After the revisions of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, this fourth Sunday of Easter was called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading in which Jesus draws out a parable about sheep and their shepherds. It is also known as Vocation Sunday, and had even other titles before things got organized, so to speak.
The gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel, which is not the kind of theme we have been hearing up to today in the Sundays after Easter. The focus has shifted.
Only the gospel mentions sheep and shepherds, but the underlying message is really about recognition – seeing something or someone for what they truly are. The word Jesus uses is “know”: ‘I know my sheep and they know me.’ And because they know him, they follow him. We follow him.
For those of us who don’t know a lot about shepherding, there is a point here that may escape attention. The sheep follow the good shepherd. Otherwise, they must be driven from behind, often with a canny border collie nipping at their heels. Few shepherds simply walk in front of the sheep who confidently follow, more like ducklings after a mother duck. It gets down to trust, a trust based on confidence and in the case of ducks and chicks, imprinting. They are impressed with life-saving recognition shortly after birth – or hatching in their case. There is matter here for a interesting comparison with baptism, but not today.
Jesus describes our relationship to him, the true or “good” shepherd, in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his voice. Since domesticated sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, voice recognition is much more important for their safety and survival than it is, say, for a computer. In fact, it isn’t important all for the computer to recognize my voice. It’s important to me. But sheep can get into a lot more trouble than computers do if they fail the test of voice recognition. And so can we.
The theme of recognition also appears in both the first and second readings as well as the responsory psalm. In Peter’s sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows on last week’s reading, he declares, “if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, that is, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”
The word “known” here means the same as “recognized,” and the passage could have just as well been translated, “recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” The choice is between recognizing Jesus as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or failing to. The little parable of how the rejected stone became the cornerstone is an image of the importance of being alert to God’s presence in Jesus and also in each other.
For Peter and in John’s first epistle, that lesson is applied to both Jesus, the true Shepherd, and also to his true followers. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” [1 Jn 3:1-2].
For us today the question is, do we really recognize each other as God’s daughters and sons, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, and in fact, members of Jesus’ own body? Because if we do, we will act accordingly. We will love one another with the same love with which God loved us. But if we despise and reject each other for whatever reason, we are also despising and rejecting both God and God’s love for us in Christ. Whatever our ethnic origin, our nationality, our gender, our social position, our political party – whatever tends to distinguish us from one another is ultimately of no consequence. We are to be one flock with one shepherd. As followers of the Good Shepherd, we are known by how we love one another.
In a word, true followers of Jesus are recognized by their recognition. It is all one: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.