Sheep become Shepherds
Fourth Sunday of Easter. Fr Theodore Taylor meditates upon the image of the Good Shepherd.
‘I know my own, and my own know me’ (John 10:14): these own (whose reciprocal knowledge of him and intimacy he equates with that of his Father and himself) are his disciples. The culmination of his life opens in 13:1:
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
And so in token of the love for them their Shepherd washes their feet; he relates his last discourse; and the lifting up to crucifixion becomes his accepted destiny.
Unlike a hired hand, whose concern is for himself first, in danger deserting his flock, this caring, undaunted shepherd is in the process of laying down his life for the gathering of his own, ‘whom you gave me from the world’ (17:6). Not only the willing death but the manner of his life thereto seeks the formation of his own into union with himself and one another.
But knowledge and commitment by his ‘own’ could in pressure be obliterated. Judas Iscariot will betray him. Though Jesus will say that no greater love prevails over laying down one’s life for friends, his own will in general flee. In spite of Peter’s protesting that he will lay down his life for Jesus, Jesus predicts otherwise:
Will you lay down your life for me? . . . before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.
Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his own home, and you will leave me alone. But take courage: I have overcome the world.
And so when he is lifted up from the world to draw all men to him, only one, the Beloved Disciple, stands by him; with four women.
In spite of this seeming ignominy Jesus does overcome the evil pervading the world, including the terror besetting the disciples. The gospel proclaimed two Sundays ago records Jesus’s evening reunion with them. He makes no reprimand or call for repentance, twice greeting them with “Peace be with you”. He imparts the Holy Spirit by his breath, sending them forth with authority to forgive sins. The disciples are commissioned as agents of the one victorious over the sin of the world.
It is Peter who is notably reinstated. The last chapter of the gospel tests the response of love to the Jesus he had denied. 21:15-17 records Jesus’s probing, ‘Do you love me? . . . Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ But the threefold question demands a sustained testing, effective love. ‘Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep’.
In particular Peter, a lost sheep now found, has himself to become a good shepherd of the amplified flock of the apostles’ ministry — and this through the ages by those who succeed in his oversight.
When Jesus in the said, ‘I lay down my life for my sheep’, he continued, ‘And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock, one shepherd.’ Though Jesus’s role as supreme shepherd is not effaced, not only Peter but the other apostles, while always Jesus’s beloved sheep, become in his physical absence shepherds of the ‘other sheep’ whom they are asked to gather in, care and provide for.
Should we not enlarge on this? The Shepherd has the yet higher dignity of being the Lamb of God — indeed, his being the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, confirms him as Shepherd of us all. We members of his flock are all called on to wash one another’s feet, that is, to serve the ‘neighbours’ God provides.
So we his sheep, the people of God, his flock, his fold, subordinately exercise the role of shepherds. We too must live in humble service; and daily lay down our lives for one another, in union with the Lord who laid down his life in the passage towards glorious life for him and for us.