Today is what we call the “Good Shepherd’s Sunday”, which marks the half-way point of Eastertide. The focus of our readings will now shift from Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the content of his conversation with the disciples held over the Last Supper: full of the imagery of the interconnectedness of our life in God (e.g., “I’m the vine you’re the branches”, etc.) This thematic change is meant to prepare us for Pentecost, which celebrates the origins of the Church as the community of those who share in the life of God.
This concept of sharing in God’s life -- i.e. developing some knowledge of him, having a relationship with him and with others who know him, and discerning a life purpose that stems out of these -- is represented in the Bible in many ways. Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we reflect on just one way we could think about this: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” I find it tricky to identify with this metaphor, as I don’t have any firsthand experience of raising sheep, and what I do know doesn’t seem so flattering in attributing to me the status of a herd animal. But I wonder if even those who knew much more about animal husbandry -- the 1st century audience of Jesus -- could easily keep up with the meandering change of metaphors in the parable: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him… I am the gate.”
It seems though that this one little parable gives us a whole range of choices to conceptualize our relationship with God. What works better for you (and it might change moment by moment): the shepherd whom the sheep know and trust because he willing to lay down his life for the sheep, the gatekeeper who opens the way for the sheep to come into a safe place, or the gate itself, which is the way to “the truth and the life”? Or, what about the seemingly unrelated “chief cornerstone” from today’s Acts reading?
I think the unifying idea behind all these metaphors is that God is with us wherever we are. If a shepherd leads the sheep, it is not from the Oval Office or Parliament Hill, but by covering on foot the very ground that the sheep will be expected to cover; experiencing all the same conditions and challenges before the sheep do. The very authority of the shepherd as a leader is found in his willingness to do so. As we read in Psalm 23, it is together with God that we encounter the peaks and the valleys of this world. Together, we make the inevitable transition to the most verdant of all pastures, where the table will be set, the waters will be still, and the cup will not simply be filled with joy, but it will overflow; where God is both the gatekeeper and the gate -- and, the shepherd who brings us there, rather than sending us there on our own.
But, along the way to that final valley, we will make many turns into the dead-end paths. How do we know which of the voices we hear in our hearts and minds, from our screens and in conversations, will lead us to God? St John writes: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us… All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Again, the distinguishing feature of all the good shepherds, heavenly and earthly, is the willingness to love, sacrifice, lead by walking the same path. Those mentors and friends who espouse this stand will have more authority to teach and help us. If we aspire to lead and teach others, we will have to earn our authority to do so in the same way.
In addition to experiencing some dead-ends, we will also miss many turns that have the potential to lead us to more fruitful places. This is St Peter’s point: “The stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” The “chief cornerstone” or “the capstone” is the one that crowns the building at the culmination of the building process, which the builders choose most carefully for its quality, trueness, and fit. Choose the wrong one, and the whole building might crumble, crushing under its weight those gathered beneath -- a metaphor used in the bible at least 10 times, by the OT prophets and NT apostles alike. If I construct the edifice of my faith on theological precepts, scriptural knowledge, worship rituals, but fail to hold it in balance by the capstone of self-giving, it will not withstand the gravitational forces that pull me away from God. When it collapses, as to be honest, it does periodically, it buries my emotions under all the inconsistencies and paradoxes of my limited knowledge of God because in isolation from sacrifice these mean nothing - just empty words and worked up feelings, the cacophonous gong and cymbal of which St Paul wrote.
What is it that helps me to rebuild my faith each time it comes crashing down? Well, where does the line about the capstone originally come from? Psalm 118: a liturgy of thanksgiving, written for the procession that brought sacrifices to the Temple. It begins and ends with, and constantly repeats the refrain, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever”. When all else fails, when I don’t have the strength, or anything more to give, I can still be thankful. Regularly offering my sacrifice “of praise and thanksgiving” helps me to stay open to hearing the voice of God, discerning the turns that will lead me to more fruitful pasttres, and choosing the right capstone for the building of my faith. Today, when we bring the gifts to the altar during the offertory portion of our communion, I encourage you to ponder why God might, in fact, consider your "praise and thanksgiving" a suitable and sufficient sacrifice. And then when I recite the Echaristic prayer for us, keep your ears open for these words, and make them your own. Thanks be to God.