May 10, 2014

4th Easter Sunday: The self-sacrificing Shepherd

"The Shepherd and guardian of your souls"

Acts 2:14a, 3
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10:1-10

This Sunday we are presented with an image of Jesus that was also very familiar to the earliest of Christians: Jesus as a Shepherd. Jesus is not pictured as an ordinary shepherd, he is depicted as a shepherd who cares so much about the sheep in his flock that as St. Peter tells us in the second reading: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow.” This shepherd is humble and self-sacrificing. It’s an image that is gentle and secure.

Jesus himself in the Gospel says: “I am the gate.  Whoever enters through me will be saved . . . and find pasture.”  The sheep are more than just defenseless animals – they are of deep concern, every one, to the shepherd that none would be lost or harmed. So this is not an ordinary but an exceptional shepherd who cares more about the sheep than he does about his own safety or reputation.  For the early Christians, in the midst of a hostile pagan culture, to imagine Jesus as a noble or good shepherd was to have the confidence that his voice, the Way of Jesus, would protect and lead them to safety.

But how many daily “voices” constantly grab our attention these days?  Shepherds are not exactly among the top ten careers college graduates would look to find secure employment and a good salary. Other voices are in competition. For all the advantages and human progress these days, the deeper spiritual and moral needs of our lives remain challenged by conflicting voices.  

Television, personal responsibilities, cell phones, computers, children, spouses, parishioners, the Church, the constant barrage of media and news reports, movies, the normal sounds around us of daily living, and a host of more that constantly cry out for our attention.  As a people of faith, called to holiness of life, we struggle above all this present day constant din to hear the voice of God. We may often feel like sheep that are more confused and overwhelmed than confident in where we’re going.

However, the image of Jesus as the self-sacrificing shepherd is one that we should pay attention to.  The Way that Jesus shows us isn’t simply a direction to go but a place to go to. He provides satisfaction for the deeper needs of human living. For the morally confused, the spiritually lost, or those who feel empty in spirit, the voice of the Shepherd cries out.

The Pew Forum on Religious Life recently reported that a third of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation whatsoever — less religious involvement than either their parents or their grandparents. What voices have pulled them away or deafened their religious sense? Whose voice must we speak with?

The Gospel speaks of the “sheepfold” and the “gatekeeper” (Jesus) in whose voice we can have confidence that if we listen to Him, we will be lead to a place of safety.  The Church is that place of safety because here we encounter the noble Shepherd in both word and sacrament. Our lives are meant to be a response to a living encounter with Jesus Christ, who invites his sheep to live well.   

Pope Francis reminds us: “We Christians were not chosen by the Lord for small things; push onwards toward the highest principles.  Stake your lives on noble ideals.” Where do we find those “noble ideals” best taught?  By the Shepherd himself whose voice is recognized in word and sacrament and through good shepherds. While the sinfulness of God’s people remains, the Church itself is made holy by its true Shepherd.  

We sheep, taught by our Shepherd, have work to do. To see the Church as a living encounter with the risen Christ is shown primarily, then, though the lives of those who have found a faith home in the living community of the Church.  If we sheep truly live the Gospel in a way that is attractive to others, then we “get it.”

Our friendship with Jesus Christ can grow if we see our faith not as only a set of obligations but as an encounter with a living person. It’s all about the Shepherd and his Gospel way of living. Pope Francis reminds us there should be joy in the Christian way of life.

To keep alive his life in us by daily prayer, by embracing the Gospel as a rule of life and not just as a piece of ancient literature.  By being open to receive grace in the sacramental encounter with the risen Christ who desires that we be forgiven, healed, united, fed, and made holy through his Spirit as gift.

So, each of us has a purpose and a task to perform.  Each in our particular way of being Christian as married, single, ordained.  When we encounter others, what kind of Christ do they see in us?  If we invite the sheep who are lost or have at least wandered away, what will they find if they return?  The face of Jesus Christ in the community of his believers? 

When we sheep come together in Eucharist there we stand in the real presence of the  risen living Christ through Word and Sacrament and the faith of our brothers and sisters.  As we receive him, open to his grace and his voice in our hearts, who do we take with us when we go out to those around us?  Does the Shepherd come with us or do we leave him in the walls of the Church?
Almighty and ever-living God
lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
(Collect for Sunday)