What do you do when bad things happen to good people? This is the difficulty that Peter is faced with in the second reading today. His communities are having a torrid time. The risen Lord had given them new hope and joy, but now they are suffering for their faith. They have to endure persecution, torture and even death for their belief in Jesus. Peter responds by reflecting on Jesus, who, when faced with persecution did not retaliate but bore his sufferings for love of us. ‘Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps … When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.’
‘You should follow in his steps.’ Following Jesus is key. Thus, when we meet with adversity, Peter is advocating a deep, personal relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Christian faith doesn’t consist in believing things about Jesus, but in believing IN Jesus and living and confiding in his person. Pope Benedict says: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’
‘New horizon’, I like that phrase. The worm’s eye view and the bird’s eye view have two very different horizons. A worm can only see a few inches in front of itself whereas a bird high up in the sky can see for miles in every direction. A person with no belief in a loving God and sees life as ending in the grave has a very small horizon, something akin to a worm’s eye view. The risen Jesus, on the other hand, has given us a bird’s eye view. He has lifted us up and enabled us to see the bigger picture, namely, that we have all come from a loving God and that we are on a journey back to God.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the one who goes before us to lead us safely back to his Father. In Biblical times, the sheep depended on the shepherd for water, pasture, and for safety from wolves, thieves, and brigands. The sheep had to trust the shepherd and nobody else. It is in this intimate relationship of trust, that a pattern of call and response grows and deepens. They know his voice. He knows each of them by name. For Pope St. Gregory the Great this knowing is a loving knowledge. Those who love Jesus are willing to follow him. Then the Pope asks a very searching question, ‘Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds?’
Jesus presents himself as the door or the gate to a new community of believers who confess him as Lord. In baptism, we pass through that door into this community filled with the Easter Jesus. This is God’s loving plan for us as we entertain a whole new way of living — life to the full as Jesus promised. Living a full life doesn’t mean living it up and having a ball. Rather it is to find joy and meaning in a life of love and service, just as Jesus did, even though he had nowhere to rest his head. It is by committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Jesus that we will discover the fullness of life. This means that we put Jesus at the centre of our life. We need to move from a Jesus confessed in a routine way, to a Jesus welcomed in a vital way.
The Gospel gives us some ground rules for living in this new way. The first is ‘listen to his voice’ in its full freshness and originality. The voice of the Shepherd is at the heart of the Church. On this Sunday, the whole Church prays that men and women will be receptive to his voice. We pray that those whom he calls to religious life and the priesthood will be able to respond to that call. This reality, which is played out deep in the heart, is hugely important for the life of Church. But we must not forget that the voice of the Shepherd speaks to every baptized person, calling each of us to live a life that looks towards God. Moreover, we are called to enable each other in finding our particular path and sticking to it. No two people will follow the exact same path and yet all the paths along which he leads will open to green pastures, for this is why he came. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” There are no dead ends if we are listening to his voice and following him.
It’s important to hear Jesus call us ‘by our name’. Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb was all confused until Jesus called her by name. Mention of her name was like switching on a light. Today Jesus tells us that one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. In today’s fast and busy world, that call can’t be taken for granted. We need to find times of quiet, away from the madding crowd, so as to hear that voice within. Remember Elijah recognized God, not in the wind, nor in the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice.
Today we are invited to walk with Jesus who is ‘right there ahead of us’. Just as the early Christians met with adversity so will we. Bad things will continue to happen to good people. But we don’t need to walk our life alone. We can experience at any moment, no matter how clumsily, that it’s possible to live our life from its root: from that God who is presented to us in Jesus, a God who is more human, more friend, closer and more saving than we can ever imagine.
Sunday, 7 May 2017