By Bill Carroll
The fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday, because at the Eucharist we hear from the tenth chapter of John. As I prepared to preach about the lessons appointed this year, I was struck by a piece of writing our Music Director shared with me, a brief paragraph from a series that some congregations use for liturgical education. It notes that, in the second and third centuries, the figure of the Good Shepherd was the single most common visual representation of Jesus in Christian baptisteries.
Now, at one level, I think I knew this. I've certainly seen examples of a young and beardless Jesus carrying a lamb. But I had never made the generalization. In the churches of the period, Christ the Good Shepherd is portrayed next to the baptismal font more often than any other theme.
This is no accident. Holy Baptism is the great sacrament of union with Jesus, who lays down his life for the sheep. In baptism, we renounce evil and commit ourselves to follow him. In the Bible, the image of the shepherd is a royal one. By being baptized, we acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ the King. At the same time, however, the image of the Good Shepherd reminds us of fundamental promises of the Gospel. In the words of Henry William Baker’s famous hymn, a paraphrase of the Twenty-Third Psalm:
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill With Thee, dear Lord, beside me; Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy cross before to guide me.
The Lord Jesus is indeed our Shepherd. We know him and follow his voice. He reassures us in times of danger, fights off the wolves, and leads us safely home.
Most often in recent years, I've heard about the Good Shepherd at funerals, where we also read from the tenth chapter of John. The Psalm appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, as well as the beautiful vision from Revelation, are also frequently chosen for funerals, especially in a parish like ours, which is named for the Good Shepherd. In the liturgy of Christian burial, we remember our baptism. As we lay our loved ones to rest, we call to mind their union with Christ, who died for us and rose again. We commend them to God in the "sure and certain hope of the resurrection." And we envision Jesus leading them by the hand into paradise.
Even when the Good Shepherd Gospel is not read at a funeral, the liturgy itself evokes this powerful image: "Acknowledge we humbly beseech you," we pray, "a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming." The bond between Christ and his own cannot be broken. Not by sin. Not by death. In life and in death, we belong to Jesus, the risen Lord. Again, to cite the same beloved hymn:
The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His And He is mine forever.
How blessed are we to belong to such a Shepherd! Indeed, his goodness is abundant, and it never runs out. His mercy is everlasting, and his faithfulness endures from age to age.
It is through our union with Jesus, sealed in Holy Baptism, that we lay claim to the promises God made to John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation. For the Lamb who was slain has become our Shepherd. He is the firstborn of the dead, who lives and reigns forever—from the very throne of God.
Here and now, in this life, we contend with toil, sickness, loss, and death. Over time, they take their toll on us. They even overcame Jesus himself for three sad days. But the day of God is surely coming. With Easter, it has already begun. On that day,
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Even now, the Shepherd is with us. May we hear his voice and follow. For we belong to Jesus. And NOTHING can snatch us from his hand.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.