Homily: 4th Sunday of Easter – Cycle B
The other day, I got to thinking about this woman I know named Laura. I met Laura nearly five years ago when we both signed up for a summer internship for future pastors and pastoral counselors at one of the hospitals in Carmel. This was a non-denominational program, so there were Catholics, Protestants, and even those who didn’t claim to belong to any particular faith tradition. Laura fit into that latter category. She grew up Catholic but had long since drifted away from practicing her faith in the Catholic Church. I must confess that at first I judged her unjustly. Because she was a woman, divorced, in her early forties, and had left the practice of the Catholic Church I judged her to be someone who left the Church for ideological reasons—I assumed that she wanted women to be priests—which was why she was now pursuing this pastoral career from outside of the Catholic Church.
As I got to know Laura through working together in the hospital, I grew to respect her deeply. She had been through a lot of painful situations in her life and I could see that she was trying to make sense of it all while remaining true to who she was and to being a disciple of Jesus. Nonetheless, I still held on to my prejudice that she had an agenda against the Catholic Church (in spite of the fact that she hadn’t said one negative word against it). One day, however, she said something that blew me away. I don’t remember what the conversation was about, but we must have been saying something about the Church or about different faith traditions, because at one point Laura said “That’s why I love the Catholic Church, because it’s so egalitarian. They take anybody!” “Wait,” I thought, “you’ve abandoned the Catholic Church to do your own thing but you love it anyway?” It was confounding to me, but it completely obliterated my prejudices of her and it made me think harder about how I look at people, especially people who don’t “fit” into my idea of a “good disciple”.
Today, in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus call himself the “Good Shepherd”. In fact, in each year of the three year cycle of readings the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Easter is taken from the “Good Shepherd” discourse in John’s Gospel. Therefore, we’ve come to call the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd Sunday”. This year, we are blessed to hear the part of this discourse in which Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd” and then continues to describe how a good shepherd behaves. The good shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep”, Jesus says, and he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. We know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, because we know that he laid down his life for us his sheep. In every church we keep a reminder of that somewhere and so all we have to do is look to the crucifix to be reminded that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us his sheep. And he knows us and we know him. Every Sunday (and for some of you even more frequently) we come to Mass and we hear the Word of God proclaimed and broken open for us. This word reveals Jesus to us so that we can know him and know him deeply. And, of course, since Jesus is the Son of God “through whom all things were made” he knows us and he loves us: not as some sheep that his Father hired him to shepherd, but as his own sheep for whom he would lay down his life. And this is all very familiar to us.
Then Jesus says something interesting. He says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” You know, if you take a look around you, you’ll notice that we’re a pretty homogenous group of people. Certainly there is great diversity in our backgrounds, but if someone who didn’t know any of us stood outside and watched as everyone left after Mass, I’d bet that he or she would conclude that, for the most part, we were all pretty much the same. And if we look around in our community, we can see that there is a large part of it that does not belong to this Church: people of different races and ethnicities, people of different socio-economic status, and people of different religious tradition. And so when you heard the words of Jesus today—“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold… These also I must lead”—I hope that some of these people came to your mind. I want you to ask yourselves this question: “Are there any of these people who are not part of this Church whom I would not want to be part of this Church?” In other words, is there anyone who isn’t here whom you would be “repulsed” to see come here? My hope is that the answer for all of us is “no”, but I suspect that at least for a few of—perhaps more than we would like to admit—the answer is “yes”: that there are people in our community whom we think don’t “fit” and so we would rather that they find another place to worship.
In the first reading, we heard Peter proclaim in his speech to the Sanhedrin that there is only one name by which we are to be saved (that is, the name of Jesus). Notice he didn’t say by which “the chosen ones” would be saved, but rather by which we—meaning all—are to be saved. Coupled with Jesus’ words that there would be “one flock [and] one shepherd”, we see that we have no claim to exclusivity in the Catholic Church. In other words, no one has any right to claim “this is my church and I hope that only people like me attend here.” In fact, none of us even have the right to claim that any church is “their church”. In fact, there is only one person in the entire universe who can rightfully say “this is my church”, and that’s Jesus. The rest of us can only claim to belong to it.
And so, my brothers and sisters, we see that my friend Laura was right. The Catholic Church, that is, the universal Church, is the Church for everyone, because it is Jesus’ Church. In fact, it has to be for everyone; because if it devolves into being “my church” then it loses its very reason for existence: to be the one flock of the one shepherd, Jesus Christ. If we struggle with the idea of having… oh let’s call them “less favorable people” here, then I invite you to remember one thing, which we heard in our second reading from the letter of Saint John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” My brothers and sisters, there is no greater dignity than this: to be children of God. Therefore, any distinction between us and those around us—either here in the pews or out in the community—are distinctions in this world only. In God’s eyes, we are either his children or those who one day will be his children through baptism. Our task is to erase every other division and work solely so that there would be one flock for our one shepherd, Jesus Christ.
As we continue to revel in our Easter joy, let us show God how grateful we are to be called His children by renewing our efforts daily to build up His Church into the one flock whom Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for; and for whom he will one day return to shepherd into the eternal joy of heaven.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – April 25th & 26th, 2015