Apr 25, 2015

4th Sunday of Easter: "Who do you smell like?"

Pope Francis’ famous advice to priests at the annual Chrism Mass in Rome last year: “Be shepherds with the smell of sheep,” takes on a beautiful reinforcement this Sunday in Jesus’ words from the Gospel: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me.” While a call to all of us “shepherds” in priestly ministry it is also the call to all of us Christians, wherever we may find ourselves. In our vocations we are all called to smell like the sheep.

But, what does it mean to take on the odor of a not too bright animal? We are not obviously supposed to smell like wet sheep (not pleasant) but it certainly makes a point about ministry and service.  I doubt any other Pope has ever used shepherd talk in just this way but it hits home like the parables of Jesus. 

To so identify with someone, like a shepherd with his flock, is to know them, to understand them, to sympathize and to celebrate with them; to walk among them in a caring and sympathetic way. Like spouses who are married for many years.  Over time, they come to know each other so well they can communicate without words because they know how the other spouse thinks and feels.
All it might take is a certain expression on their face, a gesture of the hand, and kind of non-verbal signal that speaks loudly.

Before they make a decision or bring up a problem they can say to themselves, “I know what he/she will say.”  “I know how they will react.” or even, “I know what you’re thinking.”  All without words because they know each other so well.  In a sense, you might say they smell like each other.  Hopefully, the fragrance is pleasant! It’s even not unusual that after so many years together if one spouse dies the other may not be far behind.

So our readings on this “Good Shepherd Sunday” present to us a shepherd (Christ himself) who cares so deeply for his sheep that he not only knows them so intimately but he will willingly die for them: “I will lay down my life for my sheep.”  No other shepherd would do such.  For Jesus, his presence among us is not a job or occupation it is a relationship of love and life. But, do we his sheep really know our Shepherd? Or perhaps to put it another way – Do we smell like the shepherd?

The Sunday’s Gospel passage from John really does reflect the experience of the early Church towards the end of the first century when both Jew and Gentile (I have other sheep) are by now an ordinary part of the Christian community.  In fact the Church is predominantly Gentile among the believers and the Church is distinct from the Jewish community.  The passage reflects the experience of ministry with all of its beauty and tensions.

Christians were a people who could be “smelled” a mile away.  The Church, all Catholic of course, was several centuries away from being the religion of the Empire so they were a gathering of people suspect and occasionally persecuted, at times ruthlessly so by Roman Emperors with such infamous names as Nero and Diocletian. 

What made those early Christians so identifiably fragrant?  It was their identity with Jesus and the Gospel Way.  The Church’s honor for the thousands over the first few centuries who gave their lives in martyrdom is legendary.  Those who knew how they smelled yet were not apologetic for it shed their own blood like their shepherd had done for them.

As we hear in our first reading from Acts, Peter filled with the Spirit (post-Pentecost) boldly proclaims by the name and person of Jesus that, “It was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean” crucified and risen that “this man stands before you healed.” In Jesus name miracles continued to happen and the name of Jesus Christ is the one by which salvation is offered. Yes, you could smell them from afar.

Can you imagine if Peter, Paul or any of the other Apostles would have had access to the internet and all of our present means of instant communication? We are so accustomed to our internet, Facebook, email, texting, cell phones, television and tweets that such means of spreading a message would have boggled the minds of these courageous men.  Many centuries later, our culture of today may smell very differently. In the end, however, our Christian way of life is essentially about relationships.

We are in a bond, both human and spiritual, with Jesus Christ. Made his children in baptism, born into the new life of his death and resurrection, we take on a particular odor.  In the Gospel Jesus speaks of a relationship he has with his Father: “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father . . .” For his dying and rising was the work of Father, Son and Spirit.  And we, as his sheep, are now invited into that same covenant of love and life.  Our Shepherd knows us intimately.  He calls us by name (our Vocations) to lives of love and service but it is the Trinity of Persons operative in our life at the same time. 

Our Eucharist each week is a moment of relationship as we receive this good shepherd who gave his life and now feeds his sheep with his own flesh and blood.  And when we receive, we smell like him. 
Have you ever said to someone, “You smell like Jesus.”  Probably not but maybe this weekend it would be good to see Christ in others and to point out their scent. “You smell like love.  You smell like humility.  You smell like mercy or compassion.  You smell like self-sacrifice. You smell like courage.  You smell like holiness. You smell like the Holy Spirit.  You smell like Jesus!

Who do YOU smell like? 

Look upon your flock, kind shepherd,
and be pleased to settle in eternal pastures
the sheep you have redeemed
by the Precious Blood of your son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

(Prayer after Communion)