4th Sunday of Easter 2015
The image of the Good Shepherd is certainly one of the most beautiful and attractive descriptions of Our Savior Jesus Christ. The Lord chose this self-portrait as the best expression of His providential care and concern for His Church, which is clearly identified as the flock of the Good Shepherd. This image of the Good Shepherd, then, directs our attention both to the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus, and to His flock, which is the Church saved by the Good Shepherd’s sacrifice of His own life for their sake.
But if the Church consists of the great flock whom Jesus has redeemed by His sacrifice, we might well ask whether this Church, this flock of Jesus, must actually consist of all mankind, for our faith definitely teaches that Jesus died for the whole of the human race. Well, the answer to that question is a qualified yes, that the Church does at least in one sense embrace the whole of the human family, and yet in another equally true sense, that at any given point of time the Church comprises only a relatively small flock in the midst of the whole of the human race. Both of these understandings of the Church are true, if properly understood, and both senses were clearly taught both in the Scriptures and at the Second Vatican Council.
Regarding the Council, we find this two-fold teaching carefully presented in the great constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, (the Light of the Nations), a title which belongs firstly to Christ, and secondly by derivation to His Mystical Body, the Church. Then, in Lumen Gentium, we also find two descriptions of the Church; first as being in one way coextensive with the human race as a whole, and secondly, in another sense, as being a small flock in the midst of the world. However, the very mission from Christ gievn to this small flock is to become the source of salvation for the rest of the human family.
The first meaning of the Church, the universal one, can be seen in section 13 of Lumen Gentium where it says, “All men are called to belong to the new People of God.” We believe that Jesus clearly died for everyone. He laid down His life so that everyone might have the possibility of attaining salvation by becoming part of His flock, which is the Church He established. In this sense, we are speaking about the Church as conceived in the heart of Christ, His intention is to make the Church universal in character, that is, the universal fruit of His loving self-sacrifice on the Cross, for His sacrifical love truly embraced all of humanity.
However, we can also find the second, more limited definition of the Church in section 9 of Lumen Gentium: “Hence the messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may appear as a small flock, is, however, a most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” Here, the Church is seen not simply from the perspective of Christ’s loving desire that it might include the whole human race, but from the historical perspective where the Church is described as it actually exists at any given time, this is to say, as the actual flock which is being gathered together from all nations and which already shares a communion in the Spirit of Jesus through their common faith, hope and charity.
However, the Church understood in this more limited sense, as the small flock already gathered together in direct communion with Christ the Good Shepherd, is likewise always necessarily ordered toward sharing the messianic mission of Christ which is directed universally to the whole human family. Thus, the Church in this world is never what we would call a closed society. It is rather simultaneously the first fruits of the saving work of Jesus and the living instrument which Jesus now uses to reach out to the whole world and bring as many as will respond to His Gospel into His flock. Only in the world to come will the Church be a closed society, embracing only those who in some way or other, often known only to God, have sought for Christ, even if they for no fault of their own have not found him. So while the visible flock may be small, there are many who belong mysteriously, in an invisible manner, to Christ, even though they are not yet actual members of His flock.
We see both of these understandings of His Church in Scripture such as in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks first in the Gospel about His flock as actually existing. They already know him, He says, as He knows them. That means they love Him as He loves them and are His obedient servants, just as He is the obedient servant of the Father. They are already united to Him in the communion of the Spirit, as His flock in the full sense of that term. They belong to him not only because He has died for them, just as He has died for all others, but because they in turn have died to themselves for Him in Baptism and in their daily life. Thus they have become His truly His possession, and He theirs.
Now Jesus has a special care for these baptized sheep, for Jesus is no hireling. The hireling is one who has no ownership of the flock, as Jesus explains. They are not actually the hierling’s sheep, and so the hireling does not care about them, and he will flee in time of danger. Jesus, on the contrary, knows all the sheep, those who have been baptized and those who have not. But he knows the baptized personally, and so He calls each by name, and because they are in fact, by Baptism, His own sheep, they will recognize His voice. They recognize in Jesus, and in His teaching, the truth they are now committed in their hearts to live in this world. When they hear His voice, they hear the truth, and so they follow him wherever he may lead them.
