Fourth Sunday of Easter
Scripture Readings: Acts 4: 8-12; 1 Jn 3: 1- 2; Jn 10: 11-18.
Several years ago, Avery Dulles wrote a very influential book called Models of the Church. He listed five core images or models that represent different perspectives out of which we understand and respond to our life in the church. (They are: institutional, sacramental, servant, herald, and mystical communion.) He contended that we function in worlds of images which integrate many levels of our experience, can even embrace contradictions, and guide our practical responses in the face of the mystery of the church.
A long introduction to the question: what image of the Church did Christ prefer? He clearly opts for the image of the church as a flock of sheep and sees himself as its shepherd. He intensifies his commitment to this image by underlining the intimate bond of sheep and shepherd. I know mine and mine know me. Unfortunately, this image does not viscerally resonate with us. We have been bequeathed a pretty sanitized and often “sacchrinized” picture of the Good Shepherd and his flock. Good and gentle Jesus. The reality is foreign and remote. Maybe we could respond more immediately to Jesus, the Good Computer Programmer. Someone we can call on to get us back on line on WWW. If we probe more deeply, we would put even a greater distance between ourselves and the image of a shepherded flock. Shepherds were on the bottom social rung, distrusted and disgusting, doing the work of “illegal aliens.” And the sheep, far from being the fluffy, bouncy adorable pets were filthy, stupid, cowering creatures who only knew enough to complete the basic biological functions.
But closing our eyes to the scandal of this comparison is to avoid the deeper scandal it contains. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus were not simply recalcitrant objectors to some new teaching. They were the voice of religious righteousness and observance of the Law. They caught the implications of what Jesus was saying. They may have recoiled as someone who touches a live wire.
But they grasped that he was a man claiming equality with God. And they were shocked and scandalized. The further shock is that as God he willing and freely accepted death on behalf of a dirty, muddy, stupid flock of sheep. As Fr. Stephen pointed out in a recent Chapter talk, shepherds don’t die for their sheep. And why die? Aren’t there better alternatives? A different way?
Jesus proclaims: I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD. I AM. This is a theophany, a revelation and manifestation of who he (God) is. This is not: being a shepherd is a job I am good at. I am fully who I am as a shepherd. The whole of my being is expressed and manifested in the care, knowledge and love I have for each of my sheep as they are members of my flock. I have laid down my life freely, with no regrets or resentments or recriminations. This is the life that holds the flock together. I freely give myself to you. I need you to be me. I am myself as a shepherd in caring and knowing you. That is scandalous.
The scandal continues in the family, in the church. Not just the obvious scandals of abuse of power. But the congenital scandal of knowing oneself as being known by God. It is the scandal of understanding oneself as “we” and not this privatized atom of individualism. It is to look on everyone and honestly say “I am no better than anyone else.” This is always a shock to our ego. What raises me to life and hope is the gift of unconditional love, care, and esteem that I receive from God through Christ as a member of his flock.
It is not just false shepherds that can become hirelings. Whenever we think we can go it on our own, when the pressures come to spin off from flock, we show our true colors as hirelings. The wolf can come in many forms, but primarily as a threat to our security and a trigger to our fears. The expected reward and compensation is not forthcoming. A sense of loss, vulnerability, or exposure which awakens our inner poverty and need can challenge the trust which keeps us moving with the flock. It seems “logical” to take care of ourselves. It is scandalous to think we are being called to take care of others or to find our own good in the good of others. Not logical at all. The scandal of the Good Shepherd is the model and image of how we are church in the world.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-4a, 36-41; l Pet. 2:20b-25; Jn 10:1-10.
What are we to do, brothers? This is a desperate cry that we have heard more than once in our lives. We hear it when the options before us are not compelling or inviting. We look in vain for an authoritative voice that will give us an answer. But we hear conflicting authorities: open up the restaurants, the beaches, travel so that we can make a living. But: keep the restraints in force and the social distancing in effect until we are out of danger. These conflicting voices can even rise in our own lives: the conflict between what we have been taught and the urgings of our own experience and conscience. It has become commonplace to hear that we are in uncharted territory and in unprecedented circumstances. What are we to do brothers? Is anybody in charge?
And if there don’t seem to be any options at all, we sink into apathy and inertia. Abbot Austin Murphy reminded us during our retreat that the sense that the obstacles we face cannot be overcome results in despondency and despair. We are left with the weight of disappointment, anger, and sorrow. But he also suggested that the very impasse we experience might be an opportunity to face the source of our anguish and sorrow, why we don’t have what we want, what our unmet needs really are. We might first have to acknowledge this confrontation as a necessity before we can call it an opportunity.
