The Good Shepherd is glorified in power and brings new life to the sheep entrusted to him by God.
The fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s day (Pastor is Latin for Shepherd). Each year Psalm 23 and a portion of John 10 are read on this Sunday. The Pastor is the one who leads, feeds, and protects the sheep from harm. In the New Testament readings it is the Risen Lord who performs this shepherding function for the believers, though in the first reading it is through Peter that the work of the shepherd occurs.
In the Acts story, resurrection spreads among the people. In the larger passage, Acts 9:32-43, two miracles by Peter are presented, the healing of a paralyzed man named Aeneas and the resurrection of a woman named Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas (Greek). These two episodes have Peter working in the coastal plain of Judea, the country ruled by the Philistines in ancient times. His works are done in the cities of Lydda (modern Lod, Israel’s International airport) and Joppa (modern Yafo, the closest seaport to Jerusalem). The “saints,” who are Christian believers, are already living there, Jews who accept Jesus as the heavenly Anointed One, and who now begin to receive benefits of the promised salvation.
Peter is staying at Lydda when he is called to Joppa (10 miles away) to share the grief at the death of a prominent woman disciple of the church in Joppa. (This is the only New Testament use of the feminine form of the noun “disciple.”) Peter’s action is presented as a repetition of great acts of resurrection in the past. It repeats what Elijah did for the Sidonian widow who helped him during the famine (I Kings 17:17-24); it repeats what Elisha did for the woman of Shunem to revive the son miraculously born to her (II Kings 4:18-37); it repeats Jesus’ action in raising the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56, parallel to Mark 5:35-43); and it repeats Jesus’ raising of the son of the widow of Nain near Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 7:11-17).
Peter’s raising of Dorcas showed the continuing of the great prophetic and Messianic power that had appeared occasionally in the past for God’s people. These resurrection stories are all set outside Judea proper, outside Jerusalem and its region. They happen on the fringes of the Jewish lands, and in the next movement of the Spirit in Acts, these great outpourings will fall to the benefit of non-Jewish people – which is the reading for next Sunday.
The Psalm reading is the quiet but powerful affirmation of personal trust in the Lord, presenting God in the image of the Shepherd. Here the familiar words receive some newer turns in the rendering of the New Jerusalem Bible:
Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.
By tranquil streams he leads me
to restore my spirit.
He guides me in paths of saving justice
as befits his name.
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger, for you are at my side.
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.
(Shifting the imagery now to that of a great ruler who hosts his faithful subordinates at a feast at the royal palace, where they will always find access and security …)
You prepare a table for me
under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup brims over.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me
every day of my life.
I make my home in the house of Yahweh
for all time to come.
The Epistle reading continues the heavenly liturgy from the book of Revelation. The seventh chapter of this book presents two hosts of peoples before the heavenly throne while the impending doom for the old world is suspended for this heavenly presentation. (The suspension of the doom is commanded in verses 1-3.)
The first group of people are the faithful souls of the past from the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve thousand from each tribe are marked with God’s “seal” on their forehead, making one hundred forty-four thousand in this host before God (verses 3-8). The faithful of Israel are gathered to their Lord in the heavens.
Our reading begins by presenting the second group of peoples. They are an unnumbered multitude from all the nations and peoples of the world. They wear white robes and have the palm branches of praise and the festival-shout in their hands. When they are seen, gathered in masses around the vast heavenly auditorium, a three-fold sequence of song and praise unfolds. First, this multitude itself sings out, “Salvation belongs to our God…” (verse 10). Then, the great choir of angels responds with a seven-fold acclamation of God, enclosed between two Amens (verses 11-12).
The third phase of the song and praise is a solo, by one of the twenty-four elders who are close to the divine throne. Before the singing there is a recitative dialogue in which the elder asks the seer (John, the writer of the book) who are these folks massed in the white robes. The seer politely replies that the elder will know and say. He then explains that these unnumbered masses are the people who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, which means that they have held fast in their confession of Jesus as the Christ to the point of death.
Then the elder sings his solo celebrating the glory and reward of these faithful witnesses. It is at the climax of this solo that we hear of the work of the heavenly Shepherd, who (by a curious twist of imagery) is the Lamb. “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, / and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, / and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (verse 17).
The caring and comforting Shepherd is the climax of the pilgrimage of the humble ones who followed Jesus, even to the death.
The Gospel reading presents Jesus speaking to Jewish people who demand to know whether he is the Anointed One or not. His reply is the conclusion of this chapter, which has already presented Jesus as the Gate for the sheep (10:7) and as the Good Shepherd (10:11).
Here the focus is on the sheep. There is a special link between the shepherd and the sheep: he knows them, each and every one (see Luke 15:3-7), and they know and respond to his voice. Their response is to “believe” in the “works” that Jesus does in the name of the Father, and to follow him. The first emphasis in this passage is that these “sheep” are in contrast to the Jewish questioners, who do not believe either Jesus’ works or words. This passage, like so much else in the Gospel According to John, reflects serious differences and disputes between Jewish disciples of Jesus and their Jewish opponents in later years.
The last part of the selected reading emphasizes the final blessing of the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (verse 28); this is the ultimate blessing in John’s Gospel. The keeping and protection of these humble ones, the sheep, is God’s own special concern, given to the heavenly Jesus as an assignment. “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand” (verse 29, NRSV).
And the concluding affirmation separates Jesus most decisively from his Jewish dissenters: “The Father and I are one” (verse 30). The Lamb and the one who sits on the heavenly throne (in the language of Revelation) are united in the saving work of the Shepherd.