The more I think about it, what an amazing question. I mean, really, why on earth or in heaven for that matter, why would Jesus, the Lord, the Messiah ask the disciples who they say that He is? Does He not know who He is? Why does it matter who they say He is? Does their answer to the question change who He is? Does their answer change anything at all? And, by the way, who else ever asks us who we say they are? Don’t people pretty much always make their best effort to tell us who they are and not the other way around? It is interesting to me that this Gospel comes up right in the middle of a heated campaign season. I say this because political campaigns do exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing today in this passage. Politicians all across the country are spending enormous amounts of money on their individual campaigns. But I do not suppose that any of them are asking us who we say they are? I don’t think so. Are they not instead spending huge sums money to try to tell us who they say they are (and who their opponent is) so they might win the election? With their campaigns they are doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks us who we say who He is because He knows that the way we answer that question will determine the kind of person we will become and ultimately go along way in determining whether or not salvation will be ours. Political candidates spend all kinds of money to try to tell us who they are so that they might achieve some kind of office. I’d say that there is a pretty much a dichotomy here, wouldn’t you? So, is there a lesson here-I think there is. As we decide who we are going to vote for, no matter what office it might be let’s make sure that we don’t vote for a political candidate based on who they say they are, but on who we, after a lot of research, prayer and reflection say they are.
We are loved. If there was any message that Jesus wanted His disciples, wanted us, to hear and understand, it is that we are loved. We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus, the Eternal Image of the Father. Jesus healed the deaf man not just as a sign of the coming of the Messiah, as it certainly is, but as a sign of the love that God has for each of us. He heals us. The healing may be physical, or psychological, but it certainly is spiritual. He sees beneath what the world has proclaimed as success, as prosperity. For true prosperity is found in the account of the soul, not in a bank account. But Jesus’ healing of the deaf man was not to end there; none of His healings are an ending-they are a beginning. Jesus heals us not only as a sign of the Kingdom to come, not only as a demonstration of His love of for us, but also because of His great love for everyone. We are called to spread His love to others. Ultimately that is what justice is-the spreading of God’s love from ourselves to the rest of the world. If we do not spread God’s love we are practicing injustice. So St. James tells the early Christians and us that we need to treat each other for who they are not for what they have. We need to extend to others the dignity that is their God given right. It is how we extend the healing love of the Lord. God sees the goodness of every person. He sees His image and likeness in every person. He also sees how that image can be clouded, hidden behind a door of pain. And Jesus came and said, “Ephphatha, be opened!” He heals because He loves. He heals because He wants us to be the vehicles of His healing for others. As my mother would say His healing love for us is “not for nothin,’” we need to do something useful with it. If His love ends with us, then our story will have a very sad ending.
People of God, we are called to focus our energies on others, not on ourselves. This was the problem with the scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel. They focused their energies on themselves as an expression of religion while they ignored the needs of those around them. As a result they became spiritually arrogant, hypocrites. The word hypocrite takes its origin from two Greek works, huper meaning beyond, and crisis meaning criticism. The scribes and Pharisees thought that they were so good that they were beyond criticism. Their focus was on themselves and their exact literal following of the Jewish laws. They did not have love in their hearts for others. They disdained the everyday people as worthless rabble. Their method of following God could not bear fruit because they were more concerned with themselves than with finding God in others. It is pretty easy for us to fall into that same hole. Sometimes we forget that conversion is a process, not a static event. The beauty of our Catholic faith is that it is profoundly realistic. It recognizes that we are human beings tempted to make bad as well as good choices and in continual need of having our course to the Lord refined and even restored. We believe that the Lord established the sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, because of our tendency to fall into sin. The problem with the Pharisees is that they gradually established and practiced their own religion-a religion that came from themselves and not from God; a religion that allowed them to give themselves positions of righteousness and to disdain any one who did not meet their standards of practice. They forgot what true religion is. And what is true religion? True religion is this: looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping ourselves free from the temptations of the world. People of God, let’s be sure that we faithfully practice our religion, but let’s first be sure that our religion is true.
