This passage offers contrasting images of leadership: courageous and Spirit-filled leadership on the one hand and fearful, threatened leadership on the other.
Peter is defending John and himself before the Temple authorities who have arrested them for preaching ‘that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’.
The source of their power to heal is also in question. Peter identifies the name of Jesus as the source of salvation and of healing for all. He refers to Jesus as the Christ or Messiah whom God has raised from the dead. The architectural metaphor of the cornerstone rejected by the master builders is a reference to Psalm 118:22. It identifies the threatened Temple authorities with the failed leaders of ancient Israel.
The gospel is also about leadership and has some resonance for me. When I was a child, my siblings and I used to spend part of our holidays and weekends herding the cows, just being with them as they grazed on the edge of the roads around our district.
We liked our cows, even if we didn’t want to spend all day with them. Each one of our small herd had a name and a personality. They were ours. They knew us and we knew them. We weren’t shepherds, but we came close to being an Australian equivalent of the good shepherd of the ancient world pictured in this gospel passage.
Strangely enough, for the earliest readers of John’s gospel, the term ‘good shepherd’ was something of a contradiction in terms. Most shepherds were known to trespass on the property of others. They thus broke the law and were considered ‘unclean’ according to the Jewish purity laws.
A positive image of the shepherd is also present in Israel’s prophetic tradition. The leaders were expected to shepherd their people wisely. Those who failed to do so were castigated:
‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them’ (Ezekiel 34:4).
That is no way for leaders to act. The gospel assertion, ‘I am the good shepherd’ probably picks up all the various resonances of the image. The notion of ‘one flock and one shepherd’ has its background in Jewish hopes that at the end time the Messiah would bring together all the scattered people of Israel and gather the nations to Jerusalem.
We have here a wonderful image of inclusivity and hope. ‘Laying down one’s life’ for the sake of the other and doing it willingly is central to the process of creating a community, ‘one flock’. ‘Listening’ is likewise affirmed as the way towards a unified community of peoples: ‘they too will listen to my voice’.
To my mind, this is the key to finding life in a fractured world.