4th Sunday of Easter (Year C)(GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY)
First Reading: Acts 13:14, 43-52 Second Reading: Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 Gospel Reading: John 10:27-30
“WE ARE HIS PEOPLE, THE SHEEP OF HIS FLOCK.”
Some years ago, a renowned actor was asked at a drawing-room function to recite for the pleasure of his fellow guests. He consented and asked if there was anything they specially wanted to hear. After a minute's pause, an old minister asked for 'Psalm 23.' A strange look came over the actor's face. He paused for a moment, then said, “I will, on one condition – that after I have recited it, you, my friend, will do the same.”
“I!” said the preacher in surprise, “I am not an elocutionist, but, if you wish it, I shall do so.”
Impressively, the actor began the Psalm - “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want...” His voice and intonation were perfect. He held his audience spellbound, and, as he finished, a great burst of applause broke from his guests. As it died away, the old minister rose and began to declaim the same Psalm. His voice was not remarkable, his tone was not faultless, but, when he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.
The actor rose and his voice quivered as he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and ears – he has reached your hearts. The difference is just this – 'I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.'”
Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter and traditionally we celebrate it as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and think in a special way of the ‘pastoral’ love of God. Each year, the Gospel Reading of today is chosen from Chapter 10 of St. John's Gospel, where Jesus speaks of himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Today, in fact, we listen to the third and concluding part of that Chapter.
In recent times, this day has also become known as “Vocations Sunday,” a day on which prayers should be said for vocations to the priesthood and religious life; priests are the ‘pastors’ of the Church.
All the three Scripture Readings of today are well connected in themes. Actually, we have three distinct themes interwoven through them that bind them together:
I. Jesus the Good Shepherd...
The very loving and beautiful image of the shepherd and his sheep is very old in Scripture. However, like all scriptural images, it is not to be taken too literally or in its totality. The emphasis, of course, in the Scripture images is on the shepherd. The image implies someone who gives loving, caring & compassionate leadership. It is a situation where there is mutual recognition between shepherd and sheep, where there is voluntary following and total trust. The sheep listen to and recognize the voice of their shepherd and that is why they continue to follow him rather than another.
The Gospel reading proclaimed in this Sunday’s liturgy is very brief, but extremely rich in content. In the short and beautiful few lines from the Gospel of St. John, we come in vital contact with Jesus the Good Shepherd, who answers our most profound human longings and intense spiritual needs. 'Eternal life' is the Good Shepherd’s most beautiful gift to us, the flock he shepherds. We are heartened by his declaration, “I give them eternal life.”
The Shepherd’s gift of eternal life demands a positive response from the recipients. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The interpersonal 'knowledge' that exists between them necessitates receptivity in listening and obedience in following after Jesus, the Good Shepherd. To hear is to recognize the authority and importance of the speaker’s words; it is to enter into communion with him, to put oneself under his guidance, to follow him, to attach oneself to him, to become his disciple. “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.”
The finale of the discourse on the Good Shepherd returns succinctly to the bond that unites the sheep and their intimate union with the one who leads them. But it is not a mere repetition of what we already know. As a matter of fact, with the last sentence we reach a high point in Jesus’ revelation about himself and his relation to the Father. Indeed, today’s Gospel proclamation contains an astounding Christological revelation: “The Father and I are one.” With these final words, Jesus makes it clear that, in his role as ‘shepherd,’ he identifies himself with “The Shepherd” who is the God of Israel – full expression of the Father’s being. This is the basis for the life-giving pastoral ministry of Jesus. The profound mystery of unity between the Father and his Son Jesus, the victorious paschal Lamb, is the source of the latter’s incomparable power and unimpeachable authority as the Good Shepherd. To the obedient and loving flock of disciples, whom he knows intimately, Jesus gives the solemn assurance of divine protection.
In the Second Reading of today, as part of his vision, St. John sees all the people he has just described before the throne of God, and uses a mixed metaphor to describe Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb who was slain, but he is also the Shepherd who takes care of the other sheep. He leads them to a place where they will not hunger or thirst, and brings them to life-giving water, where they will have every tear wiped away.
