Last Sunday is now well behind us, but despite a busy week, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to comment on its rich readings.
The Second Sunday of Easter taught us about God’s mercy for us; the Third Sunday taught us to worship; this Fourth Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, taught us about union.
The short Gospel reading was from the fabulous tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is all about the Good Shepherd. Pope Francis says a good shepherd smells like his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is one with his sheep. He shares in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.
Our reading begins, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” What is implicit is that, just as he knows them, so they know him – that’s why they recognize his voice, and follow. Sheep, as we have said in the past, have an important kind of intelligence: they know their shepherd. They don’t have to be driven with sticks; they follow. Faith is a gift – we recognize our shepherd because he has given his own knowledge to us.
They know him because he is among them. They trust him because he knows and cares for them. The shepherd and the sheep are one.
He gives them life, his life – and they will never be destroyed. The earthly shepherd is a dim image of the kind of care that our Good Shepherd gives us. He is the very giver of life. We live in his hands.
And then he concludes (in our little snippet from a long discourse), “The Father and I are one.” He alludes to a deeper discussion about the unity of the Trinity, a unity poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.
In our reading from Revelation, in a more mystical key, John portrays the shepherd as a sheep – the most vulnerable sheep, the Lamb. Of course, Jesus is the Lamb in John’s Gospel, too, but here we have it put together: “the Lamb will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of life-giving water.” He can shepherd us because he has united himself to us. We can trust him because this Lamb shows his concern for us in becoming one of us. When he offers us shelter from the sun and the heat, and relief from our hunger and thirst, we know it is for real.
We look to Jesus in his humanity and know he will care for us.
The Lamb, of course, is also an image of sacrifice. In Revelation he is “the Lamb who was slain.” In this reading, we wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. There are two kinds of depth of unity in this remarkable phrase. First, he unites himself to us not only in our relief, but in our suffering. He loves us “to the end,” to the depths, to the most awful aspects of our existence, to blood and death.
And second, he washes us white, which is a sign of purifying us. He makes us good. He doesn’t merely shelter us from the outside, he transforms us from within. He is not merely a distant God who gives us earthly food, he is Jesus who transfigures us, makes our hearts like unto his Sacred Heart, washes us clean.
In our reading from Acts, these mystical images were made concrete and historical. Paul and Barnabas are missionaries. At this point they are in Syria, the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.
The Lord who has united himself to them speaks through them. He has given them his word and they become his mouthpiece. Paul and Barnabas “spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.” It is Paul and Barnabas who speak, but it is Christ’s word, calling the people to Christ. Christ who has united himself to them unites them to himself.
And he sends them to suffer as he suffered. They are rejected by their people – Christ’s people. They are expelled from the territory, and shake the dust from their feet. And in being rejected with Christ, they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit – the joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of Christ’s love, poured into their hearts.
The Lamb who shepherds them has made them shepherds. He who loves us calls us to love. Christ who has come to us makes us part of him, rejoicing with him in the Father, suffering with him for the sheep.
Christ calling you. How does he want to take flesh in your life this week?