4th Sunday of Easter (A) (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Picture: cc Epping Forest District Council
My dear friends, do you use email or social media? I expect that many of us do. And we know how easy it is to get an email or social media account. All you have to do is to register. Go to a website, or download an app, and submit some personal information. That’s all it takes. So simple! But isn’t it also true that, increasingly, something else is required of us? Do you know what it is?
Have you ever received an email claiming to be from someone you know, who’s facing a travel emergency, and needs you to send money overseas immediately? Or how about messages that appear to be from Google, or Facebook, or your bank, asking you to provide the password to your account? As you know, such messages are scams. Brazen attempts to steal our money, or personal information, or both.
Those of us who’ve ever received such messages, and even more so, those who’ve actually fallen victim to them, will know very well that using email and social media requires more than just a one-time registration. It also requires ongoing recognition. The ability to tell the difference between the true and the false. The authentic message and the cunning scam.
We find something like that in our faith as well. What does it take to become a Christian? In the first reading, Peter tells his listeners that they have to repent, to be baptised, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these days, people are asked to first go through the RCIA. But is that all it takes to become a Christian? Just to go through a kind of registration process? The answer, as you might expect, is no. As important as it is to be baptised, something more is required. Something that Jesus highlights in the gospel.
The Lord says that he is the shepherd of the flock, and that, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. And then he goes ahead of them. And the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers. For Jesus, the defining characteristic of his sheep is the ability to distinguish between the voice of the Shepherd and that of the stranger. To follow the one and to run away from the other.
So that, as with email or social media, to be a Christian involves more than just registration. More than just being baptised. It also requires recognition. For isn’t it true that, in our daily living, we are bombarded by many different voices, moving us to feel and to do many different things? Some of these voices come from outside us. They are the voices of our family, asking for care and concern… The voices of advertising, seducing us to spend our money… The voices of capitalist society, telling us we need to be more successful, to keep climbing the corporate ladder… The voices of the poor, the sick, the refugees, the polluted earth, crying to us to spare them a thought and a prayer, if not a dollar or two…
Some other voices come from within us. Perhaps as a reaction to what we hear from without. These interior voices also move us to feel and to do various things. They may tell us we are not good, or smart, or rich, or popular enough… Or they may remind us of how much we have been blessed, how grateful we ought to be… Or they may convict us of the wrongs we have committed, the ways in which we have hurt or neglected others, and even ourselves. Of how, in our frantic attention to practical things, we have forgotten to consider their deeper meaning. And so pay the price in boredom and anxiety, in restlessness and endless worry…
To be a Christian is to be aware of how these various voices affect us. How they move us. To be able to recognise, from among them all, the gentle yet insistent voice of the Shepherd, calling us out from the desert lands of selfishness to the green pastures of love. Where a banquet is prepared for us. The same banquet made present here in this Eucharist we celebrate. The banquet catered by the Cross of Christ. In which we are fed with his Body and Blood. Filled and enlightened by his Word. Moved to spend our lives in loving praise and worship and service of God and neighbour.
Here at this banquet we find the criteria by which to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Here we know the truth of what is written in the second reading. That, even though he was persecuted and crucified, Jesus did and spoke no wrong. Nor did he retaliate. Instead, he patiently placed his trust in God. Lovingly laying down his life for our healing. Mercifully gathering to himself all his scattered sheep. This is how we distinguish the Shepherd from the stranger. By his Love.
And it is when we pay close attention to this Love, and all its implications, that we then experience within ourselves the intimate interior promptings of the Shepherd’s call. We begin to recognise what the voice of the Shepherd really sounds like, when he speaks from deep within us. Which is what the people in the first reading experienced too. After hearing Peter’s homily, something happened to them interiorly. We’re told that they were cut to the heart. And not only does this experience move them to repent and to receive baptism, it also becomes for them a touchstone by which to recognise and to follow the Shepherd’s voice in their daily living.
All of which we do well to remember especially today, when we traditionally promote and pray for more vocations to the priestly and religious life. Typically, we promote vocations not unlike how others might market a product. By generating publicity. Distributing pamphlets and taking out advertisements in the Catholic News. In this way, we hope to make our voice heard above the noise of the marketplace. But could it be that what we need to do even more is to help our young people to recognise the voice of the Shepherd, already speaking to them so persuasively from without and from within? To distinguish this voice from the many others that scream out at them from all sides? And could it be that we can only do this by first learning and practising it ourselves? Could it be that we promote vocations more effectively by first finding and living our own respective callings with ever greater generosity and authenticity? As the old Latin saying goes, nemo dat quod non habet. No one gives what one does not have.
My dear friends, strangely enough, like social media, the Christian life requires not just registration, but also recognition. What must we do to better recognise and follow Christ our Crucified and Risen Lord today?