The readings this week turn our attention away from the resurrection accounts and toward the establishment of the church at Pentecost. In the first reading, Peter shares the new community’s membership requirements: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The second reading, also attributed to Peter, reminds us that the suffering and resurrection of Christ secured for us an eternal shepherd to guard us in all our ways.
You have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1 Pt 2:25)
When did Jesus call you by name?
Do people hear in you the voice of Christ?
For whom are you a “gate”? Can they rely on you as securely as on Jesus?
Images of Christ the shepherd were popular in the early church. In part, this was because of a widespread motif in Greco-Roman art called the kriophoros (ram-bearer), which depicted a man shouldering a ram. Christians often changed the ram to a lamb, a subtle alteration that allowed them to display an image of the faith without provoking suspicion.
More important to the image’s popularity was the Israelite tradition of God as shepherd. As shepherd of Israel, God protected the flock, provided it with food, kept it healthy and gathered its scattered members. Later, these became the duties of David and his royal successors, and our Gospel today shows that Jesus had inherited this task.
Jesus emphasizes the importance of calling the name of each member of his flock. Throughout John’s Gospel, disciples’ lives change when Jesus calls their name. Mary Magdalene, for example, did not recognize the risen Jesus until he said “Mary!” For Simon Peter, discipleship began only after Jesus nicknamed him “Rock.” In today’s Gospel passage, John extends that experience of hearing the shepherd’s voice to every believer, “as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” When Jesus calls his followers personally, this summons transforms them and also gives them a place in the community of disciples. This is how Jesus fulfilled his duty to heal and restore the flock.
Jesus also protects his flock and provides for it. When he calls himself the “gate,” he is probably referring to the practice, common across cultures, of a shepherd sleeping at the gate of a livestock corral. Stationed this way, the shepherd keeps out predators or thieves and saves the flock from wandering out into the night. The next day, the shepherd stands at the gate to call the sheep and lead them to the day’s pasture. When Jesus promises to be the gate, he promises his followers that he will protect them and provide for them always. The flock might come under threat or even sustain some damage, but the shepherd is tireless in his efforts to heal it and make it whole again.
These readings prepare us for Pentecost, when the church takes on Jesus’ mission. It is a time to reflect on our own efforts to live that mission. We do Christ’s work when people encounter us as trustworthy guides and not as strangers. We do Christ’s work when we place ourselves in harm’s way for another’s good. Just as Christ heals, protects and provides for us, so too must we for a scattered and anxious world.