Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’I AM the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.’”
This is a classic Scriptural reference, one that has endeared itself to hundreds of generations before us. There is probably not a single soul here who has not at some time or another imagined himself or herself to be a sheep – the sheep – in the arms of the Great and Good Shepherd. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” has been embraced by numerous souls seized with distress over the course of the years, its icon comforting many at the time of death (Ps. 22 :1-6). This bucolic self-giving image of the Shepherd is timeless and has come to serve as the patronal icon of all God’s shepherds of every time and every place. “’I AM the Good Shepherd, and know My sheep and am known by Mine. . . . I lay down My life for the sheep.’” No bishop, no priest, no pastor worth anything, has not aspired to be this shepherd of goodness and of life, a calling and an aspiration of great weight. It is the cross of the pastor borne willingly, gladly, joyfully because we are yoked with the very One Whose Cross it is! And the Cross of our Lord always means salvation.
This Gospel pericope is set within the larger context of the Good Shepherd reading itself which is an exchange between our Lord and the Pharisees. Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. He is not a thief and a robber, nor is He a hireling, that is, He is not someone hired to tend to the sheep or to look after the flock. The Shepherd, unlike others, is personally vested in the sheep of the flock. They are His sheep, the sheep of His pasture (Ps. 94 :7; 99 :3), and not someone else’s. Indeed, one might dare to say that the Shepherd imaged here for us is nearly a father-figure to His sheep. The Good Shepherd seeks the good of the sheep under His care and their well-being. In this particular case, the eternal goodness and welfare of the flock we know as the Church. The thief and hireling, on the other hand, could care less. The thief has no other intent “’but to steal and to kill and to destroy’” while the hired hand is out of there at the first sign of danger, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves as best as they can. The Good Shepherd, however, goes so far as to trade His life for that of His sheep. The Prophet Isaiah sees Him:
He bears our sins, and is pained for us . . . He was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and by His bruises we are healed. All we as sheep have gone astray; everyone has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave Him up for our sins. . . . He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, . . . . (Is. 53:1-12).
This Shepherd “is God, . . . He has made us, and not we ourselves, . . . .” (Ps. 94 :7; 99 :3), thus He voluntarily wills to lay down His life for the sheep of His pasture (Jn. 10:17-18). Indeed, this characterization of the Good Shepherd by our Lord created a division between the Jews, says the Evangelist, causing some to once more slander Jesus by accusing Him of being demon-possessed and out of His ever-loving mind while others drew entirely different conclusions, asserting, “’Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (Jn. 10:19-21).
“’I AM the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep. . . . I AM the Good Shepherd, and know My sheep and am known by Mine.’” These are the enduring, if not endearing, qualities of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. “’My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me,’” He says (Jn. 10:4, 27). There is an intimacy unsurpassed here between Jesus and His sheep, a superlative communion such as He and the Father experience, a union and a unity. “’I am come,’” He declares, “’that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’” Indeed, “’I give unto them Eternal Life – [can there be anything more?] – and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand’” (Jn. 10:28). So long as the sheep abide in the bosom of their Shepherd, they need fear no evil for the Good Shepherd – their Shepherd – is with them, His rod and His staff comfort them and protect them: the rod to strike the predator and drive it away, the staff – the famous shepherd’s crook – to snatch the unwary, straying sheep back from the precipice of destruction and return them to the paths of righteousness “for His Name’s sake” (Ps. 22 :1-6).
The Good Shepherd lays down His life so that His sheep might have life – His life – in return, Eternal Life, divine Life, Life abundant. This is the hallmark of the Good Shepherd and those under Him who are His under-shepherds: sacrificial love . . . agape. “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from Heaven” (Nicene Creed). He didn’t have to, but He did. He came to find us. He came to where we were so that we might be with Him where He is now. He came to throttle the wolf of souls, to beat down death by His voluntary Passion and Death. The Good Shepherd did not turn and run back to the safety of the Father’s bosom at the first signs of danger, at the terrible howling of the hound of Hell, leaving us behind. He did not retreat from the hissing of the ancient serpent nor did He escape the serpent’s venomous bite. But, “trampling down death by death” (Paschal Troparion), He crushed the ancient serpent’s head (Gn. 3:15) by His Resurrection from the dead, and now “upon those in the tombs [He alone bestows] Life,” His Life, Eternal Life, divine Life such as we had not had before nor had ever tasted! All others who “promise” such things are thieves and robbers.
The Good Shepherd has called us into His one flock – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is here in this holy assembly that He prepares a table for His sheep in the presence of their enemies – sin, death, and the devil, and any others who afflict them (Ps. 22 :1-6). He sets upon it the finest of wheat and the choicest of wine (Ps. 80 :16; Is. 25:6-9). For the Good Shepherd does not cease to lavish His goodness upon His flock, the sheep of His pasture. He leads them in and out to green pastures and still waters (Ps. 22 :2). Indeed, what does He do but He gives Himself – His Body as Food and His Blood as drink. “’Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has Eternal Life,’” He declares, “’and I will raise him up at the Last Day. For My Flesh is true Food, and My Blood is true Drink’” (Jn. 6:54, 55). The Good Shepherd is driven by nothing less than love. Again and again, He gives of Himself to His sheep in utter love in the Holy Mystery of His Body and Blood by His one self-offering on the Altar of the Cross for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51; Hb. 7:26-8:2). In this Mystery of divine love He is at once both the Offerer and the Offered, the Priest and the Sacrifice, the Shepherd and the Lamb (Is. 53:1-12). In this most holy Mystery, then, He continues His ministry of sacrificial self-offering as the Chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Pe. 2:25; 5:4).
‘I AM the Door; by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, . . . I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I AM the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep. . . . I AM the Good Shepherd, and know My sheep and am known by Mine. . . . I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold. Them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold and one Shepherd.’
Today, the Church commemorates our Father among the saints and true shepherd of Christ’s holy Flock, John Chyrsostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. He remains the quintessential icon of the Good Shepherd. He fed the Church on the truth of God that alone is worth anything in this old world, even to the point of conflict with the political powers of his day. He dared to confront corruption with the incorrupt Gospel of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. He was tenacious, summoning all to repentance precisely because he knew the God of all mercy. He was compassionate, ever seeking the good of his fold, tending to them in their miseries, “caring for each person as for his own soul,” choosing to live an austere life so that they might have life, and have it abundantly. He built hospitals and hospices and provided for the needs of the many by learning how to live on what he needed and not by what he wanted. He was a man of deepest prayer, which was the power of his soul. Whatever he did, whatever he preached, he did so always with his gaze unflinchingly fixed on Jesus, the Great Bishop and Good Shepherd of souls. The Empress Eudoxia twice exiled the good Archbishop because he was the proverbial “fly in her ointment.” The second time he was sent to the ancient version of Siberia or the Gulags where he died from sheer physical exhaustion from his forced death march, though he remained vibrant spiritually. He was elevated to martyrdom on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy, Precious, and Life-giving Cross. The last words he uttered are etched in eternity and are the essence of his undying faith, “Glory be to God for all things!” (Menaion).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, especially our Father among the saints, John Chrysostom, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!