It was one of those moments that I will never forget, although I admit I do not remember many of the particulars. It was of January of 1990, I and my third theology classmates were taking our comprehensive examinations. They were something we had to get through on the way to our greatly hoped for diaconate ordinations the following May. There was a written component and an oral component. For the oral exam we were allowed to choose an area of concentration. Not surprisingly most of the fellows chose their particular areas based on their interests and where they felt most comfortable and knowledgeable, or which professors who would be questioning for the particular fields. On that basis a number of the men refused to concentrate on the area of moral theology because the department chair, who would be the lead questioner, was very intimidating to us. But me? Well, I chose to go against the grain; I was young and brash and cocky. I told everyone that this professor did not scare me and that I was going the way of moral theology and that was that. However, when the moment finally came when it was time for the oral exams I found myself reevaluating my thought process. I had been sitting in the waiting area for two hours, my scheduled exam time had passed by an hour and a half, and three very distraught classmates had come out of the exam room, basically saying that their experiences had been “brutal.” Of course, at this point I was wondering why I ever put myself in this situation but there was nothing I could do. Finally the door opened, I went in sat down, and answered the first question. I guess I did OK because there was no follow up. Then came the second question, which I cannot remember at all, but I do remember that I swallowed hard and tried to form an adequate answer. I began by saying,” Because Jesus said…,” but I was immediately stopped by the intimidating professor who said, “Excellent! You are absolutely correct. So much of Catholic moral teaching comes down to the fact that it comes from the words of Jesus Himself. We do not need any more of an explanation that. Well done; have a wonderful afternoon.” I couldn’t believe what had just happened but I was in and out in less than 3 minutes! I guess they needed to make up lost time. So I was spared the “brutal” experience of a number of my peers for whatever reason-and I learned a valuable lesson, the same lesson that the disciples were trying to learn in the Gospel today. They were learning that Jesus Himself was the Bread of Life and if they ate of this bread they would never die. And the reason they were supposed to believe this was because “Jesus said ….” They did not need any further explanation and neither do we.
Once again, I am afraid I do not know the source of the following story but I was reminded of it by today’s First Reading: One day while walking down the street a highly successful person was tragically hit by a bus and she died. Her soul arrived up in heaven where she was met at the Gates of Heaven by St. Peter himself. “Welcome to Heaven. What we are going to do is let you have a day in hell and a day in Heaven and then you choose where you want to go.” And with that He put the executive in an elevator and it went down to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was the clubhouse and standing in front of her were all her friends—fellow executives that she had worked with and they were all dressed in evening gowns and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times. They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the clubhouse where she enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy (kinda cute, as he always is) and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing. She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved goodbye as she got on the elevator. The elevator went way, way up back to Heaven and she spent the next 24 hours there. She lounged around on clouds playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her. “So, now you must choose your eternity,” he said. The woman paused for a second then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in hell.” When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her. “I don’t understand,” stammered the woman, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all that’s here is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled. ‘Yesterday we were recruiting you, today...you’re staff.” Wisdom is listening to whatever Jesus says, whether or not we can understand it and staying away from the Devil, no matter how attractive the spread he puts on for us might be.
Jesus words to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel made me think of the following little reflection that I had come across some time ago. To the best of my knowledge the author is unknown. “I woke up early today, excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight. I have responsibilities to fulfill today. My job is to choose what kind of day I am going to have. Today I can complain because the weather is rainy or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free. Today I can feel sad that I don’t have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste. Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive. Today I can lament over all that my parents didn’t give me when I was growing up or I can feel grateful that they allowed me to be born. Today I can cry because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses. Today I can mourn my lack of friends or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships. Today I can whine because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do. I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new pieces of knowledge. Today I can murmur dejectedly because I have to do housework or I can feel honored because the Lord has provided shelter for my mind, body and soul. Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping. What today will be like is up to me. I get to choose what kind of day I will have!” As I see it the bottom line is this: we will always have the opportunity to complain but we really never have anything to complain about. Why? Because every day of our lives we can receive the bread that Jesus gives us, the bread that gives us eternal life. As long as we continue to choose to complain, it has to mean that we just don’t get it.
