Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
1 Pt 2:20b-25
What is the oldest image of Jesus in Christian antiquity? The revulsion toward crucifixion, a degrading capital punishment by Roman authority, postponed for some 300 years acceptance of the cross as an appropriate symbol of the Nazarene.
You’ve probably seen a rendition of the image carved into catacomb walls where Christians met for Eucharist underneath the imperial city. Jesus the Good Shepherd (10: 11), holding a lost lamb safely on his shoulders (Lk 15:4-5), is the most ancient memory of him in Christian art.
As that basic sense of the faith moved artists long ago, so the same assurance has inspired variations of the theme into our own day. A print of my favorite original (by “KFB”) hangs in my living room.
Christ’s warm, tight hug shows a nail mark on the outside of his big left hand. His face is nearly covered, burrowed lovingly into a lamb’s fur, much like you and I kiss our cherished pet. It’s the lamb’s face that stands out with such a peaceful look, eyes closed, the picture of contentment, resting securely on the chest of her trusted caregiver.
Scripture has been fulfilled. “It is accomplished” (Jn 19:30). All is well for any stray lamb means the world to the shepherd.
The apostle Peter preached this Gospel most credibly. He experienced the truth of KFB’s etching. He himself sunk to the bottom of alienation from God through his vehement denials only hours after his first Communion! He strayed almost as far as Judas’ treachery.
Yet the cock’s crow struck a deep cord within the fisherman. He was moved to weep so sincerely, his heart gently opened to receive the healing power of divine mercy.
Peter never evangelized with mere words in worn out platitudes. He proclaimed Jesus both Lord and Christ from a gut conviction that his friend was equal in glory with the Holy One of Israel, anointed to rescue each of us who gets lost and carry us affectionately back to his flock.
The head of the church at Rome was crucified in 67 AD upside down by request. A disciple who apprenticed with him circulated the First Letter of Peter toward the end of the century. He reveres the wounds of Jesus which make those who’ve been wayward whole again.
Not left to the deceptive illusion of self-sufficiency, but home now with the guardian of our souls, we should allow all that the shepherd has done for us to seep in. The more we honestly appreciate his amazing grace, the stronger our resolve to follow his example of selfless altruism.
John Chapter 9 details the fiery controversy sparked by Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath of a man born blind. Chapter 10 spins off that major show down with Pharisaical leadership. Jesus uses shepherd imagery from Ezekiel 34 to contrast officialdom with himself. His arrogant enemies stay aloof from the ordinary lives of people they are called to serve. They remain strangers locked into their insensitivity, thieves and bandits out to rip off the vulnerable to line their own pockets instead.
They stand behind moral rigors, taking a hard line to appear righteous before others. They ignore God’s own revealed preference for mercy rather than ritual (Hosea 6:6). They lack his compassion to prioritize when values compete.
An empathetic response to a suffering person, lifting a heavy burden like blindness, praises the Lord of the Sabbath more fittingly than even observing his sacred command to rest.
Jesus is the genuine article. His authenticity resonates readily with the sheep of his care. Ezekiel had prophesized that one day God himself would shepherd his people in place of the false shepherds who harmfully abused them time after time throughout their history. Jesus, God incarnate, fulfills that promise.
In fact, he has become the gate for his sheep. He keeps tabs on the comings and goings of everyone in his flock. He calls each of us tenderly by name. He keeps watch at the entrance of the fold day and night to protect us from danger.
If we wander off and lose our way moving through life, who do you think will keep searching til he finds us and carries us home?
– Are you led astray by false shepherds in our culture?
– What was it like when Jesus carried you on his shoulders?
– Who are lost sheep he asks you to help find and bring back?
Fr. Yockey is a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.