Facing the source of our sorrow and unhappiness is what St. Peter means by repenting and being baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Repentance doesn’t mean working harder at being good, much less feeling bad and loathing oneself for behaving badly. It is allowing oneself to be cut to the heart. It is allowing the walls of indifference and self-complacency to be breached. It is having our unquestioned and defiant interpretation of the world be pierced through and shown up as a fraud and self-destructive. That is metanoia. We see what we have been blind to. We perceive with a new perception and understanding, and then act out of this vision. Abbot Austin also said that our perceptions are embedded in thought. The way we think can smother an accurate and truthful perception of reality. This false perception may be the child of our fears and misdirected emotions. Our energies go off in the wrong direction. This corrupt generation really means bent or twisted in the wrong direction. Even our virtues can twist us in the wrong direction and become obstacles when they are nurtured to insulate us from a true perception of life around us. Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them. Thieves and robbers become our operative authorities when we think that life is something that can be grasped, possessed, and taken for our own gratification. And that we can take it by force and power. What are we to do, brothers?
Repentance is not a deeper move into isolation. It is the fruit of an immersion into the body and life of Christ. The walls of solitude are broken and breached and the bonds of communion and connection are given free reign. Repentance can only come to itself in the knowledge of the love that God has for us: be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift is the ground of our hope – the hope that springs from repentance and from a heart that has been opened by the Word of God. It is a heart that has suffered this Word, has allowed it to penetrate to its core and marrow. Suffering has become the gate into the mystery of Christ for a heart that shares by patience in the sufferings of Christ (Rule of Benedict). The humanity of Christ is the gate opened for us in his suffering for us and into which we are baptized. By his wounds you have been healed.
Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example. Those who know his voice certainly try to alleviate all forms of suffering and do not inflict it on others. But they also know the suffering which transforms when it is taken to heart in patience and quietly embraced (RB). He handed himself over to the one who judges justly. To return no insult, not to threaten or seek revenge is to open the world to the authority of forgiveness and peace. It is to deny authority to the powers of slaughter and destruction. The authority of Christ is the authority of a redemptive and suffering love. This is the source of our repentance, our new comprehension of the life of his body in the world. God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified. Our heart has learned who is in charge here.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Scripture Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30
An elderly man thought his wife was going deaf. So one beautiful spring day, when she was kneeling in a flower bed plucking weeds, he stood about thirty feet behind her, and called out, “Mary.” She didn’t answer. So, Frank came half way across the yard and in a louder voice said again, “Mary.” Still no reply. He said to himself, “This is worse than I thought.” He went right behind her and said once more in a strong voice, “Mary.” She looked up and replied with irritation, “For the third time, Frank, what do you want?” He was the one going deaf!
God is never deaf to our prayers. But when the Lord calls, do we hear his voice? Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, a day when we are asked to pray for vocations. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” Who will hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow him today? Pope John Paul II once said: “Holiness … is not reserved for a small number of exceptional persons. It’s for everyone; it is the Lord who brings us to holiness, [calling us] to willingly collaborate in the salvation of the world for the glory of God, despite our sins and sometimes our rebellious temperament.“
Today, what is it like to hear the call to follow Christ in the way of a religious or priestly vocation? I know a generous young man who was ordained for the archdiocese of Dubuque. A few years later he was assigned to a cluster of six parishes in small towns, with twelve care centers in neighboring townships, including four school districts, making him the CEO of sixteen corporations, not to mention his care for all the elderly and infirm people who are homebound and in need of his ministry. This young priest feels the weight of the obligations entrusted to him. He’s aware that when Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me,” Jesus also said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
In the past ten years twelve monks of New Melleray have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd calling them from the labors of this life to the joys of eternal life: Fr. James Kerndt, Fr. Daniel Lenihan, Br. Al Bracket, Fr. Bernard Cullen, Fr. Thaddeus Kennedy, Fr. Francis Ferrara, Fr James Henderson, Br. Felix Leja, Br. Kevin Knox, Fr. Neil Paquette, Br. Placid Zilka and Br. Walter Schoenberg. How many people did these twelve men help to save by their prayers and sacrifices? A few hundred? Or, hundreds of thousands? Who will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today calling young men and women to follow him like these great monks did?
