The Good Shepherd and His Good Sheep, 4th Sunday of Easter (C), May 2, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fourth Sunday of Easter, C
May 2, 2004
Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9,14-17; Jn 10:27-30

1) On each of the Sundays of Easter, the Church has us continue our reflection on the magnitude and reality of this awesome event. The fourth Sunday of Easter has been called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because the Gospel always focuses on one part of the 10th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John. In it, Jesus tells us who he is — “I am the Good Shepherd” — and then describes what it means to be the Good Shepherd and what it means to be a good sheep. This is a summary of who Jesus is and who we’re called to be.

2) Jesus says that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He risks his life to protect them from wolves and from thieves, even to the point of death. I’ve been a city boy all my life and really have little idea about how a shepherd really thinks; but from the time I was a child, I have always found the idea of a shepherd’s dying to protect his sheep, well, rather silly. A human life is so much more valuable than the life of a sheep! But maybe that is precisely the Lord’s point: just as it would be ridiculous for a man to trade his life to protect an animal’s, so it is even more ridiculous for the eternal Son of God to take upon himself human nature and die to save us, his creatures, from death. The only thing that would explain such a willingness on the part of the Good Shepherd would be a love that exceeds all known worldly logic. Even though the distance between God and man is infinitely greater than that between a human being and a sheep, the Son of God took upon our nature and laid down his life so that we might have life to the full. Every time we have wandered away from his fold, he has left the ninety-nine behind to come to track us down and carry us back on his shoulders. Whenever “thieves” have come to steal and kill and destroy his flock (Jn 10:8 ), Christ has intervened to protect us from ultimate harm. Such is the character of our Good Shepherd. It is with reason, therefore, that we pray in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” For with the Lord as our Shepherd, we lack nothing. We truly have it all.

3) But the Lord also reveals to us the character of the good sheep. He describes it very succinctly in the today’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” There are two interrelated traits: first, Christ’s sheep HEAR HIS VOICE; secondly, they FOLLOW HIM. The two go intimately together. Jesus expanded upon their connection earlier in his discourse: “The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:3-5).

4) So the first step in our being a good sheep of the Lord is to hear the Lord’s voice, to tune him in. Doing so has become a real challenge today in our culture, because many other voices seem to be louder than Jesus’.From talk show hosts, to newspaper columnists, to celebrities and other public figures, many loud voices compete with Jesus for our ears and often Jesus loses. The Lord seldom screams; he very often whispers. To perceive the voice of the One who calls us by name often involves changing the channels on the radio of our heart, to pick up and listen attentively to Jesus’ clear but faint signal. Very often it involves turning off altogether the noise that invades our life and ignoring the voice of the impostors who try to take the Lord’s place.

5) How do we hear the Lord’s voice? There are several ways.

a) First, we hear him in prayer, when we tune out everything else and tune him in fully.

b) We hear him in the words of Sacred Scripture: to be a good sheep means to listen to him attentively at Mass; it also means to open up the Bible at home and let his voice resonate and dominate.

c) We hear him through what he teaches us through the Church he founded to carry out his work of salvation. As he said to his first apostles, he says to their successors, the Pope and the bishops: “Whoever hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16).

d) We hear his merciful and encouraging voice calling us by name in the Sacrament of Confession, when he gives us, through his priest, his sole attention, binds our wounds, and carries us back to the fold (cf. Lk 15:4).

The Lord continues to speak to us in each of these ways and more. The question is: how well are we listening?

6) But to be a good sheep requires more than merely hearing the the Good Shepherd’s voice. It involves FOLLOWING the Good Shepherd and doing what he says. Even when we’re listening to the Lord’s voice, we can often ignore what he is saying, or can let those sacred words slip out the other ear. The real test of a good sheep is how closely we follow the Lord, especially when his voice calls us to something challenging. This has always been the test for Christ’s flock. St. James wrote to the first Christians: “Be doers of the word and not merely idle listeners, who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). If all we do is listen to God’s word without acting on it, we’re self-deceived, because we’re really not following Christ. The person who put this truth into action supremely was the one who has always been considered the greatest disciple who ever lived, the Mother of the Good Shepherd. Once when a woman cried out from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he replied by stating the real source of his mother’s beatitude: “Blessed, rather, is she who hears the word of God and keeps it” (Lk 11:27-28 ). Mary listened so attentively to the word of God that that Word took her flesh. We’re called to do likewise, to listen so attentively to the voice of the Good Shepherd that he literally takes our flesh as we walk together with him. This is what it means to follow him.

