The 4th Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday – the Gospel reading is always about the Good Shepherd. It has been an opportunity for priests to speak about their own vocations. My story is very boring. I wanted to be a priest since 2nd grade, went the usual route through all the stages of seminary life in due order and without any real doubt. I was ordained and have been a priest for over 40 years. I have been very happy; indeed, I think happier than I would have been doing anything else. No drama, no trauma, and no real hook for the homily until we look at the full meaning of today’s Gospel. Here, there is certainly drama, and if I hook you in, perhaps some trauma.
It begins after the story of the Man born blind that we read this Lent. The leaders, shepherds, of the people did not behave well. Rather than being open to the experience of Jesus, they ejected the formerly blind man from the synagogue and sought to persecute Jesus. Jesus was not intimidated and told them “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”(Jn 9:9)
They were the truly blind because they did not see the people they were called to lead. They do not know them; Jesus uses a very homey example which would have been familiar to his listeners. Shepherds of several flocks would gather their sheep at night and put them in an enclosure called a sheepfold. In the morning, each shepherd would call his sheep and the sheep recognizing his or her shepherds voice would follow. Sheep and shepherd knew each other, and the sheep trusted the shepherd because they had a relationship with him. Those who sought to lead but did so without knowing the sheep Jesus calls thieves and robbers. We can see the power in Pope Francis’ observation that “the shepherd should smell like the sheep”. He more than anyone has seen what happens when they don’t.
This is a fine beginning; however important, true ministry cannot end there. The last words of today reading are “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn10: 10b) This is more than the basics. Jesus continues with “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11) Like many of Jesus’s sayings, we have heard it so much that its power and uniqueness have been lost. Leaders tend to be those who have mastered the skills of power and they lead by force. We would like to think that that does not include religion especially the church, but we know that unfortunately that is not true. His listeners immediate comment was “He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him” (John 10:20). The success of a leader who wishes to follow Jesus is not judged by managerial skills, although we want our leaders to have them; or the extent of their knowledge, although we want them to be learned, but the willingness to give and give to the point of shedding their blood.
Note here that John says “I” am the good shepherd; he means that only Jesus is permitted to lead. John’s immediate followers did not try to create a structure, much less a hierarchy.
Given the events of the last decade in the church this can sound rather pleasing. Yet there were problems. Who could decide if someone was speaking the truth or not? What was to be done with notorious sinners and a host of other problems? We will read the gospel of St Matthew this summer and he will address these issues very clearly, but this discussion was not present in John.
I said immediate followers because John’s Gospel and community underwent significant changes. We can see that in John 21. This was added on perhaps 50 years after what we read today and reflects that Churches like Matthew’s which accepted the need for structure and the leadership of Peter and his successors were doing better than those who did not. Some in John’s community knew that they had to join with Peter, but they did not want to lose their unique insight into leadership.
Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loved him. Peter answers each time, “yes”, and Jesus tells him to feed or tend his sheep. This reflects the number of times Peter denied Jesus before the Passion. Then Jesus says to him:
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. ”He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.” Jn 21:18-19
If there is to be human participation in leadership in the Church, it must be based on Jesus’ example not only to smell like the sheep but the willingness to sacrifice up to death for them. .
We have seen and cannot un-see that the heavy lifting in keeping church together during the pandemic has been done by lay leaders. Shall this end when we get to a new normal? Do we want to put this creativity back in a box and hope it will not have to be used again? Our religious education teachers have maintained contact with their students in ways which mystify but encourage me and we urge you to check the website and email for some of the signs of this creativity. This very Mass has been livestreamed and Youtubed because of the technical expertise of our parishioners. More to the point, not only the logistics for today’s special remembrance, but also the structure of the ceremony and the prayers were prepared by the young professionals of St. Charles. What else can we accomplish as a parish community?
Next week’s reading from St Peter raises some of the relevant theological issues, and I urge you to read my comments on it in next Saturday’s email. I will only note in advance that we should not become too comfortable saying that the laity will do the administrative stuff and leave the priest to the praying. The church has many forms of prayer, and no priest is equally competent in each. St Charles would be blessed to have Lectio Divina or guided meditation in our parish, but these are not my skills. (Cheap thrill for the day: google “Lectio Divina” and “guided meditation” and imagine me leading either).
We will however accomplish nothing of value unless those who step up to leadership seek to be good shepherds. We will need people not only with the technical skills, but also the desire to know and be known by their fellow parishioners and who will recognize that a terrible beauty may be born, but it will be a while in coming. Those of you who are most uncomfortable now may be precisely those called to join Jesus at the gate to the sheepfold. After 40 years, I can assure you that you will rarely be comfortable but will always know meaning, and will – more often than you might believe – feel joy.