Each year, in the Sundays which are early in the season of Easter, a similar pattern occurs in the lectionary. On the evening of Easter Sunday each year, the lectionary presents us with the well-known and much beloved Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13–49). In this story, two followers of Jesus walk towards the village of Emmaus in conversation with a stranger, discussing the events of recent days. The identity of the stranger is revealed to them only when they share a meal at table—and immediately Jesus disappears from their midst!
For the Second Sunday in Easter each year, the lectionary offers the same scene, of the time when Jesus appears to his followers in Jerusalem, meeting behind closed doors “for fear of the Jewish authorities” (John 20:19–31). Although the narrator reports that Jesus appeared to “the disciples”, we subsequently learn that Thomas had not been present, so a second scene, a week later, is reported.
This second scene in Jerusalem is when Thomas expresses his doubt about the appearance of Jesus, and to his astonishment, Jesus appears again, to show him his wounds. Thomas then expresses his firm belief: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). The importance of this scene, as with the Emmaus Road scene, is indicated by its appearance in each of the three years of the lectionary.
On the Third Sunday in Easter, three different scenes are offered across the three year cycle of the lectionary; each scene reports on a situation when the risen Jesus appeared to his followers. The appearance to two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24) is offered again in year A, the final Lukan scene of appearance and departure (Luke 24) in year B, and the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias, which includes the restoration of Peter (John 21), in year C. Each of these scenes extends the resurrection narrative into the life of the early church.
That brings us to the Fourth Sunday in Easter—this coming Sunday. The lectionary offers much of John 10, where Jesus speaks at length about “the good shepherd”, spread over the three years: John 10:1–10 in year A, 10:11–18 in year B, and 10:22–30 in year C. It omits those parts of this chapter where the antagonism against Jesus is explicit (10:19–21 and 10:31–39), as well as the concluding observation that “many believed in him” (10:40–42). After this Sunday, parts of the farewell discourses of Jesus reported in John 13–16 occur in following weeks over all three years.
The overall construction of the season of Easter across all three years can be seen with this overview, but the pattern is not evident in the week-by-week progression of each Easter season. Nor is it evident that the full teaching of Jesus about “the good shepherd” is offered over the three years of the cycle.
John’s Gospel is known for its series of I AM statements. In the first offering from John 10 (verses 1–10), we encounter one such claim by Jesus—but it is not quite what we expect. We expect him to say “I am the good shepherd”; and he does (but in v.11, which we will hear at this time next year!). Instead, he says, “I am the gate” (v.9)—the avenue for entry into the sheepfold, which was a place of care and protection for the sheep.
But “I am the gate” makes sense only because of what goes before it; the shepherd of the sheep is the one who knows the sheep, calls them by name, and guides them in the paths that they should follow.
In Hebrew Scripture, of course, God is identified as a shepherd; the best-known such reference is the opening phrase of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”. As he was dying, with his sons gathered around him, Jacob spoke to his son Joseph, praying, “the God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day … bless the boys [Ephraim and Manasseh]” (Gen 48:15–16), amd later indicated that Joseph’s strength came “by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you” (Gen 49:24–25).
When David was anointed as king, however, Samuel said to him “it is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2; 1 Chron 11:2). Subsequent rulers in Israel were accorded this title; yet key prophets during the exile lamented that there had been “stupid shepherds” with “no understanding” (Jer 10:21; Isa 56:11) and had done evil (Jer 12:10–13; 23:1–2; 50:6–7; Ezek 34:1–10).
Second Isaiah declared that Cyrus, king of Persia, would be anointed as God’s shepherd, to carry out God’s purpose (Isa 44:28–45:1). Jeremiah looked to the time when God would restore “shepherds after my own heart” in their midst (Jer 3:15) and Ezekiel prophesied God’s intentions: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezek 34:12).
The famous statement by Jesus, “I am the good shepherd” does not appear in the section of John 10 offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (10:1–10). It occurs twice in the second section (10:11–18) at verses 11 and 14, and Jesus refers to the “one shepherd” at 10:16. He refers to “the sheep” 13 times throughout the chapter. In the first section, by contrast, we find the striking statement that Jesus is “the gate for the sheep” (10:7). Sheep, of course, was a common description of the people of Israel as a whole in a number of psalms (see Ps 44:11, 22; 74:1; 78:52; 95:7; 100:3).
The implication of Jesus’s words in John 10:7 is that when Jesus refers to himself as “the gate for the sheep”, he has in mind the role of protecting the flock of sheep from those who would harm the sheep—thieves and wolves. If we interpret the sheep as being the disciples of Jesus (as in v.14), then they would have been in danger from persecuting Romans, hostile Pharisees, and bandits and robbers.
Gates were the means of protection for people within towns and cities, keeping at bay those who might attempt to attack from the outside (Deut 3:5; Ps 146:12–14); they were also the route by which faithful people could access the holy place of the Temple (Ps 24:9; 87:2; 100:4; 118:19; 122:2.
Certainly, there is a strand of antagonism coming towards Jesus (and his followers) from the Jewish authorities throughout the first half of the Gospel; in his farewell discourse, he warns his followers that “you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), and that “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2).
Jesus performs the function of the good shepherds that were promised; by guarding the gate, he offers security, for he saves the sheep; indeed, he offers “life in abundance” (John 10:10) to those who follow him. As we follow Jesus today, we might well reflect, what does it mean to be offered ‘life in abundance’? What does it mean to be ‘saved’ by the good shepherd?