Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the common lectionary cycle Psalm 23 is read, as well as one third of John 10. But before I get to that important theme of this day, I want to mention briefly that this Sunday also has been known for the past 54 years as “Vocations Sunday,” which is why our Sequence Hymn this morning was the unfamiliar 36-year-old hymn, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord, when once we heed Your call.” While the Church appreciates all vocations, today it turns its attention particularly towards vocations to the ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon, as well as to the Religious life in all its forms, including the missionary life in the particular sense of mission to the nations.
By God’s mysterious providence, Gayle has been working these past few days on revising and updating the website for our diocesan school, St. Benedict’s School for Ministry. I would encourage all of you to have a look at the website as soon as Gayle’s work is completed, because the program may be something some of you should consider. The home page states that the mission of the school “is to prepare students for ordained and lay ministries in the Church. Because we believe that all the people of God are called to some form of ministry, the St. Benedict School for Ministry seeks to prepare everyone for the exciting opportunities to which God calls us. Ministry is not the responsibility and task of the clergy only.”
Pope Francis prepared a special message for this day, expanding on his earlier emphases on “the summons to ‘go out from ourselves’ to hear the Lord’s voice, and the importance of the Church community as the privileged place where God’s call is born, nourished and expressed.” He went on to say:
All Christians are called to be missionaries of the Gospel! As disciples, we do not receive the gift of God’s love for our personal consolation, nor are we called to promote ourselves, or a business concern. We are simply men and women touched and transformed by the joy of God’s love, who cannot keep this experience just to ourselves. For “the Gospel joy which enlivens the community of disciples is a missionary joy” (Evangelii Gaudium, 21).
Commitment to mission is not something added on to the Christian life as a kind of decoration, but is instead an essential element of faith itself. A relationship with the Lord entails being sent out into the world as prophets of His Word and witnesses of His love. By virtue of baptism, every Christian is a “Christopher”, a bearer of Christ, to his brothers and sisters (cf. Catechesis, 30 January 2016). To be a missionary disciple means to share actively in the mission of Christ. A Christian does not bear the burden of mission alone, but realizes, even amid weariness and misunderstanding, that “Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise” (Evangelii Gaudium, 266).
I mentioned last Sunday that our bishop, Alberto Morales, strongly emphasizes that we are a missional diocese, that we are committed to all ministries through which the gospel message is shared with our needy world. Reaching out to our world with the Gospel message is not optional. And so, while the intended focus of Vocations Sunday is on those who have heard the call of God and answered, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” it also is an occasion for us to embrace these reminders from Pope Francis and Bishop Morales that the mission of the whole Church and of every individual believer within it is to be witnesses (Acts 1:6) and to make disciples (Matthew 28:19, 20), to grow wherever we are planted and to remember that keeping the message to ourselves was never God’s intention for His people, not for Israel and not for the Church.
If our witness to the life of Christ is relegated to the work of ordained clergy, there never will be enough of us to accomplish all that Jesus envisioned when He sent out His first disciples. When He told them to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria,” this constituted a challenging but possible mission field. But when He tacked on “even to the remotest part of the earth,” it became clear that this missionary task could not be achieved by 11 disciples, most of whom would be martyred! The ACNA catechism states that “within a century of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Christian congregations could be found from Spain to Persia, and from North Africa to Britain.” Clearly this was not the work of 11 men. Jesus needed every person who heard and believed the message to be engaged in His work, and He still does.
Now about the Good Shepherd. The missional emphasis on this day as Vocations Sunday is by no means unrelated to the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In fact, quite the contrary, Jesus as the Good Shepherd Who “calls His own sheep by name and leads them out” is our example as Christophers, persons who bear the Name of Jesus and Who carry Him in our hearts as we carry out His mission. Is this something we are at liberty to pick up and set back down at our leisure, according to the other pressing priorities in our lives? Absolutely not!
What did being the Good Shepherd require of Jesus Himself? Jesus gave the answer in our Gospel reading for today: “14 I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” That degree of self-sacrifice is not something to which all of us are called. But it is a spirit in which all of us are called to serve: a no-holds-barred commitment to a life that consistently proclaims the good news of the Good Shepherd. We are to provide a stark contrast to the one who is “a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep” (vss. 12, 13).
