The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Fourth Sunday of Easter||May 7, 2006|
I came across a story this week, a short anecdote, that I think serves well as the beginning of our reflection on todays scripture. The story is about a catechism class with youngsters preparing for their first Holy Communion. They were about 8 or 9 years old, and they had been asked to memorize some short passage from the scriptures that they felt really spoke to them. So each of the kids in the class picked out a passage and memorized it, and then they were to recite it in front of their parents and teachers. The first child got up and began to recite Psalm 23, a psalm we all know. She started off saying, The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. And then went blank, couldnt remember another word. After a pause she said, And thats all I have to know. Everybody clapped. But thats true, isnt it? All we have to know is that God is my shepherd and there is nothing I shall want. If we explore the sense of shepherd as its revealed in the scriptures, we will understand very deeply how true that is, that there is nothing we shall lack, because God is shepherd to us.
We say, because its written in one of the letters of John, God is love. Where there is love there is God. We have a sense of what that means, but when we put it in these concrete terms that God is my shepherd and if we explore in depth the meaning of shepherd in the scriptures, Gods love becomes very concrete, very real.
The idea of God shepherd to us is found throughout the scriptures. In the Old Testament, there are passages where Gods is very upset with the shepherd rulers of Gods people, because they were supposed to be shepherds caring for the people, but they were very corrupt and very careless about their responsibilities. And so God says, I will be shepherd to my people Israel. Forget all the others. I will be shepherd. God entered very deeply into their life.
In the New Testament, what we just heard today in the Gospel, Jesus says, I am the good shepherd -- and we can add in I, the son of God, the one who is God, I am the good shepherd. Why is that such a powerful expression of how God is love? Well, Jesus spells it out. One of the things that impressed me is when he says, I know mine and mine know me. He can call every one of us by name. Think how important that is. Any one of us, when were recognized, especially in a place or a situation where we dont think people know us, and somebody says our name, we feel very flattered, honored. Its very important to us because my name represents who I am and so if God knows my name, God really knows me. What a blessing that is! God knows everything about me. God knows what I need. God knows what I lack. God knows what will bring joy and fullness of life to me. God knows everything about me. God knows my sins, even, of course. But it makes no difference. God still loves me.
God knows me. If we could really absorb that deeply, that it is the good shepherd who knows the sheep, knows each of them intimately and fully, if we could absorb that, nothing else matters. That is all we need to know. But Jesus goes on to give us other reasons why he is the good shepherd. Remember the parable about the hundred sheep and one lost? The shepherd is ready to go and find that sheep. Sometimes if we feel lost or alienated from people or even in some ways alienated from God, we should know, and if we pray about this we will know, that God is searching for us, God is reaching out to us. Thats the good shepherd.
Jesus tells us the extent of the love comparing the one who isnt the shepherd, the hireling, somebody whos just doing it as a job. If theres a threat to the sheep the hireling runs away. Not Jesus. He will lay down his life for his sheep. He says, Its mine to lay down. I can do it freely, and I will do it. Because I love each one of you so much, I will lay down my life. I will give up my life for you. And we know as Jesus tells us in another place, Greater love than this no one has than to lay down your life for another. To lay down your life for another person. You know, we all would recognize, theres no greater love than that. Yet that is the love of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He is ready to lay down his life for us, and he does in fact do it as a sign of the total love that God has for every one of us.
We need to keep on exploring more and more deeply how Jesus is the good shepherd for us. Every one of us must look into our hearts and discover that, because that is the message we have to spread to the world about Jesus and who Jesus is. In our first lesson today, Peter tells us that theres no other name through which anyone will be healed and saved. Once Jesus entered into human history, then Jesus is available to everyone to save every person in all of human history, to heal every person. Yet the truth about Jesus has been obscured, because so often many of us have failed to reflect in our own lives how Jesus is shepherd to us and how we have to be shepherds to others.
I experienced a kind of dramatic example of this a couple of weeks ago. I was giving a talk outside of Detroit and it was about the abolition of war, which is something that I believe is very important, we have to work for. I gave all what you might call the logical reasons why at this time especially in human history war is absolutely out of the question, because it will end us at some point. But then I went beyond that to give moral reasons and speaking out of my own faith context as a follower of Jesus, I gave the example of Jesus who rejected violence for any reason whatsoever and so on. Afterwards in the question and answer response period one woman at one point said, Well, sir, she said to me, I have respect for what your saying, but, she said, the greatest cause for war in the world are religious people. The greatest reason why we have war is because of religion. And she cited examples. She mentioned the crusades for example. Religious wars led by religious believing people.
Weve had other ways in which Gods love is so obscured by war. Right now were in danger of a religious war in our world -- Muslims and Hindus against Christians, against one another or we against them. And its true isnt it that the followers of Jesus, we, all of us have sometimes obscured this truth about God being love especially represented by Jesus as the good shepherd.
Jesus taught us as the good shepherd that everyone should be included in his flock, but we as a Church exclude people from full participation in the Church. We do it sometimes to people because of their sexual orientation or because of theyre women instead of men so they cant have a leadership role within the church. We exclude instead of draw in, so we obscure the message of Jesus.
In a very terrible way it has happened in our church because of the failures especially of church leaders in regards to the scandal of sex abuse in the church. It is so terrible that those who in a special way are to represent Jesus as shepherds, the bishops, who are called pastors or shepherds, have covered it up and refused to accept responsibility.
So we obscure this image of Jesus, and when we do that we lessen our own ability to see Jesus and to know God in Jesus as the good shepherd ready to give everything for us. We obscure that truth, and so it is harder for us to have deep faith in it.
It certainly is time for us to respond to this situation. In this Easter season, weve already heard a couple of times in the Gospel how Jesus sends his disciples to do his work. On Easter Sunday night he said, As God sends me I send you. So we have been sent to do this work of Jesus. We must, then, if were going to be effective ministers of Jesus and spread his word, we must begin to understand more deeply, each of us, how God loves us, how God is shepherd to us. We have to reflect that, be shepherds to one another, be shepherds to all those in the world around us, draw everyone into ourselves.
In Matthews Gospel, at the very end of the Gospel when Jesus is sending the disciples forth he simply says, Go and make disciples of all nations. He gives them that mission in a very final and formal way. In Johns Gospel its done a bit differently, and this is the image I hope we will take with us today: Jesus is sending forth his disciples but he does it in a personal way to Peter. If you remember Peter had denied Jesus three times, had sinned, failed to recognize the love and the goodness of Jesus, rejected it. But then he wept. He was sorry, and at this point Jesus says to Peter, Do you love me? You remember this. And Peter says three times, Yes, Lord you know I love you. So then Jesus is sending him and the other disciples out to do his work and what he emphasizes is, Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Nurture, make grow, bring the message of Gods love to everyone everywhere -- not through power or force but through love. Thats all Jesus asks of us -- feed, nurture, bring life to those close to us, but let it go beyond us. Draw everyone in.
If we could be that kind of a community of disciples of Jesus then the
image of Jesus as good shepherd would break forth in its fullness, then people
would come. The world would change. Joy and fullness of life would be the gift
that God would bring to all. This morning, then, as we reflect on how God is a
good shepherd to us we must try to hear Jesus sending us forth: Feed my
lambs. Feed my sheep. Spread my love everywhere.
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