4th Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Who belongs to Christ the Good Shepherd? Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” Who are these sheep? What does a flock belonging to Christ look like? John – in the Book of Revelation – describes his visions: a great multitude of people from nation, race, people, and tongue crowding the throne of God. These are all the saints who have survived the Great Distress. They certainly belong to the Good Shepherd! Paul and Barnabas in Acts tell the Jews who have not converted and who are hounding the apostles in fits of jealousy that they have rejected the Good News and now it’s time for them – the apostles – to turn their evangelical efforts to the Gentiles. Apparently, some of the Jews do not want to belong but the Gentiles now have a shot at belonging to the God Shepherd, and they are delighted. Who belongs? Who can enter this house? Who is worthy? Better: who can be made worthy? What does it take to be made a member of the Body of Christ, a member of the flock? And how is it done? And once done, what does a member look like?
These are serious questions on the fourth Sunday of Easter because we are rapidly approaching the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. Some fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit sweeps down on the desolate and deserted disciples to swiftly kick them in their collective behind, motivating them to step up to the challenge of giving their lives to the infectious spreading of the Good News. This is the Church. This is what the Church does: spread the Good News. Infectiously. This is what Paul and Barnabas are doing in Antioch. This is what the great multitude crowding the throne in heaven did before they died. This is what those given to Jesus by the Father are grateful to do. Belonging to Christ then is not about possessing a genetic trait or a political history or an attitude. Belonging to Christ is not about the mere intellectual assent to a theological formula or a philosophical worldview or knowledge of a wisdom tradition. Belonging to Christ means following Christ. Those who belong to him – know him, hear him, and follow him. And that can be anyone. Anyone at all. Any nation, any race, any people, any tongue. Anyone. Anyone given to Christ by the Father. . .
Wait! Anyone given to Christ by the Father? You mean we have to be given to Christ in order to belong to Christ? Yep. We are gifts to Christ from our Father, given to him for our salvation and the Father’s glorification. God the Father created each of us to desire Him before all things. And for our exclusive benefit we are made to worship Him. Our God has no need of our praise. Our longing to praise Him is His gift to us b/c in praising Him we are perfected in His love. We know the itching need to praise God only because He has graced us to do so. Our creation is a grace. Our desire to belong is a grace. Our need to worship is a grace. Our enduring existence is a grace. Our ability to say YES to God is a grace. Our capacity to obey, to be holy is a grace. And we ourselves are a grace to Christ, a gift to the Son from the Father in the Spirit. And all we need do is know him, hear him, and follow him. When we refuse to do these things, when we contradict the Word, disobey the Body, we do violence to ourselves as gifts, and we do not belong. . .by our choice.
To be clear: sin does not hurt God. Sin ravages the sinner. Abuses the Church. And defies every baptismal promise. Sin is the enemy of belonging, the adversary of a graced communion. When we sin, the longing we feel for God turns to loneliness. When we sin, the emptying-of-self that imitates Christ turns to abandonment. When we sin, the humility we rightly feel at our brokenness turns to shame and guilt. In sin, our longing for God becomes a rejection of Him and we end up living lonely, empty, and restless lives – not just imperfect but broken and lost. When we disobey – fail to listen to the Shepherd – our desire for holiness becomes a destructive appetite for material satisfaction that tempts us away from Christ. We cannot belong to Christ while rebelling against his Word; while rejecting the life of the Spirit he offers us.
Who can belong to Christ? Anyone, anyone at all. Who belongs to Christ? Those given to him by the Father who know him, hear him, and follow him. Why would anyone want to know, hear, and follow the Son as a gift from the Father? So that they might be perfected in their vocation to become Christ for others. Why would anyone abuse themselves as gifts to Christ by rejecting his saving Word? This is an ancient desire, one whispered by the Serpent in the Garden, the desire to become god without God, to be perfected through ungraced efforts, to be made holy by pious works alone; and this inordinate desire is named Disobedience b/c it is the willful refusal to listen to Christ in his Body, the magisterial witness of the Church, a refusal to listen to the Good News that your life is a gift, your progress in holiness is a gift, your life eternal is a gift. All just given to you freely, without charge or interest, handed over to you, an open-handed donation from God through Christ in the Spirit.
Now, the hard question: what does a life that belongs to Christ look like? You belong to Christ, does your life look like a gift from God, a freely given grace, or does it look like an expensive debt that will never be paid off? If you live your life in Christ like an expensive debt, exactly who is it you think you owe? Christ? The Church? Who? Who among the saints, the Blessed Trinity, or the souls in purgatory has sold you something on credit? Is there a Jesus Christ VISA card I don’t know about? And even if you can identify your creditor, how are you paying off this debt? Good works? Prayer? Mass attendance? Donations? All perfectly good things for a Christian to do, of course; but if you are doing these things out of a sense of indebtedness, then you are not answering Christ with an excited and blessed YES. Instead, you are answering with a begrudging, “Here, Lord, take what's owed you.” This is not the Spirit that crashes into the disciples, creating the Church at Pentecost! This is not the Spirit that drives Paul and Barnabas to risk their lives for the joy of the Lord. This is not the Spirit that excites the elders around the throne to worship the Most High. And this is not the Spirit that seduces us, pulls us toward the Lord so that we may know him, hear him, and follow him. The fear of being a joyful Christian is a stake to the heart! Fear joy at your peril. No sheep of the Good Shepherd will live long trembling in the shadow of death. Know him, hear him, follow him, and walk free and clear of every fear, every limit, and belong to the only One on whose name we rely for help: Christ the Good Shepherd!