The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
This coming Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is also often called Good Shepherd Sunday. When in the early centuries of the church Christians first began to draw pictures of Jesus, they depicted him as the good shepherd. This coming Sunday we hear part of John 10, a chapter that elaborates on the image of Jesus as the shepherd.
The evangelist John used the narrative in chapter 9 of the man born blind, who has heard the word of Christ and come to faith, to describe his own community. Most of chapter 10 is builds on the miraculous sign of the healing of the blind man. Relying on the traditional nomadic metaphor of the leader as shepherd, John described the risen Christ as the shepherd of the flock who will protect his sheep and at the same time as the actual gate to a safe place inside the church.
Of course, how can you celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday without paying attention to the 23rd Psalm? Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in scripture. While there are powerful words of comfort throughout the psalm, it could be argued that the reason the psalm resonates so deeply with people is because of its brutal honesty. The psalm names the hard truths of our lives: we live in the shadow of death, we dine in the presence of our enemies. There is pain and grief and sorrow in this life. Psalm 23 acknowledges this truth, and still points to hope.
The center of the psalm has an interesting change of case. While the first part of the psalm describes the Good Shepherd in the third person: The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me beside stills waters, he restores my soul, etc. Right in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death, suddenly the psalmist is talking in second person: you are with me, with me, your rod and your staff—they comfort me, you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil.
I have always been moved by how Frederick Buechner points out that this sudden change in voice and case represents the very center of our faith:
Suddenly he stops speaking about God as “he,” because you don’t speak that way when the person is right there with you. Suddenly he speaks to God instead of about him, and he speaks to him as “you.” “I will fear no evil,” he says, “for you art with me.” That is the center of faith. You. That is where faith comes from. When somebody takes your hand in the dark, you’re not afraid of the dark anymore. The power of dark is a great power, but the power of light is greater still. It is the shepherd of light himself who reaches out a hand, who is “You” to us. Death and dark are not the end. Life and light are the end. It is what the cross means, of course. (Buechner, Frederick. Secrets in the Dark (p. 128), HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).
Because of the cross, what we celebrate this Sunday is not a cute, wooly animal. We celebrate the very center and mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And because this Christ is our shepherd, we can be sure that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.