But then Jesus also speaks about the Church in the more universal sense, what we might call the potential Church, all men, who belong to Him potentially. Even before they ever know Him, He knows them because He created them and He redeemed them by His Cross and Resurrection. And we can further be certain that at least some of these “wandering” sheep, even before they know of Him, can be searching for His voice. But how?
Surely the answer has to be that these wandering sheep, like the sheep already in the flock, are also in some way in search of truth, and it is a search to which they have in some way committed their lives. Jesus says, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must lead them too, and they shall hear my voice. There shall be one flock, then, one shepherd.” Even though these strangers do not yet know Him as the Truth, as we do, nonetheless they are His sheep potentially because they are searching sincerely for truth. These sheep perhaps have not yet heard the voice of Jesus, and thus do not yet know Him as we do; but Jesus knows them, and He already knows them as His sheep in potentia because He knows them in their search for truth and knows their deep commitment to live according to the truth however imperfectly they understand it. They have not yet heard the voice of Him who is Truth itself, but they will one day. So they too are His sheep, though not yet part of His flock, and one day, perhaps in this world, perhaps in the next, they will belong also to His fold, His Church, for there is finally only one fold and one Shepherd.
The world we live in does not easily accept the fact that there is only one Savior and one Truth, Jesus Christ, and that there is only one fold, one Church which is the new people of God, the sign and instrument of His salvation, and the gathering of all the elect. But St. Peter proclaims this truth in today’s first reading: “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men be which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Jesus likewise teaches the this same truth in the Gospel when he says there will be one Shepherd and one flock.
To summarize, then, Jesus is the one Shepherd, and He has only one flock, His Church, because he has only one body, one Bride, united to him, truly one flesh with him, for all Eternity. The 2nd Vatican Council proclaimed the necessity of this Bridal Church in #14 of Lumen Gentium, where it says that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in His body which is the Church.” And in # 8, the Council identified Christ’s Church: ” This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”
Thus, Because the Church is the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ her Head, the Church simply cannot consist of many bodies, because the Church is organically one body with Christ. She is not simply His flock but His mystical body and His Bride, His other half, and since salvation comes through Christ alone, it also comes through this one body alone. There is one flock because there is one Shepherd, and that one flock is really His, is “possessed” by by the Good Shepherd, as we possess our own body. Nonetheless, it’s also true that Christ has many sheep who do not yet belong visibly and organically to this one fold, but nonetheless they are related to Him and to His Body in many different ways, and one day in this world, or in Eternity, they will fully belong to His fold, as members of His body.
As His Bride and Body, then The Church’s mission always remains that of Christ Himself, that is, to find His scattered sheep, the true sheep who exist in all times and places, and then she is to proclaim His Gospel to them, so they can hear His voice, and become members of His flock, His body. Moreover, this mission not only brings men to Christ as their Savior and Truth, but the same mission brings a hope of peace and unity to a seriously divided world. Many of His sheep will not find Christ yet in this world, but will belong to the final Kingdom. But every one of these sheep who actually find Christ and become members of His flock in this world also will make the world a little more unified, a little less violent and divided, and every little bit counts when it comes to peace on this earth. Imagine what might happen to our world if the Church was successful in bringing a lot more sheep into the one flock, united in love and peace and loving the rest of the world as Christ does. Imagine what would happen to this world if the Church turned inwards and did not search for those sheep. Thank God that will never happen.
May the Good Shepherd, then, be with His flock today and every day as she reaches out in a world that is powerfully resisting His truth. He has laid down His life for His sheep; we in turn must enable His scattered sheep to hear His voice, and come to the Good Shepherd. The success of this mission, then, is not just a matter of bringing the Gospel to souls for their personal salvation. Some may enter the kingdom only in Eternity, but those who enter in this world not only find personal salvation, but they also bring a great blessing to this world, a greater hope for peace and the unity of love that only Christ can make possible.