Merciful, Steve Parson)
"The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name and leads them out…They will not follow a stranger, but will run away, for they do not know the voice of strangers…They follow the shepherd, for they know the shepherd’s voice.” These words from today’s Gospel recall famous stories of this Easter season, in which the question is whether Jesus’ followers will recognize him in his risen body—whether they will hear and understand his voice.
Remember Mary of Magdala, the first apostle to behold the risen Christ? She sees Jesus through her tears, but perceives only a gardener. “Are you the one who took him away? Please tell me where to find him!” Remember Cleopas and Mary, the two disciples running away from Jerusalem to Emmaus? They think Jesus is just the most dim-witted pilgrim in the history of Passover. “Are you the only person in town who doesn’t know what’s been going on?” All three disciples eventually recognize their friend and shepherd by hearing his voice. Mary Magdalene throws her arms around Jesus when he lovingly calls her name: “Mary.” “My rabbi!” And the Emmaus disciples’ hearts burn as Jesus names their reality by breaking open the Word and the Bread.
Today’s familiar reading about the Good Shepherd invites us to reflect on the same challenges as Jesus’ first followers, so long ago. How do we recognize the risen Christ working in our world through the Holy Spirit? How do we rise from our defeated hopes and hear him call our names? How do we follow the example of the first Christians, recorded in Acts--shepherding one another and the poor, and witnessing to truth and justice even at the risk of sharing Jesus’ suffering? What makes our hearts burn with the love of God, our gentle Shepherd?
To dig into these questions, I would like to explore another less famous, but equally powerful Easter story. Each year the lectionary reacquaints us with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and doubting Thomas in the upper room. But this passage from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel appears only once every three years. It’s the Gospel for the third Sunday of Easter in year C, which was last year. Scripture scholars consider it an epilogue to John, because it follows what sounds like a conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of his disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that through this faith you may have life in his name….Later on, Jesus showed himself to his disciples once again…”
It seems as if the final redactor put down his or her pen, and then snatched it right back up! It was impossible to resist adding one more dramatic story of a powerful sign performed by the risen Jesus. And this may have been, at least in part, precisely because of the Good Shepherd discourse earlier in the Gospel, in the tenth chapter of John. The two stories are linked by their themes of Jesus’ love and what it means to follow him. They are also linked by the fact that these two are the only Johannine passages to use the metaphor of sheep to describe Jesus’ disciples. Some other gospels, especially Matthew, use this literary device frequently; but any other sheep mentioned in John are sure to be running around and saying baa.
This final resurrection appearance at first follows the patterns of the earlier Easter stories. It has both a delayed recognition of Jesus by the disciples, and a shared meal in which they celebrate it. Peter, James, and John, with some others, retreat to their familiar fishing boat, and fail to catch a single fish after working all night. They see Jesus on the beach, but think he is just a stranger calling out to them for idle conversation. “Caught anything, guys?” “Nah, terrible luck.” “Try putting your nets on the other side of the boat.” “What the heck, let’s give it a try.” They make a miraculous catch of one hundred fifty three fish, and then they recognize Jesus. “It’s the Lord!”
They begin to row in, dragging their bounty; Peter, impulsive as ever, abandons the others to their task. He throws on his tunic and dives into the water, swimming as fast as he can to the shore. When the rest of the group catches up, Jesus reaches out to care for these tired, hungry men. He has built a roaring fire to warm them up and barbecue some of the fish, and brought fresh loaves of bread to go with it.
Unlike the other stories, this one goes on to an intense conversation. Jesus does not vanish from their sight after breakfast, but invites Peter to take a walk down the beach. Jesus calls Peter to share in his mission of being a good shepherd to God’s flock, and gives him tips on how to do it.
Jesus begins by making a probing threefold inquiry about Peter’s commitment to him. This gives Peter an opportunity to make amends for his earlier threefold denial of Jesus when the chips were down. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.” Jesus seems to be testing Peter a bit here. Will he repeat his confident boasting at the Last Supper that he is the bravest one in the group, and will follow Jesus to the death? No--Peter shows he has learned from experience. He says only that he loves Jesus, not claiming to love him more than everyone else does. Jesus repeats a simpler question, calling his friend by name and speaking to his heart, twice more. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my sheep.”
Finally, Jesus reveals that Peter will ultimately have a chance follow through on his earlier promise. After years of preaching the Gospel, he will find himself facing a martyr’s death. We know from history that when this second chance came, Peter stayed the course; like Jesus, he did lay down his life for God’s sheep. But on first hearing this news, he reels in shock, turning away from Jesus as he tries to take it in. Can he really face this? Will they all end dying for their faith? Maybe it would be easier to know that he won’t be alone at the end. His eyes light on the Beloved Disciple, of whom he’s always been a little jealous, and he blurts out, “What about him, Lord?” And Jesus gently tells him, “Don’t worry about anyone else, my friend. Just follow me.”
Jesus’ word and example caring for the disciples, and talking with Peter, flesh out today’s Good Shepherd Gospel with some concrete practices to strive for in our life together. Good shepherds are always alert to recognize the voice of God, speaking through each human person and the whole created world. Good shepherds care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of brothers and sisters. Good shepherds are prepared to work hard and pay a real price to do what is right. Good shepherds learn compassion through their own struggles, and challenge others, when necessary, with patience and love. And good shepherds focus on faithfully following their own path to God—not trying to make everyone else follow the same one.
Can you imagine what our city would look like if we all did this in our homes and workplaces? Can you imagine what the Catholic church, and interfaith relations, would look like if the next Pope did the same? Can you imagine what the world would look like if our government, and those of other countries, began to think like this? According to the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, 42 cents of each dollar on the taxes we just paid went for past, present, and future wars, and less than 1 cent for humanitarian aid and international cooperation. With this kind of “good shepherd thinking,” perhaps these priorities would be reversed. We would come closer to God’s dream, which the great fifty days of Easter calls us to share, of a transformed, just, and peaceful world.
Image: Alix Beaujour)