By Father Donald Dilger
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10
In the first reading Simon Peter continues to speak to us, just as he did for the past three Sundays. Whatever Peter may have said on that occasion — immediately after Pentecost — what we are reading and hearing is Luke’s understanding of the situation. Luke is writing about 50 years after the claimed event, so we should not be looking for a word-for-word report of what Peter could have said fifty years earlier. (No videos available!) He addresses “the whole house of Israel,” meaning that Luke is writing to the Jews of his time a defense (apologetics) of the Christian faith. He proclaims that “this Jesus whom you crucified” is both their Lord and their long-awaited Messiah (deliverer from oppression) made so by God. That would have been a difficult message to put across, to accept that one executed as a would-be king was in reality what Peter claimed to be a fact.
The desired effect was attained, “They were cut to the heart . . . .” Were it not for the context, we could conclude that they were furious about such a claim. But the context implies a beneficial reaction, as they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What can we do about it?” The answer: “Repent and be baptized. . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins . . . .” Sound much like the proclamation of John the Baptizer. However, John was gone and the baptism Peter promises is far more powerful than that of the Baptizer. A special gift comes with this baptism, “. . . and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The outcome of Peter’s sermon: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about 3,000 were added (to the Christian movement) that day.” Accurate numbers? Not necessarily. By checking a concordance we can see that the number 3,000 was a commonly used figure for a large number of people, twenty-one times.
The Responsorial Psalm 23, perhaps the Psalm known best by most, or at least its first line, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” The word “want” does not so much refer to desire for something but rather “there is nothing I shall lack,” because a good shepherd, in this case the Lord, takes care of his sheep. The first line is also the people’s response to the Psalm verses. Psalm 23 was selected in relation to the shepherd theme of the second reading and the gospel reading. The pastoral images invoked by the Psalm are echoes of important passages of the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel 34, where the Lord is a true shepherd in contrast to shepherds neglectful and dangerous to their flocks. See also Isaiah 43:2; Jeremiah 31:10.
The second reading continues the series from the First Letter of St. Peter. It is addressed to Christians in what is now the nation of Turkey. Today’s excerpt implies that these Christians had suffered some kind of persecution. The author attempts to make sense of this suffering by telling his readers and hearers that they were called to “suffer for what is good,” and that this is a grace from God. His basis of this theological opinion is solid, “because Christ suffered for you as an example that you follow in his footsteps.” At first thought the persecuted may have considered this idea unwelcome. But as the letter continues, we find out that some, perhaps many, of these Christians had gone astray from the faith. The author heaps on more arguments for his teaching. Unlike the recipients of the letter, Jesus committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. The persecution Jesus suffered was caused by our sins, which he took upon himself on the cross, so that we can be free from sin. The remaining thoughts are a reflection on Isaiah 53:4-6. The good news is at the end, “but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
The gospel reading consists of two short parables that are introductory to the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but the liturgy gives us the latter parable in Year B, next year’s gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. If the author of John 10 were composing a symphony, the two little parables of this Sunday’s gospel would be woven into a prelude as the composer plays with themes of shepherd, sheep, thieve and robbers, gate, gatekeeper. He will not develop the major part of his symphony until next year, Year B, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. In the first parable the author contrasts the shepherd with thieves and robbers. Thieves and robbers get into the sheepfold by climbing the fence. The shepherd enters through the gate when the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice and follow him out to pasture. They will not follow strangers because they do not know their voices. The author adds a clue, “The Pharisees did not realize what Jesus was trying to tell them.” Or was it John the author who was challenging the leaders (the great scribes) of Judaism in the nineties of the first Christian century to recognize Jesus as John proclaims him in his gospel? This is the more likely scenario, since we know that in the last fourth of the first century there were sometimes bitter debates between Jewish and Christian scribes about the identity and mission of Jesus.
The author decides to further develop the gate theme, as Jesus makes a solemn statement, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, I am the gate of the sheep.” The metaphor is clear from the custom of Palestinian shepherds. After gathering the sheep and leading them into the sheep pen, the shepherd lies down at the entrance to serve as the gate to guard the enclosed sheep. This idea serves as another challenging appeal to the leaders of Judaism to recognize Jesus as the only reliable shepherd of his people. It may not have helped when John seems to refer to them as “all who came before me were thieves and robbers,” but John never had the opportunity to enroll in Dale Carnegie courses. In words attributed to Jesus, John states what had become common Christian teaching, “Whoever enters through me will be saved,” and “I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Another version, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” Acts 4:12.