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Good Shepherd Sunday; Vocations Sunday

May 7, 2017

 [Fourth Sunday of Easter]                     Sunday 7 May 2017

Acts 2: 14,36-41                      1 Peter 2:2-25             John 10:1-10              

Last Thursday the nation was gripped by something happening at Buckingham Palace. That morning we took Deacon John for a routine visit to meet his new doctor up in Yorkshire. I was sat in the waiting room and everyone was talking about the news, speculating about all the rumours. What on earth was up? Was Prince Harry getting married? Had the Queen had a fall (or worse)? Would the General Election have to be called off? As it turned out, all the media frenzy and worrying was completely unnecessary. Prince Philip had decided, aged 95, to finally retire.

This is the way people tend to react to something unexpected. And it is a good example of the similarities between people and sheep. More in a moment on this.

But a bit of background first. In today’s first reading we hear Saint Peter fearlessly proclaiming that Jesus is risen from the dead and is the Son of God. Remember, this is taking place within weeks of the Resurrection. Now there were already tensions between those Jews led by Peter (who hailed Jesus as the Messiah, their divine saviour) and the majority of God-fearing, observant Jews in the synagogues whose leaders insisted that Jesus was a rebellious upstart who had been executed for the blasphemy of claiming to be God.

One of the things that marked out the first Jewish Christians was that as well as going to the synagogue to worship with their fellow Jews on the seventh day (the Sabbath) they also met in each other’s houses, to pray together and to celebrate the Mass before starting back at work on the first day of the week (Sunday).

Eventually, the tensions got too much, and the Christians were excluded from the synagogues. And that’s what today’s second reading is about. It is Saint Peter speaking again, telling his followers that they have a role model in Jesus, that they are doing the right thing when they patiently bear the punishment of exclusion from the synagogues despite having done nothing wrong – in fact, bearing punishment after doing their Christian duty of proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection.

Now, Saint John’s gospel was written towards the end of the first century, after this split between Jews and the Christians had started.

Imagine yourself in the position of those first Christians. How do you think today’s gospel would have sounded to them?

We can tell from the style of John’s gospel that it was written to be read out aloud in small groups – to those first Christians meeting in small house churches, away from the synagogue. No doubt they would be feeling pretty excluded, and vulnerable. Worried that they were indeed blasphemers for believing that Jesus was God. Worried that they were disobeying the mainstream Jewish teaching in the synagogues. Worried that they were making a mistake in following Jesus. Worried, if you like, that they were like sheep, following a bogus shepherd. If I had been one of those first Christians I would certainly be wanting reassurance. And hearing today’s gospel, with Jesus using the expression “I am…” would certainly have been just the kind of reassurance those frightened Christians would have needed to encourage their faith.

How so? Well, do you remember how Moses had encountered God in the burning bush in the wilderness, and was told to go to Egypt, to confront the Pharaoh? Moses was frightened of what he was being told to do, and he needed reassurance from God. Moses said to God words to the effect of, “What’s your name? Because if I can’t tell them your name, they won’t believe a word I say. And God, who up to this point in history had not revealed His name to a human being, told Moses His very strange name. God told Moses that His name was ’I AM.’ “I am I am.”

When Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I am the gate of the sheepfold” (John 10: 7) it is one of seven occasions in this Gospel when the words “I am” are used to reveal Jesus’ true identity as God.

 These other six ‘I am” phrases are:

 I am the bread of life (John 6:35)

I am the light of the world (8:12)

I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)

I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)

I am the Way, the truth and the life (14:6)

and

I am the True Vine (15:1)

All these phrases provide confirmation of Jesus true identity, and leave those early Christians in no doubt that despite being prevented from going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, they have made the right decision. They are being told that they are following the right course, they were putting their faith in ‘the Good Shepherd’, that they were not cut off from the true vine, they were guaranteed everlasting life if they put their faith in Jesus and believed in His Resurrection and His divinity.

But what does it mean, this strange expression that Jesus uses to describe Himself, ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold’?

Jesus is talking about being THE way to achieve safety in this life. To be saved from panic and fear. He is talking about our Salvation.

To understand the full meaning of what He is saying, it helps to appreciate some things about sheep:

Sheep certainly get lost very easily. They are so busy grazing, not looking up, they get disorientated and lost. Apparently sheep are incapable of finding their sheepfold, their place of safety, without having a shepherd to guide them. But more generally, don’t we humans get so immersed in what we are doing that we lose track of what is important? So busy with the cares of this world, perhaps satisfying our own needs, that many forget the bigger picture, and wander about forgetting that they are God’s children? And we end up isolated, wandering aimlessly like lost sheep, trying to find out the true meaning of life.

And sheep are timid animals – if startled or frightened they “follow like sheep”. They just run about together. This is a defence mechanism – it helps protect them against being picked off by predators like wolves. But it can lead to mad panic. Again, just like us. For some reason, when something unusual happens people just seem to join the stampede, panicking like lost sheep.

Another thing about sheep is that they are useless at defending themselves against attack: if a wolf gets amongst, their instinct is to ‘freeze’. And that is what gets them killed. That’s why it’s important that they have a good shepherd who is also capable of keeping predators out of the sheepfold. The gatekeeper has to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Similarly, we humans are useless if we are left to our own devices when it comes to the thing that causes spiritual death – sin. Our instinct is to be drawn towards rebellion, to sin against God. It’s called ‘Original Sin’. Because we are so weak we need to be vigilant, to be alert to temptation. – just look how easily people get drawn into worshipping money, how people ride roughshod over everyone else to get what they want, how the poor and vulnerable in society are treated like the lowest of the low, how so many swallow the evil of racism. We need guidance. We need someone to be a role model. We need someone to make sure we keep these horrible things at bay, to protect us from our own stupidity. And one of the ways we can get this protection from all these evil things is by pulling together as a faithful flock in the Church, strengthened through the sacraments of the Church in our daily lives, strengthened by our unity, encouraging each other when the going gets tough, and above all, together making sure we keep in contact with our own ‘good shepherd’ – Jesus acting as our role model, our saviour.

Being “the gate of the sheepfold” would be a very clear image for the first readers of John’s gospel. Out in the countryside shepherds would have a sheep pen made out of a circle of rocks piled up into a wall, topped by brambles. And in this wall would be a simple, narrow gap, just wide enough for the sheep to be led in for protection at the end of the day. And then, to close off the gap, the shepherd would lie down and sleep across the gap, literally becoming the gate of the sheepfold.

The message to the early Christian was clear. They are being reassured that, despite being excluded from their synagogues, they have not been abandoned by God. Despite the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, they had not been abandoned by God. They are being told they are like a flock of sheep, safe together under the care of Jesus, the Son of God. By saying “I am THE door to the sheepfold” they are being told that Jesus is the true way to their eternal salvation, where they will be safe under God’s protection.

The same is true for us today. We need to make sure we put ourselves in a safe place, a place that protects us against the dangers of this cruel and wicked world we live in. A place where there is safety in numbers. Striking out on our own, becoming an isolated Christian, is an extremely risky thing to do. You hear people say things like, “I believe in God but I don’t go to church. I pray on my own at home.” This is dangerous, because we can rapidly get disorientated and start following our own foolish ways.

And we need to be sure that when we join a community of like-minded, faithful people, it is holding true to the teachings of its founder Jesus Christ.

That is why this Sunday, we pray especially for God to help us identify, encourage and affirm those amongst us who are true and faithful leaders and role models for our Christian communities, voices we can recognise now and in the future as ‘shepherds of the flock’, guiding and protecting us, leading us to pasture.

What was true 2,000 years ago is true today: we need to belong to a community of people who share our Christian beliefs and practice our faith properly, with leaders who keep us on the straight and narrow, on course to the Truth. If we don’t do that we are at risk of losing our way, becoming completely confused and disorientated, in a spiritual panic. That happens to a lot of people. Outside the safety of the sheepfold we become vulnerable to the barrage of false claims, confused ideas and muddled teachings of our secular society. And our tendency to fall into sin, to follow the crowd, and place ourselves outside the sheepfold that is Holy Mother Church is very likely to be a disastrous combination for us, both in this life and the next.

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