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Homily - Good Shepherd Sunday - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 21 April 2024
Year B

When we think that we are in charge of the Church's future or that we know the simple solution to our problems, we are probably listening to ourselves and to our fears – rather than to the voice of the Good Shepherd who wants to calm our fears and disarm our anger.

In a very rural world, it is not surprising that Jesus would use the idea of himself as the Good Shepherd. He contrasts himself with the evert-present thief who comes only to kill and steal and destroy, whereas he has come so that we might have life and have it to the full. This Gospel passage occurs each year in the middle of the Easter season. The risen Jesus does not reveal himself to us as someone aloof on a pedestal but as one who walks with us, wanting only our good. What does he say to us today?

Firstly, Jesus is in charge of his church. Our task is to follow him, not to imagine that we can manage it on his behalf. The whole story of the bible is the relationship between the God who calls and the people who have to be called back, after they have chosen their own path. Starting in the Garden of Eden, God was clear about what was right. But Adam and Eve decided that they and the serpent knew better. A constant theme in the Old Testament is the people going astray, getting into trouble and God sending messengers to get them back on the right track. We can choose to see the major problems that we face as being the results of bad anti-church forces or of poor church leadership – where we can place the blame on somebody else. Or we can let the Good Shepherd call us back to his ways where there is a need for conversion by all of us. When we think that we are in charge of the Church's future or that we know the simple solution to our problems, we are probably listening to ourselves and to our fears – rather than to the voice of the Good Shepherd who wants to calm our fears and disarm our anger. In a world where religious belief can easily be too attached to political ideologies, we are invited to listen, not to the strong who will use us to help them achieve power, but to the Good Shepherd who lays down his if for his sheep.

Secondly, the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name. Following Jesus does not just mean keeping the commandments and living a prayerful life. It also involves knowing the voice of the one who calls you to become a saint. Sometimes we think of God's calling as being to a particular way of life or a job – a vocation to priesthood or religious life, a vocation to marriage, a vocation to be a teacher, a vocation to the single life. But each one of us has a primary personal vocation to become a saint – and to believe that the Good Shepherd is accompanying us, in charge, wherever he leads us on the path to holiness. That is what we understand by the personal call to holiness that each of us has. Jesus says elsewhere that we have not chosen him but that he has chosen us to go and bear abundant fruit (Jn15:16). Being a disciple means the God-given ability to see apparent success and obvious loss, not merely as fulfilling or thwarting my plans – but as the Calvary and Resurrection roads where God lies hidden. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, can each of us look at our lives and say, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are at work in all of my life, calling me to holiness.' Can you believe that God is active, even in illness and loss? Only a church that believes in the God who is calling us all to holiness will be able to call individuals to make radical choices. And a church that does not encourage radical choices will never inspire young disciples for Jesus.

Thirdly, if we believe in the Good Shepherd who is calling us all to holiness, then we have to imagine a way of being church that is vocation rich. St Paul wrote about the church being the Body of Christ, where there are many Spirit-given gifts. The church has been at its most Christ-like when we were blessed with ordained ministers, consecrated religious, strong marriages and active lay apostolates – where all realise that they are children of God and called to spiritual greatness. We will be a poor church if we reduce our discussions to arguments over who can be ordained and who makes decisions. Far from being a prophetic voice, that is just moving toward a new form of clericalism for a changed elite. In contrast to this, we are called to imitate the self-sacrificing Good Shepherd in being a church of service. We are going far astray if reduce our debates to arguments over who has power in a structure when we think that our ideas have won the argument and are in control.

This Gospel of the Good Shepherd can be reduced to a sweet image of the cleanly-dressed Christ carrying the lost lamb. Or we can see it as a strong image that inspired the early Church to being missionaries and martyrs. Today's readings tell us

  • that faith means seeing ourselves as children of the God and called by name to follow the Good Shepherd on the path to holiness.
  • that the Good Shepherd speaks of a form of leadership that is ready to lay down its life for the flock because it reflects God's love for the lost.
  • that church renewal has to do with promoting and making space for everyone's call to holiness and not just with providing a service-model of church in changing times.

At the end of Jesus' words about himself as the Good Shepherd, St John's Gospel tells us that many responded by saying "He is possessed, he is raving mad; why bother to listen to him." (Jn 10:20). Are we today prepared to listen to the challenging Good Shepherd even if we risk being thought of as raving mad?

+ Donal

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