Sunday, May 11, 2014

Gospel For Today - 4th Sunday of Easter

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (A)

"Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.  But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.  But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."

Those who know me know that my family and I keep a small flock of sheep on our property.  That makes me a shepherd, not in the figurative sense the way we refer to our pastors as shepherds, but in the literal sense.  And so the scene that Jesus paints for us with his metaphor in today's gospel is familiar to me, as it would have been for so many shepherds in the Holy Land in Jesus' day.

The sheep that we keep are called Soay.  They are a primitive domestic breed; in fact they are the most primitive breed of sheep still in existence.  They come from the small and wind-swept St. Kilda islands, far off the northwest coast of Scotland, where they have been isolated since at least the Bronze Age.  They are considered representative of the earliest attempts of man to domesticate the wild mouflon sheep of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  So it is likely that our Soay sheep have much more in common with the sheep that those hearing Jesus' words would have been familiar with 2000 years ago than the large, white, fluffy animals we see in mattress commercials today.

Among the characteristics of these more primitive sheep are their smaller size and darker coats.  They shed their wool so they don't need shearing.  And they are also very cautious and wary animals.  

Despite their general skittishness, when I walk out into our pasture, our sheep all gather to me.  If I start walking towards the sheepfold, which is the small shelter that we house them in at night to protect them from nocturnal predators, they line up dutifully and follow me in.  They know me.   By contrast, if you or anyone else were to walk through our pasture gate, our flock would likely run to the farthest corner of the pasture and watch you suspiciously from a distance.   You are an unknown, a stranger to them.  If you started walking toward them, they would flee.  As Jesus says, "they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."  While our primitive sheep wouldn't be a lot of fun at a petting zoo, their cautiousness does make them excellent survivors.

The reason why my sheep will follow me and run away from you is because they have come to trust me.  They know I will not harm them; they know I will feed them and care for them.  So they trust me, and follow me.  It is easy to see why this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with Jesus.  As Jesus says in the gospel antiphon for today, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep, and mine know me" (Jn 10:14).  Knowing, in this case, means trusting.  My sheep do not follow me obediently into the sheepfold simply because they know me.  They follow me because they trust me.

Jesus says in today's gospel that, "all who come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them."  You can know someone, and know him to be a thief.  You do not follow such a person, even though you may know him, because he is not worthy of your trust.  So when Jesus says "mine know me," He means that His sheep not only know Him, but that they trust Him as their shepherd.  Like a shepherd, He feeds us and cares for us.  In the psalm today (Ps 23) we are told that our shepherd will give us repose, refresh our soul, guide us and lead us, give us courage and anoint us.  

It is interesting that Jesus not only refers to Himself as the good shepherd, but as the gate through which His sheep pass.  This calls to mind another passage of John's gospel where Jesus claims not only to be the truth and the life, but also the "way" (Jn 14:6).  Jesus is not only the truth, but the way to the truth.  Jesus is not only the life, but the way to the life.  Likewise Jesus is not only the shepherd, but the gate through which we must pass to reach the shepherd.  If this sounds like an unfathomable mystery, it is because it is!  But it tells us one thing: the only way to unite ourselves to Christ in the next world is to unite ourselves to Christ in this world.  He is the gate, but He also walks ahead of us through the gate.  He is the way, and we must follow Him.  Psalm 100 tells us, "We are His people, the sheep of His pasture.  Enter His gates with thanksgiving" (Ps 100:3b-4a).

How do we enter through His gate?  Our first Pope, St. Peter, tells us in today's readings.  "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38).  Baptism is the sacramental gate through which we first enter the sheepfold of the Church.  Once in that pasture, we must remain there by imitating Christ in holiness.  We must be good, not just when it is convenient, but when it is inconvenient, being "patient when [we] suffer for doing what is good" (1 Pt 2:20).  And if we go astray, we repent and so "return to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls" (1 Pt 2:25).  How do we know this is true?  Because our Shepherd has revealed this to us.  We hear His voice, and we trust Him.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday.  As I wrote then, the Divine Mercy devotion comes from the dairy kept by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s.  She wrote much in her diary about Christ's mercy, as one would expect, but also about the great need for us to trust in Christ.  In her writings, she says Jesus appeared and told her, "Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy" (1146), and "When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls" (1074), and "The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it" (1273).

It is no wonder that the prayers of the Divine Mercy chaplet have us saying to Jesus, "I trust in You!"  This is what it means to have faith; it means that we must be willing to trust in Christ.  It is only by trusting in our Shepherd that our faith gives us life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, says of bread and wine, "This is my body" (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24).  And we believe it is so, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, says of Peter, "On this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  And we believe it is so, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, breathes on the Apostles and says, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:23).  And we believe the Apostolic Church can grant His forgiveness, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, tells us, "If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow Me" (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23).  And we follow Him, because we trust Him.

In other words, we trust in the authority of the Church, the healing power of the Sacraments, and the salvific effects of suffering with Christ, because we trust Jesus.  There is no other reason to believe these things.

There are other voices speaking to us.  There are thieves and robbers at the gate.  Jesus says these come only to steal, slaughter and destroy.  He is speaking of what happens to our souls when we choose to follow these false shepherds.  Our choice is simple.  Do we trust these strangers?  Or, like my sheep when an unfamiliar person approaches their pasture, do we keep our distance and eye them with caution?  Later in this same gospel passage, Jesus speaks of having many sheep, but of there being only "one flock and one shepherd" (Jn 10:16).  We, like the sheep, need to learn to recognize our Shepherd's voice and to develop a deep and abiding trust in Him.  Only then will we be able to follow wherever He leads us (even though it may seem difficult), because we know He loves us.  Only in this way will we be assured of eternal life.

I am the gate.  Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.


--
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
  
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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