29 April 2012

Good Shepherds & Good Sheep

[NB.  Our deacons are preaching this weekend, so here's a repost of a Good Shepherd homily from 2007.  The readings are not from the 4th Sunday of Easter, but the gospel readings cover the same material.]

16th Sunday OT: Jer 23.1-6; Eph 2.13-18; Mark 6.30-34
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Shepherds all over the world must quake in their sandals when they hear Jeremiah prophesy: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. . .against the shepherds who shepherd my people [the Lord says]: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” If these malicious sheep-herders don't flinch in fear at this warning, they should! They have taken on not only the hard work of keeping their sheep safe from the wolves, they have placed themselves squarely in the sight of the sheep's owner who watches his flock with an unblinking eye. What the Lord knows and the shepherds should know is that the dangers of the wilderness loom all the more ominously when the flock is divided. One set of shepherd's eyes cannot keep watch over a flock separated by hungry wolves. The lambs are the first to die, but the killing rarely stops there. And so says the Lord: “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing...” The Lord has done more than appoint responsible shepherds for his flock; He has sent us the Good Shepherd who keeps the flock together, creating in his own body one flock, one people. Woe to the wolves who would divide his flock and woe to any of the Lord's shepherds would let the wolves among his sheep!

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and his disciples are exhausted and hungry because they have been preaching the Word and healing the sick for many days. They retreat to a deserted place to grab a snack and catch a quick nap. Leaving in a boat to find a moment of peace, they are astonished to find that a vast crowd of clamoring souls waiting for them when they arrive. Mark tells us that when Jesus sees the crowd “his heart [is] moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he [begins] to teach them many things.” Not yet made one flock in Christ, the vast crowd is united however in achieving a single purpose: they are in pursuit of the Truth—a truth that binds and heals in the binding.

Hungry for a Word of healing and compassion, those in the crowd are relentless in chasing down Jesus and his disciples. They are sheep without a shepherd. Men and women without protection, without a teacher. They have been abandoned by their appointed shepherds who rule them from the temple with the legal commentary and ritual minutiae. They are mislead and scattered by shepherds who attend to nothing but their own power and prestige. No longer born or raised in compassion, the people of the crowd seek after a better way, another path to their Lord's affections. In the preaching and good works of Jesus they see and hear a way to be one people again, living and loving under the merciful eyes of their God. What they do not yet understand is that the way of Christ they hope to follow will lead them into a flock larger and more robust than any they have ever imagined possible. This is just one of the many true things that Jesus has to teach them.

Many years after Jesus looks out over the vast crowd with compassion and teaches them the way to salvation, Paul writes to the young church in Ephesus, reminding them of their of spiritual history, calling to mind again their fallen state before the coming of Christ. He writes, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived...All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh...and we were by nature children of wrath...Therefore, remember that [you] were at that time without Christ, alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Dead in sin. Children of wrath. Alienated from Israel. Strangers to the covenants. Without hope. Without God. Without God in the world until the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us as one of us. Having devastated the Ephesian pride by retelling their mournful history without Christ, Paul goes on to teach them one true thing: “...through [his] flesh, [Christ] abolish[ed] the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two...” This new creation brings the Father's two children together in peace—His chosen people and the people who choose Him: all of Israel and the Gentile world. One person—one body, one soul made whole again in Christ.

The unity we enjoy as sheep in the Good Shepherd's flock binds us and heals us in the binding. No longer outside the promises of the covenant, we as a Body live and love with one heart and one soul, burdened by nothing more than a lightened load carried under the well-worn yoke of a Master Craftsman. And though our unity—more often than makes for a good witness—creaks under the strain of theological and cultural differences, we can look toward the ultimate fulfillment of our created purpose to be Christs for the world and find—if nothing more—a blueprint, a promise for what it looks like to stand before the throne of God and sing His praises with one voice, to worship in His glory as nation, a people, a priesthood of prophets and kings. But if we live now dreaming only of a perfected future, we fail to do the work of the apostles; we fail to go out and teach everything that the Lord as taught us. Who will hear the Word if no one speaks it? Who will speak the Word if no one is sent.

We are sent to speak the Word of reconciliation and peace to the world to hear. Not words of passive forgetting or surrender, not words of capitulation and withdrawal from conflict, but the Word of God Who created us to love Him and one another. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are both sheep and shepherds, leaders and the led. If we will to be good shepherds, then we must will to be good sheep. And as faithful leaders, we will listen eagerly to the warning Jeremiah sends from the Lord: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture...” The wolves circling the flock are called by many names: Indifference, Violence, Relativism, Scientism, Repression of Freedom, Slavery to Material Desire, New Ageism, and many, many others. The immediate and most effective means of confronting these wolves is the teaching of Christ in his Church, the ancient and unbroken teaching of many true things.

We are no longer a vast crowd clamoring after Jesus and his disciples for healing in the truth. He has given us every truth we are capable of hearing. Our task now is to grow in our hearing so that our understanding may overflow in love, and by overflowing in love, draw us closer and closer to the holiness we were made to enjoy.
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