our nature was in debt after transgressing the laws of its maker. And since it was in debt and unable to pay, the Creator Himself in His wisdom devised a way of paying the debt. By taking a human body as capital, He invested it wisely and justly in paying the debt and thereby freeing human nature.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 430), On Divine Providence, 10,26]

For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

At the time and place of this letter, shepherding was a major occupation. Clearly the image is of Jesus as the shepherd and Christian disciples as his sheep. Although at times they wander away from him, they will be safe and will prosper if they follow his lead.

Gospel – John 10:1-10

Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Today’s gospel reading takes place about four months before Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. This discourse appears immediately after Jesus’ healing of the man blind from birth (John 9:1-41, which we heard on the 4th Sunday of Lent). Recall that at the end of that story, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees who were unaware of their own blindness.

This passage, which is a continuation of that address, alludes to the book of Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel used the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep to describe the caring relationship that should exist between leaders and those they serve.

“Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, in these words, prophesy to them [to the shepherds]: Thus says the LORD GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?” (Ezekiel 34:1-2)

The metaphor of shepherd and sheep, and the condemnation of the leaders of Israel, continues throughout chapter 34 of Ezekiel.

Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you,

The doubled Amen, when used in John, is an indication that a very grave matter is being discussed — a matter of life and death.

whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

The imagery here presumes the practice of sheep herding in the Near East. At the outskirts of the village, one would find a large sheepfold, or pen, in which several flocks of sheep were kept. A hired hand guarded this enclosure, which had only one entrance, secured by some form of gate.

The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,

Both the gatekeeper and the sheep can easily distinguish the genuine shepherd from an intruder.

as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.

Each shepherd would call out his own sheep from the common fold in a particular way, and the sheep would recognize his call and follow him away to pasture. This method of herding sheep is still in use in Palestine today.

Note that the shepherd Jesus is describing does not simply call his sheep; he knows them so intimately he calls each by name.

In contrast, thieves and robbers try to enter the sheepfold stealthily; they do not come through the gate because the gatekeeper would realize they do not belong. Unlike the shepherd, who is committed to guiding, guarding, and nurturing the sheep, these others regard the sheep only as potential objects of profit.

But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

The sheep would not respond to anyone but their own shepherd, so there was no danger in mixing the flocks at night.

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, 

In John’s gospel, the expression “figure of speech” (paroimía) is preferred to the term “parable” (parabolē), which is found in the synoptic gospels.  However, both expressions denote the same general literary device.  The specific form of the device used here is the allegory, the figurative description of one subject under the guise of another.

the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

The wisdom of Christ cannot be known by the proud, the self-satisfied, or the self-righteous. Only those with childlike humility and trust in the Lord can grasp the depth of his teaching. The Pharisees do not recognize Jesus, but the people of God, symbolized by the man born blind (John 9:1-41), do.

Not only are the Pharisees unable to understand, the passage also implies that they are the thieves and robbers in the story, which is quite a harsh judgment.  The religious leaders of the day were not interested or invested in the welfare of the people, as Jesus was.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 

Jesus begins a related but separate allegory, again introduced by “Amen, amen, I say to you.”  In the first one, Jesus identified himself as the true shepherd of God’s sheep. Here, he identifies himself with the gate of the sheepfold.

I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Earlier it was the shepherd or the thieves who went in and out of the sheepfold, now it is the sheep. John is teaching his audience that Jesus is God and is the only way to the Father.

This “I am” statement, like the other “I am” statements in John’s gospel, is an allusion to the story of Moses and the burning bush when God reveals God’s name as “I AM.” Jesus is claiming his own union with the Father and stating that he is the only source of salvation.

A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;

Rather than caring for the people, the Jewish leaders are harming the flock for their own gain.

Although Jesus’ criticism is directed here toward the Jewish leadership, his words are applicable to all those who are responsible for leadership or foolish followership: anyone who tries to use the Church for their own ends.

I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

In contrast, Jesus did not come to exploit the people, but to care for them.

“Living life more abundantly” certainly refers to more than peace and prosperity in this life.  Some commentators believe it is a reference to a deep spiritual life lived in union with God.  Others maintain it refers to eternal life.

Connections and Themes

The voices we follow.  We all look for leaders who can guarantee our safety and happiness.  For many people, this means someone who promises well-being and prosperity, someone who will eliminate the hardships we face and make life easier for us.  It also means someone who will encourage us and affirm us in our endeavors, someone who will tell us we are on the right path.  There is nothing wrong with wanting leaders, both political and religious, who will speak to us in these ways, but these are only half of the responsibilities of leadership.

Some, though not all, would also like a leader who can challenge them to be their better selves, to go beyond the present confines of possibility and attain a greater degree of self-realization — someone who can show them how to live graciously with the burdens of life and the disappointments all of us must face.  They want a leader who will help them recognize and admit when they are in error and help them correct it. They want a leader who is honest about the complexities of life and is able to guide them in dealing with those complexities.

Authentic leadership.  It has been said many times that authentic leadership is rooted in authority.  But then we must ask: Of what does authority consist? It must be more than might or control, because those are often resented and not really followed.  We recognize the voice of genuine authority because it cherishes, guards, and encourages the best in life.  The responsorial psalm for today’s Mass (Psalm 23) lists the characteristics of authentic authority: it provides rest and refreshment, it guides our steps, it nourishes us, it leads us to God.  Peter, as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles, is an example of authentic authority: he proclaims the truth even if others find it hard to hear, he denounces error even when this places him in jeopardy, he calls for a change of heart even when it makes great demands.

Authentic leadership is patterned after the leadership of Jesus.  It is gentle and familiar, as is the voice of the true shepherd; it has won the confidence of those who follow, as did the true shepherd; it is committed to the enhancement of the lives of others, as was Jesus.  Authentic leadership is willing to forgo its own needs and to deny its own interests in favor of the needs and interests of others.

Those who follow.  Heavy demands are placed on those who would follow the kind of leadership depicted in these readings.  Peter’s audience is told to admit their mistakes and repent of them, to turn aside from the corruption of the world in which they live.  Those who would follow the Good Shepherd must follow him in the dark valleys as well as the refreshing streams.  They must be willing to relinquish some of their own plans and self-determination and entrust themselves to his leadership.  They must never forget they are following a shepherd who has paid the ultimate price on their behalf.  This should be both comforting and challenging: comforting that we have a shepherd that loves us with such devotion; challenging because we might be called upon to follow him to death.  Even in the joy of Easter, we must remember that the price Jesus paid was his own blood.