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30]
A guest speaker we had a few years ago invited the community to reflect on a curious phenomenon: Vatican Council II was intended to be a vehicle of renewal in the church, and as we know, in the years that followed there were a lot of interesting discussions. Many people, however, have asked if the fruit of these discussions was an actual spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church, and, if not why not? What happened? Some, reflecting on Vatican II, see that renewal movement incarnated in the figure of what they call the “gentle chaplain” a certain benign, non-judgmental companion on the journey, whose mission is mostly making himself available for you to talk to. I am personally very grateful for a few “gentle chaplains” I met at critical moments in my life during the seventies and eighties. They were lovely, genuinely kind people, who cared about me. I would probably not describe their influence on me as a “spiritual renewal”, and I ask myself: why? Today, realizing Vatican II was not quite the spiritual renewal we hoped for, the church is, at the same time, confronted with signs that the dominant culture might be coming apart at the seams, with the result that representatives of the Catholic Church, like the American bishops, appear less as gentle chaplains, and more like policemen directing traffic, who are sometimes charged with engaging in coercive tactics or playing power politics. I wonder if there is here a misunderstanding.
When a policeman directing traffic turns toward you as the driver of a car and does this, he does not presume he can forcibly stop the car you're driving, which is what LGBT, for example, accuses the Catholic bishops of doing. The bishops are not trying to stop LGBT, they are simply signaling to the drivers of that movement that it is in their own best interest not to proceed any further in the direction they are going because they are approaching an intersection. There is traffic up ahead, and their movement is not aligned with the movement of that traffic moving up ahead. Natural Law, brothers and sisters is traffic. Natural Law, as a recent author has written, is “that law you cannot not know.” Ignore traffic, and you're going to bump into it. Deny it, and you're going to bump into it, really hard. The bishops are not defending Natural Law. Nobody really needs to do that. They are simply recalling to our minds the binding force of God's Eternal Law, signaling with increasing urgency that our society is headed for a broadside collision with God's Law that will have disastrous consequences for all of us.
The institution of marriage, for example, you might think of as a major intersection, a really busy street where the movement of traffic is not aligned with the movement of contemporary American culture about to cross its path. This is a big and very busy street with a lot of cars whose traffic has been in motion for about as long as the human race has been around. An eighteen year old who likes to drive fast and has decided he's going to plow through that intersection has nothing at all to fear from a man standing in his path, showing him the palm of his hand. Policemen know this and bishops know this. But a kid ignoring the traffic cop is headed for a perpendicular encounter with traffic that could be a very painful experience, and might kill him. This raises an interesting question: why would anyone want to deny or resist God's Eternal Law? Listen to Jesus in today's gospel speak of the Natural Law: “I will give you eternal life.” Jesus says, “eternal life, so you will never perish. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” This, brothers and sisters is what Natural Law is a promise of our being perfectly provided for. “My Father Himself has given you to me. I can make you this promise because the Father and I are one.”
Now, I wonder: does anyone here have a problem with this arrangement? What person would wish to live contrary to that Law of God by which we are promised eternal life as the children of God? Why are the Jewish leaders, in the very next verse picking up stones to kill Jesus? It is because he said: “The Father and I are one,” and here, brothers and sisters, is the key to understanding the difference between Jesus, the Son of God and the “gentle chaplain” introduced to us by Vatican II. Jesus and the Father are one. This means, Jesus' self-transcendence is the self-transcendence of a Divine Person; it is absolute, it is not the mere human self-transcendence of a guy who, cured of selfishness, becomes a kind and generous person. Because Love, absolute Love, diffuses itself, spreads out, expands, and gives itself away, by its nature, the Divine Son at every moment of his existence, is already completely offered as a holocaust to the Eternal Father. Brothers and sisters, a person whose self-transcendence is absolute, judges perfectly and irrevocably; judges rightly, everything and everyone, with each word he speaks. What he says is wrong, is wrong; what he claims as true, is Truth. Having met this man, you must either worship him unreservedly as God or hate him without measure as the judge whose word has brought to light your own self-condemnation.
As we approach the Lord in the Eucharist, let us offer ourselves in union with His self-sacrifice, that you and I, being made like him, might become living words; sources of genuine spiritual renewal to all we meet; persons who in love speak God's truth to a world that is starving for love and for truth.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18]
In recent months, I've been corresponding with a school teacher in New Hampshire Who's been advising me how the U.S. Trappists might promote vocations among young people. This very dedicated teacher recently wrote to me to request urgent prayers for Stephanie, a girl in her eleventh grade class who, it seems, met a guy on the internet, and took off to California to be with him. Stephanie's family and friends were panic-stricken, really terrified. About a week after Stephanie's disappearance, the teacher wrote to tell me that her family and friends were hugely relieved because they had made contact with Stephanie, who had written to her family and was basically telling them: “Don't worry. I'm o.k.”
