Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Shepherds, Priests, and Sacrifice

We call the fourth Sunday of Easter "Good Shepherd Sunday" because on this Sunday we always hear about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that has consoled Christians for generations. In fact, we can find shepherd images on the ancient Christian catacombs from the days when Christianity was still illegal because the authorities wouldn't recognize it as Christian. The idea of the Good Shepherd has always meant a lot to Christians, not because we so much like portraying ourselves as sheep, but because we recognize that there are elements of our lives that we can't control, and it's important to understand that someone, Jesus the Good Shepherd, does have them under control.

So the first thing we want to do is set this gospel reading in context, because Jesus didn't just stand on a street corner and start calling himself a shepherd to whoever might listen. He was speaking to specific people for specific reasons. So this speech from Jesus comes right on the heels of the story of the man born blind. In that story, Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth, and because of the healing the man is thrown out of the temple and even abandoned by his own parents. Through all this, the man comes to a deeper understanding of Jesus and comes to believe that he is the Son of Man. The Pharisees, on the other hand, become increasingly angry at Jesus and the good that he does, so Jesus is addressing those Pharisees as he describes himself as the good shepherd. The Pharisees are the hired men, those who do not care about the sheep. They are the ones who flee when danger comes instead of sacrificing themselves for the flock entrusted to them.

But Jesus on the other hand is the one who stays. Jesus is the one who cares to the point of sacrificing himself for the one he loves. He says, "I lay down my life in order to take it up again." Obviously he is speaking about his own coming death and resurrection, but he is also giving us a pattern for how we ought to live or lives. Like the Pharisees, living just for yourself leaves you angry, bitter, and distrustful of the good you see in others. It makes you like the hired man who can't withstand the tough times and flees at the first sign of danger. But living for others, laying down your life for others, is how you receive a fullness in your life, a new life, that you can't get anywhere else. "I lay down my life in order to take it up again." Laying down your life in the pattern of the Good Shepherd is a necessary part of receiving a new life of joy that you can't get anywhere else.

Quite intentionally, today is also the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, so today we pray as a Universal Church for Jesus to send us more priests. Jesus has ascended into heaven, but he still wants to care for you on this earth in a physical way, not just in a spiritual sense. So he has given his power to his priests to care for the flock, and he continues to lay down his life through his priests. Because here's the difference between the Pharisees, who are the priests of the old law, and Jesus, who is the high priest of the new law. The priests of the old law offered sacrifice for sins, but the priest was separate from the sacrifice. It was clear that the priest, the one who offers sacrifice, and the lamb, the thing being sacrificed, were distinct, were different from each other. But Jesus on the other hand offers himself as sacrifice for sins. Jesus is the high priest who offers sacrifice, he is the lamb being offered for sacrifice, and he is the altar on which sacrifice is offered. In the new law, in the priesthood of Jesus, there is no difference between the priest who offers and the sacrifice that is offered, but the priest and the sacrifice are made one on the Cross.

And this continues down to the present day. I am not my own priest, nor do I possess the priesthood of Brian Hess. I possess nothing, but rather I share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Every priest shares in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when the priest stands at the altar to offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist, he is not offering a sacrifice that is separate from himself. But when the priest offers the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Jesus, he is also offering himself as sacrifice. The priest who stands at the altar is no different than the gifts upon the altar that are being offered as sacrifice. And flowing from that, the priests whole life should be modeled on the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

I explain all this in order to encourage you to pray, to beg you to pray, for your priests. Pray for the priest who live this sacrifice well. Pray for the priests who live and exemplify this sacrifice poorly. Every priest is a poor sinner like yourself who is desperately in need of God's mercy. Pray for the priests you love who have meant a lot to you. Pray for the priests you don't like who you have disagreed with. Pray for the priest who baptized you, who gave you first communion. Pray for the priest who hears your confession, who will bring you communion for the last time, give you the anointing of the sick, and prepare you to meet God face to face.

This is a blessed life I get to lead. I truly can't imagine how God could have blessed me more. So pray also for more young men to answer the call. God is calling many men to the priesthood, but he doesn't call them out of thin air. He calls them from a Christian community like this one, and he calls them through the community. And he calls them by name, so if you see a young man who might be called to be a priest, tell him so! You could be God's instrument to awaken the vocation of the priest who might baptize your children one day, or witness the marriage of your grand children, or forgive the sins of your great grandchildren. We can't begin to guess at the many ways God works through our Christian community.

Christ the Good Shepherd continues to work in his Church down to the present day, and he calls each of us to pray for those who shepherd in his place down to the present day.

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