Today in the Spirit: Easter 4A (Good Shepherd)

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Easter 4 every year is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Collect and most of the readings through the entire three-year cycle on this day make explicit reference to God as the shepherd of his people. The Collect addressed to the Father God names Jesus Christ as “the Good Shepherd” and the followers of Jesus as the Father’s own people. Over the course of the three-year cycle on this Sunday the church assigns Gospel readings in John 10 where Jesus himself teaches on the intimacy of relationship between Jesus as shepherd (I am the good shepherd) and the faithful who are his flock. This is over against the uneasy interaction between the faithful and those called a thief or a hired hand. In the first part John 10:1-10 assigned in Easter 4A, the emphasis is on the shepherd who enters by the gate and is himself the gate the sheep will use to find pasture. In the OT reading Nehemiah 9:(1-3)6-15 the Israelites who have returned from exile and completed the reconstruction of walls around Jerusalem have gathered to confess their sins to YHWH who has led them (like a shepherd) out of Egypt to the promised land. An alternative first reading in Acts 6:1-9,7:2a,51-60 offers the account of Stephen’s confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah and his execution. Psalm 23 assigned on Good Shepherd Sunday begins with the acclamation of “David” the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Even in the sequential reading of 1 Peter through Year A of the Easter season, the Epistle reading appointed this Sunday in 1 Peter 2:13-25 picks up on the theme of God as shepherd with Peter calling Jesus Christ the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

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.

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You Alone (Nehemiah 9:(1-3)6-15)

“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (6-8).

This prayer, maybe from a Levite or Ezra the priest, is noteworthy in Scripture for the repetition of you (YHWH), youyouyou. Everything positive that happens in the history of Israel is due to you, LORD. Everything negative is down to them (the forefathers, vv. 16ff). Such an assumption of the passing of history leads this congregation of Israelites gathered in Jerusalem, still in ruins after the exile, to conclude that they themselves are also sinners in great distress needing YHWH’s deliverance (36-37). This group has learned what James the Just teaches in his NT letter: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). All the initiative of love, every impulse of good in the world, is from the Father God. Abram (Abraham) is commended in this prayer as one whose heart is found faithful, believing in the goodness of God alone. Today, Holy Spirit, place me in the company of Abram, and in the company of this congregation of Isralites praying to You as the One from whom all good is revealed.

Standing at the Right Hand of God (Acts 6:1-9,7:2a,51-60)

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him (54-58).

Standing? Most often we read that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father (see Matthew 19:28, Mark 14:62, Revelation 4:9-10). We can only speculate, but could this be Stephen’s vision of Jesus, upright in prayer, interceding before the Father for him who prays, as he himself once did, do not hold this sin against them? It is a vivid picture of our Lord whose ministry now is one of actively advocating for his followers in the heavenly places: Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25). He reigns, yes, and always with an eye on you. Today, when called upon, stand and make your testimony boldly in the power of the Spirit, as one who knows you are not standing alone.

I Shall Not Want (Psalm 23)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
  forever.

For Good Shepherd Sunday the church naturally assigns this psalm. “David” relates his experience of being on pilgrimage in the first part of the song (1-4), and his vision of arriving at the destination in the second (5-6). Notice how in both parts David goes beyond simply describing God’s activity to predicting (prophesying?) how he (David) will respond: I shall not want (1); I will fear no evil (4); and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (6). It’s good to imagine, humbly, the faithfulness of God and our faithfulness in return. Jesus does so himself in the Gospel reading: I am the good shepherd…I lay down my life for the sheep (Jn. 10:14f). So much of our worship music, old and new, paints pictures of the greatness of God and our right response. Today, in the Spirit who inspires the imagination of David in this psalm, envision for yourself Christ as your shepherd through the challenges of the day and your faith-filled following along.  

Have Now Returned (1 Peter 2:13-25)

[Christ] 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 (24-25).

Peter’s language but [you] have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls is worthy of careful reflection. Grammatically the Greek returned (literally turned back) could be understood reflexively returned (yourselves) or passively been returned (like been brought back GNT). Devotionally, if you meditate on been returned the focus is more naturally on the action of the One who has led you home. It is, of course, good beyond measure to contemplate God’s mercy in saving us and restoring us to Christ. But meditating on the form returned the focus is less on the One who has brought you home and more just on the state of being at home. I believe (and so do most translators into English) that Peter here would have us look carefully here at the new state God has brought us to as a way of adding gratitude to him. Instead of straying (wandering, losing our way), we are returned (restored, settled) under the supervision of Jesus Shepherd and Overseer. The word returned also implies coming back, circular motion as opposed to linear. You are returned to the place you were meant to be when God created you. In your whole earthly life, you yourself may have never known what it is to be in this new state until now, but now, having returned, you know it is the right place for you to be. Today, Holy Spirit, let me hear the voice of the Son of God, that I may open my eyes to see, the new (and old) life I have now, that my thanksgiving to God might be doubled.

I Am the Gate for the Sheep (John 10:1-10)

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 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 (7-10).

Or I am the gate for the sheep (NIV). The Greek allows a full understanding of the door  belonging to the sheep and existing for the benefit of the sheep. Jesus acts on behalf of the faithful given to him by the Father and does so generously, that they may have life and have it abundantly. Like many I Am statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel, this one is to make plain an idea not clearly understood by his listeners before.  When Jesus declares, I am the door, he is really bringing out an important aspect of his being the good shepherd (in the preceding and following sections).  Before stating the good shepherd goes so far as to lay down his life for the sheep, our Lord wants to say the shepherd allows safe access into shelter and out to pasture. The provision for the sheep is not stingy but full, in their very best interest. Today, by the Spirit giving you understanding, see how much Jesus, your Good Shepherd, is for you.

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

April 24, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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