Reading this, I thought to myself, how on earth does a 17 year old girl, separated by thousands of miles from her family, friends, teacher, and classmates; all who know her best and love her most; a young woman living in a strange city with a young man she hardly knows, who she met on the internet – where on earth did this girl get the idea that she is “o.k.?” Where did that idea come from? I think what Stephanie is saying to her family is: “I am o.k. I know I'm o.k. because it is my experience.” My experience tells me things are going well with my new boyfriend. It is my experience that assures me: I love this guy, and he loves me. I know we have fun together. I know life is good now. . . I know all this because it is my experience.
Stephanie's situation raises all sorts of questions for me. When people today talk about “my experience”, (and they really talk about it a lot!), what exactly are they talking about? What precisely am I referring to when I speak of “my experience”?
Is that something private, inside me; inaccessible to other people? Can other people know “my experience”? If they do, is it then no longer “MY experience”? Does “my experience” have anything to do with the experience of my parents and my grand parents? Are they able to judge my experience? What is the relationship between Stephanie's good experience with the guy in California and the terrible experience of shock, grief, fright, and misery her loved ones are having back in New Hampshire? Is her experience in any way informed by their experience, and if so, what does Stephanie mean when she calls it: “MY experience”?
Again: when I speak of “my experience” does that exist in an instant of time? Or is “my experience” something that extends over hours and days, months, and years, or a whole lifetime? Does what I am calling “my experience” right now, have a past? Does it have a history? What about the experience of my family, my country, of Western peoples? Is their experience in some mysterious way woven into what I speak of today as: “my experience”?
It seems to me, when you try to pin down exactly what people mean when they speak of “my experience”, it slips away and is very hard to grasp. But this is really alarming, because Stephanie, and a lot of people today are making supremely important choices, on the basis of what they call “my experience”, I mean, decisions and judgments that are going to shape their lives for years to come and which, being done, can never be undone. People today, are making momentous choices on the basis of “my experience”, as if this were some kind of Pope, some august authority figure who everybody knows long ago proved himself to be absolutely trustworthy. Who is this guy? Everybody's talking about him. I want to meet him. I'd like to ask this guy some questions, but, when you try to make an appointment, it can be maddeningly difficult to find him!
In today's gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” in contrast to another shadowy, mysterious figure whom he refers to as a “False Shepherd“; “A hireling“, who cares nothing for the sheep and who, when you need him most, “runs away”, takes off, And leaves you to fend for yourself. Who is this “hireling“? Is this someone real? Is he someone we have met? Could this fleet-footed “hireling” who “runs away” and abandons us to ourselves; could he be the one who people today call: “my experience”?
A young woman tells her mother she is in love. She knows she is in love. She is assured of this by her experience. Later, her boyfriend abuses her, or spurns her in public in a way that is terribly unexpected and humiliating. In shock and dismay, she recalls to her mother, what only days earlier she called, “my experience”. “He told me he loved me. He said we would be together forever”. But what she is now calling “my experience” is a completely different experience. What she trusted was real love on the basis of “my experience” Has run away leaving her bereft, confused, and humiliated. Poor girl. She has met the fleet footed hireling called “my experience”. He seemed so wise; so trustworthy. She trusted him, took him at his word, and now he's nowhere in sight.
No heart is more sickened by the spectacle of this girl's agony than the heart of Jesus. It amazes and it saddens Jesus that, instead of entering into the Heaven of new possibilities where “many mansions” have been prepared for you, you hesitate, because of your attachment to that cramped little studio apartment you're renting, which you call “my experience”.
