Pastoral Reflections

4th Sunday of Easter - 2017

Acts 2: 14, 36-41; 1 Peter 2: 20-25; John 10: 1-10

The image of Jesus, as a shepherd, was shaped early on in the understanding of the fledgling Christian Church. Today’s excerpt from the letter of Peter, identifies Jesus with the image of the Suffering Servant in the writings of Isaiah. Peter also identifies Jesus as the ‘shepherd and guardian’ of those who follow him. It is sad that for many, this wonderful image of the Savior as shepherd is merely a sentimental or a metaphorical one.

Today’s gospel reading invites us to consider that, for Jesus, the comparison to the good shepherd reflected the rough and tumble world of his day, in which widespread poverty led to the theft of livestock and precipitated disputes and violence among people. The image of the good shepherd has a long biblical tradition. Many of the Old Testament prophets used the image of false shepherds, whenever they challenged Israel’s corrupt rulers. By contrast, in the 23rd Psalm, Israel’s Lord, is characterized as the good shepherd, who leads his flock to green pastures and by the still waters, caring for all their needs, so that no one will want for anything.

In the passage following today’s reading, Jesus declares, ‘I AM the Good Shepherd’. In doing so, he is making a messianic claim; identifying himself as the Son of God. In the sequence of John’s gospel, today’s reading follows immediately after the narrative of the healing of the blind man. The implication here is that the conflict between Jesus and his detractors at that event, whose bad faith had already been demonstrated, could be applied to the conflicts that typically arose between honest shepherds and the thieves who preyed on them and their sheep.

The shepherd theme gives rise in this passage to a whole complexity of comparisons. These comparisons can be confusing if they are not considered separately. So, let’s reflect on them one by one.

As our passage begins, Jesus compares himself with his opponents. He affirms that he comes to God’s people with the ‘messianic signs’ that confirm his mission as truly being from the Father. His enemies, on the other hand, are robbing God’s people of the blessings he brings – using their authority to undermine the trust and enthusiasm with which he was initially received.

As the passage continues, Jesus – having identified himself with the shepherd who enters the sheepfold with proper authorization – speaks of the relationship that exists between such a shepherd and his sheep. He begins with noting that the sheep recognize the voice of the authentic shepherd when he calls them. This is what the common people did when Jesus began his Galilean ministry. He goes on to remark that he also knows his sheep and gently leads them to pasture. The obtuseness of those he is challenging leads Jesus to take up a new comparison. He goes on to reinforce the claim that his mission is from the Father when he says: ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold’. Let me provide a context for this statement of Christ’s.
A true shepherd vigilantly watched his sheep grazing over the course of the day. At evening time, the shepherd typically would corral his sheep in a cave, taking care to call out each one of his sheep by name, ensuring that no stray from other folds would be unintentionally included. He would then place himself at the opening or gate of the cave, and maintain a vigil, guarding the sheep from predators. If predators came, the shepherd would fight them off, protecting the sheep even unto his death. Thus, the characterizations of the ‘good shepherd’ and the ‘gate of the sheepfold’ are apt ones for Jesus.

The term ‘gate of the sheepfold’ may have been suggested by words of Psalm 118, a psalm that was used as a processional hymn for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. The words I refer to in this psalm are embodied in the line, ‘This is the gate of Yahweh, where the upright go in’. Jesus says, ‘I am the gate, enter through me; you will be safe, and be sure of finding green pastures’. This is not unlike Jesus’ other comment recorded in the gospel of John, wherein he says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the light, no one comes to the Father except through me.’ This makes Jesus the one and definitive ‘gate of the sheepfold.’ Through Jesus Christ our Lord – the above words and images were to become the most meaningful of the early Church’s common life. In a sense, they sum up the whole of Christian faith: Jesus is for us, ‘the Resurrection and the Life’; he is the ‘mediator’ of the new and everlasting covenant; he is our sole ‘way to the Father’.

What are the practical implications for us from these conclusions, as it relates to personal salvation? Clearly, the first is that we cannot buy into the notion that Jesus simply does not matter – that merely living a “good” life is sufficient to get us to heaven. This is what the neo-Christians and the humanists and secularists would have us believe.

The atheists go yet a step further. Their perspectives are articulated by the words of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. In that song, Lennon sings, – imagine there is no heaven, or hell or religion, that if we just elect to love one another, the world would become a better place.

Frankly my friends, this doesn’t even sound good in theory – as, who’s standard of love do we apply? Without God’s love for us as the standard, all we have is your or my definition for love, and we likely define love somewhat differently. Kind of scary isn’t it.

Secondly, the whole notion that genuine salvation exists in a belief system outside of Christianity is absurd and needs to be courageously debunked. Interfaith ecumenism only makes sense if our goal is to eventually bring all to Christ, and ultimately to that, which was once believed universally by all. Interfaith ecumenism for its own sake simply makes no sense for it would have us believe that Christ’s coming into the world and his dying were not necessary and are signs of foolhardiness.

Thirdly, as Christians, we need to be very cautious and suspect of any false shepherds, who undermine or negate Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the Sacred Scripture. We have in our world a number of what I would call ‘feel good’ ministries. These shepherds and their followers would have us believe that God simply loves all and thus salvation is universal regardless of how we choose to live. According to this perspective, we can merely pick and choose amongst the teachings given, and be okay. This is as false of a premise as the Pharisaical teaching of the time of Christ, namely just follow the letter of the Law, with or without your heart in it, and you will be fine in the eyes of Yahweh.

The Gospel of John clearly embodies what we need to believe in and do, to achieve life with the Father. We need to become masters of that knowledge and live it to the fullest. As we resume our Mass this morning, let us pledge to affirm the practical conclusions I have shared with you and diligently apply them in our daily living. Let us endeavor to be Christians, (that is, Christ-like) in the fullest sense possible; in intent, word and deed!

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