3 May 2020 Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor for 4th Sunday in Easter
I God has made Jesus Lord and Christ (Ac 2.14)
The extracts from the New Testament, especially the gospel text, which we have just heard on this Good Shepherd Sunday are rich in images and metaphors. References and allusions to the Old Testament literature of faith abound.
The central theme and insight is simple and crystal clear : Jesus of Nazareth, whom we come to know as we read the scriptures, as we celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments and as we live, discover and re-discover the Christian way of life, is the source of our faith.
Jesus, the Risen Christ is the source, the inspiration, the anchor and guarantor of our Christian faith : this is the central message and insight of the liturgy of the Word on these Sunday following Easter Sunday.
II He guides me along the right path, he is true to his name (Ps 23. 3)
Looking at little more closely at each one of the readings we have just heard, we notice a few details that may link the context and setting they originally addressed with our own situations in 2020:
The second reading, lines from the first letter of St Peter, were written in a context of trial and persecution for an early Christian community. These early followers of Christ were enduring unjust punishment and treatment, precisely because of their faith and lifestyle. The author of the letter encourages them in their witness of endurance, fidelity and fortitude. He does so also with an interesting modulation in the final line of the reading, where he alludes to those who have “gone astray” (1 Pt 2.25) and then “have come back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Pt 2.25). Return, conversion, re-discovery is part of the Christian’s life biography !
Then, the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, often referred to as lines from St Peter’s Pentecost address, begins with something of a bang! Peter is presented as going straight for the jugular: he asserts the divine identity of Jesus and names the religious blindness of those who crucified him. His message is also that Jesus is the “shepherd and guardian of your souls”(1 Pt 2.25).
However, a little detail in these lines may just escape our attention. It concerns the reaction on the part of his listeners: the text says, “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles “ What must we do “ ( Ac 2.37), they asked. Such moments or episodes of awakening, disclosure, or even of shock, dot our own lives’ pathway and the film of memory of our lives. Some of them may be discomforting, even turbulent, others less so. One way or the other, each of these moments carry for us the potential of an opening to that fullness of life, that wholeness, that Jesus speaks of in the gospel text : “ I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn1.10).
With the metaphor of the sheepfold the lines from the gospel according to St John mirror the maelstrom of the landscape and experience of human life and existence.
The dominant image of the sheepfold suggests the safety and security of base camp, of belonging, of a place to rest. The role of the gatekeeper, guarantor of security, complements the key figure of the shepherd, yet even the gatekeeper, whose focus is the common good, is challenged by the presence within of those described as “thief and brigand” (Jn10.1). Such is life, as we know!
The figure of the shepherd leading out his sheep, as portrayed by St John, also evokes the exodus from captivity in Egypt. The shepherd leads out his flock to pasture, goes ahead of them and, once again, we notice the use of that verb “know”(Jn 10.4) which carries a charge of particular meaning is St John’s gospel : the sheep “know” his voice and respond only to him. This “knowing” is not a mere notional awareness; rather it involves holistic awareness and a relationship of care and love. It is the type of knowing that incites and inspires aspiration, confidence, growth, achievement in another – much like creative parenting, teaching that seeks out and foster talents, leadership and public narrative that ennobles.
But back to the text of St John, where we notice that in the commentary on the parable attributed by the author to Jesus, Jesus refers to himself as being also the gate of the sheepfold. These metaphors of shepherd and gateway pick up and resonate with the Old Testament literature, particularly with the famous chapter 34 in the book of Ezekiel on the shepherds and with the allusions to the “door” or “gateway” as a messianic symbol, as found in Psalm 118 : “this is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it” (Ps 118.20).
III They failed to understand … so Jesus spoke to them again (Jn 10.6):
So then, what inspiration might we draw from these readings from the Word of God on this fourth Sunday of Easter? No doubt, you will have identified the one or the other, as you listened to them. Allow me to offer a few suggestions as well :
Firstly, and in the light of our present and continuing circumstances due to COVID-19, there is the call to endurance and forbearance, modelled on the suffering of Christ, in whom God suffered. As Christians we are not dolorists : we do not seek out, nor glorify suffering. We carry and endure suffering, work and respond to achieve its relief, always in the hope of relief and ultimate resurrection.
Then, for times when we are “down and out”, as the song has it, there is that ever reassuring and consoling line in the gospel text : “I am the gate, anyone who enters through me will be saved and will go freely in an out and be sure of finding pasture” (Jn 10.9). Commenting on this section of the gospel, St Gregory the Great spoke of these pastures as our inner life and awareness of the face of God which is always present, he wrote, to the human soul. In this regard he also advised : “let no trial divert us from the joys of this inner festival”, that is, from this sense of God’s presence to our lives, whatever our situation.
Finally, faith and trust are not always easy. The responsorial psalm 23, which we read, may well have been composed out of a setting of illness and suffering. With its perennial lines we summon as our deep down prayer its words : “near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit .. if should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear … in the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever … breathing them as we recall Christ’s words to all who have heard his voice, including all of us, and all of ours, who have been beset by the trials of existence, : “ I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10.14).