“Now he bids us tell abroad / How the lost may be restored / How the penitent forgiven / How we too may enter heaven.” These are the closing verses from one of the Easter hymns from the Divine Office (#25) and it gives us an insight into today’s rich theme of the Good Shepherd.
‘Now he bids us tell abroad!’ The Acts of the Apostles focuses on the expansion of the Christian mission from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, symbolised by the Good News being preached in Rome. Today Paul and Barnabas are very much abroad, deliberately venturing into the land of the Gentiles, there to spread the good news of the gospel. But of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. The Jews became jealous of the crowds of Gentiles wanting to get in on the act, and what’s more scandalous, they didn’t have to get circumcised. Paul and Barnabas, however, claim that they have no other choice for they were instructed by the Lord to be “a light to the nations, a means of salvation to the ends of the earth.” Thus Paul and Barnabas are apostles without borders. Pope Francis is right in the heart of this tradition and yesterday he has done it again by visiting the countless migrants on the island of Lesbos and taking 12 of them home with him to the Vatican.
The Book of Revelation backs up the claim of the apostles. Here the writer has a vision of all peoples from every nation, race, people and tongue being gathered together to the Lord. All are included because Jesus is the Lamb whose blood was shed so as to lead all “to springs of life-giving water.” Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd who has lain down his life for his sheep – including you and me.
‘How the lost may be restored!’ While Jesus died for all there is a special emphasis on the lost and the strayed. This is already in evidence in the Old Testament. The kings of the Old Testament were supposed to be shepherds of the people but Ezekiel is not slow to condemn them for looking after themselves rather than the poor. ‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.’ Thus the first duty of a shepherd is towards the weak, the lost and the strayed. Jesus is one such shepherd. In his lifetime, he always sought out the poor and downtrodden and kept them close to his heart. His parable of the man with a hundred sheep who leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the one lost sheep best sums up the ministry of Jesus himself.
‘How the penitent forgiven!’ Forgiveness of sins is at the heart of reconciliation. We read and even speak about the forgiveness and mercy of God, but do we know it, where it matters, in our hearts? To be forgiven is to feel wanted, worthwhile, loved and appreciated for who I am. St. Francis de Sales says that he would rather be judged by Jesus than by his mother, and I have no doubt that like most mothers, his mother would have been soft on him. It shows what confidence the good saint had in Jesus. The good news that Paul and Barnabas were so passionate about proclaiming everywhere is that Jesus will always forgive us, no matter what mess we have made of our lives.
‘How we too may enter heaven!’ Heaven begins when we listen to the voice of Jesus and attune our lives to his. But those five words, namely, ‘my sheep hear my voice!’ have a little bite to them. Are we really good at hearing his voice? Do we really have the capability of listening to Jesus? Or put the question another way. Have I experienced the power of God’s word? The author of the letter to the Hebrews has no doubt about its penetrating force. “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow; it can pass judgement on secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing is hidden from him; everything is uncovered and stretched fully open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.” (Hebrews 4:12–13 NJB)
The author is suggesting that if we really listen to God’s word it would hit us like a thunderbolt from on high. And if it doesn’t have that effect the likelihood is that we have allowed God’s word to be just another sound byte, another voice among the multitude of voices, messages, slogans, images, sound bytes, and talk shows that invade our conscience every day. We cannot allow the word of God to be just another sound byte. Rather we need to learn to put in the centre of our communities the living, concrete and unmistakable Word of Jesus, our only Lord.
‘The sheep follow me!’ It’s not enough to listen to his voice. It’s necessary to follow Jesus. The time has come to get off the fence and decide whether we want to be content with a ‘mediocre religion’ that eases our consciences but suffocates our joy, or learn to live our Christian faith as the passionate adventure of following Jesus.
This adventure consists in believing what he believed, giving importance to what he gave importance, defending the cause of human beings as he did, drawing near to the defenceless and the invalids as he did, being free to do the good he did, trusting in the Father as he did, and confronting life and death with the hope that he confronted them with.
If those who go around lost, alone and confused can find in the Christian community a place where they can learn to live together in a way of more dignity, solidarity and freedom by following Jesus, the Church will be offering to society one of her best services.
Sunday, 17 April 2016