7) When Jesus says, “Follow me!,” as he did 21 times in the Gospel, it means to follow him all the way, to put all his words into action, to love the Father as he loves the Father, to love others as he has loved us. To be good sheep means to trace the footsteps of the Good Shepherd in proclaiming the Good News, to “go about doing good” (Acts 10:38 ), to care for those with diseases (Lk 6:18 ), to go alone to pray (Mt 14:23), to carry one’s Cross (Lk 14:27), to forgive others (Lk 6:14) and love even one’s enemies (Mt 5:44). Following him ultimately involves laying down our lives for others, sacrificing our egos, giving up our own interests for the sake of others. To be a good sheep is to be a good Samaritan, and sacrifice ourselves to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.

8 ) This weekend is an excellent opportunity for us to make or renew our commitment to do that. Fr. Tom has asked all the priests this weekend to preach about the Catholic Charities drive. This drive is a wonderful gift of the Lord to each of us to provide us a concrete opportunity to become more like Him in giving of ourselves and of the blessings God has given to us to those less fortunate than us. But it is also a gift of the Lord in a far greater way.

9) Jesus says that when he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, all the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate the people into two groups, “as a Shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:31 ff). The Good Shepherd will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the sheep — those who have heard his voice and followed him upon the path of true self-sacrificing love — he will say, “Come, O you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those who are saved, his good sheep, will ask him, “Lord when was it that we did any of this for you?” He said he will reply: “As often as you did it to one of my least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

10) To the goats on his left, the Good Shepherd will say, “‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, … thirsty…, naked…, a stranger…, ill… and in prison’ and you didn’t even lift a finger to help me.” They’ll reply, “Lord, when did we see you in any of these states and not attend to your needs?” Jesus will then respond, “As often as you failed to do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do it to me.”

11) Jesus, the Good Shepherd, died to give his sheep eternal life; he says in the Gospel today, “I give my sheep eternal life.” But as we’ve talked about up to this point, to be his sheep means to hear his voice and follow him all the way along the uphill path of self-giving love. Our life is a pilgrimage either to Jesus’ right or to his left, to being numbered among the sheep of the Good Shepherd’s fold, or among the goats. Jesus wants us to end up among the sheep on his right, but whether we do or not depends upon how we listen to his voice and follow his example.

12) We can never tell how many people will be helped through giving to Catholic Charities, but each person we help, the Lord takes personally. Christ says that at the end of time, both those who are saved and those who are condemned will ask, “Lord when did we take care of you… or fail to take of you?” He will tell them every time they did something or failed to do something to those in need, they did it or failed to do it to him in disguise.

a) Last year over 125,000 people were helped through Catholic Charities.

b) The Appeal funds food pantries and food voucher programs throughout the Diocese. Every time a poor family received a food voucher, or a homeless person received his daily bread from a pantry, Christ was there incognito and one day will say to those who made it possible, “I was hungry and you fed ME.… I was thirsty and you gave ME something to drink.”

c) The appeal funds the hospital chaplaincies (like the one at Cape Cod Hospital) so that there be spiritual care 24 hours a day. Last year, 146,000 times in the Diocese, the chaplains made pastoral visits and 22,000 times patients were anointed. Christ was there each time in disguise and will say to those who visited and those who made it possible, “I was sick and you comforted me.”

d) The appeal also pays for the care for the programs for inmates in prisons, like the Barnstable House of Correction and Christ will say to those who bring the Good News a place of so much bad news, and to those who make it possible, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

e) The funds for the spiritual and material care of immigrants, like our Brazilian and Hispanic communities, comes from this appeal, and Christ will be able one day to say to all those who funded it, “Era peregrino e recolhestes-Me.”

f) The programs funded by the appeal, and the people cared for by that funding, are so many: services for pregnant mothers, adoption, marriage preparation, adult education, care for widows, divorced and separated men and women, couples preparing for marriage, grieving children, the unborn, college students through campus ministry, special-needs children, disabled adults, our teenagers, seminarians and candidates for the permanent diaconate, and all the homebound who are helped by the television Mass. Christ does not give us an exhaustive list of deeds of love, but he does tell us that whatever we do out of love for another, we do for him. How can we possibly not do everything we can out of love for him who did everything for us?

13) Whether the Lord has made us stewards of great material fortunes, or whether we’re like the widow with her few copper coins (Mk 12:42), the Good Shepherd sets before us his example and tells us, “love one another as I have loved you.” He has laid down his life for us and calls us to a similar generosity, a similar love. As we receive the flesh and blood of the Good Shepherd, we ask him for the grace to be his good sheep, so that we might listen attentively to his voice, and follow him all the way, through self-giving love, to his eternal right hand.