This Sunday’s readings present Jesus to us as the Good Shepherd and as the gate to the sheepfold.
The reading from Acts is short, the end of Peter’s preaching on Pentecost and the people’s reply. The people ask him, “What are we to do?” Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
At the Easter Vigil we heard Paul say, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:2-4).
Peter tells them that the proper response to his preaching is to be plunged into the death of Christ.
The conclusion of his preaching, by which “they were cut to the heart,” said, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” Last week, too, we saw that he began his preaching by saying, “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.” You killed him!
But for Peter, this is not just accusation. It is a call to repentance. The people repent, and he says, if you have repented, then be plunged into his death. His death becomes your healing.
He says, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children.” You who have crucified him, you to whom he gave himself to be crucified, are the ones he promises to raise. The Cross becomes the tree of life. Christ comes so near that our sin becomes the place of our repentance and our being reborn with him.
The reading from Second Peter gives a practical view of the same mystery. “By his wounds you have been healed” because “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross.” It is his very closeness to our sin, his willingness to suffer from our sin, to meet us while we are yet sinners, that makes him the place of our rebirth.
Perhaps the key is when Peter says, “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten” – and so he tells us, too, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.” It is in our recognition of sin that we find the way out. We repent – and are baptized, entering into Christ’s total vulnerability, his willingness to stay with us no matter what, and always to be willing to suffer for doing good. It is only in this total identification with Christ – even to the receiving of his own spirit – that we can be freed.
The Gospel tells us about the Good Shepherd and his sheep. “The sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” This is the heart of the sheep analogy, throughout Scripture. What differentiates sheep from the other animals is above all that they follow. Their obedience is a kind of intelligence. “They recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger.”
But this week the main analogy is not that Jesus is the shepherd – that comes later in the tenth chapter of John, and elsewhere in the Lectionary. Here he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
The identification goes deeper than just obedience. We are called to enter into Jesus. To be plunged into his Baptism. To be identified with him. That’s the real point of hearing his voice: not just blind obedience, but being so identified with him that we go where he goes, and are driven, not, like cows, by sticks, but by his Spirit, and the sheep’s love for its master.
The Psalm is “The Lord is my shepherd.” But now we can see more deeply into it. I shall not want. He refreshes my soul. When the three thousand repented and were baptized at Pentecost, they saw that Jesus offers everything. There is no need to be the persecutor, because to die with Jesus is to possess everything. He may lead us into the dark valley, he may correct us with rod and staff, he may set a table for us in the sight of our enemies, but our cup overflows.
Do we really trust that dwelling in the house of Jesus will satisfy us?