The Good Shepherd: sermon on the second Sunday after Easter

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own, and mine know me.”

Many of the gospels start with the words, “Jesus said to his disciples…” or “to the crowds…” This one is unusual: it begins, “At that time, Jesus said to the Pharisees…” If you read it in its context in the Gospel of St John, you will see that it comes immediately after our Lord has given sight to the man who was born blind. During that episode, the Pharisees had certainly not shown themselves to be shepherds of the people. A shepherd should do two things above all: he should nourish, and he should protect. Far from nourishing the man born blind with sound teaching, they had tried to break down his fidelity to Christ. Far from protecting him, the Pharisees had excommunicated him from the synagogue, driving him away, as far as lay in their power, from the chosen people and their worship.

It was at this terrible moment, when things seem hopeless, when the official pastors in Israel have turned against those whom God has put in their charge, that our Lord reveals Himself as the Good Shepherd. In effect, He is using a divine title. The prophets had spoken of the Lord as “the shepherd of Israel” (Ps 78:1), and they had foretold that He would come in person one day to look after His flock. By referring to Himself as not simply one shepherd among others, but as “the Good Shepherd” — or, as we could also translate the Greek phrase, as “the beautiful shepherd” — Christ is revealing that these prophecies are now fulfilled. 

How then does He exercise these two tasks which I have said belong to the shepherd, namely, to feed and to protect? All of His teaching is food for us: there is no word of Christ in the gospel which cannot nourish our soul if we reflect on it and ask the Holy Spirit to help us to understand. Even more than this, He nourishes us by the mystery of His body and blood. Pope St Gregory the Great, in a sermon which he preached on our gospel in the year 591, tells us that this is part of the meaning of the words, “I lay down my life for my sheep.” Our Lord laid down His life for His sheep once, on the Cross, by dying; but He lays it down for us every day on the altars of His Church, by making His life become our nourishment. That is why the psalmist prophesised, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.”

But how does Christ exercise the second office of a shepherd, which is to protect the flock against wolves? If we look at the history of the Church we might be inclined to say, “A good number of wolves have been allowed to attack His flock!” Not only have there been all the persecutions coming from outside, from the pagan Romans of the first century to the Chinese communists of the twenty-first century, there have been, even worse, all the heresies that have arisen inside, from Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles who wanted to buy and sell the sacraments, to all those today who want to change the meaning of dogmas or abolish the ten commandments. The history of the Church often seems like little more than the successive depredations of an undying pack of wolves.

Yes: but the Good Shepherd did not promise that there would be no such attacks, but that He would always be there to fight them off. No martyr could resist in time of persecution, none of the faithful could reject some plausible heresy, unless Christ were within them, strengthening them. That is why St Peter today calls our Lord, “the Bishop of your souls”. As a bishop is in his cathedral, so, if we are in a state of grace, Jesus Christ dwells in our souls.

Then again, divine providence sets limits to how far and how long a persecution or a heresy is allowed to progress. Just as we read in the Book of Job that when God made the world, He set limits to the sea and decreed how far over the land it would be allowed to come, so also from eternity, for every persecution or heresy, He has already determined just how far it will be allowed to sweep over the Church before He turns it back. 

But there is also another way in which our Saviour acts as the Good Shepherd, and this is by means of the other shepherds that He appoints to govern the Church. Just as He is the high priest in Heaven, but He acts through priests who offer sacrifice on earth, so also He alone is the Good Shepherd, but He acts through the lawful pastors here below. It must be so, since His Church is not a simple multitude of sheep scattered across the earth, but a single flock, or, as the Latin bible says, one sheepfold. The Protestants in the sixteenth century attempted to do away with the flock and the pastors appointed by Christ; they thought it would be enough to give each sheep, so to speak, a bible to read. Naturally, it led to chaos. No, a divine religion requires pastors with divine authority: and these are the bishops, who succeed to the apostles, provided they remain united among themselves and with the successor of St Peter.

Only, though their authority is divine, these pastors are not themselves “the Good Shepherd”. It has sometimes happened in the long history of the Church that a pastor has not nourished or defended the flock as he should. St Paul tells the clergy of Ephesus that he knows that after he is gone, wolves will arise from among themselves. What are the faithful to do in such a case? Our Lord gives us the answer when He says, “I know my own, and mine know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for my sheep.” St Gregory tells us that Christ adds the words “I lay down my life for my sheep” to show that the knowledge in question here is the knowledge that comes through charity. Christ knows His own, in that He loves them with an immense charity, and they know Him since they cleave to Him by means of this same charity. Christians who are united to Him in this way will never be scandalised even if they have for a while to endure an unworthy pastor. Those who love will be safe.

For, finally, our Lord has promised: “By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved: and he shall go in, and go out, and shall find pastures. ”He shall go in, says St Gregory, by faith, and shall go out by vision; he shall go in through baptism to the Church on earth, and go out, by a good death, to the Church of heaven. And there he shall find the pastures which his heart desires.