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Sunday, 15 May 2011

Fourth Sunday of Eastertide (A)

(Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1st. Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)

There was something to be specially noticed with regard to our second reading today, People of God.  At the beginning of the first letter of St. Peter we read:
To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (NIV)
Those places form part of what we now know as modern Turkey, and touched also upon those mountain areas where the Kurds of today are trying to find a home and a national identity for themselves; and, of course, those Christians to whom Peter was writing were only very recent converts.  Here then Peter was seeking to encourage, strengthen, and to guide the nascent universal Church in the ways of Christ, and I want you to take note how he sets about it:
What credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.   For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.
Such was the way the early Church was built up: Christians were taught and encouraged to face up to the difficulties of their personal situation for the good of the Church and with their eyes firmly fixed on the historic person of Christ Who suffered and died to redeem us from the sin which is in the world and of the world.  In such teaching Peter was being absolutely faithful to Jesus Who said to His disciples:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (Jn.15:19)
This message, still valid centuries later, does not make pleasant hearing in our modern, Western, consumer society, where there are many whose main practical endeavour is to enjoy life in this passing world in a way leaving them with nothing better than a theoretical dedication to anything higher or better, let alone eternal.  These theoretical Christians are, most certainly, not real disciples of Jesus because they are chiefly concerned about being acceptable to those around them; they cannot seriously accept what Jesus says about the world hating them, because they want, first and foremost, to enjoy with their friends what the world has to offer; overcoming the sin of the world together with Jesus is not an attractive proposition.
Perhaps, I can put it another way:  these pseudo-disciples of Jesus accept and appreciate only part of Jesus' life and teaching: they accept the teaching that He died for them and they like to think that He conquered death by rising from the dead.  But there, in fact, they stop.   For His Resurrection in glory means little to them because they cannot appreciate that Jesus’ risen life is the exercise of a heavenly life situated, for the time, on earth, but essentially expressive of and orientated to, heavenly values and realities; and this is because their absorption with the joys and activities, present-day responsibilities and attractive prospects of earthly life is so strong in their mind and heart that heavenly life has no real significance.
And yet, after rising from the dead in glory Jesus did not live an ordinary, normally human, life again here on earth.  He did, indeed, show Himself to the disciples several times on earth, but on all those occasions He appeared  as One Who had ascended, that is, Who was now living at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.  He had risen in order to ascend, because the life in which He rose, the life He offers to share with us, was, is, heavenly life, eternal and glorious.
You are His own special people that you may proclaim the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.
Those who imagine they can live as good Christians while aiming no higher than earthly happiness are totally unaware of, and indeed at odds with, their Christian baptism:  a bit like those fireworks we call "damp squibs": made to be rockets, they do indeed burn when their match is applied, but they hardly ever lift off into the air, and if they should begin to rise they go up only a fretful few yards before spluttering and plummeting down to ground again, with no further possibility of fulfilling their promise.
Those whom Peter addresses, on the other hand, are Jesus' true disciples, men and women under no illusions that the world can fully satisfy them or that, despite having crucified their Lord, it might in some way come to love them:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Moreover, they also know and wholeheartedly accept that, thanks to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, they are no longer helpless before the sin of the world.  They rejoice in the conviction that now they can overcome the world in and with Jesus, Who conquered sin and death by rising in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and Who now offers to all who believe in Him and in His saving proclamation of God’s Fatherly love, a share in the personal presence and sustaining power of His own Most Holy Spirit. 
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
Therefore, you can see how much the early Christians and the early Church differed from many, probably the majority, of Catholics and Christians today.  It is commonly thought today  that the way to bring people to the Faith is by chatting comfortably around dinner tables; that the faith of young people and of converts can be strengthened by making worship more interesting and less demanding, drawing them into social activities and inviting them to parties.  Of course, these activities can have some helpful part to play at the beginning of Christian life, but they have little or no role in the strengthening of Christ’s faithful to face the trials and difficulties their faith will encounter in the course of real life, when things turn out differently to their expectations and when trials, misunderstandings, and even hostility or persecutions, come, perhaps undeservedly, their way.
Peter was very realistic in his address to the new converts of Asia Minor, and he not only warned them of the difficulties they would have to face, but even said it was their vocation, their calling, not only to suffer in that way but also to triumph over their trials in the strength of Christ:
What credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.   For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth"; Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.
Speaking in this way Peter was preparing and strengthening them, as he does us, for whatever might arise.   As sincere believers in, and disciples of, Jesus, we are conscious of the sin that is not only around us in the world, but also in us ourselves, and we have come to find Jesus where He promised to abide with us, that is, in the Church, come wanting to be healed by Him and to learn from Him.    We know that our healing will be a life-long process, for the Holy Spirit of Jesus must open up our most secret selves so that, penetrating to the core of our being, He might form us in all truth and sincerity in the likeness of Jesus.  God tempers His power to our frailty, and so the Holy Spirit working in us can only change us gradually; moreover, the Spirit, having begun to work His wonders in us, has then to encourage us to commit ourselves to  following His influence and guidance with confidence, trust, courage, and that too is difficult and takes much time, because, naturally, we want to know where we are going and look to encounter signs every now and then that reassure us we are on the right way; we want to walk with others and find comfort and appreciation among our fellows, and so, all too often, we cannot hear or understand, neither will we follow, when the Spirit of Jesus would lead us along a way that is not level, well sign-posted, or well-trodden, by others.  We do indeed love to think of ourselves as unique, but most are usually both slow and reluctant to accept the consequences of such a gift if it entails loneliness or responsibility.
Today therefore, let our Easter rejoicing be both real and truly profitable, let it renew our faith and strengthen our hearts as we listen carefully and trustfully to Jesus' words:
Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.  I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.  The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.   (John 10:7-10)
Jesus is indeed the Way, the firstborn from the dead; He is the Truth which alone can satisfy and fulfil our deepest longings; He is Life itself unblemished and eternal.  Apart from Him we are, and we can do, nothing; however, with Him and in Him, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Father will raise us up to fullness of life by our sharing with Jesus in divine blessedness. 
Through faith in Jesus, the gate and the door, we have entered into the flock of God, and Jesus like a good shepherd leads His flock to nourishing pasture.  Having conquered the sin of the world, and having been raised -- still in our likeness -- to new and eternal life in the Spirit of Glory, Jesus is able to fulfil what He promised:
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.   My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand.  I and My Father are one. (John 10:29-30)
However, we must not interpret life-nourishing "pasture" where Jesus leads His flock in the sense of worldly "green pastures": a pleasing and pleasurable experience of life.  For Jesus' flock, ‘pasture’ means life lived under the guiding and sustaining grace of God, an experience meant to transform us and enable us, resolutely and joyfully, to look forward to a share in the glory, the joy, and the peace of heaven, which transcend anything this world can imagine, let alone offer.
Eastertide is a time of supreme joy for all Christians, but let us learn from Peter who, inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, spoke words of truth that pierce the fog of worldly deceits and our own self-indulgent fancies:
(Peter) testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation."
Therefore our rejoicing today should be for the fact that in the Risen Lord we can now overcome our own sinfulness and the corruption and deceit of the world around us, thanks to His bequest of the Holy Spirit Who dwells in us and offers us strength and light to follow Jesus perseveringly along the way that leads unfailingly and directly to our heavenly and eternal home.