The Second Sunday after Easter


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


Almighty God, who hast given thine only son to be unto us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example…
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:11-16

On this day which many churches will celebrate as “Good Shepherd” Sunday, it would be as well to remind ourselves that shepherds in 1st Century Palestine were the lowest of the low (cf The Circumcision of Christ). So when Jesus characterises himself as “The Good Shepherd” he is not taking on airs and graces. He is, in fact, making a radical proposition by presenting himself as a shepherd but not a hireling because all shepherds at that time were hirelings of absentee landlords; they certainly were not owners of sheep. What Jesus is saying is that he will unite the two quite separate phenomena of ownership and care within his person, making us children in God’s care.

Although this appears to be a pleasingly simple image there are numerous complexities of which there is only space for a few. First, we do not simply “go astray” in the fashion of sheep but commit deliberate acts of will that separate us from God which have entailed divine intervention in our affairs in the form of the incarnation which, in turn, directs us to the second complexity of the image. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd in one context he is also the innocent lamb that is slaughtered in another who, in the vivid words of Peter: “His own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree”. The Collect, as usual, outlines the antithesis between the that sacrifice of Jesus and our want of good behaviour, our tendency not so much to wander as to trust to our own devices.

The third complexity of the image is brought out in the Epistle where Peter commends the virtue of suffering. Whereas sheep may undergo cold, hunger, thirst and illness without any self determination, we are called upon deliberately to choose suffering as part of our witness to Jesus. When he says that his own sheep know him, this is more than an instinctive reaction of the dependent to the dominant, it is a much more (although of course this is itself a metaphor) reciprocal relationship. Next, our choice to suffer is nothing to the choice which Jesus made and whose consequences, in Peter’s phrases, he withstood without complaint. The two figures involved in this sacrifice, other than we sheep, are the Father and the wolf both of whom (again in a complex metaphorical way) dictate the pattern of Jesus’ offering of himself.

There is something deeply satisfying about the elegantly interlocking metaphor of Jesus as shepherd and laying down his life for us as a lamb, reflecting the very similar interlocking of Jesus offering himself as priest and victim. They are metaphors simultaneously of power and vulnerability, underlining the essential mystery of the passion as simultaneously wounding and healing; by those stripes we were healed.

Peter’s conclusion that we were going astray before the Crucifixion but are now back on course is surely, as the Collect implies, over optimistic. The First Century perspective which saw a seamless continuity from the prophesy of Isaiah and Jeremiah, through the transformative life, death and Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy spirit to the end of earthly time has been complicated for us both by an inevitable dislocation from the continuity of feeling within Judaism from King David to the destruction of The Temple at one end of the chronological spectrum to a lengthening of time itself at the other. Humanity was destined by God not to be swept up into the end of time shortly after the death of Jesus but, rather, we have lived in erratic faithfulness mirroring in our own Christian affairs the vicissitudes of the relationship between God and his chosen people.

Yet for all its complexities and for all our need to be careful not to think ourselves into a state of ovine moral incapacity, there is a serious sense in which, noting the collect, the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep works; for just as there is a difference of degree as well as a difference of role between shepherd and sheep, so the same difference, but on a much more radical scale, exists between our Saviour and the saved. Just as the sheep that go astray cannot re-orient themselves but must be rescued by the shepherd, so we could not redeem ourselves but rely upon Jesus laying down his life for us.

How much Peter saw himself as a shepherd—or bishop—it is difficult to say but his dialogue with Jesus at the end of John’s Gospel (21:15-19; cf St. John the Evangelist’s Day) must have gone deep. Of all the metaphors from the Gospels describing the Christian condition this is the one that has made the greatest impact, not least in the way we understand the relationship between the bishop and the flock. For many today, however, who have never visited the countryside, this metaphor and its reality in the office of Bishop must present a new set of problems. No matter how much we love the language of the shepherd and the sheep we will need to find new ways of explaining this complex of interlocking Christology which is at the core both of our dependence and our obligation to live holy lives.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Discuss the advantages of the interlocking metaphors of shepherd/lamb and priest/victim
  2. Are there problems with the metaphor of Christians as sheep in respect of their individual and collective exercise of free will?
  3. How important is the difference between the time perspective of the early church and our extended time frame?
  4. Does the contemporary role of the Bishop as an administrator detract from the role of shepherd?
  5. Re-fashion the shepherd/sheep metaphor for a contemporary, urban congregation of children or adults.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)