Beginning last week, we have been taking a five week break from the Gospel of Mark and spending time in the Gospel of John on the teachings of Jesus we call the Bread of Life. Last week we read about the feeding of the 5,000 and what it could mean to us today. Today’s Gospel is a continuation of the loaves and fishes story we began last week. Jesus has fed the crowd and amazed them by His miracles. After that miracle and a day of teaching, Jesus and the apostles went away across the lake to get a little rest and privacy, but the people who had witnessed the miracle went searching for Him and found Him on the other side of the lake. Instead of being angry with them, Jesus continues to teach them. He tells them first that it wasn’t the signs and miracles that attracted them, as much as the fact they were being fed. He says that they should be less interested in filling their bellies with food that quickly disappears, and instead, look for spiritual food which will never leave them. When they ask what they must do to get this spiritual food, Jesus replies that they all must believe in the person God has sent. It is in this context that Jesus is the bread of life. God has sent Jesus with all the spiritual food that a person will need, so that Jesus Himself can be seen to be that food. They then ask him for signs so they that they can believe in Him-even though He had just fed the 5,000! Jesus refers to the manna that God gave the to the Israelites through Moses as a comparison but goes on to say that through Him God is not only giving them bread for their bodies but bread for their souls as well. And this is where I think it might be good for us to pause. We, like those people who chased Jesus across the lake because of His wonderful miracles, have followed Him to Church today. But do we know why? Is it for something that will last or something that will fade away? Actually, Jesus will give us both, but He longs for us to long for that which is eternal.
The hero of today's Gospel is a little Jewish boy. He proved himself not only to be smart enough to pack a lunch but also to be among the rarest of individuals. He was willing, after packing his lunch, to give it away. However, in doing so he once again proved his intelligence because he gave it to Jesus. You might say that he made a very shrewd investment. He went home with 12 baskets of leftovers after the huge crowd had had their fill. Because he gave the little he had, we are talking about this miracle to this day.
Let us not forget of course that it was Jesus who mentions that this exhausted mob must be hungry showing once again that He is interested not only in life after death but also life before death. He looks towards His disciples to be problem solvers and that’s how this little fellow was found. Jesus did not embarrass the little boy and his meager offering. He accepted his gifts with ceremony and gratitude. Can you imagine the look on the boy’s face as Jesus starts to share his food with the crowd, and especially as he saw that his lunch never ran out? Maybe Jesus held him up in His arms for the crowd to see. Somehow or other, I think there are some lessons to be learned here. The next time you are asked for something you feel you cannot give, remember this Jewish boy and think again. Even if your gift is small, know that Christ will receive you and your gift with open arms and do amazing things with it. He will literally use it to feed the world. But if we hoard the little that we have, we just might prevent Christ from performing one more amazing miracle. If we find ourselves worrying about whether we have enough money perhaps we should remember this child, and ask ourselves if maybe our worry is a sign that we need to give more away and see what God might do with it. The psalmist says “a child will lead us,” but I leave you with this question, “Are you smarter than a little Jewish boy?
It seems to me that the readings for this weekend reflect on leadership and the fact that we human beings are very much in need of it. We may not like to admit it, but if we are without leadership we will tend to pretty much flounder around like sheep without a shepherd. We have a great need to come together and to unite around someone who can articulate a unified vision or purpose. The trouble is that not all visions, even though they may be passionately and clearly articulated are good for us. History is filled with examples of people flocking to leaders who are far less than perfect. So the question than becomes what are the qualities that we should look for in a leader. Of course, my answer is going to be that first and foremost we should look to Jesus and the type of leadership that He employed. We don’t have to look too closely before we easily conclude that Jesus is among the greatest leaders of all times, but was very different from Adolf Hitler, who is indeed also an example of a powerful leader. Of course, Jesus is different than Hitler in many ways-perhaps primarily in his example of Christian Leadership. Christian leadership is different than any other kind of leadership. It is not based on power; it is based on invitation. It does not feed off propaganda; it thrives on truth. It does not oppress or place burdens on people; it sets them free and calls them to rest. Christian leadership is based on truth love, freedom, caring and service. The Christian leader puts people first and his willing to sacrifice himself for them. Other leaders do exactly the opposite. And the bottom line, and for me this is what it’s all about, is that Christian leadership is the most effective kind of leadership. Don’t think so? Well then let me ask you two questions. Where is Adolf Hitler? Where is Jesus? The trouble is that Christian leadership is rarely ever practiced. And it is something to which we are all called by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation. Yes. We are all called to be leaders. Christian leaders. So how about if we try it sometime? Let’s live a life that is based on truth, freedom, service, love and caring, and see what happens.
If you ask me, evangelism today should be just like the evangelism that we hear about in today’s Gospel. First, as followers of Christ, we need to understand that we are sent out. We can't simply sit comfortably in our pews; we are called to go work in the field.
