Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday
The fourth Sunday of Easter is always known as Good Shepherd Sunday because in each year of the three-year cycle of readings the gospel reading is taken from chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, where Jesus proclaims himself the Good Shepherd. It is also Vocation Sunday, when we consider our call to a vocation by the Lord. In addition it seems to me that it is the final Sunday when we consider explicitly the consequences of the Resurrection. After this, we begin to turn our attention to the departure of Jesus at the Ascension and his return in the Spirit at Pentecost.
I begin with the last element. There are seven occasions when Jesus in the Gospel of John declares ‘I am…’, and each of these builds up our affection for and loyalty to Jesus. They are all positive, encouraging and life-giving. The first is in the discourse of the Bread of Life in the synagogue at Capernaum. ‘I am the Bread (or the Food) of Life’, says Jesus. In this present situation, when so many faithful communicants are deprived of the sacrament of the Eucharist, we must see this with especial longing and appreciation. The Food of Life has become our normal sustenance on our way to Christ, and we must long for it all the more as we are deprived of it.
Then, when he brings sight to the Man Born Blind, Jesus declares himself the Light of the World, bringing us the light of understanding, enabling us to see in their true colours all the realities of the world, bright and dark, to understand the love of God in every situation, even in the restrictions and especially the opportunities of the lockdown.
Then the third and fourth claims or promises of Jesus come in today’s Good Shepherd gospel. First Jesus says he is the Door of the Sheepfold through which everyone enters, and also the Good Shepherd. He is the unique way into the Sheepfold of the Kingdom, an open door, welcoming in the sheep, who jostle through, knowing that they are going home. He is the open door also leading out his flock of sheep, hopeful and confident in his guidance, leading them (or us) into freedom, growth and pasture. In the field in front of the monastery the lambs have appeared, all white and straight-legged and idiotic, rushing around without much control or good sense. One needs only to drive up onto a moor-road and meet a flock of sheep to know why Jesus chose this metaphor. Sheep are so unpredictable and unreliable. Inevitably one of the sheep will stray aimlessly in front of the car. They need to be guided and fostered by the Good Shepherd who is Jesus. On the steep and craggy hills of the Judean desert the shepherd needs to keep a continual eye open for the sheep about to stray over a cliff. My first teacher of the Bible used to say that one cannot understand the Bible till one has smelt camel-dung. I think I would add that one cannot understand the Bible till one has seen the skeleton of a sheep at the bottom of a Judaean cliff. We, the sheep of Jesus’ flock, can be just as helpless and misguided as these; we need a shepherd.
Further on, Jesus declares that he is the Resurrection and Life, not ‘the life’ but life itself in all its richness, variety and joy. It is in Jesus that we seek life, full life without any negative, eternal life starting now but extending beyond death. Then Jesus goes on to tell us that he is the Way, that he is Truth and Life, completing the idea of Life with the certainty of Truth and guidance into the Way. Finally Jesus tells us that he is the true Vine and we are the branches. We draw our life from him and must remain in vital contact with him to continue to grow and flourish. These seven images sum up our contact with and our dependence on Jesus, the Risen Christ.
Good Shepherd Sunday is also Vocations Sunday. The Church has in mind primarily the vocation to the dedication of the Religious Life and the Priesthood, of which the church stands in such desperate need. The Church needs the witness of dedicated life and the renewal of the priesthood after the scandals which have beset the church. In particular Pope Francis has designated his special intention for the month of May as prayer for Deacons in their ministry.
But vocation is wider than this, and one benefit of the corona-crisis has been to show up and bring into the open the generosity of many vocations. Think of the generosity of doctors and nursing staff, and how many have died in these vocations rather than desert their flocks. Think of bus-drivers and how many have died of infections caught while serving in their dedicated jobs. Think of the pictures in the newspapers of royal children doing their bit. Think of all those who have turned out to help the elderly, the helpless and the deprived by doing their shopping or reassuring the lonely. It has been said that the world post-corona can never be the same again. Let us pray that the generosity and awareness of vocation evoked by the crisis may become a permanent feature of life, in imitation of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve.