Good Shepherd Sunday: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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On Good Shepherd Sunday, we both acknowledge that we are sheep who go astray and also glory in the good news that Jesus is our shepherd.

Typical features of the day include a collect on the theme of the Good Shepherd and the reading or singing of Psalm 23 or Psalm 100. The gospel reading appointed in the lectionary of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer always comes from John 10. Another especially appropriate reading is John 21, as it combines the themes of the Good Shepherd and the resurrection appearances in the Easter season.

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However the day is celebrated, it provides an occasion to consider more deeply the predicament of human nature, together with the providential grace of our God.

The Collect

O God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Written (appropriately) by Massey Hamilton Shepherd Jr., this collect develops the themes of John 10, of Jesus as the shepherd who calls his sheep by name. The collect requests that we both know Jesus and follow Jesus—to grow as his disciples. The request, therefore, connects also to John 21, where Jesus calls Peter to love and follow him.

All We Like Sheep

Paradoxically, the best way to begin Good Shepherd Sunday is to look not at the shepherd but rather at the sheep. Of course, this is not a flattering look. Philip Keller, a practicing shepherd who became a pastor, explains in his modern classic, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23:

It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways..Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance. (A Shepherd Looks, 7)

Biblically, the comparison of humans to sheep runs throughout the scriptures, prominent even in the prophetic literature of Isaiah:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6)

Thomas Cranmer drew upon this language when he wrote the confession for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which begins: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…

The Lord is My Shepherd

As sheep, we desperately need a shepherd. Psalm 23 answers this need with its emphatic declaration:

The Lord is My Shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalm 23:1)

Psalm 23 is often read on Good Shepherd Sunday. It provides comfort that is especially needed once we realize how much we are like sheep. The psalm was written by David, the shepherd-boy turned warrior, poet, and king.

Who could be better than David to write such a text, reflecting as he does on God’s provision of “green pastures,” “still waters,” and “a table,” even “in the presence of my enemies”?

There is one detail of the psalm that requires explanation, however. How can we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” without fear? Shouldn’t we be afraid of the wolves and robbers, who take advantage of our straying to corner us and kill us?

The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

We sheep can live without fear because our Shepherd is Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He dies to give us new and abundant life. Consider these words of Jesus, some of the most powerful in all the scriptures:

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:9-11)

Notice that Jesus calls himself both the door and the good shepherd. Jesus as the door is a rich theme of its own, but the combination of door and shepherd here should make us think especially of Passover when the Israelites put the blood of the lamb over their doors to save their sons from death. Likewise, we are saved by the blood of Jesus, both shepherd and lamb, who lays down his life for his sheep. Consider this moving description by Basil of Seleucia:

For the sake of his flock the shepherd was sacrificed as though he were a sheep…Death held sway until Christ died. The grave was bitter, our prison was indestructible, until the Shepherd went down and brought to his sheep confined there the good news of their release. (Homily 26.2)

Feed My Sheep

Another powerful story for Good Shepherd Sunday is the restoration of Peter in John 21. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and three times he tells Peter to tend or feed his sheep:

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)

Jesus’ triple question reverses Peter’s triple denial, emphasizing both Peter’s sheepish error and Jesus’ shepherding patience. We, like Peter, should be grieved by our sin, yet, like Peter, we should know that Jesus forgives, restores, and calls us again.

It was Peter himself who, later in his ministry, used the comparison again:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24-25)

Art and Music for Good Shepherd Sunday

The image of the Good Shepherd is among the oldest surviving depictions of Jesus in Christian Art. It dates at least to 235 A.D. and was discovered in the baptistery of the house church at Dura-Europos.

It also appears in the Roman Catacombs from the period of imperial persecution, perhaps because the image could plausibly pass as a pagan depiction of kriophorus carrying a ram. Like the anchor and the fish, it functioned as a symbolic code of Jesus, pointing especially to his sacrifice and the hope of resurrection.

In music, many hymns reflect upon the theme of the good shepherd, often combining themes from Psalm 23 and John 10. Examples include Isaac Watts’ My Shepherd Will Supply My Need  and Baker’s The King of Love My Shepherd Is.

My favorite musical adaptation of the shepherd theme from scripture is “All We Like Sheep” from Handel’s Messiah. The chorus repeatedly sings about the sheep going astray in many varied, wandering musical lines. But the piece comes to a dramatic and haunting conclusion as it completes the verse from Isaiah:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)


Stained glass at St John the Baptist Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales, Australia, by Alfred Handel; photo by Toby Hudson. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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