A famous singer was on a tour of towns and villages and the people thronged to hear his magnificent voice. In one little village an old man was so enthralled with his singing that he felt bold enough to make a request. Would he be so kind as to sing ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’? The singer paused. There was something special about this request and the tone in which it was asked. He agreed on one condition; that the old man would also sing it! The poor man was taken aback, embarrassed and full of excuses. “I’m not a singer” was his basic complaint. But in the end he conceded. The singer did not disappoint. He gave a beautiful rendering of this comforting psalm. Then the old man sang. His voice was crackly and he struggled to stay in tune. Yet everyone listened. His love for this song came through and won him a captive audience. ‘The difference between us’, the singer confessed afterwards, ‘is that I know the song but you know the Shepherd.’
Knowing the Shepherd is at the core of Christianity. Herein lies the beauty of the Gospels. They were written by people who knew the Good Shepherd. When the apostles were choosing someone to replace Judas the one necessary qualification was that he must know Jesus. They wanted someone who had been with Jesus from the time of his baptism up to his death and resurrection.
Peter was certainly one of those who had been with Jesus and knew indeed knew him as an intimate friend. But today he is in trouble for this same reason. The fact that he healed a cripple wasn’t the issue. It was the how! Peter claimed he healed the man through the name of Jesus the Nazorean. The authorities thought they had done with Jesus by crucifying him and now here is this man doing miracles by the same name. As Peter explains today: “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” By speaking in Jesus’ name, Peter put himself totally at Christ’s disposal, allowing Christ to accomplish his mission through him. Perhaps Francis of Assisi understood this well when he wrote: “make me a channel of your peace!” Peter saw himself as a channel allowing the risen Christ to live and act through him. It was his deep communion with the Lord that brought about the healing of the cripple.
The other readings compliment this salvation-communion dimension. The reading from John reflects on our reality as children of God. It is easy to take this for granted but on Easter Sunday I was given a lovely insight into what it means to be a child. After mass I was invited to a family breakfast. It was the extended family numbering about 20 between kids and adults. Sitting across from me was a couple busy with their baby of about 8 months. They never took their eyes off that baby. They may have joined in the general conversation every now and then, but only for a brief few seconds. That bundle of a baby was the focus of all their attention. I remember saying to myself that God must be like that with us. God never takes her eyes off us, always looking at us and always looking out for us.
The shepherd image in the gospel conveys the same personal nature of the relationship between Jesus and his followers; it portrays the close intimate care that the shepherd has for the sheep. When one goes missing he leaves the ninety nine to search for it – until he finds it. And when he finds it there is great joy as he carries it back on his shoulders.
So far all of this could be found in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” which portrays in beautiful language the caring, protective qualities of a good shepherd. But Jesus then goes much further than this when he declares that he knows his own and his own know him, just as the Father knows him and he knows the Father. Here Jesus is talking about a loving, intimate knowledge that is deeply personal. In other words, as far as the Lord is concerned we are not just one of a crowd, lost in a sea of faces. In a way that we will never fully understand, the Lord knows each one of us by name. He relates to us in a personal way and he invites us to relate to him in a personal way. It means that we are valuable to him beyond measure, to the extent that he is willing to lay down his life for us.
Today’s readings invite us to communion with the Lord as the deepest and most pervasive experience of our life. But we must choose the relationship that Jesus offers and set our hearts on knowing him. The more we share mind and heart with Christ, the more we will want to act in his name, enabling us, like Peter, to be channels of his saving love.
Sunday, 26th April 2015