4th Sunday of Easter
“A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
On this fourth Sunday of Easter every year we listen to the parable of the Good Shepherd from St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus teaches his disciples that He is the true shepherd of God’s flock. The simple imagery of the sheepfold, the sheep, the gate, the shepherd and the pasture all come together to present the profound meaning of His mission in a way that is perfectly accessible to the simplest persons who are longing for and seeking a path to God and salvation. Jesus is not speaking like a Confucius or Buddha who present a kind of human wisdom that often soars beyond the minds of the ordinary people and becomes the wisdom of those who withdraw from the world to ponder their words in a kind of monastic setting.
Jesus speaks to man in the language of his ordinary life about a life that is anything but ordinary in the human sense. He is speaking about a new Life that is lived in the midst of man’s ordinary daily life and elevates that ordinary life to unheard of greatness. The Life he speaks about is His own life, the life he has possessed from all eternity and now lives through his human existence. Though many will one day remove themselves from the world to live this Life in a more tranquil and fertile setting, nonetheless this same Life can be lived in the world, as we see in the fact that Jesus lived this life totally in the midst of ordinary circumstances as a carpenter for nine tenths of his human life and mainly as a teacher or rabbi for the final third.
The final line of today’s Gospel is the exegetical key to understanding the parable and imagery of the shepherd that precedes; “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” What life is he speaking of here? It can only be the Eternal Life that he speaks of so often, and here in this same chapter of John’s Gospel: “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish, no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” This is the Life that never ends and the Life that St. Paul says makes us children of God and heirs of Heaven. This is the gift of Life that is the very object of His mission on our behalf. He came to make our life richer, to give us life more abundantly, that is, to give us a Life that is far more abundant, richer, and deeper that our ordinary human life, because it is God’s own Life lived in human fashion, in a human mode of existence. It does not eviscerate or bypass our ordinary life, but it rather transforms our human life, elevates it in a way that is truly life lived “more abundantly” because this new Life is supernatural, not anti-natural but natural life elevated and transformed to participate in divine Life.
Once we focus on the new Life that Christ came to give us, then we can better understand his imagery in the Gospel. This new Life is Life in Christ who is at once the gate, the gatekeeper and the sheepfold itself where that Life is lived in abundance. The sheep are his followers and the sheepfold is Christ in His Church, the whole Christ who has many sheep as His members. Christ is the Gate because we enter the whole Christ, the Church, only through Him – Whoever enters through me will be saved. He is the Gatekeeper because he alone determines who enters and exits His Church. He is always the true Shepherd who leads his sheep to the fertile pastures which nourish their new Life, the pastures of His Word and His Sacraments of Life.
It is certainly the greatest of all possible gifts that the Good Shepherd provides us by communicating His very Life to us, by raising us up to be his coheirs and brothers and sisters in this new world of superabundant Life. And he does this already in this world in the midst of our daily existence, our occupations, our families and our Church. And most wonderfully, He is always with us, saving us from the manifold evils of this world that threaten that new Life. He is, as St Peter concludes in the second reading, “the shepherd and guardian of [y]our souls.” He is not a distant God nor a master of human wisdom long gone and remaining only in his words. He is the one who remains with us till the end of time, close to us as an earthly shepherd is close to his sheep. He has laid down His human life for us that we might be given a share in His Divine Life, and he remains with us always as the Shepherd Guardian of our souls.
How consoling and important His remaining always is for us who live in a rime of great confusion, where many false ideologies have the voice of the media to confuse us. These false voices can even come from within the Church, the Sheepfold in the parable. But somehow the flock always has the possibility of hearing His voice in the midst of the chaos which at times even infects the sheepfold. It can hear his voice first of all, because His voice is heard through the teaching of His Apostles which is preserved in the Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Church. It can his voice also when the Successors of the Apostles are united with the Successor of Peter and speak in His name. Then is fulfilled his words, “He who hears you, hears me.”
Yes, The Church has a voice, and it is the voice of the Lord speaking through His Spirit and through His Bride. This voice is concretized in the voice of the Church’s shepherds, when they speak only what the Church and Spirit speak together, in complete unity. Jesus not only created the sheepfold, which is the Church, in which His sheep are safe from the wolves, but he also created shepherds through whom he would visibly teach, guide and protect his flock from the wolves. His Shepherds will speak with His voice, but only if they speak as one united in the Lord.
And most marvelously, even when the confusion among the Shepherds makes a unified voice difficult to hear, the flock, with the grace of the Spirit, still discerns the voice Christ in the Church through the ages, in the voice of Scripture and Tradition that helps identify the voice of Christ in the true shepherds. This happened during the Arian heresy that misled many shepherds. It was the faithful laity and faithful bishops who heard the word of God and kept it. Even the Popes, while never Arians, did not actually lead the resistance to this evil; it was St. Athanasius who paid the price for his life long resistance to this devastating heresy.
Faithful Catholics understand this truth, that ultimately their faith depends upon no single priest, or parent, or teacher, or even Bishop, not even upon the Pope with His infallible teaching power, which he may or may not exercise in some circumstances. Our faith depends upon Christ acting through His Church, that is, upon the faith of the whole Church united with Peter and His Successors. It is the whole Church in communion with the Spirit who is the ultimate voice of Christ, and because of the union of the Spirit, she cannot, as a whole, or through the Pope using his Supreme power, speak falsely for Christ. We say after the Our Father, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church,” for it is the faith of the Church, through the ages that gives birth to our faith and supports it. She is the Bride who speaks for Christ, and her shepherds, including the Pope, are her servants and His instruments, and for those reasons alone can they bring us His Truth, His Grace, His Mercy, His Life.
The Good Shepherd’s voice can never be silenced, not even by unfaithful servants who betray Him, and their sacred calling. His voice is always heard above the din of this world’s evil, and even above the scandals that ravage His Church through the ages, because His Church is greater than all this evil. She is His Bride, whom He loved before the world was created, for whom He died on the Cross, that she might be reborn from His death and resurrection. He will never abandon Her, and that is why we will always hear His voice through her, if only we remain in her faith just as we believe in Him. We are never abandoned by the Good Shepherd.