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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed
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NOTE: The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday. By signing up for our weekly e-mail, you will be notifed as soon as each is available. (See the upper right corner of this screen.)
Today's scripture lessons continue the theme begun in the lessons last Sunday. So, as we begin our reflection this morning, it would be good to recall what we heard last week.
The Gospel then was about one of those post-resurrection appearances. Remember how Jesus took Peter aside and demonstrated how he was willing to forgive Peter for denying him during his passion? He drew Peter forth, allowing Peter to say three times, "Lord, you know that I love you!" Jesus also gave Peter a mandate, setting him apart to be the leader of the disciples. He told Peter to "feed my sheep," which meant that Peter was to lead the whole community of disciples in the way of love, to bring fullness of life to people by loving them. Jesus, of course, had modeled the love he wanted his church to carry out by serving the disciples as a servant and waiter.
Today in the scriptures, Jesus shows us another model of love. He says, "I am the Good Shepherd." He points out how, as a Good Shepherd, he knows every one of his sheep by name. He demonstrated that when he told the parable of the Good Shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep and go find the one that was lost. You see, Jesus knew every one in that flock, and if one were missing he would see it right away. He loved each one. Jesus is telling us that God loves us the same way. God loves every one of us, not just as all of humankind, but each of us as the unique individuals that we are. God knows us in the depth of our being. He calls us to know God -- to be joined with God.
Jesus also shows that, as the Shepherd, there is no limit to his love: "I lay down my life for my sheep." He did that literally, didn't he? He gave his whole life, first in the service of love, of healing and of preaching. As he taught throughout the Promised Land among the Chosen People, he demonstrated love. Finally, he gave his life for us out of love, showing us that it is only love that can bring forth life.
So, Jesus became the true model of love, and the early church understood this. As we have heard in our recent lessons from the Acts of the Apostles, the first disciples experienced terrible persecution. In fact, that is what today's second reading is about. It is not about some future vision. It's about what was happening in the church right then. They were being persecuted. They were being dispersed. They were suffering. Many were even being put to death. So John wanted to reassure them: "God is with you and God will wipe away every tear. God will bring you the fullness of life. God loves you -- every one of you."
That is what the scripture is telling us this morning. Jesus is the model of that love as the Good Shepherd. And he tells us why he loves us: "I love you because I want to share life with you -- eternal life." Now, when we first hear that, we might think he is promising us life everlasting -- life after our time here on earth. But that is not it. What Jesus means by "eternal life" is not about duration of life. He is talking about quality of life -- a fullness of life that we can begin to share right now.
Just as Jesus asked Peter to have a primacy of love, to be the leader in love, to lead the church in love - that is what we read last Sunday -- he is asking us to carry the love of Jesus into our world. That's how we will experience eternal life most deeply. Not in the future, but right now. If we reach out in love, we'll begin to know the fullness of life and joy that God can give. Now.
This week, we saw just the opposite of what Jesus was asking of us. As an example of how lack of love can be so destructive, we heard about the terrible things that have happened in Iraq. Iraqi prisoners have been abused in the most humiliating ways you can think of. As I read about that, I asked myself, why wouldn't you expect it to happen?
If you go to war and you are going to kill, you have to learn to hate. When you hate someone, then they become less than human as far as you are concerned, and so you can degrade them. You can humiliate them. You can do whatever you want to them. They are not even real persons. And people who do that are destroying what God is trying to bring forth in them -- eternal life -- the fullness of life and joy and love.
But we also have examples of people trying to reach out in the love Jesus modeled. I experienced such an example myself this week. I was in San Francisco for a meeting of an anti-nuclear weapons group and I visited the Church of St. Boniface, which is in the poorest area of San Francisco. The mayor of that city has pushed through a new set of regulations for the poor. They don't want the poor to be there in their streets. So, early in the morning, if you can believe this, they go through the neighborhoods with fire hoses, and all the homeless people who are on the streets are literally washed away. What a terrible thing!
But the parish community of St. Boniface does some beautiful things. I walked into the church around noon and it was occupied by homeless people. The doors are open. They come in. They can lie down in a pew, and many of them do. They need the sleep because they can't sleep on the streets at night. Driven off the streets with no place to go, they go to the church, where they are welcomed and made to feel at home. They are loved.
Some people might say, "Well, how could you ever do that? They will steal things. They will destroy your church." But just the opposite was happening. I watched as some of the homeless people mopped and cleaned the church. The pastor told me that they never had a cleaner church! Now the homeless take care of it, making it a beautiful place.
What a marvelous example of how when you love, you bring forth love and you experience joy. You experience the eternal life, the fullness of life that Jesus promised.
The other example I came across this week was something I read. Perhaps you have heard about Jean Vanier, a person from a very prominent family in Canada. His father was the governor general of Canada. Many years ago, Jean Vanier started what are called the L'Arche Communities. L'Arche means "the ark." They are communities where people are welcomed -- people who are mentally ill, emotionally distraught or retarded. People who cannot take care of themselves are welcomed into these communities, and they are loved. I read an article about people who work in L'Arche Communities. One person explained how she never had experienced the kind of joy and love that she has seen since joining the community. This is another example of the fullness of life that comes when you model yourself after Jesus, the Good Shepherd who loves us without limit.
Today, Jesus invites us once more to carry his message -- not just in words but in actions. In the first lesson, Luke described how St. Paul had become "a light to the Gentiles." Those words echo Isaiah 49, which describes a servant of God who is called to be a light to all the nations. Simeon spoke those same words when Jesus, as a tiny infant, was presented in the temple. Simeon took Jesus into his arms and proclaimed, "Here is the one who is to be the light to all the Gentiles." Paul picked up the work of Jesus and carried Jesus message to the people as he journeyed throughout the Mediterranean world.
But now we are the ones who are to be the light to the nations. How are we to do it? We are, first of all, to try to experience through our prayer and reflection on these scriptures how much God loves us. When we know that, each of us and all of us together must become the light to the nations and carry the message of Jesus, the message that he is our Good Shepherd who loves us without limit. We must carry that message into the world, not just by our words, but most of all, by the way we love others.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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