Second, we need to be humble. The disciples took nothing with them: no bread, no bags and no money. We need to leave our baggage behind and simply invite people to the banquet. Third, we need to understand that evangelism is all about invitation, and not at all about coercion. Jesus says, "If people don't accept you, shake the dust off your feet and leave." He didn't say to stand and argue with them. He didn't say to condemn them to hell. He told them to spread the Gospel, sow the seed, and let God do the rest. Finally, we are to evangelize with compassion. We are not threaten people with an eternity in hell, or look for reasons why they are bad people and back it up with selected biblical verses. It is wrong bash people over the heads with the scriptures and hope for conversion through osmosis. Rather, we are to kindly meet people where they are. We are to use only words that heal and never words that hurt. Still, even if we follow all these pointers, our efforts will fall short if we don’t fully understand who we are and what we are about when we set out to evangelize. Why do we come to church? Why do we call ourselves Catholic? Why do we believe that our faith is better than any other? Yes, we need to be evangelists; but we need to understand why we are here in the first place. That doesn't mean we have all the answers, but it does mean that we have better answers than, "Because I've always gone to church etc." We need to know what draws us, what excites us, what comforts us. And when we know that, and when we truly live the faith in which we profess belief, then and only then, will we be ready to invite others to join us.
Opinion polls tell us that the public’s view of Congress in the United States is at an all-time low. The division between the parties has led to gridlock on legislation and affected the way most citizens view the work of government. Even the often benighted car salesman gets a much better performance review in public polling, racking up double-digit approval rating over the collective view of members of Congress. Yet for the most part constituents re-elect their own Representatives and Senators again and again. This is a situation that many commentators attribute to the redistricting process that has made many districts “safe” for incumbents by configuring the boundaries in such a way that only the most like-minded residents are constituents for a seat held by one party of the other.
There was no Gallup poll in Galilee in Jesus’ time. But Mark’s Gospel this weekend gives us a pretty clear indication of what his fellow townsfolk thought of him. Instead of a hero’s welcome as “the kid that made good” he is treated as “the kid who has gotten too big for his britches”. The townspeople’s lack of faith actually impacted the ability of Jesus to be the mighty prophet in His native place. Mark writes: “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”
The Gospel story is not about the importance of good poll numbers . Politicians are concerned about that-at least if they want to get re-elected. Rather, the story is about the dynamic of faith in our relationship with God. We often “want” a lot of things from God, most notably answers to our prayers. But we need to “give” to the Lord, and for us that means a response to God’s invitation to believe. We must acknowledge our utter dependence upon God, placing all our trust in Him. We will then recognize the actions of God that take place each day for the mighty deeds that they are: God at work in our hearts!
So here we are on the 10th Sunday of Ordinary time, in the third chapter of Mark, very much at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry- and He had already gotten Himself into trouble. Why? Because, He healed a paralyzed man, as proof that He could forgive sins. Because He justified the fact that His disciples shucked grain and ate it on the Sabbath, by saying that He was Lord of the Sabbath and then had the audacity to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath to prove his point. Finally, He was healing and driving out demons right and left and now, in the midst of the wild throngs He called his 12 apostles.
Really, He was causing quite a stir. At this point nobody knew what was going to happen, but they certainly pretty much had a sense that they wanted to see it unfold. No matter where He went, it seems like everyone found Him very quickly. As we begin our Gospel story today, Jesus has returned home but the crowds quickly emerged once again. This time, Saint Mark tells that there were so many people around Him, the crowd was packed so tightly that they couldn’t even eat because they could not so much as move their arms. Now that, folks, is crowded! The scribes got themselves into a futile debate with Jesus, claiming that He was possessed by demons and then we get to the heart of the matter. His own family emerges on the scene and this gives Jesus the opportunity to take advantage of a teaching moment. He makes the point that when it comes to determining relationship with Him, it is not status, but action that matters; it is not whether or not someone is related to Him by blood; it is whether or not we do His will. Now especially at this point in the story no one knows how any thing is going to turn out, but then again we never know that, do we? What we do know is that our relationship with Him, amidst all the turmoil of life, is governed by what we do, not who we are.
My guess is that many of us have found ourselves at one time or another in our lives facing very difficult circumstances, obstacles or challenges. Maybe you are in the midst of one of those chapters in your lives right now. Maybe you’ve felt like, or you feel right now that there is no way you can ever see yourself coming through whatever it is you were or are facing. Maybe during those times you have had people say something to you, something that you know was meant to be a word of consolation, but those words did not do much consoling. Maybe you have heard those words from close friends, family members or even from priests or religious, and maybe you’ve even said those words to others yourselves because you did not know what else to say. The words that I am talking about are certainly well intentioned, but they ring hollow, and they probably accomplish more for the one speaking them than they do for the one hearing them. What are those words? “God does not give you anything that you can’t handle.” A lot of us have heard those words, haven’t we? Probably a lot of us have spoken those words as well. I know that I have spoken them, as a priest to people who were in need of consolation but not for many years now. Why? Because my life experience has taught me that they are simply not true, or at least they are not completely accurate. I have learned over and over again that God does indeed present me with challenges, with situations, with problems etc. etc. that I cannot handle by myself. He does so all the time. And why does He do this? Well, I cannot say that I have the absolute answer to this question, but I will offer two of my best thoughts. First, let’s honestly look at things in our lives that we have handled completely by ourselves. How did they turn out? Did they turn out the way we wanted them to? More importantly, did they turn out the way God wanted them to? Secondly, and I think this an even better explanation, God wants to be our strength. He wants us to come to Him always and especially in times of great pain, distress and confusion, because He knows that’s what’s best for us. To make those words true we need to say something like this: God does indeed give us challenges that we cannot handle by ourselves, but we are never by ourselves. He is always there, ready to walk with us side by side, hand in hand to share our pain and burdens with us and even to provide us with Himself as nourishment along the way. That’s what we celebrate today, on this solemnity of Corpus Christi; that Jesus is always there for us, as close to us and essential to us as food and drink. “Take and eat, this is my body; take and drink, this is my blood which will be shed for many.” He does indeed give us challenges that we cannot handle alone, but we are never alone.
The practical lesson of the doctrine of the Trinity is that since we are made in the image and likeness of God, the more we understand God the more we understand ourselves. Therefore, the question for us to ask today is: What does the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does this say about the kind of people we should be? On this, I have two points to share with you. (1) God does not exist as a solitary individual but in a community of love and sharing. God is not a loner. This means that a Christian in search of Godliness (Matthew 5:48) must shun every tendency to isolationism. The ideal Christian spirituality is not that of flight from the world like that of certain Buddhist monastic traditions where the quest for holiness means permanent withdrawal away from contact and involvement with people and society. (2) True love requires three partners. You remember the old saying “Two is company, three is a crowd.” The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best; three is not a crowd. Taking an example from the human condition we see that when a man A is in love with a woman B they seal the loving by producing a baby C. Father, mother and child -- love when it is perfected becomes a trinity. We are made in God’s image and likeness. Just as God is God only in a Trinitarian relationship, so we can be fully human only in a relationship of three partners. The self needs to be in a horizontal relationship with others and a vertical relationship with God. In that way our life becomes Trinitarian like that of God. Then we discover that the so-called “I-and-I” principle of unbridled individualism which is acceptable in modern society leaves much to be desired. The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity challenges us to adopt rather an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. I am a Christian insofar as I live in a relationship of love with God and other people. May the grace of the Holy Trinity help us to banish all traces of self-centeredness in our lives and to live in love of God and neighbor.
I know that I have said this many times before, but this is truly one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” And this time I can prove it; this is the verse that I chose to have printed on my ordination holy card 27 years ago. You might say that this verse is my “John 3:16.” Why this verse, you might ask, out of all the others? Well I suppose it is because, at least to me, this verse expresses very clearly the desire that is so much in Jesus’ heart-that His joy might indeed be our joy. Isn’t that a wonderful concept? He wants His joy to be our joy and he wants our joy to be complete. That is what he so desires for us; it is why He says everything He says; it is why He does everything He does; it is why He died on the cross-so that we might be full of joy. At the time of my ordination I felt that these words expressed what needs to be at the heart of the mission and ministry of the priest-to express Jesus’ desire that all people might be full of true joy and to be agents of spreading the joy of Jesus to everyone. To this day, I try, albeit very imperfectly, to use these words as a guide to all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions. The priest is called to strive to be a bridge which allows people to have access to Jesus. To me, that’s what these words are all about. Of course, however, these words are not just meant for priests. They are meant for all of us. They teach us that Jesus’ primary purpose is to help us experience His joy. That is what it is all about- not sin, not suffering not death, but joy-His joy. But not only does He want His joy to be ours, He needs us to spread His joy to everyone. And the way that we do that is to live as if we believe it. If we believe that Jesus wants His joy to be ours, and live as such, then indeed we will spread His joy to others and our joy will be complete.
