The Fourth Sunday of Easter has traditionally been known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings chosen support this theme. The particular focus today is on leadership. Whose leadership do we follow? The people to whom Peter speaks in the first reading are cut to the heart when he accuses them of crucifying the one whom “God has made both Lord and Christ.” They entreat him, “What are we to do?” In response he exhorts them, “Repent and be baptized.” He assures them that they have been called by God. It is now up to them to decide whether or not to heed that call, accept God as their leader and allow God to guide them in right paths.
In the Gospel, Jesus employs the shepherd theme in two ways. He first contrasts the shepherd, who is allowed through the gate of the common sheepfold, with the thief, who is prevented from entering through the gate and must climb over the wall. Though several flocks were kept in the common sheepfold, the sheep recognize the voice of their own shepherd and follow that shepherd’s lead. They do not follow the voice of a stranger. Jesus is saying that when his disciples hear his voice, they will follow him.
The psalm verses, taken from one of the best known and most loved psalms, expands on this shepherd theme. With touching imagery it describes the gentle guidance, the fierce protection and the loving nurturing provided by the shepherd. This shepherd is not a hired hand. A bond of care and affection for the sheep is clearly illustrated.
In the second part of the Gospel there is a slight twist to the theme of shepherd. Earlier it is the shepherd and the thief who go in and out of the sheepfold. Here it is the sheep. Just as the gate is the only legitimate way in and out of the sheepfold, so there is only one legitimate gate, and that gate is Jesus. It is through him that we enter the safety of the sheepfold; it is through him that we go out confidently in search of nourishing pasture. He is our way to the peace portrayed in the psalm.
The second reading also assures us that we have been called to follow Christ. Here too the metaphors of sheep and shepherd describe the relationship we have with Christ. He is shepherd and guardian of our souls; we are sheep who previously went astray, but have now returned. Following our shepherd may require us to follow him along the path of suffering. It was for our sake that he faced the dangers of a life of integrity. “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross.” He is our model as we too face the dangers of a life of integrity. But follow him we must, for that is the only path to righteousness. It is up to us to decide whether or not we will heed his voice.