4th Sunday of Easter: ‘My Sheep Hear My Voice’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Last week, the shepherd got instructions. This week, it’s the sheep’s turn.

Eugène Joseph Verboeckhoven, “Gathering the Flock,” 1839
Eugène Joseph Verboeckhoven, “Gathering the Flock,” 1839 (photo: Public Domain)

With the Fourth Sunday of Easter comes a shift in the kinds of Gospels we hear. From Easter until now, the Sunday Gospels have told of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances: the women with angels at the tomb; Peter and John’s encounter with the empty tomb; Jesus in the Upper Room; Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias. Today, they shift from post-Resurrection appearances to Jesus’ teaching: his sheep hearing his voice; the greatest commandments of love; love meaning keeping the commandments.

This shift in content should not be surprising: we are moving away from Easter, toward the Ascension and Pentecost, i.e., the end of Jesus’ regular post-Resurrection appearances and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus presumably spent time in those 40 days teaching his Apostles, performing “many other signs in the presence of his disciples, signs not recorded in this book” (John 20:30). Indeed, he “did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). John is clear: the signs he enumerates are selected, curated “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his Name” (John 20:31).

So, like the Apostles, we settle down in this part of Paschaltide to the essential teachings to carry us forward … until the end of the world. Since, as John just mentioned, these signs “are not recorded in this book,” we turn to those that are, primarily found in the long Farewell Discourse that Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper.

Another reason we should not be surprised at this shift in Gospel content is that concepts like “Easter,” “Ascension,” “Pentecost” and “the sending of the Holy Spirit” are all parcelized for us because we live in time. For God, who lives in eternity, they are all one moment: because of Easter, the end of the world will be like it is and evil conquered. Because of Good Friday, the Holy Spirit is already in the world. 

We, subject to time, break events into nice, neat little packages. But when Matthew reports that Jesus breathes his last on the cross and the veil of the Holy of Holies in the Temple is shredded and already some of the dead come forth (Matthew 27:51-52), who did you think did that if not the Holy Spirit? If Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his Apostles on Easter Sunday night to enable them to forgive sins — the center of his redemptive work (John 20:22) — do you think that gift was on hold until Pentecost? When Peter and the Apostles acknowledge “it is the Lord” (John 21:7) and Peter subsequently confesses his love for Christ, how could that happen except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3)? 

Jesus has to prepare them for the definitive, full gift that is coming to these men, stuck in time.

Last week, Jesus told Peter to take charge of his sheep by tending and feeding them. They are his sheep and Jesus has elsewhere noted that the Good Shepherd’s commitment to his sheep lies in the fact they belong to him (John 10:11-13). Peter is not to be a “hireling,” because he committed himself last week (John 21:15-19) to “tend” and “feed” the sheep because he loves the Good Shepherd, not for money. Those of the shepherd’s family are not hirelings, but sons. We’ve seen that sons can be problems (cf. Luke 15:11-32), but they are still sons, even if they ask to be treated “like one of your hired servants” (v. 19).

Last week, the shepherd got instructions. This week, it’s the sheep’s turn.

They need to hear Jesus’ voice. Those who truly belong to his sheepfold do. Those who hear him, follow him. They recognize the voice, and can distinguish it from the siren calls of the Zeitgeist. Because they hear and belong to Christ, they have eternal life; apart from him, they do not. Because they hear and belong to Christ, they are secure: they cannot be snatched away from Christ or his Father.

Jesus is not just the Shepherd, he is also the Lamb, the “Lamb of God” in whose blood those “from every race, nation, people and tongue” have washed their robes and made them clean, as the Second Reading from the Book of Revelation points out.

The shift in Gospel content from post-Resurrection appearances to Jesus’ teaching makes the challenge of finding illustrations of the Gospel in art more challenging. Events lend themselves more readily than ideas or concepts to illustration. One can always find a depiction of Jesus teaching, but whether that particular depiction has a direct relation to the Gospel of the day is another question. On the other hand, artistic renditions of Jesus’ ideas like “my sheep hear my voice” tend either to steer toward poster-like pictures (usually with the text emblazoned on it) or somewhat saccharine art.

I’ve chosen a painting by Belgian painter Eugène Verboeckhoven (1798-1881), “Gathering the Flock.” Verboeckhoven was recognized for his artistic skill in illustrating animals. Verboeckhoven was not religious (he was a Mason) nor is this painting directly religious. But it can serve our purposes.

When I lived in London, there was one thing I quickly noticed: no matter what direction you went, it didn’t take long on the train before the sheep started. Sheep seem almost ubiquitous in England. So, when I first looked at this painting, I thought it was an English countryside: sheep, a kind of simply dressed shepherd, and rainy weather somewhere in the background.

Then I noticed the wayside cross. That’s when I decided it couldn’t be an English scene. Roadside crosses might be commonplace on the Continent, but not in Protestant England. 

The sheep are around the shepherd, in somewhat pell-mell fashion. Sheep, after all, have two contrary instincts: a herd mentality to stick together and enough stupidity to wander off. This shepherd, staff in hand, is trying to gather his sheep. Somewhere, instinctively, his sheep have a sense of sticking around him. The shepherd wants to assemble his sheep to protect them against the threatening storm. They are still in the light and remain in the light around their shepherd, but storms do threaten their world.

Why I chose this painting is that, while the sheep cluster around their shepherd, their shepherd is clustering them in front of the roadside cross. Maybe it was just a typical Flanders landscape our Masonic painter depicted; maybe it was a cursory tip-of-the-hat to cultural Christianity on whose gases an increasingly secularizing Europe (one the Masons wanted to secularize) was still cruising.

Whatever the reason, the cross is there and, in some sense, it’s in some ways the most prominent element in the painting. It is the tallest element on the ground, kind of reaching toward the sky and joining it to earth. There is a certain descending leftwards diagonal from that cross, through the shepherd and his staff (the next tallest) to the sheep, who graze even lower on ground sloping even more downwards. Perhaps that cross is not noticed: the shepherd isn’t looking at it, nor the sheep. But it is there and, factually, it’s the locus where the sheep are assembling. 

In that sense, might this otherwise secular painting have a lesson for our world, too?