Year B:    Acts 4:5-12.           1 John 3:16-end.                John 10: 11-18.

A few weeks ago, just before Easter, a national survey published its findings in which we were informed that at British funerals these days secular songs have overtaken religious lyrics in popularity but that among the latter The Lord is my shepherd continues to be the number one favourite for such occasions.

In a way there has always been something intriguing about the popularity of this hymn. I don’t imagine that many of those who sing it with such misty-eyed feeling would readily want to think of themselves as sheep. Perhaps its enduring appeal is something to do with an unconscious longing in the human spirit for there to be someone who will watch over us, take care of us and see that we are all right, someone who will give us – each one of us – the sense, the assurance, that I matter.

Perhaps also that is why down the centuries the image, the symbol, of the shepherd has appealed so persistently to the human imagination. In literature and in art, in legend and in myth, from earliest times and cultures, the shepherd appears again and again. Not just as a bucolic figure, tending his flocks, or sporting with nymphs and shepherdesses. In former times in the Near East it was not at all unusual for a leader or a king to be called the shepherd of his people. The pharaohs were so designated, as were the rulers of Babylon and of the city-states of ancient Greece .

The Jews daringly extended the metaphor to GOD himself, who was seen as the shepherd both of the nation of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock (Ps 80:1) and of the individual, providing sustenance, guidance and safety, even in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4). He is described by the prophet Isaiah as the God who will feed his flock (and) like a shepherd he will gather the lambs in his arms (and) carry them in his bosom and gently lead those who are with young (Is 40:11).

Throughout their history the Jewish people never forgot that two of their great heroes, Moses and David, though separated by many centuries, had been shepherds when they were summoned by a divine imperative to undertake a very different kind of pastoral responsibility. It was while they were with their flocks that they received the vocation to be shepherds of their people. Moses was charged with the awesome task of leading the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt across the fierce and hostile landscape of the wilderness to the promised land. David in his turn was summoned and anointed to be king, to drive out his people’s enemies and establish the kingdom in peace and righteousness. The rabbis spoke of Moses as the compassionate and caring shepherd and of David as the valiant protector of his people, shepherding them with a faithful and true heart and guiding them skillfully and wisely (Ps 78.72).

So it was that, emerging from that tradition, Jesus was known to his friends and followers as the good shepherd – caring for the flock, watching over them and guarding them, sustaining them with the life-giving assurance that each individual is known to him and named by him and ultimately defending them with his own life.

In our western tradition we have tended to romanticise the figure of the shepherd and his way of life, often portraying him leading a happy, idyllic existence. This has undoubtedly influenced our perception of Jesus the good shepherd. We have sentimentalised and idealised him – just think of those Victorian stained glass windows. Even the early Christians didn’t escape the temptation. The earliest representations of Jesus the good shepherd (which probably derive from pagan images of the god Apollo) depict him as a beautiful beardless youth with masses of curly hair, wearing a rather dashingly  short tunic and carrying a sheep on his shoulders.

The reality of being a shepherd is entirely something else – something other. It is a task which requires vigilance, good judgement and in some circumstances decisive resourcefulness and courage. Christ the good shepherd is not just a charming lad piping down the valleys wild, inhabiting a delightful Arcadian landscape of green pastures … andstill waters.

The young David described to King Saul some of the hazards of the shepherd’s life: how when there came a lion or a bear to take a lamb from the flock, he would have to go after him and smite him and deliver it out of his mouth and kill him (1 Sam 7:34).

The second David – great David’s greater son – speaks similarly of dangerous predators preying upon the flock. He speaks of the wolf coming and snatching the sheep, scattering them and of how the shepherd has to defend them without safeguard and at the risk of his own life. So Christ is the good shepherd whom engages in mortal conflict with all that seeks to turn human nature away from GOD in disbelief, despair and death. He takes on not just lions, bears and wolves but the demonic powers of darkness and he prevails. He is the one who is in command: he has power to lay down his life and he has power to take it again. Christ the good shepherd is Christ the conqueror: - the living one who is alive for evermore and who has the keys of Death and of Hades (Rev 1:18).

According to a common patristic exegesis, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine – those who have not gone astray, the angelic hierarchies and orders – and goes after the one which is lost – the human race – until he finds it. When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing (Luke 15:4) and brings it home.

That is salvation – that is what it is and how it is.

According to St Paul , we have not only died with Christ in baptism, we have also risen with him and with him we are already in the heavenly places. Jesus is on record as saying that this is a fact of present reality, not just a future hope.  He says that those who are considered worthy of the resurrection of the dead are like the angels and are children of GOD, being children of the resurrection. Life in fellowship with the angels can be experienced here and now.

Gregory of Nyssa says that redeemed humanity can now at last take its rightful place with the angels in the great dance of all created being. He speaks of the one corps de ballet which looks to the one leader, the lord of the dance, fanning out from him and returning to him – in a most excellent and perfect order.

Rejoice with me the shepherd calls out exultantly as he brings home the missing partner in the dance. In Hebrew the words rejoicing and dancing are closely related and are almost synonymous. Rejoice with me means Come dance with me.

Humankind is made for festivity – festivity, not vapid hilarity - for heaven’s festivity, where there is music and dancing to celebrate the finding of what had been lost, the return to life of what had died. For where heaven is but once begun there alleluyas be.

The good shepherd, the risen one, returns to the Father who sent him and calling together friends and neighbours cries out in Easter triumph: Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost (Luke 15.6)                                    

Eric Simmons CR