4th Sunday of Easter 2023

After Jesus’ death on the cross, the Apostles and disciples felt as if the world had come to an end. They had followed Jesus for three years and seen Him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cleanse those possessed by demons. They had heard Him teach on the mountainside and debate with the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to believe Jesus might be the Messiah, the holy one of God who would redeem Israel from the oppression of the Romans and make them a great nation obedient to God.


When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the accolades of the crowds, the disciples hoped they might be able to share in Jesus’ glory and power. They anticipated becoming people of significance because of their close association with Jesus. They thought if Jesus became king, there was the possibility they might become influential figures in His government. 


During that week, it didn’t happen. Judas, one of His apostles, betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities. Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and crucified by the religious leaders. Jesus’ followers fled from Him when He was in need and ended up hiding in a locked room full of fear they might be arrested too. Their hopes and dreams all seemed to have died. Their possibilities came to an end.


Then early Easter morning Mary Magdalene- one of the disciples- went to the tomb to grieve for Jesus. When she got there, she found the tomb empty, and she ran and told two of the apostles, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, what she had discovered. They ran to see for themselves, and when they went into the tomb, they found it empty but with the burial cloths set aside. Peter left the tomb feeling perplexed, but John looked around and recalled that Jesus had predicted He would die and resurrect on the third day. Since John was situated to have faith in Jesus, he believed in the possibility that just maybe Jesus was alive.


For the last two weeks since Easter, the Gospel passages have been stories about how Jesus appeared to His disciples and helped them to recognize the possibility that He was alive again. We heard Thomas the Apostle was absent that evening. When he returned to the room and received the news of Jesus’ resurrection, he refused to consider the possibility unless he could examine Jesus’ wounds himself.


Last week we heard a similar story. On Easter evening, two disciples were going to Emmaus. Walking along, they intently talked about Jesus and His death on the cross. They were lamenting their loss of hope. Earlier in the day, they heard other disciples claiming to have seen Jesus alive, but they couldn’t believe it was possible. Jesus came and walked with them and helped them to reposition themselves so they could begin to believe in the possibility of the resurrection. He explained the scriptures and reminded them that the prophets had predicted the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Then when they went in to have a meal with Jesus, He blessed the bread and broke it, and they recognized him.


In many ways today, we are like the Apostles and disciples of Jesus. We are struggling with how it could be possible for Jesus to rise from the dead. It never happened before Jesus, and it hasn’t happened since. It’s hard to believe. This week we hear from the Gospel that we need faith to accept the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection. I’m not talking about blind faith but faith that grows from a relationship with Jesus. Fath comes from a relationship with Jesus patterned after that of a good shepherd.


In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses the image of a good shepherd as He addresses the crowds and a group of Pharisees long before His death. The people of Jesus’ day would have been very familiar with the image of a good shepherd. Sheep and shepherds were all around them, and it is a prevalent image from the Hebrew scriptures. There it was a familiar image used to describe a faithful leader.


Moses was shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law when he noticed God’s presence in the burning bush and heard God tell him that he would be the faithful leader of the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt. King David, the greatest king the Hebrews ever knew, was also a shepherd when God called Samuel to anoint him the king of Israel. After King David’s death, the Jewish people always looked for the ultimate good shepherd to be their king. The prophets pressure the later kings of the Hebrews to model their reigns on the example of the Good Shepherd, and Jesus takes on that role. 


In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents the qualities of the good shepherd. The good shepherd has a close relationship with his sheep, and the flock has an intimate relationship with their shepherd. The shepherd has a name for every one of the flock, and he develops a unique call that he shares with the flock so they can discern who and where he is at all times. This distinct call helps keep the sheep in close contact with their protector and guide.


The good shepherd cares for the flock 24/7. He is responsible for the flock’s safety all day and is alert for keeping the flock together as a herd. If an animal unwittingly wanders from the flock, the shepherd’s call is all that is needed to bring the sheep back to the group. The good shepherd knows the dangers of predators in the vicinity and is ready to offer his life to protect the sheep. The good shepherd also recognizes when it is necessary to move his sheep to new pastures with green grass, and he keeps the flock fed and watered. Jesus reminds the crowd that the responsible shepherd walks before the flock. He leads them on the right path, protects them from missteps, and sets them on the best course to keep them healthy. 


Even at night, the good shepherd remains vigilant. After a day of grazing, the sheep returned home and were herded into an enclosure for the night. The shepherd’s work wasn’t done then. As night fell, the shepherd’s body became the gate for the sheep pen. He would lay across its opening to ensure no sheep broke out, nor a thief or predator got in.


Jesus wants to be the good shepherd who leads us to faith. Jesus wants to walk before us so we get to verdant pastures where we can grow in faith. He will protect and care for us if we listen to Jesus’ voice.


There are many voices in our lives. Some are supportive and encouraging, while others are critical and unhelpful. Some voices share wisdom with us, while others try to lead us astray. Some cheer us up, while others are full of doom and gloom. We must be careful of the voices guiding us because some voices try to rob us of the joy of life.


We need to follow three steps to hear God’s voice that wants to guide us in the way of faith. The first step is to tune out the noise and eliminate the distractions so we can hear Jesus call us to a relationship with him. There are so many voices of disunity and conflict in our world that we must shut down to hear God. Social media is a big one. Shut it down and ignore its evil influence.


Let the Lord help you hear God’s voice. The Lord respects our free will and doesn’t force himself on us. We decide whether to listen to His voice or not. We must invite God to speak to us and listen intentionally to the Lord. A relationship with God isn’t instantaneous; like all relationships, it is formed over time and with patience. Listening to God in prayer can start small, a few minutes daily, and grow over time. 


Use Scripture to help you realize how Jesus built relationships with the Apostles, disciples, and others with whom he had contact. The story of the woman at the well from John’s Gospel is many peoples’ favorite, and last week’s Road to Emmaus account is another.


Building a faithful relationship with our Lord won’t happen overnight and will have fits and starts; it needs persistence and determination. It is worth the effort because when we respond to the voice of God in our lives, we gain a more hopeful future with God leading to everlasting life and the promise of a share of Christ’s resurrection at the end of time.