The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also called Good Shepherd Sunday because the gospel reading is taken from Chapter 10 of John, which speaks of the Good Shepherd.
For many of us, our favorite picture of the Good Shepherd comes from the idyllic Psalm 23, which portrays the shepherd as one who leads the sheep to green pastures and clear waters, guides them through the dark valley, shields them from every harm, and finally brings them home.
In today’s gospel, the portrait of the Good Shepherd is further developed and qualified by the personal relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. The true shepherd does not run away when the wolf attacks, but defends the flock, because he is not a hired servant. He owns the sheep. In identifying himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus claims us as his own and affirms his relationship with us as one of true knowledge – in the biblical sense that indicates deep intimacy. “I know mine, and mine know me.” Jesus, in fact, alludes that his knowledge of us is a projection of his intimate knowledge of the Father. “I know mine, and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
But the distinctive and defining characteristic of the Good Shepherd is that he “lays down his life for the sheep.” Five times the phrase, “lay down my/his life”, is mentioned in our short gospel reading. This image is extraordinarily admirable and heroic, but also surreal. How can a man die for his animals?
The second reading gives us the answer. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we are called children of God. And so we are.” We are no animals. We are God’s children whom he loves so much “that he sent his only begotten Son so that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Indeed, Jesus knows us as he knows the Father, and he loves us as he loves the Father.
The icon of the Good Shepherd is one that never fails to foster a sense of security, peace, fullness, and unequivocal love. However, it also can also be disturbing and challenging, if not intimidating. To belong to Jesus’ flock is to be his follower, his disciple. As disciples, we are called by the Good Shepherd to be shepherds ourselves to one another. On the night before he died, he gave us the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – meaning, to the point of laying down our life for others.
When I received my appointment as bishop from the Holy Father, I made an Ignatian retreat to prepare myself for the daunting task. One of the meditations my director gave me was today’s gospel reading on the Good Shepherd. When I came to the verse where Jesus said, “I lay down my life for my sheep,” I was deeply disturbed. I wrestled and agonized with the words. Deep in my heart, I knew I could not own them. I have been called to shepherd God’s flock in Kabankalan, and like the Good Shepherd I, too, should be ready and willing to lay down my life for my sheep. But in all sincerity I knew I was not ready or willing to do so. It was my saddest realization. I have always been afraid of pain, even more so, of death. Hence, I could not honestly tell the Lord, “I will lay down my life for my sheep.”
Since it was a Friday, I made the Way of the Cross at the park behind the retreat house that afternoon. As I walked from one station to another and retraced the steps of Jesus to Calvary, it slowly dawned on me that Jesus went through every pain and suffering for me, to save me. Then I began to realize how much I am loved. I had never felt so much loved, so infinitely loved. By the time I reached the twelfth station, I could hardly see the crucified Lord; my eyes were welling with tears. I told Jesus hanging on the cross, “Lord, now I’m ready to die for you.” After a few seconds, I seemed to hear from within me the Lord saying, “No, don’t die for me. Live for my people.”
To lay down our life means to die to ourselves so that others may live. When we swallow our pride, so forgiveness can happen; when we give up something valuable, so we can help those in greater need (the community pantry); when we spend time to help a struggling learner or a desperate soul…we lay down our life and become bearers of the love and presence of the Good Shepherd.*