Listen to St. Aelred one of the most humane beloved saints of our Cistercian tradition, talking one day to a young monk who has lived in the monastery for a while. The young man is beginning to miss the self-indulgent habits and the parties he used to enjoy. He also misses the sweetness of the tears of repentance he used to shed the morning after. In a curious way, he also enjoyed the tears, since it seemed to him as he wept, that he must be a person who loves God very intensely, and afterwards, these same sweet feelings left him quite free to go back to the party. Now, in the monastery, he just spends his days doing the will of God, which, by contrast with his previous life, seems a little boring. Aelred says to him: “Experience is misleading. It is not your experience; the sweetness of feelings, that proves your love for God.” “What then” says the novice, “Am I to believe those marvelously sweet attachments I experienced in the world were utterly worthless?” “Not at all”, says Aelred, but you need to be enlightened about those. You need understanding of what sort of attachments these were and what real love is. The most important thing is to realize that love, real love; the only kind of love that satisfies us, and which everyone is secretly longing for in their hearts; true love is not judged according to those momentary attachments we call “my experience”. Aelred says to the novice, Don't you understand? An actor performing on the stage can move me to tears. Would it not be ludicrous to suggest, on the basis of “my experience” at this moment, that the stranger performing on the stage is someone I love?
This, brothers and sisters, is the voice of Jesus. Aelred's voice is the voice of the Good Shepherd, addressing us in this morning's gospel. This is not the terrible Lord of judgment day, but our friend, the Gentle Shepherd, who this morning draws near to us and earnestly, delicately is inquiring of you and me: “Why do you do it? Why do you give your love to a stranger?”
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 2:36-41; l Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10.]
Yesterday, a decision was made by the authorities to open the Morganza spillway in central Louisiana. The army corps of engineers made the decision to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from devastating flooding. However, over 12,000 others will see their homes and crops destroyed. These folks didn’t have much say. They had to accept the decision of others. Typically, the exercise of authority seems to entail a loss of our own freedom and choice. The use of the very word “authority” can be enough to make us cringe a bit. We generally feel that when authority of others,steps in , we are losers. Hello heteronomy, goodbye autonomy.
But just a little reflection can uncover a multitude of authorities in our lives. We accept the word of others who seem to have more knowledge and experience. We have adopted a whole world of attitudes and assumptions on the authority of others. We learned from others what it means to be successful, what it means to be important, who are the V.I.P.s and who are the losers. We learned when it is best to keep our mouth shut and when it is o.k. to gossip. We learned that we have a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It usually takes some form of a shock to wake us up to how deeply indoctrinated we have become by the assumptions and attitudes taught to us by the authorities of our world and culture. If we are lucky, we have met or seen people who have struck some chord in our selves. Who they are and what they have done inspires an energy in us. I could do that. I could be like that. An alternate way of being suddenly seems open to us. One of the root meanings of authority is to “make grow,” to author, to bring to life. Someone who has this kind of authority has an inner transparency earned through their experience. They become a source of new life for others. But even a traumatic experience can serve to wake us up to our own life. Loss and failure, even a criticism which stuns us or cuts us to the heart, can suddenly open our eyes to the futility of our behavior. Maybe we are exhausted, frustrated, bored because we are on a treadmill highly recommended by the authority of others. “This is killing me.” That is a cry from our soul. Are we really living our life, or—as Kierkegaard said—committed to the despairing refusal to live our real lives?
Christ bore our sins on the cross so that free from sin we might live for righteousness. His body on the cross is the gateway to our own freedom. He is the gate. His life is the offer of an alternate way of living our lives. This is an offer we can’t refuse. Or, can’t we? There is a wall of resistance that comes up when we hear these words. If you want to know what sin is, listen to the distance you are putting between yourself and the impact of this message. Sense the abstractness and remoteness with which you enshrine these words to keep them from having any effect, to keep them from cutting to your heart. We have learned to separate living faith from our real lives. “Salvation” is something that happens in another realm, at another time. It is an eschatological finish line that some day we will stumble across. Do we need to work out our salvation now? Merton has said that “the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.” What authority am I really listening to make this discovery? To which authority am I handing over my life? Salvation is moving out into an alternate reality in the heart of our lives.
Christ has interpreted his authority as being that of a shepherd. There is a mutual knowledge and intimacy at the basis of his relationship with those he knows, those he can call by name, those whose inner and authentic being is sparked into life by his presence. Being touched and moved by this presence is what we call salvation. His life, his example is an authority wakening an alternate reality in ourselves. “He left you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” “He walks ahead of them and the sheep will follow him.” Through the gate.
But we do not find this example very compelling, very appealing, very attractive. Peter draws a picture of this authority: patient when you suffer for doing what is good. Committed no sin, no deceit; returned no insult, did not threaten Handed himself over to the one who judges justly—no vindication, no sense of conquest or victory, no universal approval. The face of sin shows itself again in our unwillingness, even our repulsion, to accept that this is the human way to freedom, to righteousness, to salvation. We will muddle around in the sheepfold a little longer. It’s not so bad. Maybe it will turn out better next week. Doesn’t seem too practical for living in the real world. I’m doing the best I can.
