As I wrote last year, “In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The opening prayer of the Mass (the same all three years) prays that the flock may follow where the shepherd has led, namely, to heaven. Each year’s gospel is taken from chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus calls himself both the gate of the sheepfold and the good shepherd.: Year A, verses 1-10; Year B, 11-18; and Year C, 27-30. The first two readings do not directly relate to the theme of the sheep and the shepherd. The title of Good Shepherd was popular with early Christians. Images of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5) were common as depictions of Jesus, and the logo for the current Jubilee Year of Mercy develops the image, substituting a human for the sheep.”
The first reading — Acts 2:14a, 36-41 — gives the conclusion of Peter’s address to the people on Pentecost. Peter’s testimony proves persuasive and the hearers come to faith. The first thing for a believer is to be baptized. We learn two things about the effects of baptism. It brings forgiveness of sins and confers the Holy Spirit. Peter follows this with an indication that the salvation Jesus brings extends beyond the people of Israel: it will include Gentiles. The remainder of the Book of Acts will tell the story of the work of the apostles, including Paul, in spreading the gospel to Jews and Gentiles.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 23 with the first verse as the refrain — is the Good Shepherd psalm, anticipating the gospel reading.
The second reading — 1 Peter 2:20b-25 — tells of Jesus’ patient acceptance of his sufferings and death. This is an example for us: we are called to accept suffering which comes to us as a consequence of our good lives. But more fundamentally, Jesus’ suffering and death, patiently borne, have freed us from our sins — the forgiveness which we receive at baptism, as we heard in the first reading, as well as access to forgiveness of sins committed after baptism. The reading concludes with another foreshadowing of the Good Shepherd theme.
The image of the shepherd is familiar from many passages of scripture: King David had been a shepherd; psalms refer to God as shepherd of Israel and the psalmist’s shepherd; Ezekiel tells of God describing himself as a shepherd who judges between sheep, much like the king in Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations in Matthew; Jesus tells of the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep. In today’s gospel — John 1:1-10 — there are two images Jesus uses for himself. the shepherd and the gate of the sheepfold. In both of them he makes a contrast with the thieves and robbers. There may be a tendency to ask, “Well, which is it: shepherd or gate?” but these are just different ways of illustrating Jesus’ care for us. Like the shepherd, he leads us to nourishment and safety. Like the gate of the fold where he gathers the sheep for the night, he protects us from thieves and predators — whatever would take us away from our life in God. Jesus promises us abundant life, eternal life, if we listen to his voice and follow him. Implicit in this is the requirement for us to be careful not to be led astray by voices other than his, by the temptations which come from the devil, from elements of culture which are contrary to the gospel, and from our own appetites and propensities which St. Paul calls “the flesh.” But the central message today is one for redemption and eternal life thanks to the saving work of our Good Shepherd.