Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Good Shepherd Sundays

Although not an official observance in the Episcopal Church, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is effectively Good Shepherd Sunday. The collect reminds us that God's Son Jesus is "the good shepherd of [God's] people." The psalm is always Psalm 23, in which the psalmist declares, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Every year in the three-year lectionary cycle, the gospel reading comes from John 10, in which Jesus identifies himself as the "good shepherd," but what makes this liturgical observance strange is that, because we move through John 10 progressively each year, you have to have a pretty good memory to hold on what is being said about Jesus the good shepherd.

In Year A (2016-17), we read John 10:1-10, in which Jesus distinguishes himself from those bandits who would enter the sheepfold without using the gate. The gatekeeper, on the other hand, opens the gate and calls the sheep by name, leading out those who follow the voice they know. In Year B (2017-18), we read John 10:11-18, in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Because of its use in the burial office, this is the part of John 10 we know best. This time, Jesus distinguishes himself from the "hired hand" who runs away when the wolf comes and scatters the sheep. This year, we get to John 10:22-30, in which Jesus responds to those who question his identity by explaining that only those who belong to his sheep believe who he really is.

The challenge is that, when Jesus explains himself to the religious authorities who are questioning him by saying, "I have told you, and you do not believe," we need to remember what he has told us--that he is the gatekeeper who knows the sheep by name, that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. All of that good shepherd description happens right before Sunday's gospel lesson, but we need two year's worth of memory to remember it.

Maybe it's worth reading all of John 10 before we get to church on Sunday. It certainly seems like a good idea to read it before we preach in church on Sunday. Otherwise, this year's gospel lesson can too easily be construed as Jesus declaring that "the Jews" (John's word for Jesus' opponents) are condemned because they don't belong to his flock. That can't be what Jesus means. Read John 10:16, in which Jesus declares that there are "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" who are part of Jesus' flock. It may be that the religious authorities cannot recognize Jesus' voice because they don't belong to him, but Jesus' primary understand of flock is the People of Israel. It's we Gentiles who are those that belong to the other fold.

Instead, a fuller incorporation of John 10 helps us hear Jesus say that those who do not believe are those who do not live as belonging ones. Belonging precedes believing. The works make Jesus' identity plain, but, until one belongs to the flock of the good shepherd, those signs cannot be understood. This passage, therefore, isn't about a combative Jesus dividing elect from unelect along ethic lines. It's about realizing the consequences of following the good shepherd. Just as the good shepherd knows the sheep, so, too, do the sheep recognize the good shepherd.

Don't lose touch with the goodness of Good Shepherd Sunday (whatever that is). We hear good news this week. We hear it every week. But it helps to step back and read all that Jesus says about the good shepherd before we read the concluding part.

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