During this Holy Week and Easter Season, I have often said that the key message of the Easter Season is that “love lives.” Of course I am referring to the fact that Jesus, who is the perfect personification of the love of God the Father, rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and lives eternally. But Jesus is not only the embodiment of love. He is the embodiment of love in action. Jesus is love in action. He is perpetually acting in a loving way. He loves everyone exactly as they are, whether, it is the woman caught in adultery, the rich young man, Nicodemus, the man born blind, the ten lepers, etc. He accepts everyone, He accepts, us exactly as He finds us. But He does not stop there; love does not stop there. He loves us as we are but then He calls us forth just as He called Lazarus forth from the tomb. He forgave the adulterous woman but then commanded her to sin no more. He looked at the rich young man with love but then challenged him to give his wealth to the poor. Love is accepting; but because love is love it is not satisfied with leaving us stagnant. Jesus loves us where we are and because He does He calls us, He challenges us to change, not to remain the same. Jesus calls to “Remain in His love,” and we cannot do this if we remain the same, we have to move, we have to grow and change if we are going to follow Him. That is what the image of the vine and the branches is all about. He is the vine, we are the branches. Our challenge is to remain with Him, to stay connected with Him so that we might bear much fruit. This means that we have to change, that we have to be pruned so that we might become more like Him. If we do not change and grow with Him we will wither away. Love lives. Love accepts. Love challenges.
I bet you have seen a shepherd recently. I believe that we all see shepherds each and every day – but do we recognize them. Before we answer the question we need to answer the specific question - what is a shepherd?
There are many biblical references about shepherds starting with the birth of Jesus and in today’s gospel proclamation we read the reference to Christ the Good Shepherd. Did Christ really tend sheep? Isn't that our envisionment of a shepherd or specifically their ‘job’? We often have the mental picture of a shepherd but really what is the duty/work/service profile of the shepherd. The definition of shepherd found in my research is: - a person who tends sheep, a pastor or a German shepherd.
With this definition in mind we can certainly see how the reference to Christ as the Good Shepherd is fitting. Often we refer to our pastors or clergy as shepherds so that works as well. I would suggest that we as individuals each have a role both as shepherd and as recipient of the shepherds care. Look around you for the most evident example of ‘shepherd’. Parents, fathers and mothers alike, certainly have the role of a shepherd. Just as the shepherd tends the flock with diligence love, compassion, to the extent of risking all for the sake of one in the herd so do parents shepherd their family regardless of malady, illness, in good times and in not so good times, with little sleep, the list goes on – you get it, all for the child or children. Even later in our life we the children are called upon to shepherd our parents in their twilight years.
Many times in our life we find ourselves challenged by our surroundings and evil, on the edge of a very crash. We need only look to the Good Shepherd with confidence of His love, encouragement, wisdom, perspective, strength, patience and grace. Just as the child looks to the parent we can look to and rely on Christ fully there for each and all of us. There is no question of commitment – look at that crucifix and know. It’s a most appropriate time of the calendar year to reflect on our own call to shepherd and likewise to those who shepherd us –our mothers and fathers who we recognize in May and June each year.
And so the disciples who had just left Jerusalem, who were returning home to Emmaus, who were about to try to figure out the next direction their lives would take after the death of Jesus, suddenly found themselves back in Jerusalem speaking to the 11 Apostles about the amazing experience they had just had. As they were walking along, they encountered someone they thought was a stranger, someone with whom they were so enamored that they begged him to stay with them for their evening meal. Finally, when He broke bread at their table, they realized that He was no stranger at all but that He was Jesus risen from the dead! But as soon as they recognized Him, He vanished from their midst. At this point they could think of nothing else but to quickly get back to Jerusalem and tell the Apostles. That is how it’s like when we have had a true experience of Jesus, isn’t it? All we can think of is to tell other people. And while they were recounting their story to the 11 Jesus appeared in their midst. He (Jesus) did His best to put everything He ever said or did in perspective for them and then left them with these beautiful words: “You are witnesses of these things.” Those are great words, wonderful words, aren’t they? But then again, on second thought are they not much more than just that? Do you think that Jesus would come back from the dead and visit His disciples simply to say nice things to them, or whisper sweet nothings in their ears? I think not! I can almost hear my mother exclaiming, “Not for nothin’!” Folks, the more I think about it, the more I cannot help but think that those words are not merely a nice statement of the obvious-they are a command. Jesus did not suffer and die and rise for us just so we could live “happily ever after” (besides that’s very boring anyway) or bask eternally in the knowledge that we are witnesses. He did so, so that He would have witnesses to spread His good news. Being a witness is not something that we are; it’s something that we do-it is a tremendous responsibility. We are witnesses of Him. So just don’t sit or stand there, go out and proclaim through your words and deeds that Jesus Christ is risen.