Being witnesses for Christ and imitating His selfless care for His sheep is a daunting task. But it also is a litmus test of how much we actually love Him. It’s not possible for me to read about Jesus as the Good Shepherd without being reminded of the message He gave to Peter in their last one-on-one time together (John 21). Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, clearly forming a parallel to the three times that Peter had denied Him. Three times Peter affirms that he does indeed love Jesus and that Jesus knows it to be true. And all three times, Jesus comes back with the same commandment: feed my sheep. Be a shepherd. Imitate Me as I modeled what it means to be the Good Shepherd. And in this very context Jesus tells Peter that he will suffer martyrdom for his work of feeding the sheep; and He adds twice, “You follow Me.”
What does it really mean to follow Jesus and to feed His sheep? We get a vivid snapshot of what it meant to the early Church in today’s reading from the second chapter of Acts. Does that description make us think of the Church today? Is there even a single part of it that corresponds to our 21st century version of Christian community, commitment and outreach? Listen again to this checklist and see what you think:
- They were continually devoting themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer
- Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe
- All the believers had all things in common
- They met together every day with one mind
- They took their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart
- They were praising God and having favor with everyone
- They were growing daily as the Lord added to their numbers
Returning to our Gospel reading, there’s another “I AM” statement in John 10 that usually gets short shrift after “I AM the Good Shepherd.” It’s the one in verses 7-9 where Jesus says, “I AM the Door of the sheep. If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” These are words from the same Person Who had said in John 8:12, “I AM the Light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the Light of Life.” And in John 14, He will say, “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
Taken either separately or collectively, the point of these statements is clear. It’s a point that is growing ever more unpopular by leaps and bounds in an era when a strange kind of universalism has successfully attacked the very roots of Christian faith and seriously diminished our evangelical fervor. We’ve come to loathe anything that smacks of exclusivity in our faith. Yet, at the same time, we continue to call ourselves Christians, followers of the Christ Who called Himself the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Light of the world, the Way, the Truth and the Life. We still pose as Christophers, as Christ-bearers, even though we may be silent or at least reluctant to make known the claims of the One Whose Name and Person and Cross we bear.
We squirm uncomfortably at the clear words of Scripture, including the statement of Peter in Acts 4:12, "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." We cave in to the persistent challenges of unbelievers that there surely must be any number of other ways, each equally valid. That thought is deemed to spring from a generous spirit and is therefore granted plausibility. But if that’s what we truly believe, then there’s no incentive for us to proclaim one word of the Gospel, to accept its missional demands, to observe a Vocations Sunday, to respond to a calling to do anything other than leading more or less good lives while hoping that God has other ways in addition to what the first Christians called THE WAY.
To say that there are many doors is truly generous in terms of worldly wisdom. But to say it as Christians is to call Jesus, Peter, Paul, John and millions of others down the centuries bald-faced liars or, at the very least, delusional persons who lacked the enlightenment that has suddenly burst forth in our day. And to say that is to undermine all that makes Christianity what it is, what it has been for 2,000 years, what it will continue to be until, in God’s time, we see the consummation of all things, the bursting forth of the Kingdom of God and the beginning of the eternal reign of Jesus Christ at Whose Name every knee will bow and every reluctant tongue confess that He is Who He said He was: “the Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11). This is the One Who is our Good Shepherd, Who knows His sheep and lays down His life for them!
What an incredible waste in God’s plan of redemption through the sacrificial death of His only Son, if all other paths are just as good. No other world religion has such a Shepherd Who lays down His life for His sheep. And it’s that Good Shepherd who said to Peter and says to us on Good Shepherd and Vocations Sunday, “Feed My sheep.” It’s not a suggestion. It’s a responsibility that we need more consciously to embrace as Christ-bearers. Obedience is the only thing that’s commensurate with the cost of our redemption. It’s the only appropriate action for all who hear the call of Jesus, “You follow Me.” And all we can say in response is, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen