Perspectives on Scripture April 17: Fourth Sunday of Easter Lk 19:28-40; Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6- 11; Lk 22:14—23:56 A friend of mine grew up on a sheep ranch and he tells stories about how, well, how dumb sheep are! Once, for example, he had gathered a group of sheep in a small pen surrounded by a rail fence. On the way in, the sheep had to jump over one railing that was a few feet above ground. On the way out, my friend had removed the railing to give the sheep an easier exit. However, one after another the sheep continued to jump over the space where the rail was. I thought about that when reading the passage from John’s Gospel for this Good Shepherd Sunday, taken from the beautiful discourse in Chapter 10 where Jesus speaks of himself as the shepherd who loves and protects his sheep. Several times, the Old Testament speaks of God as a loving and attentive “shepherd” for Israel, as in the beautiful Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack.” Here in John’s Gospel, Jesus is described in similar terms: he calls his sheep “by name” and “leads them out” of the sheepfold. Jesus says to his sheep “hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” The good shepherd is even willing “to lay down his life for his sheep.” Jesus refers to the good shepherd in contrast to the false shepherds, drawing on a famous comparison found in the Chapter 34 of the prophet Ezekiel. Unlike the false shepherds who fail to protect their flock and expose it to danger, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, protects his sheep and “no one can take them out of my hand.” This message of God’s love and protection lavished on us through the Risen Jesus is a constant refrain of John’s Gospel, expressed in a variety of metaphors and images. It fits so well into this season when the church still absorbs the glow of Easter and the Christian conviction about the triumph over death. This is the fundamental message of hope that drove the early Christian missionaries to spread out over the Mediterranean world and preach the good news. In the first reading today we hear a selection from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Barnabas, encouraged by the church in Antioch, their home base, travel into the heart of present day Turkey on their first missionary journey. Their work is not without controversy. Their method when they arrived at a town was to first visit the local synagogue since both Paul and Barnabas were devout Jews and wanted to share their joy about the Messiah Jesus who was bringing salvation to the world. But some of the members of the synagogue were unconvinced and resented the intrusion of these foreigners, while others, particularly Gentiles who frequented synagogues because they admired the beauty of Judaism, received this Gospel enthusiastically. Nevertheless, the early missionaries were unstoppable, as we have been hearing in the readings from the Acts of the Apostles that are frequently cited in these Sundays after Easter. What drove them was the message of God’s abundant love and liberation from fear that is also expressed in the Gospel reading from John. This is something that Pope Francis has emphasized over and over: the church is not about condemnation or exclusion but about God’s forgiving love and a tender outreach to those who are vulnerable and lost. As the befuddled sheep we often are, this is indeed good news.