Monday, November 25, 2013

Homily - 4th Sunday of Easter (Year A)

4th Sunday of Easter (Year A)
                                     (GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY)

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41            Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:20b-25           Gospel Reading: 10:1-10


A lady visiting the Holy Land came upon a sheepfold located high on a hilltop. Her attention was drawn to one poor sheep lying by the side of the road bleating in pain. Looking more closely, she discovered that its leg was injured. She asked the shepherd how it happened.
I had to break it myself,” he answered sadly. “It was the only way I could keep that wayward creature from straying into unsafe places. From past experience I have found that a sheep will follow me once I have nursed it back to health. Because of the loving relationship that will be established as I care for her, in the future she will come instantly at my beck and call.”
The woman replied thoughtfully, “Sometimes we poor human sheep also want our stubborn ways and, as a result, stray into dangerous paths until the Good Shepherd sends sorrow and pain to arrest us. Coming then into a sweeter and closer communion with our Savior, we at last are conditioned to hear his voice and follow his leading.”

Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter and it is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day in which the Church recalls the relationship between God and His people as described in the image of Shepherd and Sheep. 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 first and the beginning part of that chapter.
In recent times, this day has also become known as “Vocations Sunday,” a day when our Church prays especially for new shepherds and pastors to lead the Christian communities.
Now, we are in the Easter Season and today's Liturgy continues to hearten us with the presence of the Risen Lord in our midst, contemplated as Shepherd and Guardian of the sheep. The Responsorial Psalm for today, beautifully introduces that theme - “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of his gentle care and loving commitment to the flock he pastures and protects. The Gospel Reading of today tells us that Jesus is also the “gate for the sheep” because he is the way to salvation. As sheep gate, he leads us to eternal life. The First Reading from Acts of the Apostles portrays Peter proclaiming how to return to the Lord’s flock, by personal repentance, the purification of Baptism and by receiving the Holy Spirit. In the Second Reading from his 1st Letter, Peter seems to echo the words of Isaiah 53 as he recalls how we had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way. Jesus Christ takes on himself the task of reuniting the sheep, as shepherd and guardian of our souls.

Although at this point in the Liturgical Calendar the Church has not yet celebrated Pentecost, the First Reading in the entire Easter season is taken from the Acts of the Apostles concerning events that occurred after the decent of the Holy Spirit. This is no accident, but it demonstrates that the whole season is Spirit-filled, from the Easter Vigil to Pentecost. Today’s reading is taken from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost itself, continuing the passage read last Sunday. In response to his proclamation of the Good News proclaimed last week, some of the crowd are struck by the message and ask, “What are we to do?” The truth cannot be entertained passively, but demands a response in action. Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Peter must have been an excellent speaker because we are told that the people were “cut to the heart” and conceivably because of that famous ‘Jewish guilt,’ there seemed to have been many converts, as many as three thousand persons. Thus, the proclamation of the resurrection provokes a crisis in people’s lives, demands decision, and results in rapid growth of the new community of the believers.

The image of Jesus, as a shepherd, established itself early in the outlook of the first Christians. In the Second Reading from the 1st Letter of Peter, a metaphor is also used, this time for Jesus himself. Jesus is called 'the shepherd and guardian of souls.’ It is an interesting mixed metaphor because a few paragraphs earlier, in the section we read last week, Jesus is also the lamb as well as the shepherd. An interesting mixed metaphor!
In the reading today, Peter makes an impassioned appeal to the believers to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. He tells that Jesus suffered for us so greatly and completely that by his wounds we were healed. We were like sheep that had lost their way, but now we have been brought back to follow Christ, who showed us the redemptive meaning of suffering.

The Gospel Reading of today from St. John also contains a mixed metaphor. In this passage Jesus gives two comparisons. He compares himself to the Shepherd and to the Gate. The first title represents his ownership and the second title represents his leadership. The first is a warning against people who would want to steal the sheep and the second focuses on the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. Jesus is the Gate, the door through which the sheep have an access to the shepherd. The central image, too, is not so much that of the shepherd as of the gate. In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” and the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, for instance, by climbing over the fence or breaking through it, is dangerous and should be avoided. Only a thief and a brigand who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep will not use the gate. The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate and is recognized and admitted by the watchman outside. The true shepherd knows which ones belong to him and calls them out one by one. The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice and stay with him. They will not follow other shepherds, even if called by them. It is a free relationship. They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice.
The passage ends with one of Jesus' most beautiful statements, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” To follow Jesus is not, as some seem to fear, to live a half life, a life filled with endlessly dire warnings of 'Don't!' It is to live life more abundantly.
Actually, the description of Jesus through these metaphors may be summed up as follows: The Good Shepherd is the leader who lays down his life for the sheep, his flock. He is the caring companion, who protects them, whose voice they recognize and who provides pasture and life for them. The believer is thus offered a relationship of trust and safety because of the action of the shepherd. The use of this image indicates the intimate and close bond between the members of the flock, the Church, with Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

The Scripture Readings of today are intimately linked with the second theme of this Sunday. Not only is it “Good Shepherd Sunday,” it is also “Vocations Sunday.” It is obvious that our Church today is in great need of good shepherds, totally committed to the Way of Jesus. So, the Church invites us to reflect on the meaning of God’s call and asks us to pray for good vocations. Those called to ministry in whatever capacity in the Church are like shepherds. They are called to care for the spiritual welfare of those they serve. The readings therefore focus on the Risen Lord, the Shepherd par excellence. The central image is that of a caring shepherd – Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus in the passage refers to himself as the Gate for he ensures their security. The early church would have seen Jesus as the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds are pastors who are faithful to Jesus, charged to care for the sheep. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the Gate is dangerous and should be avoided. Jesus refers to such a person as 'a thief and a brigand' who comes to cause harm to the sheep. The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate through Jesus. Such a person is recognized and admitted by the watchman at the gate.
Now, “Vocations Sunday” is not for a few selected, it is for all of us here. It is a pity that we tend to narrow the term 'vocation' to those who feel called to the priesthood or what we fall 'religious' life, as when we ask, 'Do you think you have a vocation?' Or say, 'There are very few vocations in our diocese.' So, we need to emphasize very strongly that every single baptized person has a 'vocation'. Everyone is called by God to play a specific role in the Christian community and in the wider community. Unless we Christians see that 'vocation' is something that we are all called to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to meet the service needs of our Christian communities. Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes a contribution to the well-being of the whole.

Jesus is obviously our Good Shepherd, there is no doubt about it but there can be a lot of doubt about whether we are the kind of sheep that we ought to be. As we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, let us pray to 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, especially our religious and political leaders. May they follow the example of Jesus who was willing to serve and lay down his life for his sheep. Jesus our Good Shepherd is the Way, Truth and Life. He is the one who goes after the lost sheep leaving the ninety-nine to bring it back to the fold.
Again, the Church today insists that vocations are a responsibility of the Christian family. To foster vocations, the family must foster the Christian life. The family must live its faith in Christ on a daily basis in unity and prayer. The Church of Jesus fosters a living faith in the Christian family. Through such families, the grace of God is manifested and vocations flourish to ensure that the needs of the Church are all met. Today let us pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, that many will be inspired to show true love, to the point of sacrificing many other attractive options to become priests of Jesus, to follow him in religious life. And this is the Good News of today.


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