Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday in the 4th Week of Easter
Two Faces of the Shepherd

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 42:2-3; 43:3, 4; John 10:11-18
Picture: CC babasteve

It’s a very delicate situation that we find in the first reading today, one that could so easily have turned very ugly. We reach, at this point in the Acts of the Apostles, the beginnings of what was to become a major watershed in the life of the early church, the spread of the gospel beyond its original Jewish context. So much depends on this meeting, this dialogue, between Peter and the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. And, at the same time, so many things could so easily have gone wrong. The conversation could so easily have been disrupted, or have veered off in a very different and far less desirable direction.

We notice, for example, how the exchange begins with what appears to be an argumentative confrontation: You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them. To which, Peter could so easily have responded by saying something like: So what?! I am Peter. I know what I’m doing. You listen to me… Thankfully, he chooses instead to patiently explain the reasons for his actions.

On their part, after Peter’s sharing, the Jewish Christians could also have chosen to respond like this: So what?! What does it matter what vision you saw, what words you heard, what experience you had? According to the law we must not have anything to do with the uncircumcised… Instead, surprisingly perhaps, after listening carefully to Peter and finding his reasoning convincing they actually allow their minds to be changed. What was at first considered taboo, an unthinkable proposition, is seen as a precious God-given opportunity. And the result is a more generous collaboration in the ongoing project of sharing with the world the divine life in all its fullness. When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God…

What is perhaps most striking about this story is how two equally legitimate, yet apparently opposite, tendencies come together in a most helpful way. If we see the faith as a fountain of living water, then the Jewish Christians represent the important task of defending that life-giving source from external contamination. And isn’t this a task that remains especially important today, faced as we are with so many different experiences just as, if not more, risky and challenging than the prospect of admitting uncircumcised pagans to the faith? Peter, on the other hand, represents that aspect of the faith that is not content simply to remain at home jealously guarding a familiar font. Rather does it thirstily continue to seek the face of God in ongoing engagement with the world: Athirst is my soul for the living God…

Defending and seeking: are these not two equally important and legitimate tendencies in the life of the church? And do they not constitute two faces, as it were, of the gospel’s image of the Good Shepherd, who both protects his flock from ravenous wolves, and also leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost one (see Luke 15:4)? And isn't it striking and enlightening how these two tendencies come together in the life of the church? The process involves an open dialogue, a mutual laying down of one’s cards on the table of communal discernment. Even more important is the focus of the parties. More than merely clinging stubbornly to preconceived positions, the emphasis is instead on seeking together, in the apparently novel, the already familiar hand of God. In the reading, this is found in these words of Peter: ...the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the word of the Lord…

How are we being called to embody the two faces of the Good Shepherd in the world today?


  1. Fr Chris, strange how it didn't occur to me that this could be an explosive situation until you point this out today. Now I'm reminded of chapter 21, where a riot occurred just because some Jews said Paul "has even brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this sacred place."

    Sometimes though, feelings can go bad in a group just by not saying anything. For example, I think it's fortunate that the Jewish Christians had chosen to confront Peter and point out clearly (but not aggressively) what they are unhappy about. They could have chosen instead to bear grudges, talk bad about Peter behind his back, or even take subversive actions. On the other hand, Peter, on being confronted, chose not to go on the defensive. As you've put it, "he chooses instead to patiently explain the reasons for his actions."

    By the way, by "guarding a familiar font", do you mean "guarding a familiar front"?

  2. Interestingly, this week's Monday Manna Working Toward Truth and Peace (from CBMC) seems to address a similar issue: "Conflict is uncomfortable for me, but I have learned to respect people who are willing to confront disagreement directly when they believe it will ultimately result in resolution... We see good balance between these two drastically different approaches (Matt 5:9 vs Matt 21:12) to handling conflict described in God's long-term plan for peace and prosperity of Zion, as He presented it through the prophet Zechariah.

    In Zechariah 8:16-17 we learn, "These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath for all these things I hate; declares the Lord."

  3. Today's readings and the scenario you built is so true to life. It is something that most people can relate to in our everyday circumstances.
    When confronted, our natural instince is to react, instead of responding. This is usually a poor move since our emotions rule. Peter was definitely empowered and not only defused the situation but won over the "critics" in a manner of speaking.
    This inclusive act of embracing others in the name of Christ is so true of what we Catholics are trying to achieve today in our interfaith dialogue. The flipside is that we may compromise our core beliefs if we acquiesce too much in the one truth, many paths approach.
    We can emulate Peter by being patient and share our lives in a Christlike manner. When we insist on being right we risk offending the other person in that they must be wrong.
    Guided wisdom through the working of the Holy Spirit is ever present.

  4. Another brilliant expose! Awesome.

    I have just two side points to share.

    First, I'm sure we have come across the dogmatic, almost fundamentalistic, brethren in the Faith who are fixated with rules and who won't listen to reason. They 'cling stubbornly to preconceived positions' and nothing will budge them. I don't know about you; I just kick the dust off my shoes and move on, because the time is not right for a meaningful engagement. I wonder what the Good Shepherd would do..

    I belong to a neighborhood group. In that group, there is the spouse of a member, who is a baptised Catholic, but never one to be involved in extra-Sabbatical activities. He was extremely difficult to talk to on matters of faith because he wanted answers where answers are not always evident. By the patient action of the Holy Spirit, he is now an active member of our neighborhood group.

    The same Shepherd seeking out His sheep not all of which could hear His voice...


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