Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, Pompeii; Saint Otger of Utrecht, missionary deacon; Saint Wiro of Utrecht, missionary bishop
Acts 13:14, 43-52;
Rev 7:9, 14b-17;
We are his people, the sheep of his flock
The Good Shepherd-Lamb in mission
The fourth Sunday of Easter is also called “of the Good Shepherd”, and the readings and prayers of the liturgy are focused precisely on this beautiful image of Jesus. For this reason, since 1964 following a decision by Pope Saint Paul VI, this Sunday is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, for those who have received the call to follow Jesus, the High Priest and Good Shepherd. In this perspective, today many parishes and dioceses around the world organizes the collection for the universal solidarity fund of the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle (PSSPA) for the formation of priests and consecrated persons, through the support of seminaries and novitiates in the mission territories with their candidates and formators. Thus, every faithful participates actively, with prayer and concrete contribution, in the evangelization mission of the Church, concretely in caring for vocations and formation of new good priests - shepherds with the “odor of the sheep” in the footsteps of Christ the Good Shepherd (Pope Francis, Chrism Mass, Homily, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Thursday, 28 March 2013).
In such a context, today’s Mass readings help us to reaffirm and deepen at least three important aspects of the mission of Christ the Shepherd, a model, according to God’s will and example, of all the shepherds of God’s people.
1. The particular relationship between Jesus and his sheep
The Gospel passage today is very concise, but full of implications. It represents a kind of summary of Jesus’ earlier discourse in the Fourth Gospel around his self-declaration “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14). Responding now to the Jews who ask for a definitive manifestation of his messianic identity, Jesus simply reaffirms a fundamental characteristic of the relationship between him and his sheep: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). The words here echo what Jesus said earlier in his self-declaration of being a good shepherd, as in the acclamation before the Gospel: “I am the good shepherd, [says the Lord,] and I know mine and mine know me” (Jn 10:14).
Here, the verb “to know” in the Biblical-Jewish language denotes a knowledge that is not so much intellectual (to have information about something) as existential, as is the relationship between husband and wife. It is about intimate and integral mutual knowledge, a knowing that implies loving and belonging to one another. Precisely for this reason, when Jesus declared that he was a good shepherd, he explained further that “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11b, 15b). He does this, because he knows his sheep, that is, he loves them deeply, more than his own life.
Furthermore, the knowledge between Jesus and his sheep is paralleled with that between Jesus and God the Father. He affirms, in fact, “I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn 10:14b-15). The relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and his disciples is therefore placed in comparison with the mystical reality of intimate knowledge between the two divine Persons. So, on the one hand, here we can glimpse the depth of the knowledge-love Jesus has for his sheep, like that which Jesus has for the Father! Jesus actually states elsewhere, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love “(Jn 15: 9). On the other hand, when Jesus affirms that his sheep know him, we can ask ourselves whether our knowledge for Jesus is actually comparable to that between the Father and Jesus. The statement, therefore, can also be seen as an implicit invitation to Jesus’ “sheep” for a serious self-examination of whether and how much they know their Shepherd and recognize his voice in the midst of the noises all around. Since one never runs out of all the riches of the mystery of Christ, the commitment to grow more and more in the knowledge of the Shepherd, who knows and loves them to the point of giving his life for them, remains always relevant for the sheep of all times. (Significant in this regard is Jesus’ reproach to Philip, one of his close disciples: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?” (Jn 14: 9). These words are also valid for every disciple who follows him).
With regard to the relationship between Jesus and his sheep, we should finally recall the mysterious affirmation of Jesus himself alluding to his universal mission: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:16). Thus, Jesus the good shepherd always goes beyond any usual “fence” to gather and guide the other scattered sheep who await his voice. He always goes on a mission, following God’s plan revealed through the prophet Isaiah on the vocation of the Servant of God: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6). These are the words that the apostles of Jesus like Paul and Barnabas recalled to begin proclaiming the Gospel to the pagans (cf. Acts 13:47), as we heard in the first reading. They were missionaries who continued the mission of Jesus the good shepherd!
2. I Give Them Eternal Life
Reaffirming the particular relationship with his sheep, Jesus states further his special care which comes from such knowledge and love: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28). The eternal life mentioned here does not designate a future reality only after death. It indicates life in communion with Jesus and with God, which begins already in the present and will continue into eternity. So much so that Jesus underlines, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (Jn 6:47). Similarly, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). Moreover, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54).
From these quotations, especially the last one, we see another fundamental aspect of the eternal life Jesus gives to his sheep. That “eternal life” is exactly Jesus’ own life He offers, as made explicit in the declaration of the good shepherd mentioned above (“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” [Jn 10:11b, 15b]). Therefore, Jesus also made himself a sacrificial lamb to give his life to his sheep and lead them “to springs of life-giving water” (Rev 7:17), as the second reading reminds us.
Jesus is the shepherd who not only knows the odor of the sheep, but has also made himself one of them, to share everything of life with them, everything including death! This is what is stated for the figure of Christ the high priest: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
This strong bond between Jesus the good shepherd and his sheep will be the reason why “no one can take them out” (Jn 10:28) of his hand and of Father’s hand. Just as Saint Paul the Apostle expresses the same concept with moving inspired words starting from a rhetorical question: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35, 37-39).
3. The Father and I Are One
After reiterating the two fundamental aspects of the special bond between Jesus the Shepherd and his sheep, Jesus finally reveals his particular union with God the Father: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30).
The quoted statement seems to have little relevance to the good shepherd theme discussed so far. However, it actually turns out to be the apex of Jesus’ self-revelation regarding his identity in general, and his “mission” as a shepherd in particular.
He is the good shepherd, just as God is the good shepherd of his people (cf., for example, Ez 34; Ps 23). Their unity and communion of operation, intention, love is emphasized. And this unity and communion Jesus now desires also for all his disciples-sheep, especially for those called, like Peter and others, to the mission of shepherding his sheep. Indeed, he implored the Father, “so that [his disciples] may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:22).
Let us therefore listen again, in conclusion, to this moving voice of Christ, who prays to the Father for us, his sheep, so that we may feel and know more and more his heart, the heart of the good shepherd, all zealous for the mission of the Father: “[Father!] I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me , and that you loved them even as you loved me”(Jn 17:20-23).