Sunday, 25 April 2021
On the Sundays since Easter, we have been focused on the message that the early church proclaimed about the death and resurrection of Jesus. On this fourth Sunday of Easter we look, not just at the content of the message but on the heart of Jesus. Only those who have good shepherd hearts can proclaim with integrity the message about the Good Shepherd. What do our readings tell us about the mission of the Church and the ministries that are needed to make disciples of all nations?
Firstly, Jesus says and shows that he is not a hired man who has no love for the sheep and runs away instead of defending them. His actions speak louder than his words. The heart of the early preaching by the apostles was not on Jesus' words but on his actions in his death and Resurrection. Those key events showed that he was the one by whom the world can be saved from sin. In the early church, only when people accepted that Jesus was the Saviour did they then learn how he taught his followers to live. By focusing on his person, Jesus contradicted the Pharisees who taught that keeping the Law and the laws was sufficient. Anybody can keep external laws. Loving God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself comes from the depths of who you are. That comes at a price. By doing that, Jesus frees us from the notion that we have to compete for God's mercy. The Pharisees had developed a religious system where the world was divided between those who thought they could earn their way into heaven and those who were told they were pathetic failures. Jesus come with the heart of a shepherd who knows his sheep and gives his life for his flock. Grace is a gift to all, not a prize for the strong in a competitive race. There have been countless pastors who have generously served God's people. But we also have to acknowledge that in every generation there have been those who did not serve God's people with the heart of a shepherd. People will love God when the Good News is proclaimed with integrity and love. People will despise those who talk the talk - but fail to walk the walk.
Secondly, Jesus says that he knows his flock and that they know him. Church is about building up the family, the People of God. We can sometimes think that the Church is an institution that we have to manage in a changing marketplace. It is not. It is the Body of Christ where everyone is anointed with the Holy Spirit with gifts so that the mission of Christ can be carried on. In Christ's Church there is a radical equality between all the baptised. Church is about building a community of welcome which makes space for those to whom Jesus went. A Church can have clear laws and strong teaching. But if it is without supportive, respectful, nourishing relationships, it has only a tenuous connection with the Good Shepherd.
And in that community of disciples, there are many different gifts and jobs to be done. Our vocation is to become a saint by using those gifts and talents for the sake of Christ's mission of mercy to the world. Thus, we do not decide to follow Christ and then work out what suits us – or what parts of Christ's teaching we would rather leave aside. There is no pick and mix Christianity. One of the challenges for the church in our time is to rediscover what the early church knew – that there is a range of ministries in the Body of Christ. And no-one is entitled to assume that ministry is only for somebody else to do so as to supply for me. A healthy Church will not complain that we ought to get more clergy from 'somewhere' to shore up a religious supply chain. The Church of the Good Shepherd will promote a range of formal and informal ministries so that the People of God are built up and the Good News brought to those who are most in need. We have the resources in our parishes for a vibrant church. The Good Shepherd wants to call us all by name and not just some of us.
Thirdly, among the many vocations in God's people, there is the call to ordained ministry. Some say that remaining unmarried is too tough and that more would come forward for ordination if things were easier. But the Good Shepherd does not call those who want an easy life. Of his own free will, he is prepared to lay down his life for his flock. He expends his life in defending his flock and seeks out those who are not members of that flock. Jesus knows that bringing Good News to the poor will cost him dear. He knows from the beginning of his ministry that there is a real temptation to take the easy path. Jesus still calls some to heroic levels of dedication in his service. This week we have been remembering Sr Clare Crockett. Her story has amazed many around the world. Her story tells us, in God's eyes, there is no cheap grace. God calls some people to give their all, crazy though the world might think that to be. But only generous hearts bear witness to the loving Good Shepherd. If ordained ministry becomes more a job and less an self-sacrificing well of life based on Jesus, we have lost the plot
It seems to me that these are three key lessons from this year's Good Shepherd Gospel. Jesus acted with integrity. People followed him because he taught through his deeds. Renewal will come for us when our actions speak louder than our words. Only those with generous pastoral hearts can walk in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. Then, we are asked to follow the Christ who knows each of his flock. Pope Francis has been strong on building strong missionary communities. The current emphasis on synodality - on walking together with Christ - is not on pandering to democracy and passing cultural fads but focussing on how harness our many gits and talents for mission into today's world. And there cannot be missionary church with a strong sacramental tradition unless we recognise that Jesus calls some to give everything for the sake of the Gospel.In a sacramental Church, there will always been a need for those whose lives are a sacrament of the Good Shepherd. That is a difficult challenge for a world that is seduced into seeking wholeness through self-indulgence. Jesus the sacrament of the Father's mercy still calls for those who will model themselves on the Good Shepherd. A church which thinks it can witness to Jesus without self-sacrificing heroism is listening to itself and not to Jesus. The Good Shepherd call us to model his actions and teaching. There will be no renewal if we are not listening to his voice and modelling ourselves on his life.
+ Donal McKeown