14 May 2011

Cut to the heart

4th Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

While in the studium—the Dominican version of seminary—the student brothers were often told that agricultural metaphors for the Church weren't all that “helpful.” For example, using images such as harvesting grain, planting seeds, plowing fields, pruning trees, etc. to talk about complex theological ideas like redemption, justice, etc. is virtually meaningless in our postmodern age. Our fussy, urbane professors were particularly hard on the sheep/shepherd metaphors in the gospels. They really got wound up about Jesus describing his followers as sheep. Sheep are dirty, stupid, and prone to being killed unless well-guarded. And it didn't help matters at all that those who guard the Lord's sheep—the shepherds, you know, the bishops—were exclusively male and celibate! By the time our enlightened profs were finished foaming at the mouth against the image of the Church as a bunch of filthy, ignorant animals led by an all-male cadre of celibate shepherds, we poor seminarians were quaking in our habits, silently vowing to never-ever speak about or even think about the Church in terms of the sheep/shepherd metaphor! Of course, one or two of us were farm boys so we knew one thing about sheep that our profs didn't: Sheep don't follow shepherds. No one leads a flock of sheep. Sheep are driven, herded by a skillful shepherd with a big stick and a pack of feisty dogs. Now that's an image of the Church that Catholics can understand! So, what are we to make of Jesus saying, “. . .[the shepherd] walks ahead of [his sheep], and [they] follow him, because they recognize his voice”? 

Well, by nature, metaphors are always imperfect, so we don't want to spend too much time dissecting the parallels between Christians and sheep, or between bishops and shepherds. Jesus' point seems to be that those who have chosen to follow him will know his voice when he speaks and obey his word b/c he speaks with a familiar authority. Jesus emphasizes his point by noting that those who love him “will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” In other words, Christians do not hear, cannot hear in the voice of a false teacher, a false shepherd that familiar ring of authority that proclaims the authentic faith, the Real Deal of Gospel Truth. We could play with the sheep metaphor a bit and say that the voice of a false teacher, a false shepherd always sounds like a wolf growling with hunger even when it looks, smells, and acts like a lamb. Oh sure, the occasional individual sheep—the lapsed or lukewarm Christian—may be fooled, seduced by the hypnotic thrill of the wolf's promises, but the flock as a whole is never fooled, never taken in by a stranger's voice. Together, as one flock, we remember the Chief Shepherd's voice; we remember him saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. . .I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” There is no other gate to the Father's eternal pasture, no other Shepherd for His faithful flock. Christ Jesus alone brings us to a more abundant life!

As faithful sheep, we should ask: how do we come to recognize the authoritative voice of our Shepherd? In his Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke gives us a clue. Peter stands with the Eleven and proclaims to the crowd, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke tells us that when those in the crowd heard this truth spoken, “they were cut to the heart. . .” Cut to the heart! Peter utters a simple sentence, twenty-one common words strung together, a declarative sentence that rings out over those gathered, seizes their attention with absolute clarity, and instantly convicts their hearts in the truth: the man Jesus, the one whom they crucified, is the Lord and the Christ long-promised by their God. Peter's pronouncement slices through their guilt; their recriminations; their religious and legal defenses; their logic, their doubts, and their fears. They were cut to the heart, that place in their souls where no lie can easily rest and b/c they recognize their sin, they ask, “What are we to do?” And Peter tells them what to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. . .Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Among those who heard Peter preach that day were three thousand souls who accepted his message and were baptized. Those three thousand, once convicted in the truth and baptized in the name of Christ Jesus, would always recognize the voice of the Lord and his shepherds. A cut to the heart made by the sword that Christ himself yields is always deep and always permanent. It cannot be forgotten nor can it be mistaken for the mark of a stranger.

As men and women baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are deeply and permanently cut by the truth of the gospel. Christ's voice always rings true; the familiar authority of our shepherd is unmistakable, and we cannot be lead astray if we graze with his flock, the Church. The apostle Peter and his successors proclaim the central, abiding fact of our two-thousand year old flock: “God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” That's the sound, the voice of gospel truth, the words and the spirit that cuts the hearts of all those who long to see their lives redeemed, who desire a life beyond this one, who know that they will be perfected only when they come to see their Father face-to-face at the foot of His throne. Do you recognize that voice? More importantly, can you speak with that voice and spread the good news it proclaims? Sheep may be dirty, stupid, and prone to being eaten by wolves, but we are no ordinary sheep! We belong to the Eternal Shepherd and the world is our pasture to cultivate for him. Having heard his call, it's time for us to answer.

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  1. "No one leads a flock of sheep. Sheep are driven, herded by a skillful shepherd with a big stick and a pack of feisty dogs."

    Way to go, Father! Every time I see a photo of the sheep wrapped around Jesus' shoulders like fox fur I think, "I don't think THAT lasted long! YUK!" (Of course, that is exactly the picture on our blog!)

    Maybe Jesus was just trying to tone it down a bit. I mean how would this sound, "I am the Good Shepherd. Any sheep that ignores my voice I walk up to and give him a good kick. He then walks ahead of me FAST..." Nah!

    It was great having you with us Father Philip. Until next year!

  2. Anonymous5:34 AM

    Enjoyed Thanks Ron