There is a lot about the Good Shepherd in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, which provides the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter (in all 3 years of the lectionary). It also reflects Psalm 23, which worries me, because so many people happily quote, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.
Is he? It is a factual question. Reading John 10 will help to give a factual answer. The chapter begins with reference to “thieves and bandits”, and a look back to chapter 9 makes clear that Jesus is labelling those who assumed a right to be leaders of religion – and to criticise him for a remarkable healing on the Sabbath day. Clearly there is a choice of leaders to follow!
Then Jesus talks about the relationship between sheep and shepherd. While flocks might be kept together overnight, the shepherd would be able to pick out his sheep, and they would know “their” shepherd from others. The implication is that Christians relate to the Good Shepherd, distinguishing him from others and being known by him. This is where “The Lord is my Shepherd” becomes a true or false statement.
Apparently this is not understood (verse 6). We might take comfort that other people get things wrong and fail to understand! (Preachers are relieved to know that even Jesus didn’t always get his point over first time). Even better, he explains again.
The sheepfold is needed – at night it provides safety and rest. We might see a comparison with the Church, or Christian fellowship. Under Jesus’ direction, we need to go in to be protected from “thieves and bandits” – to be taught, and find rest and healing. But the sheep cannot stay in the sheepfold. By day they need to go out – with the Shepherd – to be taken to food and water. Christians need to get into the world, to work, to serve the wider community, to “practise” their faith, and be a blessing to others. There has to be movement in and out, with the Shepherd the key figure.
So I find challenge in these passages, and not just reassurance – let alone sentimentality. How do you take it? Can you be taken seriously saying, “The Lord IS my Shepherd”?