After the revisions of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, this fourth Sunday of Easter was called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading in which Jesus draws out a parable about sheep and their shepherds. It is also known as Vocation Sunday, and had even other titles before things got organized, so to speak.
The gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel, which is not the kind of theme we have been hearing up to today in the Sundays after Easter. The focus has shifted.
Only the gospel mentions sheep and shepherds, but the underlying message is really about recognition – seeing something or someone for what they truly are. The word Jesus uses is “know”: ‘I know my sheep and they know me.’ And because they know him, they follow him. We follow him.
For those of us who don’t know a lot about shepherding, there is a point here that may escape attention. The sheep follow the good shepherd. Otherwise, they must be driven from behind, often with a canny border collie nipping at their heels. Few shepherds simply walk in front of the sheep who confidently follow, more like ducklings after a mother duck. It gets down to trust, a trust based on confidence and in the case of ducks and chicks, imprinting. They are impressed with life-saving recognition shortly after birth – or hatching in their case. There is matter here for a interesting comparison with baptism, but not today.
Jesus describes our relationship to him, the true or “good” shepherd, in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his voice. Since domesticated sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, 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, “recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” The choice is between recognizing Jesus as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or failing to. 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 Jesus and also in each other.
For Peter and in John’s first 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. Whatever our ethnic origin, our nationality, our gender, our social position, our political party – whatever tends to distinguish us from one another is ultimately of no consequence. We are to be one flock with one shepherd. As followers of the Good Shepherd, we are known by how we love one another.
In a word, true followers of Jesus are recognized by their recognition. It is all one: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.
We are still in the upper room this Sunday, as if the celebration of our eucharist lodged us with the disciples in a never-ending reunion with the Risen One. We are there as the two disciples return, no doubt breathlessly, with the incredibly wonderful news that they had met Jesus on their way to Emmaus, disheartened after his execution. And they are greeted with the news that he has indeed risen and appeared to Simon – an appearance not included in other accounts of Jesus’ manifestations following the Resurrection, except for a surprising remark by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:5).
Suddenly Jesus is there among them. In both John’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” Then, to their astonished eyes he identifies himself by showing them his hands and feet. Luke does not mention the marks of nails, or the wound in his side that we learn of in John’s gospel, but the inference is clear. “Do not be afraid. It is I.”
Luke does not tell us that the disciples actually touched Jesus, something John dwells on and eventually refers to in the opening verse of his first letter. It hardly needed to be said. Jesus is truly present bodily. He eats before them, a further sign that he is really present, not some figment of their collective imagination. Again, as on the road to Emmaus, he opens their minds to the truth of the scriptures, the good news which is to be preached to all the nations.
To be sure, we could use some good news today. And the gospel message still challenges us to believe in the real presence of Jesus in our lives as we confront violence, hatred, and indifference in so much of our world. His presence is revealed in those lives when we follow his teaching, ultimately and especially in our treatment of the wretched of the earth — the homeless and persecuted, those starved and exploited by the inequity of economic systems gone awry, those imprisoned for whatever reason, refugees, and those who differ because of ethnicity, religion, or gender.
Last Sunday, we learned of divine mercy and human mercy, the evidence of our unity with the Risen One. For “whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God made perfect in them” – the final line of John’s letter today.
The burden of mercy is often very heavy, as we are witnessing in the efforts of the government to resolve the plight of the refugees at our southern border, especially the thousands of children fleeing violence, crushing poverty, and environmental collapse in much of Central America. Human traffickers have been quick to wrest their last savings from them or their families with false promises of assistance in reaching the promised land. They are often called “coyotes” which is an insult to the animals.
In the Book of Revelation, when John is tallying the crimes of “Babylon,” an undeniable reference to the Roman Empire, he concludes the list of the spoils brought to the city for the amusement or comfort of its merciless citizens with an ominous note, one too often passed over: human lives [Rev. 18:13]. Human trafficking is the final and most grievous of all the sins that lead to the destruction of the empire. It is not only the traffickers who incur the wrath of God, moreover, but all those who benefit from the crime.
In both John’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” Not only that, in the passage of Luke’s gospel we heard today he says that metanoia and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem [Luke 24:47]. Jesus does not say “do penance.” Rather, he is again telling us to change our way of thinking — our whole way of seeing reality. And with that, to change our way of living – to do justice, to practice mercy and forgiveness. “Reform your lives!” Peter preaches.
Last Sunday, we heard in the Gospel of John about the mission Jesus gave his disciples on the evening of his resurrection. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, the Spirit of love and unity, of reconciliation, and forgiveness. Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance that night contains the same lesson, the same command — a complete change of mind and heart expressed in justice, mercy, and forgiveness. That shouldn’t be surprising, because that was what Jesus preached and taught before he was crucified.
Today, as we inevitably turn our attention to the victims of human trafficking, not only along the southern border, but throughout our nation and truly throughout the world, we can do no better than to start with the transformation of our hearts and lives. Where there is peace, there can be justice. But without justice, there will be no true peace.
The Sunday after Easter, which is also known with greater reason as Resurrection Sunday, has even more names: Low Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, and most recently Mercy Sunday thanks to Pope John Paul II. The earlier names referred to Latin words used to begin or celebrate the Eucharist and we still hear in the entrance song “Like newborn children” from the first Letter of Peter [1 Pet 2:2]. “Quasimodo,” familiar to us as the deformed bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s great novel, is not part of that history, although the character was so named because as an infant he was found abandoned at Notre Dame cathedral on Quasimodo Sunday.
