Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 11)

Jesus gathers us to himself like a shepherd who leads his flock. Jesus uses the image of a shepherd several times in the gospels. In today’s passage from the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks of the shepherd as differentiated from thieves and robbers. He says the shepherd enters “the sheepfold through the gate.” He can enter through the gate because the gatekeeper knows his voice so he will open the gate for him. Likewise the sheep know his voice so they will follow him where he leads them.

The shepherd image helps us to understand the relationship we have with Jesus. Just as a shepherd leads his flock to good pasture so the sheep can be fed and nourished, Jesus leads us to a place in life where we can hear his word and be strengthened by him. When Jesus says the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice he speaks of a relationship between the shepherd and the flock. In order for the sheep to follow they must recognize the voice.

So it is with us. Jesus invites us and establishes a relationship with us. Through prayer, both communal and personal, the relationship is developed and strengthened. We hear his voice and he promises to lead us to a better place in life.

In the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd. The most familiar passage in this regard is probably Psalm 23 which is the responsorial for today’s liturgy: “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.”

Jesus takes the meaning of the psalm to a whole new level. God is now the shepherd who literally walks among his flock and leads them.

In the Gospel passage for today’s Mass, Jesus also speaks of being the “gate.” What is the sheepgate? The gate is the point of entry. At the end of the feeding period a shepherd will gather the flock inside a fence. They enter through a gate. The fence is there for protection from those who would seek to steal, injure or kill the sheep. Jesus speaks of himself as the “gate” for he is the point of entry and the source of protection. In other words not only does he feed and nourish the flock, he protects them and guards their life.

We are hearing this reading in the context of the Easter season when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We continue to celebrate Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. This is a victory for life. In this victory Jesus is referred to as “the Lord of life.” He has lordship because he has conquered death.

In Jesus is our life. So when Jesus speaks of himself as the “gate” he is speaking about the path to life. Jesus gives himself totally on our behalf. The next passage in John’s Gospel Jesus says: “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11a). He is the good shepherd because “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11b). Through Jesus’ death on the cross we have life. Thus, he is the “gate.”

We enter the “gate” through the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and eucharist. The gateway leads us to life. Today’s first reading reminds us of this reality when Peter says to the crowd of people: “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.”

At the conclusion of today’s Gospel Jesus says: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Jesus is the key to the fullness of life. Through his triumph over death we have the promise of life eternal. Through baptism we become one with Christ in his death so that we might share in the fullness of his resurrection. Through our relationship with Christ Jesus our life in the present can be animated by his love.

As we grow in that relationship — speaking with him, learning from him, being consoled by him, being challenged by him, seeking forgiveness from him, indeed dying with him —  we rise with him to newness of life. As St. Paul says: “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.