Traditionally this been called Good Shepherd Sunday. Today’s gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel. Pope Francis and other bishops usually make use of the themes to underscore the responsibilities of those chosen to be pastors (literally, shepherds) of the faithful. Given the awful legacy of clerical abuse in recent decades, it’s still timely. For even sterner words, St. Augustine’s great 5th-century work “On Pastors” [Sermon 46] makes for important and inspiring reading. Every bishop and priest should read it at least once a year. Actually, we are supposed to.
But here Jesus describes his relationship to us in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his
voice. Since sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, such voice recognition is much more important for their safety and survival than it is, say, for a computer. In fact, it isn’t important all for the computer to recognize my voice. It’s important to me. But sheep can get into a lot more trouble than computers do if they fail the test of voice recognition. And so can we.
The theme of recognition also appears in both the first and second readings as well as the responsory psalm. In Peter’s sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows on last week’s reading, he declares,
“if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, that is, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”
The word “known” here means the same as “recognized,” and the passage could have just as well been translated, “you should recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” He goes on to say, citting the refrain from the 118th Psalm,
“This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4: 9-12: 9]
The choice is between recognizing Christ as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or rejecting him. The little parable of how the rejected stone became the cornerstone is an image of the importance of being alert to God’s presence in Christ even in what may appear paltry and insignificant in our lives. For the most important thing is often the one we refuse to pay attention to.
For Peter and, later, in John’s epistle, that lesson is applied to both Jesus, the true Shepherd, and also to his true followers. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” [1 Jn 3:1-2].
For us today the question is, do we really recognize each other as God’s daughters and sons, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, and in fact, members of Jesus’ own body? Because if we do, we will act accordingly. We will love one another with the same love with which God loved us. But if we despise and reject each other for whatever reason, we are also despising and rejecting both God and God’s love for us in Christ.
So when we come to today’s gospel reading, the image of the Good Shepherd, the true one, means something very particular. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Those who are truly followers of Christ are also recognized by their recognition. It is all one knowing: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.
Recognizing Jesus, and therefore recognizing God in our midst, is especially important for those young members of the community who are about to receive the Eucharist for the first time. That is why the minister holds the Eucharist in front of the communicant and says “The body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ.” What he or she is really doing is asking each of you whether you really recognize the Body and Blood of Jesus in this sacrament. And when you say “Amen,” you are affirming that you do. “Amen” means “Yes, so it is, so I believe.” You can’t make that statement until you really understand what the Eucharist means and what communion is all about.
But even more importantly, you recognize the body and blood of Christ in how you treat one another before and after you receive communion. That is the sign and the test of whether or not we really recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. That’s what Good Shepherd Sunday is all about.
So let us pray that all of us will forever be able to recognize the presence of Christ in each other and that the world will recognize Christ’s presence in us by the love and devotion we express — putting our lives on the line for one another just as Jesus taught us and showed us.