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Today is Shepherd Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A) when we again review the ways Christ is like a Shepherd. But it is also helpful to look at the ways he is nothing like a shepherd at all.
His shepherd qualities are well known: He is a guide. He is a protector. He prods us back when we start to go astray. He leaves the 99 behind to search for us when we are lost.
Today’s Gospel takes his “shepherdness” one step further. The Shepherd’s is the voice we recognize. He prevents imposter sheep from taking over. He even compares himself to the gate of the sheepfold.
But let’s not forget in Easter the mystery that makes our shepherd utterly unlike every other shepherd: He is also the lamb.
We are used to the paradoxes of Christ: He is the creator of the universe, and a babe in a manger; he is the priest and victim at the sacrifice; he is the alpha and omega; he is our Lord and our Brother. Add to that: He is the Good Shepherd who protects the sheep and he is the Lamb who was taken and slain.
Yes, it is amazing that a shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep. But Christ went even further: He is the shepherd who became the lamb. He lived as a lamb, showed the sheep how to be lambs, and then died as a lamb.
This is even more extraordinary when you consider what sheep are like. I know this from a friend who owned sheep: They are not sweet and smart. They are obstinate, hard to train and unpleasant: Unpleasant to smell, unpleasant to handle, unpleasant to have to deal with. For a shepherd to become a lamb is an extraordinary act of love.
For a shepherd to die as the lamb is even greater.
In today’s second Reading, St. Peter makes the connection to the crucifixion explicit: “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,” he says, “For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
The shepherd became a lamb and allowed himself to be attacked by the wolves so that the other sheep would be safe.
As Peter says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”
He was led innocent and uncomplaining to the slaughter so that we could go free. Never had anyone seen love like that.
It is a love so great that it makes all the rest of the readings make sense. It makes sense that the early Christians, as we see in Acts, would tirelessly tell anyone who would listen what Jesus had done for them.
The deep peace and joy of today’s Psalm also makes sense, too. When the shepherd is willing to become a lamb and be attacked for us, then, truly, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
And it makes sense that we want to give everything we are — everything — to the one who gave everything he is to us.