Friends, this weekend we are celebrating a number of wonderful things: namely, the World Day for Vocations and Mother’s Day. We also call today “Good Shepherd Sunday”, since the Gospel reading for the day, regardless of which year in the three-year cycle of readings we are in, is taken from the “Good Shepherd” discourse in John’s Gospel. Certainly, there are many great things to preach on today, but I am going to focus in on a phrase from our first reading that, hopefully, will give us something to take home with us to ponder and to work on this week.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of Paul and Barnabas making their way to Antioch to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the community there. Being Jews, they went straight to the synagogue to proclaim to God’s chosen people that the long-awaited Messiah had come: Jesus of Nazareth, who was persecuted and put to death, but rose from the dead on the third day and now lives, having taken his place at the right hand of God in heaven. They came to proclaim to the Jews in Antioch that it is only in the name of Jesus that they can find salvation. From the sound of it, they found a positive reception that first sabbath day as it says that many who were there began to follow them.
To those who began following them, Paul and Barnabas spoke to them and urged them to “remain faithful to the grace of God.” This phrase—remain faithful to the grace of God—struck me as important. Of all of the things that Paul and Barnabas could have told the ones who were beginning to follow them—for example, “go learn to pray”, or “go study the scriptures”, or “go serve the poor”—they chose to urge them to “remain faithful to the grace of God”. I think that this is a great Easter message for all of us and it’s a theme that connects with our other readings today.
In the second reading, we continue to hear of John’s visions, recorded for us in the book of Revelation. In this vision, we see a great multitude of people, too many to count, who are identified as “the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. This description is “New Testament speak” for the martyrs: those who have shed their blood for Christ. And what does “having survived the time of great distress” mean, except that they “remained faithful to the grace of God”? These who are identified as martyrs—and who, therefore, stand before the throne of God (that is, who stand in heaven)—are the ones who have remained faithful to the grace of God and, therefore, enjoy the reward for their faithfulness.
In the Gospel reading, we hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish”. He continues to say, “No one can take them out of my hand.” This is a beautiful truth about Jesus as the true Good Shepherd. What isn’t revealed here, however, is that, while no one can take one of Jesus’ sheep from him, his sheep, nonetheless, can wander away on their own. Jesus’ promise is amazing and should give hope to everyone who comes to him; but it should also stir in us a desire to “remain faithful to the grace of God”, so that, having become a member of Jesus’ flock, we don’t find ourselves having drifted away from him and no longer able to hear his voice. For when we can no longer hear his voice—that is, when we have failed to remain faithful to God’s grace—then we are no longer protected by his promise.
Friends, this really is the ongoing message of this Easter season. Having feasted on the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, we perhaps find ourselves like those first followers of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch: excited but not quite sure what to do next. To us the same instruction is given: “remain faithful to the grace of God”. What does this mean for us? Surely it means “Do not return to your life of sin”. Sin is incompatible with the grace of God and so for us to return to the sin that we strove to leave behind during Lent would be an infidelity to the grace given to us by God (which, in point of fact, helped us to break free from that sin in the first place). I would say that it also means to be docile to the Holy Spirit. The grace of God, which we received at baptism, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit dwells in us to guide us and point us to God’s will for our lives. He is not forceful, however. We may choose not to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, but rather choose to follow our own will: in which case we stray from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and make ourselves vulnerable to being overcome by the Evil One who seeks to separate us eternally from God. If we make ourselves docile to the Spirit, however, we remain faithful to the grace of God and, thus, close to the protecting hand of Jesus. Thus, enabling us to walk more confidently: ready to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen.
Finally, I might also add, on this World Day for Vocations, that “remaining faithful to the grace of God” is also the way that we come to know and follow our vocation: whether that be to the priesthood or the diaconate, to the consecrated religious life, to marriage, or to the consecrated single life. We cannot expect to know God’s will, which is made known to us through grace, unless we remain faithful to God’s grace throughout our lives. Oh, and by the way, holy vocations foster other holy vocations! Therefore, if you want to promote vocations to the priesthood, then remain faithful to the grace of God in your own vocation! When young people see others leading joy-filled lives while following God’s will, it will inspire in them a desire to know that same joy in their own lives and they, too, will begin to discern God’s call.
Therefore, friends, let us spend some time this week reflecting on whether or not we have “remained faithful to the grace of God”; and, if we haven’t, to turn back to our commitment to do so. In this way, we will stay attuned to the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd who leads us to eternal life, and we will also be great witnesses—that is, martyrs—to the joy of a life united to Christ, which will lead others to him, so that there may truly be “one flock” and “one shepherd” throughout the world. May God bless us all in this good work.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – May 12th, 2019