The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Homily: 4th Sunday of Easter, Year C

Readings: Acts 13:14,43-52; Ps 100; Rev 7:9,14b-17; Jn 10:27-30

Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day in our liturgical year when we celebrate God’s great love for us.

But did you know, it’s only in John’s Gospel that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd? In the other Gospels He relates a parable that describes a shepherd who goes out in search of one lost sheep. We’ve all seen pictures describing this parable, pictures of the shepherd with the little lamb draped over his shoulders.

It’s a nice story, isn’t it? One of those heart-warming parables with which we can all identify. It’s easy to see oneself as the lamb that has strayed and is now being carried to safety by our forgiving Lord. How wonderful that God cares so much about each of us that He’d search for us and carry us home – reminiscent of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

But in John’s Gospel, where Jesus describes the work of the Good Shepherd, we find a very different story. It’s told in the verses immediately preceding today’s brief Gospel passage.

In John’s Gospel we don’t hear about just one lost sheep, one little lamb that wandered off. No, here we find that the entire flock of sheep is threatened. They’re threatened by wolves and thieves and robbers. In Jesus’ words, “they come only to steal and slaughter and destroy.”

And what about the shepherd, the good shepherd? Do we encounter a different shepherd in John’s Gospel? Yes, indeed we do.

Jesus provides the first part of the answer when He says, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” What a wonderful revelation this is! In effect the Lord is telling us that our relationship with Him can mirror the depth of His relationship with the Father.

Do you realize what that means? How did He put it in today’s reading? “The Father and I are one.” And so He’s telling us that we can become one with Him. Indeed, this is exactly what happens at every celebration of the Eucharist. By receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord, we are truly in communion with Him. We become one with Him. And because we all share in this, we are in communion too with each other.

This communion, the gift of this unique relationship, is no less than the mystery of St. Paul’s Mystical Body of Christ brought into the reality of the here and now. Yes, Christ is the head and we are the body. We are that intimately connected, joined together in love, in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul wrote, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” This communion foreshadows the unimaginable union with God and each other that we all hope to experience in eternity.

But this isn’t all Jesus tells us about the Good Shepherd; for the Good Shepherd is very different from the shepherd who goes out in search of the one lost lamb. For Jesus adds, “…and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” And just so we don’t misunderstand Him, He goes on to say, “No one takes it from me [speaking of His life], but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”

This, then, isn’t just a matter of going out and bringing back a stray lamb. No, this shepherd, this “good shepherd” willingly goes out to face the wolves, the robbers, the murderers and in doing so knowingly gives His own life. Yes, He sacrifices Himself, offers Himself to the forces of evil, and for what end? To save those whom He loves.

Do you see the trade-off here? He makes this remarkable sacrifice and in doing so He tells us, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” When we tie this all together we encounter the revelation of a relationship, a relationship of remarkable love. Do you see the kind of God we have, this Good Shepherd who cares so much for us?

And then, to ensure we get the point of all this, Jesus turns to us and tells us to love others as he has loved us, to be willing to give our lives for them, even for those the world tells us are beneath us. Our love for God, Jesus tells us, must be mirrored in our love for others. We are not strangers to one another; for those who are one with our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be strangers.

Of course, when things get rough, the temptation is to think more of ourselves than of others. But in the midst of this temptation, Jesus reminds of His presence. When we’re in danger, when we’re threatened, when our world seems so bleak, so hateful, so broken, Jesus is with us. He is one with us, just as He and the Father are one. We are, in a very real sense, inseparable.

Amidst all the chaos of this world, He is there with us, reminding us, “Be not afraid.” When the bombs of terror strike down and maim entire families, when hatred becomes so real that it takes the lives of children and teachers, when it becomes so convenient to slaughter thousands of the most innocent among us every day…

Yes, when evil draws near, that’s when we are confronted by the power, the terrible reality, of sin. And it’s not just the sin of the terrorists, or the murderers, or the abortionists…No, it’s every sin, our sin as well, your sin and my sin. And it empowers all those wolves, and thieves, and murderers.

But something else happens when evil draws near: our God draws even closer. And in that closeness, in that communion with Him, He empowers us. He empowers us to be one with Him. He empowers us to be Good Shepherds.

The Good Shepherd – the teacher who shielded the six-year-old with her body.

The Good Shepherd – the young Bostonian who ran to the blast site and used his belt as a tourniquet to save a life.

We’re all called to be Good Shepherds, brothers and sisters. We’re all called to be like Christ, willing to lay down our lives for another.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus reminds us. “I have ransomed you all.” We are His flock. We must confront and resist the sin of the world and protect those who are weak, those who are innocent.

I suppose only one question remains: Are we willing to do so?

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