This fourth Sunday of Easter is usually known as the “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because in the gospel Jesus introduces himself exactly as the Good Shepherd. This year we do not read a passage taken from the speech where Jesus explicitly says: “I am the Good Shepherd,” but some verses belonging to his answer to those Jews, who, during the feast of the Dedication, had asked him: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” And Jesus replies saying that he has already told them, but they do not believe, because they are not among his sheep. And then the passage we have just heard follows.
It could seem an insignificant passage: just four verses. But, if you read it attentively, you will find a good ten statements on the part of Jesus; and one more important than the other. First of all, Jesus opposes the attitude of his sheep with that of the Jews: unlike them, the sheep hear Jesus’ voice; they follow him. That is to say: they believe in him. On his part, Jesus knows his sheep and gives them eternal life. We know that, in the Bible, the verb “to know” does not refer just to an intellectual and abstract knowledge, but it implies experience, familiarity, love, union with the person or the thing known. Jesus knows his sheep, that is he loves them; and that is why he gives them eternal life.
By now, the sheep belong to Jesus, because the Father has given them to him. No one can take them out of Jesus’ hand, as no one can take them out of the Father’s hand, because the Father is greater than all. At this point Jesus makes a very strong statement: “The Father and I are one.” Jesus is practically claiming his divinity; he not only is putting himself on the same level than God, but he is identifying himself with God. And the Jews, who are not stupid, immediately understand Jesus’ claim; so much so that they pick up stones to stone him. Stoning was the punishment for blasphemers. They will say to Jesus: “We are not stoning you for a good work, but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.” The problem is that Jesus was not making himself God; he was God. But the Jews did not know that, exactly because they were not among his sheep.
As you can see, in so few verses we find practically the whole revelation. I leave to you to continue your reflection on these words of Jesus about his relationship with the Father and with his sheep. Instead, I would like to point out that in today’s liturgy we find another reference to the Good Shepherd, precisely in the second reading. It is a vision that portrays the faithful Christians before God’s throne. Its purpose is to encourage those on earth to persevere to the end, even to death. The faithful are a great multitude, which no one could count. They belong to every nation, race, people and tongue. The Church is open to everybody. We have heard in the first reading the moment when Paul and Barnabas, after preaching the gospel to the Jews, turn to the Gentiles. In the new faith there are no barriers. As Peter had said in front of Cornelius: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35). So, this variegated multitude stands before God’s throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Who are they? “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are the martyrs, who died during the persecutions; but they are not only the martyrs; they are also the faithful, who are still on the earth, fighting for their faith. They have nothing to worry about, because they are in God’s temple (the Church); God shelters them; “they will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them.” And then a very strange promise follows: “For the Lamb … will shepherd them and lead them to the springs of life-giving water.” Usually, lambs are shepherded. Instead, here the shepherd is the Lamb himself. The Lamb that was slain, the one who laid down his life for the sheep, has become the Shepherd of them. It will be him to lead them to the springs of life-giving water; he will give them eternal life. We are those sheep; and the Lamb—the Lamb alone—is our Shepherd.