And we hand ourselves over to the authorities of this age who tell us what success is, what happiness is, what fulfillment could be. Jesus describes these authorities as the stranger, the robber, and the thief. The stranger tell us to live with distance, to pretend and deceive, to live virtual and fabricated lives. Play it cool. The robber interprets the world as a limited supply of goods, commodities that you need to possess to find security. The thief is one who kidnaps, who steals people, who see life as a question of enslaving others to gain greater power and control. Prestige, power, possession: we don’t even realize how confined we are. That our very souls have been kidnapped. These are the others who have come before Christ: not just chronologically, but in terms of position. We bow to these authorities who block our view of Christ, who block his movement in our lives. What must we do? Perhaps we don’t even ask this question because we really don’t want to know.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 13: 14, 43-52; Rev. 7: 9, 14-17; Jn. 10: 27-30.]
It is characteristic of our nature that when we are overexposed to some stimulus we tend to become inattentive to it. It fades into the background of our awareness and we focus our attention on what is new and interesting. Because we are a literate society and our communication technology is sophisticated and widely disseminated, words can easily be taken for granted. We are surrounded by words, both aural and visual. At times we may feel that we are bombarded by words. Without too much discrimination we may as best we can push them all into the background of our attention. One result of this is that we can forget the power of words, either for good or for harm. What holds our attention may be only the loudest or the most frequently repeated words, not necessarily the most beneficial words.
Yet it is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that words have been God’s chosen way of addressing us. Jesus Christ the final and unsurpassable revelation of God, is the Word of God Incarnate. How do we respond to God’s words? Do we give then a casual hearing and then let them fade into the background of our awareness along with so many other words that we have heard so often?
For the Jews and Greeks in this morning’s first reading that heard God’s words through Paul and Barnabas their response was their own judgement on themselves. Some received the apostles’ words with joy as a message for eternal life. Others rejected and opposed them. It is unlikely that any of us would knowingly reject or oppose God’s words; but if we are neglectful of them, they will recede into the background of our attention. Louder and more frequently repeated words may control us, and these words may be in opposition to God’s words.
In this morning’s gospel Jesus says that our ability to be his followers depends on hearing his voice. The reward for hearing his words is eternal life. But it is not enough simply to hear Jesus’ words. All the gospels are clear that we need to take Jesus’ words to heart and put them into practice. If we hear his words and then forget them, what good is the hearing? Rather than follow him we will drift after other words that we find more attractive.
God’s words are words of power. They can transform our lives. They can bring us through trials and suffering to the joy of eternal life. But God addresses us as free and responsible men and women. More correctly, God’s words bring us into freedom and call us to responsibility. How we respond to them is our own decision. Will we receive them with joy and gratitude as words for eternal life? Will we forget them and listen to other words that promise temporary happiness at best, but inevitably end in disappointment? May God grant us willing ears and minds to receive his words and hearts that cherish and nourish them so that we may live by them.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts: 4: 8-12; 1Jn. 3: 1-2; Jn. 10: 11-18 ]
It isn’t necessary to do much shopping in order to realize that our society presents us with a proliferation of choices for just about any item we might want to buy. It can be questioned how substantial some of the alternatives are; nevertheless underlying what may be simple economic motivation is a basically healthy recognition that we are different and we do not all have the same needs or desires. Within reason it makes sense to provide for our individual differences.
At a deeper level the Church is also aware that different cultures and different sub-cultures within a culture respond to the gospel in different ways. “Inculturation” is a word that I don’t remember hearing when I was growing up that is common in religious language and official Church documents now. Probably the area where the Church’s response to the plurality of cultures and sub-cultures is most visible is in the liturgy. African and Latin American liturgies incorporate native musical instruments and dances that would not have been allowed in former times. Parishes have special Masses for children and for young adults. Within the Cistercian Order no two monasteries that I have visited celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist in exactly the same way.
Does this variety of expressions we enjoy not only in the liturgy, but also in styles of spirituality, methods of theological reflection, methods of decision making and other areas of church life contradict Jesus’ desire that there be one sheepfold and one shepherd? I submit that it does not. The New Testament reveals a variety of responses to the teaching and example of Jesus. It also reveals that there are limits beyond which responses to the gospel were not accepted and were corrected. Now as in New Testament times recognizing that we are a universal church comprised of local churches introduces tensions and disagreements into our lives. If there is nothing that expresses concretely that we are a universal church, it can be questioned if in fact we are a universal church; if we do not make sufficient allowance for local differences, a superficial uniformity may simply camouflage a deeper disunity and risk alienating people from the Church on a large scale.