So here we are, celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter, the Sunday within the octave of Easter, the Sunday also known as “Mercy Sunday,” and as per usual, we hear the story of “Doubting Thomas” and we know how that story goes. The Apostles were locked in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews, the Romans and whatever else might be “out there.” But I don’t think that’s all they were afraid of. I think they were also afraid of what was inside as well. I think they were afraid of what was in their hearts, of the future, of who they were, and how they would go on, even if it what was currently “out there” was no longer out there. Remember, each one of them, with the exception of John, had betrayed Jesus, they failed to stand beside Him in His hour of need. I am pretty sure that a lot of soul searching was going on. I am pretty sure that, yes, they were scared, but I bet they also, were pretty remorseful, pretty sorry, pretty regretful, pretty down on themselves. And so the doors were locked. Do we ever do that? Do we ever lock the doors of our hearts, of our souls, perhaps because partially we are afraid of what’s “out there,” but maybe even more so because of the regret that’s already in our hearts to the point where we just can’t take any more? I am pretty sure that we do, I am pretty sure that many of us have done this, that many of us are doing it right now, and that many of us will do it again. But that’s where the lesson of this Second, Sunday of Easter, this “Doubting Thomas” Sunday, this Mercy Sunday comes in. Although the doors were locked we are told that Jesus came and stood in their midst. That’s what He did for the disciples, and that’s what He does for us. Imagine, their amazement, but also imagine their shame and their fear because of their guilt? But what does He bring? “Peace be with you,” He says to them. He brings mercy and forgiveness and gives them a mission- to forgive the sins of all. That’s what He brings to us, and to our locked hearts. Peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. New Purpose. Amazingly and Unbelievably… Are your doors locked? That might be able to keep the bad guys out there, but take heart, they won’t be able to keep Jesus out, not if you long for Him.
Maybe I am a little bit behind, but even as we are celebrating Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus I still find myself reflecting on the story of the raising of Lazarus, which we heard two weeks ago. I kind of can’t get passed the fact, and I know it is probably a small detail, that Jesus commanded that the stone that was blocking Lazarus’ tomb to be rolled away before He raised him from the dead. I also find it amazing that His command is a very real and clear foreshadowing of the stone that was soon to be rolled away from Jesus’ own tomb. I am kind of stuck on this idea of stones being rolled away from tombs. Stones that are rolled away so that life, new life, freed life, resurrected life can come forth. And you know what else, we know, at least in the case of Lazarus’ stone, it wasn’t Jesus who rolled it away. I wonder who rolled away His stone-but I will wager that it was not Him. I think that Jesus’ life and ministry make it quite clear that the ones who roll away the stones are not Him but us. As a matter of fact, Jesus never performs a miracle, without demanding that those involved do something. It might be filling jugs with water, it might be the selling of possessions, it might be handing over five loaves and two fish, but it is very true that miracles are performed only when we humans do something that— Jesus acts. We might say that only when we do what we can-when we do the possible, that Jesus does the impossible. We roll away the stones, we pour the water, we anoint with oil, we make and offer bread and wine and Jesus confers the sacraments. And He won’t, if we don’t. So as we celebrate Jesus’ rising from the tomb let’s reflect for a moment on who it might have been that rolled that stone away and be very grateful that it was. But further we need to look around our own lives, our own hearts, our own souls and see how much like Lazarus we have become. I bet if we look around a little bit it won’t take too long for us to see the stones that are blocking paths to life for us or others in our lives. Maybe we see so much damage that has already been done that it is just impossible to repair. That’s just how humanity was when Jesus came to earth-it was in an impossible situation. But He went around challenging people to do what they could in support of Him and then He did what He could. That’s what Easter is about. The lesson of Easter is that Jesus is commanding us to do what is possible so that He might do the impossible. If we don’t, He won’t. If we do, He will.