by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. … I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd”. John 10: 11-18

John’s Gospel differs from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke not just in the depth of its theology, but in its extended metaphors and the poetic style of much of its language. When John writes that “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”, we can be quick to interpret that as a reference to the way in which Jesus, out of love for the world, sacrificed his life on the Cross of Calvary. I suggest that it is more accurate to read this verse in the sense that the good shepherd spends his energy and gives his full care and attention to looking after his sheep twenty-four hours a day, protecting them from predators and all manner of harm, ensuring that they can live in peace and safety. In similar fashion, good parents dedicate themselves to ensuring that their children are properly fed, clothed and educated, and protected from illness and danger. They spend their lives caring for their families, making sure that their future is secure, and all their needs are met.
Jesus was quick to point out that he has a responsibility to dedicate himself to caring for “sheep” of other breeds, beliefs and different ways of living their lives or of searching to know his Father, so that, eventually, they will hear his (Jesus’) voice and live together in unity and harmony.
It is no surprise, then, that this Fourth Sunday of Easter is also referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” with an invitation to all Christians to reflect on the meaning of ecumenism and the responsibility we all share to work and pray not only for Christian unity but for a united world community of tribes, peoples and nations.
Whenever we dare to venture into looking at the various Christian denominations of which we know something, we quickly realise that they have more similarities with us and with one another than they have differences from us and from one another. They have the same kind of fault-finding with their ministers and pastors as we have with our parish priests. They complain about their bishops and leaders in much the same way as we Catholics complain about our bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Mormon, Quaker and Uniting Church kids seem to dislike Sunday-School as much as Catholic kids dislike religious-education classes. There is tension and petty jealousy between high and low church Anglicans in much the same way as conservative and radical Catholics oppose one another. Yet Christians across all denominations share a reverence for the Gospels and other books of Sacred Scripture. At the same time, we all struggle with different aspects of our Sunday worship and find ourselves complaining about the length and quality of the homilies and sermons we have to endure.
Over time, we have slipped into stereotyping other denominations and religions, so much so that we use the stereotypes we have of others to justify our decisions to keep our distance.
Perhaps we might become more open to letting go of our prejudices and stereotypes if we were to reflect on today’s second reading from the First Letter of John in which we are reminded of our relationship to God: “My dear friends, we are now God’s children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is” (1 John 3: 2). Could it possibly be that we struggle to understand Jesus’ allusion to being shepherd of ‘one flock” because we have not yet come to see Jesus as he really is? We are not yet able to imagine a Jesus who is capable of dealing with our readiness to create divisions and of managing with diversity in any way other than in how we rally support for the opposing divisions we create. For that reason, we end up inheriting the divisions we manufacture. If we remain closed to seeing other Christians more like us than different from us, we won’t be able to imagine all of us as being members of one and the same flock.
In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus, no fewer than five times, refers to himself as the good shepherd who spends his life caring for his sheep. He makes it very clear that membership of his flock depends only on hearing and heeding his voice. He makes it abundantly clear that his purpose in becoming one with us through his incarnation was to bring us all together into one with God. Could there ever be anything better for us than that?