A reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, by Revd Trevor Thomas
“I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43: 1)
One short word connects the Easter morning story in John’s Gospel (20: 1-18) with this Sunday’s Gospel passage (John 10: 1-10).
Out of the darkness on the first day of the week, the risen Jesus is not at first recognised by the distraught Mary Magdalene. Then she hears her name: ‘Mary’. She’s in a new world: ‘Rabbouni’, she cries. Her teacher is alive; he’s called her by name.
The ‘I am’ passages earlier in the Gospel are, in different ways, a preparation for this moment. In the light of Easter we hear them differently. We were like stray sheep, but now we have returned to our Shepherd, as we read in the Epistle (1 Peter 2: 25).
Two things about this shepherd strike me. First, how alike he is to the shepherds of the near East, in ancient and more recent times. He calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them from the front.
Then, how different he is. He doesn’t simply lead them; he lays down his life for the sheep (John 10: 11). In the ancient cultures and kingdoms national leaders were often pictured as shepherds – sometimes dutiful and courageous, sometimes careless and corrupt (see Ezekiel 34, among other Old Testament references). This shepherd is unique: the commitment to his flock is total, even to the point of death when the sheep are in mortal danger.
He calls his own sheep by name. On the first day of the New Age he says ‘Mary’. He has come to her out of the tomb. And, after telling her not to touch him, she sends her off to tell his friends (his ‘brothers’) what has happened. She does as she is told.
And so the community of the New Age is born, and Peter is recommissioned to be one of its leaders. Our Epistle tells us that the word goes out, eventually embracing the scattered communities of a great swathe of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The first letter of Peter speaks of this collection of vulnerable and scattered groups as a chosen people, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2: 9), even though, in earthly terms, a good number of them were slaves, deprived of the most basic legal rights (1 Peter 2: 18).
Chosen people are those who have value and honour in God’s sight (see Isaiah 43: 4). They are not nameless (anonymous), but named, like Mary at the tomb. Named and loved.
When God calls human beings, whatever our social standing, the call is first of all an expression of unconditional and costly love. Only as a consequence is it a summons: “Go to my brothers,” says Jesus to Mary. “Be ready to account for the hope within you,” says Peter to the scattered Christians of Asia Minor (1 Peter 3: 15).
But the Easter message will only carry conviction if it comes from those who are secure in the name they have been given, and the invincible love it conveys.