4th. Sunday of Eastertide (A)
In today’s Gospel passage, dear People of God, there is mention of shepherds and their approach to, relationship with, their sheep; and this is of practical interest for us today since parents, teachers, political leaders, and indeed many others, can be regarded to a greater or lesser extent as included in that word ‘shepherds’.
Jesus tells us that He Himself:
Came so that they (the sheep of His flock) might have life.
There were many who had put themselves forward as shepherds to God’s people in the long course of Israel’s history and more especially in quite recent times; but they had all shown themselves, or had been shown, to be not shepherds for life and salvation but bringers of death and destruction as Jesus goes on to say:
All who came before Me,
pretending to be saviours and guides, offering victory, life and fulfilment –were in fact:
Thieves and robbers.
Come only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
He calls them ‘thieves and robbers’ – very strong language for Jesus – because:
Jesus said, ‘I am the gate for the sheep.’
Whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
They (did not and) do not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climb over elsewhere.
Now, the background of our Gospel reading is to be found in the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. There the first part is – as in today’s Gospel reading from St. John – about worthless, ruthless, shepherds who feed themselves not the sheep; who, pursuing their own purposes, let the flock be scattered over the face of the earth and become prey to wild beasts.
Then the prophet (vv. 11-16) continues:
Thus says the Lord God: Behold I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out. I will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the crippled, strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
Therefore, when Jesus -- in fulfilment of that prophecy -- said ‘I am the gate’, He was speaking divine truth, as He went on to explain saying:
I am the good shepherd ... and I know mine as mine know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I will lay down My life for the sheep. I have come in the name of My Father.
Those pseudo-leaders, those false shepherds whom the Jews had followed before Him had in no way entered through Him, the only true gate; that is, they had not prepared the way for Him (the only-begotten Son of the Lord God of Israel), they had in no way spoken of, invoked, or witnessed to, Him. They had done all for their own glory, in their own names:
You do not accept Me (Who have come in My Father’s name); yet, if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. (John 5:43)
Nevertheless, Jesus, was indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the gate through which the God of Israel was coming to shepherd His flock. In and through the very Person of Jesus -- Son of God and Son of man -- the Father Himself would feed the flock, as the prophecy of Ezekiel (vv. 25ss.) foretold:
Thus says the Lord God: My flock shall know that I am the Lord; they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they are My people, the sheep of My pasture.
Therefore, although God’s Chosen People of the New Covenant will still have shepherds to lead them in Jesus’ Church, nevertheless, they also will – as living members of the Body of Christ -- be able to recognize God’s Truth in the depths of their own hearts:
(Jesus said:) My teaching is not My own but is from the One who sent Me. Whoever chooses to do His will shall know whether My teaching is from God or whether I speak on My own. Whoever speaks on his own seeks his own glory, but whoever seeks the glory of the One Who sent Him is truthful and there is no wrong in Him. (John 7: 16-19)
Notice then, dear People of God, the great freedom of God’s flock in Christ: ‘I am the gate. Anyone who enters through Me’ -- that is, whosoever enters God’s sheepfold through faith in and love for, Christ – ‘will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture.’ The flock do indeed see, hear, and confidently follow God-given shepherds going before them to a future, as yet unseen, divine fulfilment.
Though still on the way they can, however, in times of need or deep personal prayer, be strengthened, even thrilled and delighted, by an awareness of the mysterious presence of God Himself -- the most merciful and bountiful Cause, the great Hope and supreme Aspiration, of all that is beautiful and harmonious in their lives – in the dedicatedly secret shrine of their own loving and obedient mind and heart.
This has most important consequences for us.
First of all, the People of God – ‘those who choose to do His will’ -- can never, as a whole with the Pope, be led astray by false teachers; for Jesus Himself promised most clearly (John 7:17):
They shall know whether My teaching is from God;
That is, they will be able to recognize the divine truth of Christian teaching causing peace and hope to rise up within their own God-seeking hearts; for Jesus, Head of the Church which is His Body, and the Spirit, the Father-given and Jesus-sent ‘Helper’, are inseparably with the Church in all her trials.
As individuals however, we all have, for our part, the obligation so to live our Christian and Catholic lives that that God-given ability to respond to divine truth is never obscured, tainted, let alone poisoned, in what should to be the spontaneous appreciation of our hearts; for sinful living, pride, indulgence, worldly cares and preoccupations can turn disciples aside from their Christian commitment and ideals, and gradually lead them to mistake error for truth and to follow false prophets and hirelings instead of true shepherds and even Christ Himself. Therefore, it behoves us, St. Peter writes, to:
Be sober and vigilant for your opponent the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
Above all, however, let us confidently adopt positive endeavours let us ‘put on Christ’ by sincerely following the teaching of God proclaimed by Mother Church in its fullness, and by our own personal prayer and patience, that thus we can be gradually led to humbly recognize and joyfully experience a clear echo and loving response to God’s truth in our souls. That response will come to mean more and more to us because God has indeed most truly given us an inner divine life which, when fully developed, pulsates in rhyme and rhythm with, positively thrills in response to, His Fatherly call and teaching.
If, on the other hand, the truths of faith, the life and promises of Jesus in the Scriptures, and the Christian practice of your vocation of loving obedience to God and service of your neighbour, seem cold, impersonal, and fruitless to you, then it might perhaps be a fact that God is testing you for your greater good, as He has done with many great saints and even with Jesus Himself. However, such dryness or distaste may also –and much more probably – prove to be a fault in your way of living the Christian life: perhaps you have been only existing, not really living in Christ, neither loving His Person sincerely nor committing yourselves trustingly to His divine Providence and His guiding Spirit of Truth and Love. But, whatever be the cause of any such personal lassitude, divine trial or personal fault, we do know most certainly that Jesus came, as He said, for one supreme purpose: that we might have life in all its fullness:
I came so that (you) might have life and have it to the full.
Therefore, as we proceed in our celebration of this Mass, the great sacrament of Jesus’ life and death for us, let us beg Him for a deeper -- oh so much deeper! -- share in His Spirit of life and love so that we may be enabled thereby to respond with all the love and devotion of which we are capable to His divine truth and beauty in all the myriad forms in which we can encounter it here below. For such is the whole purpose and aim of our new and heavenly life: that we come to recognize and appreciate the original meaning of God’s self-revelation in His beautiful creation, and that we learn to whole-heartedly vibrate in harmony with the heavenly music of His saving purpose, our redemption through Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son-made-flesh ever witnessing here on earth to His Father by His Spirit bestowed on Mother Church for the salvation of all men and women of good-will throughout time.