II. Inclusion of Gentiles into the Flock...
The second major theme around which today’s readings revolve is the movement in the early Church to include the Gentiles, the non-Jews, into the growing Christian community. Jesus becomes the Savior of all – both of the Jews and the Gentiles, and his ‘salvation reaches the ends of the earth.’ Of course, “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” The first two readings complement this affirmation, by celebrating the universal nature of the flock of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
The Acts of the Apostles describes what happens to the Apostles and disciples in the years following the Resurrection of Jesus. In the First Reading, we have a brief description of the evangelical work of Paul in Antioch and Pisidia along with Barnabas during the first missionary journey. They first went to the Jewish community and preached to them, but many rejected their message. So, Paul and Barnabas moved towards the Gentiles who began to believe in Jesus and his message, and continued to join them in large numbers. This infuriated the Jewish leaders of Antioch, who were filled with jealousy and spoke derisively against them. They even incited the people to persecute them. But Paul was not afraid to tell them that it was true that God’s word was spoken to Jews first, but that most Jews were blind to the fulfillment of that Word in Jesus, so God opened up Jesus’ message to the Gentiles. Paul also saw in the Scriptures a Biblical basis for what he was doing with realization that the centuries-old prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled: “I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” But the Antiochan Jews began to work to get rid of Paul and his followers. This forced the Apostles to leave and go to another city to continue their work. Despite this, we are told, they were still filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.
In the Second Reading of today, we are also given a vision of St. John, in which the Gentiles have become part of the chosen people of God: “A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” Surely we all want to belong to that 'huge number' of martyr-witnesses who have identified their lives with that of the Lamb, Jesus, who offered himself in love for the world. Let all of us join with Jesus so that we and others will never hunger or thirst again, nor be plagued by sun or scorching wind but be led to the springs of living water where God will wipe away all tears from our eyes.
All these passages show that Jesus brings salvation to all. He is the Good Shepherd and we all belong to his flock. He belongs to all. He is for everybody. He is for you and for me.
III. Vocation to Priesthood and Consecrated Life...
Today is also “World Day of Prayer for Vocations,” a day when Christians are invited to reflect on the meaning of God’s call and to pray that they may answer the call to dedicate their lives to serve the Church in a special way, i.e. to shepherd the Church communities, particularly as pastors and religious. To help us reflect on the meaning of the priestly vocation, the Church presents to us in today’s gospel the figure of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Last Sunday we saw that Our Lord commissioned and gave charge to Peter, by saying three times, “Feed my sheep.” In that way he made Peter a shepherd, a pastor. Our Lord continues his work of shepherding his people through Peter and his co-workers: the apostles and disciples, and through their successors: the Pope, the bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, and committed lay people.
The first thing we need to say on this day is that every single person here has a vocation, every single person here has been and is being called by God through the Holy Spirit to offer their special gifts to the rest of the community. Therefore, “Vocations Sunday” is not for a few selected, it is for all of us here. On the one hand, each one needs to reflect on what my particular calling is and how I can respond to it for the well-being of the whole parish community. Secondly, I need to help and not be an obstacle to others in responding to the particular calling or grace that God through his Spirit is giving them. If we all actively responded to that call what a wonderful community we would be! For, “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.”
This is the “Year of Faith,” and the retired Pope Benedict has written a message that coincides with the theme of today. He considers 'Vocations as a sign of hope founded in faith,' and tells us that God continues to call people to work in the vineyard and that we must continue to pray and trust in our ultimate hope - which is God himself. In his message the Holy Father further says, 'Vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life are born out of the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, out of sincere and confident dialogue with him, so as to enter into his will. It is necessary, therefore, to grow in the experience of faith, understood as a profound relationship with Jesus, as inner attentiveness to his voice which is heard deep within us.' Surely, this extract from the message of Pope Benedict will resonate with vocations personnel and those interested in answering the call of the Lord in faith.
Today, as we celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday,” let us ask the Lord that we may be his good sheep, listening attentively to his voice, and follow his example of self-giving love.
Let us also pray for all our shepherds in the Church and society who are given the responsibility of caring for others. May they follow the example of Jesus who shows his concern and care for his own sheep and was willing to serve and lay down his life for his sheep.
Today is also “Vocation Sunday.” We need more pastoral shepherds for our parish communities. Let us pray then for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, that more people will consider whether they are being called to join the ranks of priest-shepherds or to the dedicated life of brothers and sisters.
Finally, we are challenged to realize the universal character of the flock of Jesus the Good Shepherd, by accepting one another lovingly and without prejudice and by serving the needs of all others without discrimination. Let us bear in mind always that “WE ARE HIS PEOPLE, THE SHEEP OF HIS FLOCK,” and earnestly pray that we all be one in HIM. And this is the Good News of today.