Sunday, May 15, 2011

4th Sunday of Easter
Through the Shepherd-Gate

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

Picture: cc  Seth Mazow 

Sisters and brothers, do you have many relatives? How close are you to them? Relatives can usually be divided broadly into two groups: distant and close. Both groups are related to you by blood. But they differ in the degree of intimacy that you share with them. Distant relatives don’t really know much about you. And you don’t know much about them either. You probably don’t even see each other very often. Maybe only on special occasions. In contrast, close relatives are those with whom you share a special bond. With them you keep in close contact. You make a substantial investment of time and energy in each other’s lives.

But suppose for a moment that you had a distant relative to whom you wanted to draw closer. Maybe, for some reason, the two of you have grown apart over the years. And now you want to change things. What do you do?  Is there a path that you can take? Well, for a start, both of you probably have to make a commitment to becoming more involved in each other’s lives. And not only that. You also have to take concrete steps to express that commitment. You have to take the trouble to keep in touch more regularly, and to meet from time to time. But perhaps the best test of your commitment will come when your relative encounters some difficulty or trial. Maybe there’s a serious illness, or a business has failed, or someone is in trouble with the law. When this happens, do you still want to be close? Even if you may not be able to solve the problem, how willing are you to remain present, to lend a listening ear, a supporting shoulder? These then are some of the things that can bring distant relatives closer: commitment, communication and care.

There is a similar path to intimacy in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he wishes to have a close personal relationship with all of his disciples. He compares this closeness to the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. The sheep depend on the shepherd for everything they need to stay alive. And the shepherd dedicates his whole life to caring for his sheep. But how does one cultivate such a close relationship as this? What is the path that needs to be taken? To help us to answer this question, Jesus uses another comparison. He says that we have to enter through a special gate, the shepherd-gate. I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved. But what exactly does this mean? What does this gate look like? What must we do to enter through it?

When we pay close attention to our Mass readings for today, we find that this special gateway actually consists of three gates. In the first reading, it’s the day of Pentecost, and Peter has just preached a moving sermon about the dying and rising of Jesus. After listening to him, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart. They want to draw closer to the Lord. What are we to do? they ask. In response, Peter invites them to walk through the first gate. Repent and be baptized, he says. To enter into a closer relationship with the Lord, one must first pass through this first gate, the gate of commitment. One repents and is baptized.

But, as we all know quite well, the rite of baptism alone does not always bring a person closer to Christ. Don’t we know of people who, even after being baptized, don’t ever come to church anymore, except on special occasions like funerals and weddings? And isn’t it true that even those of us who do come to church every Sunday don’t necessarily have a close relationship with the Lord? Which is why, it’s important that we consider carefully what Jesus tells us about his sheep. They have a very special talent. When the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out, the sheep follow him, because they recognize his call. And, as we know, another word for call is vocation. A true disciple of Christ is one who is capable of receiving a vocation. But how? How does one learn to recognize another’s voice?

Some of us may still remember a time before the invention of cellphones and caller ID. And yet, even without these things, there were occasions when, having picked up the phone, you knew immediately who was on the other end of the line. Even before the speaker identified herself. How did you know? Was it because you had gone for some special training in voice-recognition? No. You recognized the other’s voice because you had been spending much time talking with her. Voice-recognition comes from frequent communication. How do sheep learn to recognize the shepherd’s voice? By listening to it often. For us too. When we find ourselves at the crossroads of our lives, how do we know the direction God wishes us to take? How do we recognize the Lord’s voice? How do we receive a vocation? By spending quality time in prayer, and especially in meditation upon the scriptures. Communication is the second gate that leads us closer to the Lord.

There’s one more gate. This is probably the most effective one for leading us closer to the Lord. It is also the most difficult one to enter. In the second reading, we’re told that if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace from God. For this you have been called (it is your vocation as a Christian), because Christ also suffered for you. Just as we are drawn closer to a relative by sharing in her trials, so too are we drawn closer to the Lord when we share in His sufferings. It doesn’t have to be something as great and glamorous as a martyr’s death. It often happens in quiet and inconspicuous ways. When we go out of our way to be nice to a difficult member of the family, for example, even when we are unappreciated or rejected. By doing such things, we are accepting the Lord’s call to enter through his gate, the gate of the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, as with family members, so too with the Lord. Entering into a closer relationship means being willing to pass through the three gates of commitment, communication, and the Cross. This is the special gateway through which our Lord invites us to enter. As Christians, this is our vocation.

How willing are we to accept the Lord’s call? How much do we want to draw closer to the Good Shepherd today?

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