Now as in New Testament times the best we guide we have in responding to the gospel in our various situations is the imitation of Christ. Our imitation of Christ is not limited to an external conformity. Because Christ has poured out his Spirit into our hearts we can, in St. Paul’s words, put on the mind of Christ. Putting on the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit guided Jesus’ first disciples in taking the gospel into situations they did not expect and making the necessary adaptations. Putting on the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us will also be the source of our unity within the diversity of contemporary pluralism. That will not necessarily remove our disagreements, but it will allow us to disagree with charity and mutual respect. Jesus laid down his life so that we could be united in his one body. We are obliged to renounce our self-will and egoism, and respect the needs and desires of others who are responding to the call of the Holy Spirit in ways that differ from ours.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12, 1 Jn. 3:1-2, Jn 10:11-18]
An American accountant visiting the Holy Land was surprised to see shepherds grazing their flocks without any fences just as they did two thousand years ago. He stopped to talk with one of them and offered him a wager: “If I tell you how many sheep you have will you give me one of them? And if I’m wrong by more than one or two, I’ll give you $300.” The shepherd liked to gamble so he agreed. The accountant mentally divided the sheep into groups, quickly added them up and said, “You have 94 sheep.” Surprised, the shepherd nodded his head, “Yup, that’s right. I guess you win.” The American grabbed the one nearest him and started to walk away. The shepherd stared at him and said, “Wait a minute. If I guess your occupation will you give it back to me?” Being fair minded the man agreed. The shepherd said, “I think you’re a government accountant who sits behind a desk all day without any experience of animals.” Now it was the American’s turn to be surprised. “Yes, that’s right,” he said, “but how did you know?” The shepherd replied, “If you put down my dog I’ll tell you.”
Sheep haven’t changed in two thousand years. But shepherds have changed a lot. In the time of Jesus they were regarded as thieves. Shepherds were mean and dirty. They were forbidden by Jewish law from being witnesses in a trial because they were such notorious liars. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it was an oxymoron, a combination of words with opposite meanings, like bitter-sweet, deafening-silence, authentic-reproduction. It was like saying I am a good devil. In Greek the contrast is even stronger. The Greek New Testament has three words for good: agathos, chrestos, and kallos. Agathos means moral goodness, sinlessness, as when Jesus said, “Only One is good,”. Chrestos means goodness that is kind, helpful and friendly, as when Jesus said, “God is good even to the ungrateful and selfish,” . Kallos means goodness that is also beautiful, full of loveliness. We call beautiful handwriting “calligraphy,” kallos graphia. That is the word used for the good shepherd. Jesus is not only good, he is ravishingly beautiful because he is divine and willingly laid down his life to save us.
Once there was a 19 year old British soldier who was so badly wounded in the Second World War that both his legs had to be amputated. He was a strikingly handsome lad, with blue eyes as bright as the sky, and a smile that won the hearts of all the girls who saw him. The surgeon was grieved that this handsome lad would be crippled for the rest of his life. When the boy opened his eyes after the operation the surgeon told him: “I am deeply distressed because you have lost both your legs.” The boy closed his eyes for a moment and then replied, “Doctor, I did not lose them, I laid them down for the sake of our people.” The beauty of this boy’s heart was even greater than the beauty of his body. Jesus is the good and most beautiful shepherd who willingly laid down his life for us.
Many images of Christ on the cross capture the horror of crucifixion. Other images look past the physical suffering and try to capture the kallos, the beautiful goodness of Jesus. On New Melleray’s processional cross, Christ is shining gold. He is beautiful, not sinking downward by the pull of gravity, with his head hanging toward the earth, but straining upward away from the cross, already ascending to Father in heaven, only temporarily held back by the nails in his hands and feet.
So, when Jesus said, “I am the good, most beautiful shepherd,” it was like saying I am the good and most beautiful thief.” But this oxymoron goes even deeper. Jesus said, “I AM.” He took the name God revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush: “Tell the people, ‘I AM’ sent me to you,”. Jesus identifies himself with Yahweh. His listeners must have dropped their jaws in shocked astonishment. Not only did Jesus join all that is beautiful and good, even the God’s name, with dirty, thieving, lying shepherds but he reveals himself as the ultimate oxymoron: Jesus is Yahweh, the man-God, divine-mortal, impassible-sufferer, the one-true-good–beautiful-divine-crucified-criminal.
