Brief synopsis of the readings: Still reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter spoke to the “rulers of the people and elders.” He told them that his ability to heal someone comes from “Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the one you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” He then described Jesus as the “stone rejected by the builders, but which has proven to be the keystone.” Today’s Gospel comes from John. Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. Someone who is hired to herd sheep will run off at the sight of a wolf because he “has no concern for the sheep.” The good shepherd, on the other hand, knows his own and they know him “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” He will lay down his life for his sheep, and not just these sheep in his fold. All will listen to his voice and there will be one flock.
The first reading from Acts needs some explanation about the timeline. As we know the Acts of the Apostles describes the earliest days after Jesus’ resurrection and the formation of the Christian Church. After the apostles found the empty tomb, they encountered Jesus several times but he appeared and disappeared. He did not live among them full time. Forty days after his resurrection he ascended into the sky, and almost immediately after that the Holy Spirit came down upon them and granted them great powers. We call this event “Pentecost” and we will celebrate this on May 20th.
Today’s reading from Acts takes place after Pentecost and that explains why Peter is described as being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Many Christians remember, as teenagers, being confirmed (celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation). We were told that much like the early apostles, we too, would receive the Holy Spirit and will be able to do great things. Frankly, as a 13 year old, I don’t think I would have had the courage to call out the “rulers of the people and the elders.”
But Peter sure did. You see, this wasn’t some random speech. Today’s reading begins with chapter 4 verse 8. Chapter 4 begins with Peter and John preaching about Jesus and being arrested and put in jail for it. The reading picks up with what we would call a bail hearing. They appeared before the most important people in their lives: the Sanhedrin. They were the “leaders of the people and elders” and Peter and John were told to explain why they were preaching about Jesus. Most people at a bail hearing speak with humility. They try to explain that they’re not guilty or that it wasn’t like it looks. They attempt to play to the mercy of the judge.
Instead, Peter doubled down. He made the same argument that got him arrested: He told them about Jesus of Nazareth. He described Jesus as a cornerstone that was ignored; any builder will tell you that the first stone laid in the construction of a building must be true, lest the building not stand correctly. The idea that anyone would lay a cornerstone that was rejected by others would be crazy. Peter told these men that they simply didn’t recognize Jesus’ importance.
As we look at the Gospel, Peter claimed his role as the Good Shepherd.
I’ve spoken before about this before, but it’s hard for many of us to understand the complexities of herding sheep. Suffice it to say that sheep need a shepherd and not all shepherds are good. John’s Gospel tells us that some shepherds are only hired help, and they care only for their pay. A good shepherd may care for the profit, but he cares more for his sheep.
We can connect these readings by recognizing that the “rulers of the people and elders” were not good shepherds. They had many things: power, authority, and influence. They arrested Peter and John for the same reason the “hired men” abandoned the sheep when the wolf arrived: they were afraid.
They pretended to care about the sheep but when the wolves arrived they abandoned their role. Their fear made them bad shepherds. Peter accepted his role as the good shepherd because he didn’t succumb. He spoke truth to power because he knew the truth. Peter knew that he was speaking to the people who supported Jesus’ death and could (and will) support his own death but it didn’t matter to him. Peter’s message transcended his life to eternity.
Peter’s life after Jesus’ resurrection was hardly an easy one. We think of him as our first Pope and today’s reading points to an important marker in his career. Any reader of the Acts of the Apostles can see that Peter found himself the leader of Jesus’ disciples. But his leadership had none of the trappings we see now. He didn’t live in Vatican City, he didn’t supervise an extensive staff, and his words didn’t travel around the world by the internet.
But since Peter was the good shepherd that didn’t matter to him. When he appeared to the leaders of the people and elders he cared only for the welfare of his sheep. Some of them listened and some didn’t. For the rest of his life Peter cared only for those he led. He didn’t care about profit or popularity, about adoration or applause. He argued with Paul and James. He worried about his decisions and cared deeply how well he led those left in his care. But he never stopped caring for his sheep and offering to lay down his life for them.
Today we should look on these readings with the recognition that we are all good shepherds. Going on a limb, I’m betting that everyone reading this has someone in his or her life that looks to us for guidance. Some are teachers, some are parents, some are mentors, some are supervisors. But we all know someone who looks to us for guidance or protection.
I recently connected with someone on social media who lives a few thousand miles away from me. But a decade ago she was a brand new nurse and I was an experienced chaplain and I was asked to mentor her into the world of hospice. I couldn’t teach her much about nursing, but she already had those skills. I could teach her about hospice and how everyone in hospice shepherds patients in the last chapter of their lives. She was always a good nurse and I like to think that I helped her learn to be a good hospice nurse. She recently earned her Ph.D. in nursing and made a point of telling me how my mentoring played a part in her success. In all humility I can claim my role in shepherding her.
Let us all strive to be Good Shepherds.