The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2024

March 11, 2024 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Psalm 23 1 John 3:16-24 John 10:11-18 Acts 4:5-12

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is informally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because the Gospel readings for this Sunday, in all three lectionary years, gather around the symbolism of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And those Gospel readings are reinforced, in all three lectionary years, with Psalm 23. For many Christians, the psalmist’s original vision of God as shepherd has been so thoroughly assimilated to Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd,” that we often imagine – and represent in church art – Jesus as the one who walks with us in the valley, Jesus as the one who calms our fear, Jesus as the one who comforts us.

This psalm is one that people often turn to as solace in difficulty. It is often requested at hospital bedsides and at funerals. It is probably the most-memorized psalm, and many can quote it spontaneously when they feel the need for reassurance. Its imagery of revival and anointing and goodness and mercy speaks powerfully to our neediness in the face of evil and death.

But this psalm can also be easily sentimentalized. Thoughts of lying down in green pastures, or strolling beside still waters, or sitting down to a well-spread table apart from any enemies, can be reduced to a sort of heartwarming sweetness that is deliberately divorced from the real struggles and actions of this life. A sentimental reading of the psalm can encourage a kind of passivity, a notion that we sheep can do nothing toward our own good, that we need do nothing but sit back and wait for the Shepherd to make everything right and give us our needed comfort.

But when we say “your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” what do we actually mean? What does it mean to be “comforted” by Jesus?

When Psalm 23 was first translated into English, the word “comfort” meant more than it does now. It had then, as now, connotations of “to soothe” or “to console” or “to make someone feel better.” It could be used to convey feelings of (as we would now say) being safe and warm and fuzzy.

But the word “comfort” could also be used in a more dynamic sense. The word is built on the Latin root fortis, which means “strong.” We still see that in words like “fortify” and “fort.” Its archaic use lingers on in old constructions like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” describing treasonous action to strengthen the opponent. Older religious language called the Holy Spirit “the Comforter” because it is the Spirit who strengthens us to do God’s will in effective action in the world.

When Psalm 23 was first translated into English, the phrase “your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” spoke to the way God in Christ gives us strength, gives us empowerment, to follow in the way of mission and service and suffering and new life where Jesus has gone before us, into which Jesus leads us.

And if we can keep in mind this broader, more nuanced idea of “comfort,” encompassing both consolation and empowerment, that brings new depth to how we understand what it can mean to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and to “fear no evil.”

It can mean that walking into the valley of shadow, that confronting the threat of danger and suffering and death, is not something that happens to us as hapless victims. It can affirm that we have agency – even if limited and opposed, still some level of genuine agency – in the way we face the things that threaten us. It affirms that even when harmful and hurtful things are done to us, we still have strength to determine what we will do with those hurts in our personal and communal realities.

In the passage from John’s Gospel also assigned for this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus explains that “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He then adds, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Reading this passage in the Easter season, we see it clearly as a reference to crucifixion and resurrection.

In this context, the verse affirms that Jesus was not simply killed on the cross as a victim of state power and religious intolerance. These outside forces were not able to “take” Jesus’ life; instead, he made an active offering of his life for the sake of his sheep. He was empowered to make this offering through his devotion to God – “I have received this command from my Father,” he says – as Jesus found his very selfhood in enacting the aims given him by God, so it was his own act, his co-creative power of selfhood in doing as God gave him to do, and not the coercive power of Caiaphas or Pilate, that led him to the cross.

But that empowerment from God to offer his life on the cross was the same empowerment that enabled him to receive new life beyond the empty tomb. The power to take up his life again resided in his relationship with God, in the way God took into the divine Becoming – what Whitehead called the Consequent Nature of God – the sacrifice of the cross, Jesus’ offer of his very selfhood, and from the divine Becoming – what is sometimes called the Superjective Nature of God – offered new possibilities for the continuing embodiment of that selfhood in new conditions of life. Jesus’ death and resurrection were not a loss of agency followed by a granting of new agency, but were one and the same activity of self-offering and self-constituting co-creative relationship with God.

It is this co-creative power-to-act, this godly agency, that Jesus reveals in Resurrection, and, as the Good Shepherd, it is into this same godly agency that Jesus leads his followers. The Good Shepherd comforts and strengthens his people to exercise their agency in co-creative action with God, taking in even hurts and harms and threats, and responding with God’s possibilities for new life. When we walk into the valley of the shadow of death with Jesus, we walk not as victims but as agents and actors of divine love.

And that perspective brings new meaning to the assertion that those who walk with Jesus “fear no evil.” From this point of view, this is not an assertion that the faithful will never experience evil, not a promise that the Shepherd will ward off all harmful things and protect the faithful from having to endure any negative outcomes. Instead, it is the assurance that Jesus will strengthen and empower his followers to face into evil, to confront the persons and patterns and social structures that inflict and perpetuate harm, without fearing them. It is the assurance that anxiety and despair will not immobilize those who follow Jesus’ Way from witnessing to God’s new possibilities for life in even the most destructive and malicious situations.

Increasing political polarization and corresponding gridlock in federal and state legislatures and executives. Concerted attacks on voting rights, and on the very bases of democratic government in our nation and in others. Rampant gun violence throughout American society. Wars in Sudan and Ukraine and Gaza waged with disregard for civilian and non-combatant suffering that would have seemed unthinkable only decades ago. Devastating wildfires in various parts of the world, burning throughout the year and no longer in “fire seasons,” and the ongoing degradation of the environment that both causes and is caused by such fires. These are things that dominate our headlines, each representing an influence of evil among us. These are things that induce fear, and that can bring in the wake of fear reactive responses like despair or denial or impotent rage or the kind of vapid complacency that comes from feeling “we can’t do anything about it anyway.” These are things we experience as terrible and terrifying; they are repugnant to our sense of security; they are irruptions of pernicious forces that can really destroy people and communities that we love. Fear is a natural, even a rational, response to such destructive powers.

But the promise of the Good Shepherd who comforts and strengthens is that we do not need to give in to the fear of such evils. We do not lose our agency in the face of such destructiveness. We are empowered by Jesus to respond to occasions of evil not with despair or denial or reactively destructive rage, but with deep listening, with active compassion, and with witness to the new possibilities for shared life and mutual well-being that God opens up among us. To “fear no evil” in the company of Jesus is not to pretend that evil does not exist, nor to cling to a false confidence that it will never touch us, but to recognize it with courage, and to engage in its healing through co-creative relationship with God.

All this is possible because, for all its beauty and traditional significance, the metaphor of the Good Shepherd falls short in one important way: no earthly shepherd expects the sheep to become more shepherd-like as they follow; but our relationship with Jesus helps us to grow into ever-increasingly Christlike versions of ourselves.

As we follow Jesus in his Way, as we practice more and more, individually and collectively, his pattern of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude, our relationship with God becomes more and more like Jesus’ own relationship with God. Jesus was able to embody in himself, to enact in his actions, aims and potentials from God, even to the point of dying and rising again, because of the depth of his co-creative connection, his intimate involvement, with the unceasing working of God in the world. As we follow Jesus’ practice of receiving and offering, giving freely and accepting gratefully, we deepen our own connection, we involve ourselves more intimately, with world-making and life-giving Creativity. It is, then, more and more that all-encompassing Creativity that works through us, that rod and staff that comfort us, strengthening and empowering us as we intentionally receive from it and offer to it, so that we may walk into the valley, and confront evil with healing, and join with God in God’s everlasting gathering of the universe into love.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of religion and science, spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action and natural action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.