Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A. Fr. Gregory Murphy
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Ps 22; 1 Pet 2:20-25; Jn 10:1-10
The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is a very old one – going back to the first Christian centuries. You can see this depicted in the Roman catacombs, and often in surviving decorations of fourth-century churches. So it’s familiar, part of our mental furniture. Familiarity can mislead us. We’re sure we know what something looks like, what it’s about, and so rather than looking or listening carefully we jump to conclusions, and only later realise we’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick. That’s where I found myself (not for the first time, and certainly not for the last) when I was reflecting on this gospel. I’d thought it was about going in, whereas it’s actually about coming out.
We can get a handle on this by considering the gatekeeper. In Jesus’s time, one of the deities in the ancient Roman pantheon was the god Janus, who was usually depicted as a figure having two faces – one looking forward, one back. He was the god of beginnings, and was associated with gates or thresholds because one leaves, goes outside, to take action. Taking action for the Romans, of course, usually meant war – sending out the Legions. It was the proud boast of the emperor Augustus that for several periods in his reign the gates of the temple of Janus were closed, the action having been completed, the war over, the world at peace. That was an achievement to be celebrated because, then as now, it’s much easier, as we’re finding once again, to start a war than to bring one to a successful conclusion. And there is also the sense that to step over a threshold, pass through a gate is to start something new. God’s new beginning, his making things new, happened, St Luke tells us, when all the world was at peace, the gates of Janus’ temple closed, nothing was going on, as far as the powerful and the wealthy were concerned, and it was then that Jesus, the Messiah, was born in Bethlehem. God’s way of doing things often isn’t what humans, especially humans of status and power, expect.
And this is what has happened among Jesus’s audience hearing, like ourselves, these two parables. It’s not immediately obvious from the excerpt the lectionary gives us, but what we have here is the last half of an argument, a slanging match, between Jesus and some of the Pharisees, after Jesus has healed the man born blind. Jesus had done this on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were divided as to whether Jesus came from God (yet didn’t observe the Sabbath in the way they expected, because he did work, made clay); yet the miracle, the sign of Jesus’s healing power, indicates that God is with him, working through him. Some, we’re meant to infer, become his disciples; others cling to their knowledge of the earlier gift of God through Moses (the Sabbath legislation), and are unable to see that that earlier gift of God is now perfected in Jesus. Just before we pick up the story Jesus has said he’s come into this world to bring people to a crisis or judgement, to the point where they must choose to accept or reject God’s message of salvation. The point is that judgement takes place because of Jesus’s very presence, making God known to us. However some of the Pharisees fail to understand what he means. In their self-sufficiency as ‘disciples of Moses’ they have become blind; had they been prepared to admit their need for light they would have no guilt, but because they claim ‘all knowledge’ there is no room for the revelation that comes through Jesus. Thus they have brought judgement upon themselves.
In the Old Testament God’s tender care for his people Israel was often described in terms of a shepherd tending his flock, as the psalm reminds us, but there is also another image of the shepherd: the self-seeking shepherds such as those rulers of Israel challenged by Ezekiel in his day, those who, Jesus tells us, “are thieves and brigands” who “come only to kill and steal and destroy”. Against this, Ezekiel proclaims that God himself will seek out his sheep, and care for them. The thieves and brigands come only to destroy. They regard the sheep as their property, which they own and exploit for themselves. The real Shepherd, the good Shepherd, does just the opposite. He does not take life, but gives it “I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full”. Jesus gives life by giving his own life, giving himself; indeed, “he lays down his life for the sheep”. If he is the gate of the sheepfold, that gate is in the form of a cross.
The good Shepherd, Jesus, “one by one calls his own sheep and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”. How do we know his voice? The Shepherd knows the sheep because they belong to him, and they know him because they are his. In baptism we are made to belong, made members of Christ’s body, he calls us by our name; as part of the body of Christ, we share in his Spirit, in the life of God, that abundant life without which our hearts can find no rest. Unlike the thieves and brigands, the true Shepherd does not ‘possess’ the sheep as if they were things to be used and consumed; rather we ‘belong’ to him because we know each other, and this ‘knowing’ is an inner acceptance, rooted in our being given the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God.
This, actually, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s so obvious, so familiar, that we tend to overlook it, we tend to develop all sorts of unnecessary hang-ups about our relationship with Jesus. Spouses, children, belong to each other in this kind of way – not as property, but in mutual responsibility. They belong to each other precisely by accepting one another’s freedom and in supporting one another in love and knowledge. Jesus proves that we belong to him by knowing and loving us, by wishing us to live life in abundance, life in the freedom of truth, of the Spirit.
Which brings us back to the gatekeeper, the one who “who lets the shepherd in”. If Jesus in the parables is the Shepherd, and the gate, who keeps the gate? I want to suggest that we are the gatekeepers. In the semi-desert of Palestine a sheepfold would’ve been a rough enclosure of rocks or branches, and the gate a gap stopped up with a thorn bush or something similar to discourage the brigands and rustlers. Jesus is calling us out of the fold, out of the familiar safe, restricting and limited life to the more abundant life he wants to give us. But we must cross the threshold, step away from our familiar, stuffy, self-sufficient environment, and risk change, risk growth. And that can be painful: the gate, after all, is in the shape of the cross. Augustine, looking back over the years to his conversion, explicitly compares the experience of conversion to that of a child learning to walk “Throw yourself on him. Do not fear. He will not pull away and let you fall. Throw yourself without fear and he will receive you and heal you” (Confessions VIII:11). And it doesn’t matter where we are starting from, providing only that we respond, we answer when Jesus calls us out by name. However much we have gone astray, as the extract from the First Letter of Peter reminds us, we need to “return to the Shepherd and healer of our souls”. As gatekeepers, we can help each other through the obstacles, move from lives of selfishness into lives of loving service by taking that risk, moving out into new pastures through trusting in the help of God. Discerning, trying a specific vocation is a bit like being thrown into the deep end: ultimately, we have to let go, let God lead us into a new life. And the results may surprise us, for nothing is impossible to God.
Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A. Fr. Gregory Murphy