Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12; Response: Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2; Gospel: John 10:11-18

The first reading, from Acts 4, continues Peter’s witness to Jesus as Messiah begun in Acts 2–3. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priests and other Jewish leaders. The leaders confront them about their teaching and about Peter’s healing of the crippled man (Acts 3:1-10). Peter’s response to them is our reading today. 

Peter boldly proclaims that the crippled man was healed “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean.” Peter then contrasts the actions of the Jewish leaders with the action of God toward Jesus: “whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” This contrast continues in Peter’s “cornerstone” citation of Psalm 118:22. The leaders have rejected Jesus – like builders reject a stone. By contrast, God has made Jesus the cornerstone in his divine plan. Peter proclaims Jesus to be the only source of salvation for the whole human race.

Remarkably, Peter’s boldness causes the Jewish leaders to release Peter and John instead of punishing them. Later, the leaders demand that Peter and John stop teaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and John defiantly refuse their demands (Acts 4:16-21). The apostles and first Christians continue to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in Jerusalem despite persecution. As the Acts of the Apostles continue, their witness extends beyond Jerusalem “throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:1-8).

Our responsorial psalm is Psalm 118, which includes the “cornerstone” text cited by Peter in our first reading. This psalm is the last of the “Egyptian Hallel” psalms (Psalm 113–118), which are recited on the eighth day of the Jewish Passover feast. Psalms 113 and 114 are recited before the Passover meal, while Psalm 118 is recited at the meal’s conclusion while drinking the fourth cup of wine. All of these psalms are “hallel” psalms which means their main subject is “praise” of God for his mighty deeds. 

Psalm 118 repeatedly expresses thanksgiving to God. Most notably, the first and last verses of Psalm 118 are identical: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his mercy/kindness (Hebrew: hesed) endures forever.” This is called an “inclusio.” Such an identical introduction and conclusion clearly identifies the main message of Psalm 118 – thanksgiving and praise of God. In this context, the “cornerstone” imagery of Psalm 118:22 is praise for how God sometimes accomplishes his purposes in ways that confound human expectation. This is certainly apropos for Jesus the suffering Messiah.

Our second reading is again from the first letter of John – as it is for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Sundays of Easter. Today’s reading (1 John 3:1-2) reminds us that “we are God's children now” – as a consequence of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. God has made us his children because of his love for us, as 3:1 insists. “Knowing” and “revealing” are emphasized in these verses. “The world” knows neither God nor God’s children – and thus is opposed to Jesus. But God will reveal all things at the divinely designated time. At that time “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” This passage of 1 John is remarkably similar to St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Both passages say that gazing upon Christ transforms the believer into Christ’s image.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). The Old Testament uses similar “shepherd” imagery for God in Ezekiel 34, in Psalms 23, 78 and 95, and elsewhere. It seems that Ezekiel 34 is particularly relevant for understanding Jesus’ good shepherd imagery in John 10 (this passage). Ezekiel 34 is a prophecy against the leaders of Israel who are described as bad shepherds who “did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost” (Ezekiel 34:4). By contrast, God promises to be a good shepherd for his people, Israel: “In good pastures I will pasture them ... I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest ... The lost I will search out ... the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal” (Ezekiel 34:14-16).

In John 10, Jesus has a very similar message to Ezekiel 34. Presenting himself as a good shepherd, Jesus contrasts himself with the “hired man” who works for pay but does not have authentic concern for the sheep. The “shepherd” metaphor is further developed with the image of a “wolf” – which represents that which endangers God’s people. Thus God protects his people, and anyone who would be a good shepherd in God’s name must also protect the people – instead of fleeing in fear. We Catholics continue the ancient tradition of using the word “pastor” (shepherd) to describe our bishops and priests. May our pastors be worthy of such a sacred title and duty, by Christ’s grace.

Jesus extends the good shepherd imagery in two ways. First, Jesus speaks of a mutual “knowing” between Jesus and his followers – who are described as “sheep” who know Jesus’ voice. This mutual “knowing” shows that the relationship of Jesus and his followers is an extension of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Second, Jesus promises: “I will lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus is adding an element (in John 10) that is not found in Ezekiel 34 – but he is preparing his disciples for his crucifixion. Jesus the good shepherd freely chooses to lay down his life for his sheep. The final verse emphasizes Jesus’ power – indeed, power to lay down his life, and also “power to take it up again.” Jesus does this in obedience to the Father. For this reason, “the Father loves me” says Jesus. Jesus shows us what it means be a good shepherd.