Saturday, April 20, 2013

Good Shepherd Sunday

There's a pattern to the reading we hear every Sunday during the Easter season, and it holds true for all three years of our Sunday cycle of readings. Every Sunday throughout the Easter season, we get a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a reading from the Book of Revelation and a reading from the Gospel of John. This is intentional on the Church's part. Lets zoom out, take a birds eye view and try to see exactly what these readings together tell us. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the first apostles and the early Church, just after Jesus ascended into heaven. The Book of Revelation tells about the end of time, which will also be the end of the Church as we know it. So these two readings show us the beginning and end of the Church. Between the two we find ourselves, and the readings from John's Gospel are lessons for us, to teach us how to walk this road from the beginning to the end. This Sunday, as you probably know, is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the 4th Sunday of the Easter season we hear a gospel about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. So the readings all together are really the story of the Church, first the Acts of the Apostles, then John's Gospel as a lesson for us, then the Book of Revelation.

Each week we can see a different aspect of the Church when we view the readings this way. What this series of readings shows us today is a gradual conversion, from disunity and conflict to unity and peace. When we look at the end compared to the beginning, the Good Shepherd is obviously at work, gathering his people into one. In the early Church, in the time of Paul, there was obvious disunion and conflict among the people he was preaching to. When Paul brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to the synagogue at Antioch, there was such jealousy that they kicked Paul and Barnabas out of the territory. But Paul and Barnabas kept gathering, they kept working to overcome the disunity that has plagued man ever since Adam and Eve started blaming each other for the first sin. Paul is trying desperately to gather people together in the name of Christ, and today we see one of the great turning points in his ministry, when he turns to the Gentiles and begins preaching to them. Paul is often known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and today we see the beginning of that mission.

He was visiting Antioch and he was preaching in the synagogue, which was actually not uncommon. In the ancient Jewish synagogues, visitors would often be invited to proclaim the Scriptures and give a sermon on them. He is trying to preach in the synagogue and the people in the synagogue started to listen and be converted, but then the leaders in Antioch stirred up the people against Paul and Barnabas, the same way the leaders in Jerusalem had stirred up the people against Jesus. This shows us once again that power is always intimidated by the meek and humble Good Shepherd. The Christian message always threatens the powerful of this world.

The Book of Revelation will help us understand how the Good Shepherd works in our own lives, so lets look at that before we look at the Good Shepherd in John's gospel. If you've ever read the Book of Revelation, you know there are some truly strange things there: dragons, mountains falling from the sky, horses with snakes for tails, locusts wearing crowns, and much more! Much of this is allegory or symbolism, we Catholics don't usually subscribe to a literal reading of everything in the Book of Revelation. The basic message through all of that is that God will overcome every trial. Today's reading is a beautiful vision of heaven. We hear about "a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue." My friends, we want to be among this group, because the reading also tells us that is the group that isn't bothered anymore by hunger or thirst or any other hardship. Whatever trials affected them, whatever trials affect us in this life, by the time we reach that point, those trials can't touch us anymore. This is the eternal life of heaven that I'm striving for, and I hope you are too.

How do we get there? If those are the people who have survived great distress, if those are the people who no longer hunger, if those are the people who have every tear wiped away, then I want to be a part of those people. This life is full of distress, hunger and tears. One day, I want to be there. How do I get there? Today's Gospel tells us how. In today's Gospel, Jesus tells us how he is the Good Shepherd, how he is the one who gives eternal life and how no one can take his sheep away from him. We only reach the bliss that the Book of Revelations tells us about by washing our robes in the blood of the lamb.

We can't get to heaven by our own efforts. We can't earn salvation. We know this, but we often act otherwise. The idea that we can work our way to heaven by our own efforts is actually an ancient idea, and the heresy is known as Pelagianism. But we can't work our own way into heaven. We become a part of that Great Multitude from our second reading by relying fully on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Heaven is a free gift from God, not a reward for following a lot of rules. Jesus brings us to heaven, he carries us, if you will, but he won't carry us with a lot of baggage. While salvation is a gift, our part in accepting the gift is to make sure we aren't carrying anything that is incompatible with that gift.

One of the biggest pieces of baggage we carry in our life is unforgiveness, and we simply cannot hold a grudge against our neighbor or our enemy and expect to take it into heaven. As we watch the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston unfold over the weeks and months to come, we can't allow feelings of vengeance to rule our hearts. Jesus prayed for his executioners while he was still in pain hanging on the Cross, so we also must pray for these two bombers, one living and one dead, even in the midst of the pain they have caused us.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis once pointed out that it is often very easy to love the enemy whose far away, because that love doesn't require anything from us. On the other hand, it is very difficult to love the enemy we see every day, or the person who has truly and personally hurt us. But again I say, this is exactly the person you have to forgive, because God loves that person and wants that person with him in heaven too. Whether it's a terrorist blinded by ideology, a parent who abandoned you, a friend who turned on you, or whatever, God loves that person, and we can't enter heaven still hanging onto that unforgiveness.

But it's not like we have to find a way to rid ourselves of this anger and unforgiveness that plagues us before we can go to Jesus. That's the error of Pelagianism I mentioned earlier. No, Jesus the Good Shepherd is actually the only one who can heal these things in us. So bring him your hurt, bring him the ones who have hurt you and say, "Jesus, I can't handle this, I can't forgive this person on my own. I need your help." Jesus will help you. He will slowly but surely heal whatever is in you that is incompatible with his love, and he will do it precisely by means of his love. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will heal us and bring us to the eternal kingdom, if only we turn to him, so sincerely turn to him today, and let him teach you his forgiveness.

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