Mass readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter:
Acts 2.14a, 36-41 Psalm 23 1 Peter 2.20-25 John 10.1-10
Today we celebrate Jesus as the “good shepherd” and, not incidentally, we celebrate and pray for vocations in the Church. That is especially apt as we listen to Jesus’ words concerning shepherds, that is “pastors” (pastor is the Latin word for “shepherd”), and we’re praying for more pastors.
However, the passage from the gospel that we hear today doesn’t repeat for us those famous and beloved lines from our Saviour, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…” and so on.
Rather we hear Jesus say he is “the gate” to the sheepfold – that is the corral where sheep are kept, the place of safety before they are led out to pasture.
Insofar as he speaks of shepherds, he’s not talking so much about himself as he is those who will serve as the pastors of the flock in the Church he is creating.
And so, he is talking about the Church, its members, its leaders; and how we might know who are truly part of the flock; but importantly, who are the authentic leaders of our community, and (to use our Lord’s own language) who are the thieves and bandits who’ve snuck in, are among us, and pose as shepherds yet are bent on leading the flock to its destruction. There is then this collective responsibility on our part to know who we are, but especially who are the true shepherds, and so, follow them.
So, we first ask what does Jesus mean by saying he is “the gate.” Well, we can turn to our own St. Augustine who tells us the straightforward meaning: Christ is the way into the Church. Those who sincerely believe in him as Saviour and Redeemer, these are Christians and so, members of the Church, they are the sheep of the flock.
In a sermon of his he is quite blunt saying, “…there are many who are called good people —good men, good women, innocent, and observers as it were of what is commanded in the law — yet are not Christians.” (Tractates on the Gospel of John – 45.2)
What Augustine is saying is that the Christian faith is not simply about being a “good” person. Indeed, if you stake your eternal life on how well you keep the rules, how “good” you are; you are lost. That’s what the Pharisees taught – that it’s about the law and whether or not you are “good” according to the law of Moses. Today, I would say, the law we find in the Bible, the moral law that Christians are expected to follow, is no longer the measure, sadly even for those who call themselves Christians. Rather, we see people evaluating their goodness according to more secular criteria; one of the chief being simply how we feel about ourselves. Well, regardless of how someone chooses to measure his or her “goodness,” Jesus is quite plain in saying that just being good will not save you—he even told us, we must be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” and that is impossible for us; impossible apart from God. So, Jesus saves us by our commitment to him, by embracing his sacrifice, and being fed by him in the sacrament of his body and blood. He can bring us through to eternal life, but only if we are joined to him, because as good as you or I might be able to be, we cannot attain the required perfection to stand before God who is perfect. That’s why we won’t go to God alone, and that it is by His Divine Mercy that we are admitted in our imperfection, and then made perfect by God.
Another aspect of this idea of Christ as the gate is that we must be conformed to Christ, that is, if we are to be his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God by adoption, then we must like Jesus incarnate God.
St. John gives us that very succinct definition of God: God is love; and you will know that we’re talking not about worldly love, not brotherly love or romantic love, but the sacrificial, selfless love we see in Jesus Christ.
Again, St. Augustine tells us that love has to be in us as the chief motivation in our lives. It’s not about feeling “good” about ourselves; it is about our earnest desire for the good of others. He quotes St. Paul’s famous lines from 1 Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
St. Augustine tells us that if it is not that love that is driving us, then we must ask what is? Is it desire for mere human approval? If we consider the matter of those who would be pastors, is it ambition that drives them to their virtuous acts? Are they seeking power?
There are those who want you for their own, to follow them and not Christ – and that makes them a thief for trying to possess what is not their own – the sheep of the flock that is the Church. Quite often, however, once they’ve stolen away people, these unfortunate souls come to the realization they’ve been duped, yet instead of making their way home, wander in the wastes of our world disillusioned in the worst sense – they no longer trust anyone to shepherd them home. I’d say that’s a lot of people today.
And Augustine tells us, “…many, by seeking their own glory, have scattered Christ’s sheep, instead of gathering them.” (Tractates on the Gospel of John – 45.5)
With reference now to those who would call themselves “pastor,” these shepherds must also be entirely committed to and dependent upon Jesus, his mercy, God’s grace and so on. The pastor must pass through the gate of Christ.
In preparing this homily, I made a personal examination as what it is, or rather who it is I rely upon. If that answer was “myself” then I am one who has snuck in; if I were to answer that I rely upon the ideas of other human beings to guide and inspire me, whether that is Aristotle or Nietzsche, Karl Marx or John Locke, then I am most certainly, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps thinking I’ve come to enlighten and lead you to greener pastures – I’m nonetheless a thief come to steal you away from Christ to take you elsewhere to follow someone far less than the Son of God, something that falls far short of the truth and love of God.
When I speak, it is imperative that my particular voice be less and less what you hear, and that it is Christ’s voice that is heard. Now, is that entirely down to me? To anyone who stands here and preaches? No, we are all called to listen carefully. We all must listen with prayerful discernment such that, even when an inauthentic pastor, the mere “hireling” that Jesus warns us about, preaches the genuine Catholic faith, we can hear it. As St. Augustine tells us, we can listen so as “to hear not the hireling, but the Shepherd’s voice speaking through the hireling.” (Tractates on the Gospel of John – 46.6)
But do we know his voice?
The gospel account we just heard makes reference to the fact that Jesus using these figures of speech left many of his enemies befuddled – they didn’t understand him because their minds were shut to God. These were students of the scriptures but could not comprehend because they searched the scriptures not for the wisdom of God, and they questioned Jesus not to be enlightened. They were looking for power, to be able to argue their opponents into the ground, to beat Jesus in debate. So, when we engage in our studies, when we listen to a preacher, when we discuss with others the big questions of our faith, it should be done with an earnest desire to bring out the words of Christ and to come to understanding, not to find the means to “win” an argument, to triumph in a debate, to find the weakness in the preaching and so dismiss it all.
I would hope that we are not among those who act that way, but rather those who by attentiveness to God’s word daily, by receiving his sacraments regularly, we come to know the Lord’s voice, to sense his presence, and to put our faith in him, and so enter into his rest, into the sheepfold and truly be one of his flock; and to know who among those named pastor are truly shepherds of Christ, and not by any obvious charisma, but by how in humility they are conformed to the Good Shepherd, how they too depend upon him, and listen for him, are guided by him, so that they and us all may have life and have it abundantly.