Then Jesus dropped another bombshell into their laps. He said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s crazy. Shepherds don’t lay down their lives to save flea-infested, dirty, fecal plastered sheep. Human life is far more precious than a few sheep. Even worse, by using the divine name as his own Jesus is saying, “Yahweh lays down his life.” God dies for sheep. This was too much. They said, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?”.
Why? Because we are the muddy, wayward, sinful sheep. We haven’t changed in two thousand years. A grade school teacher quizzed her young class in arithmetic. She asked, “If there are twelve sheep in a pasture and three of them go through a hole in the fence, how many will be left?”A girl quickly raised her hand and said, “None.” A ripple of giggles swept through the classroom. The teacher called on a boy who said, “There would be nine left.” The girl retorted, “No, there wouldn’t!” The boy, like a young accountant, said, “Yes, there would!” The teacher intervened and asked the girl why none would be left. Speaking from experience she replied, “Because if three sheep get through a hole in the fence they’ll all go through it.”
Who will we follow? The wayward sheep? Or, Jesus who calls us to union with God? At today’s Eucharist my grandniece, Maddie, wants to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd and be united with him for the first time in holy communion. Let us rejoice with her. And let us also remember that this Sunday is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. May the youth of today be the saints of tomorrow. Jesus, draw us after you. You have ravished our hearts with your beauty. Oh, “let us see your face, let us hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is all beautiful,”
Fourth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12, 1 Jn. 3:1-2, Jn 10:11-18]
A story is told about a 19 year old English soldier in the Second World War whose legs were so badly wounded they had to be amputated. He was a strikingly handsome lad, with blue eyes as bright as the sky, and a smile that made the hearts of girls melt with desire. The surgeon was grieved that this handsome boy would be maimed for the rest of his life. When the lad opened his eyes after the operation the surgeon said to him: “I am deeply distressed to tell you that you have lost both of your legs.” The boy closed his eyes for a moment and then replied, “Doctor, I did not lose them, I gave them for the sake of England.” The beauty of his heart was even greater than the beauty of his body. Like a good shepherd he put himself in harm’s way to protect his own people.
The story of Maximilian Kolbe is equally touching. He set out to become a good shepherd at the age of 13 when he entered a junior seminary in Poland. At 25 he was ordained, founded the Militia of Mary Immaculate, and began to suffer from tuberculosis. Then, in 1941, when he was only 47 years old, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. He secretly heard confessions, celebrated the Eucharist, and consoled the dying until four months later a prisoner escaped from the camp. Then Fr. Kolbe did what no one else had ever done. He asked to take the place of one of ten men condemned to die in retaliation for the escape.
There were other boys who lost limbs or were killed in the Second World War. There were other priests who died in concentration camps. But this boy, and this priest are exceptional because of their willingness to be in harm’s way and even to die for others. They are not only good, but beautiful in their goodness. That is the sense in which Jesus is the good shepherd.
In Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos, which describes the moral quality of goodness. And there is kalos, which describes a combination of the good and the beautiful, of harmony and truth. We use kalos to describe beautiful hand writing, calligraphy, kalos graphe.
When Jesus is described as the good shepherd, St. John uses the word kalos. Jesus is the genuine shepherd in whom goodness and beauty, loveliness and truth come together. He is totally pleasing to the Father, not only because Jesus is willing to lay down his life for us, but most of all because Jesus is his beautiful divine Son. Jesus is the great “I Am” of Exodus, he is “Ego eimi.” He is “Yahweh, the Good Shepherd.” It is the God of all goodness, beauty, and loveliness who died for us.
Many images of Christ on the cross capture the horror of crucifixion. But other images look past his physical suffering and try to capture the kalos, the beautiful goodness of Jesus. On New Melleray’s processional cross, the body of Christ is beautiful, finished entirely in gold. He is not sinking downward under the pull of gravity, but already ascending upward away from the cross toward heaven, only temporarily held back by the nails in his hands and feet.
Yahweh, the good, beautiful shepherd, will die, but death cannot hold him. His goodness is more powerful than death. His goodness is life itself, full of beauty and happiness. Jesus has power to lay down his life and take it up again. He will return to the Father, and he will bring his sheep with him. That is the charge he has received from his Father.
Jesus, Beautiful Shepherd, call us by name, draw us after you. You have ravished our hearts with your beauty. Oh, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is all beautiful.