There is nothing “low” about the feast, except that it follows in the wake of the glory of Resurrection Sunday. Or, rather, continues it, for the gospel account in particular picks up the narrative with Jesus’ appearance that very night. The liturgies of this week all reflect that glory, reluctant to limit the celebration to just one day.
The readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the first letter of John expand the message of Easter first in the account of the
manner of living shared by the earliest followers of “the Way” as Luke retells it, and then with the personal and global implications of recognizing Jesus as Savior and Son of God. But it is the gospel that is so arresting.
First, the author of the gospel describes Jesus’ commission to the crowd of disciples cowering in the upper room, perhaps not surprisingly as the ability to forgive one another. But he adds to this the power to withhold forgiveness as well – something that will require considerable reflection over the centuries. But this double endowment follows on the gift of the Holy Spirit, this gospel’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit to these same disciples on the Feast of Pentecost that Luke so wonderfully relates in the Acts of the Apostles.
Mercy – “misericordia” in the familiar Latin, “unhappy heart,” compassion — is right at the heart of it all – both God’s mercy and ours. It is the frequent cry for mercy that moves Jesus to perform his most astounding acts of healing: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” [Matt 15:22, Luke 18:38 and elsewhere]. Twenty years ago, in his 2001 homily on this April Sunday, Pope John Paul II extolled mercy as “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.” [https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20010422_divina-misericordia.html].
The great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, extolled divine mercy as “the highest work that God ever performed in all creatures” [German Sermon 7.] In one of his most memorable sermons he continued, “God’s highest work is mercy, and this means that God places the soul in the highest and purest place that she can attain to, into space, into the sea, into a bottomless ocean, and there God works mercy.”
Shakespeare, in the voice of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” memorably echoes the thought:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice” [Act IV, Sceme 1].
It is showing mercy, the active practice of compassion, that we mirror the divine gift of the spirit in forgiveness and resistance to every form of evil. Addressing the wounds of hunger, ignorance, want, and disease has from the earliest Christian era been known as “the works of mercy.” In Matthew’s gospel, they provide the heart of Jesus’ last sermon [Matt. 25:31-46]. Today as well, we are ever more increasingly aware of the desperate need for active compassion toward Creation itself, as Pope Francis has insisted in his great encyclical “Laudato Sí” – the animals, plants and the whole living planet itself, now all under threat because of selfishness, greed, and indifference.
Jesus taught us that the measure of our compassion is the mercy we show to others, which is the heart of forgiveness — ‘letting go,” “unbinding.” Today’s gospel underscores this in the story of “Doubting Thomas,” whose disbelief is overwhelmed by a simple, merciful act of kindness. “Come, see. Touch me and believe.”
Death’s strong bands have been broken! That good news could hardly come at a more needed time, enveloped as we seem to be by those very bands – the pandemic, random acts of violence, insurrection, uprisings, accidents, illness, and just the inevitable toll of advanced age. But the faith we celebrate today reminds us that death’s dominion is temporary and incomplete. For Jesus is risen!
We first turn to Mark this year for what may be the earliest of the gospel accounts of the Resurrection – excepting St. Paul’s repeated
testimony. He never tires of preaching it, just as he constantly reminds us how the price paid in the blood of the Cross led to this surprising turn. For no one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. Most of his disciples couldn’t believe it when they heard the news. Were they fearful, slow-witted, or just skeptical, like Thomas in the gospel of John? Mark tells us that the women who went to the tomb to anoint a dead body were so frightened to find it open and the body missing that they fled, telling no one what they had found.
Other, later gospels fill in the rest of the story. The women did not stay silent. There followed a time of confused and conflicting accounts of the details, rushed visits to the site, just as we might expect even today after a wildly astonishing event. But the most astonishing, incredible part was not that the tomb had that had held the dead body of Jesus was empty, but that the women had encountered him powerfully alive in the garden itself. Then two downcast (and slow-witted) disciples meet him late that afternoon on the road to Emmaus and, finally, the cowering disciples suddenly find him in their midst in upper room itself.
And so the world shifted on its spiritual axis, and at least to the eyes of faith has not been the same since. Death’s dominion has been destroyed. But that is not all. It is only the beginning, as Paul reminded his followers so early on in the story of Christianity:
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory” [Col 3:2-4].
Is it less difficult or more so for us to believe all this almost two thousand years later? The world tells us it cannot be so. Skeptics among Christians themselves often grow evasive about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is, after all, much easier and much simpler to think of the resurrection as simply a spiritual event in the minds of his followers, the raising of the memory of Jesus to indelibility because of the power of his message and his courage in the face of an unjust and cruel execution. But how can we account for that unlikely reversal on the part of those cowering fisherman and tax collectors, the fearful women and skeptical (and, yes, slow-witted) disciples? Especially confronted, as they were, by the increasingly bloody efforts of the religious establishment and imperial forces to suppress their message?
Today, two millennia later, the Resurrection continues to empower the faith of Christians just as it did when Jesus himself appeared in the midst of his frightened disciples on Easter night. Jesus still appears among us when we are tempted to lose faith, when church scandals, the lure of money, and the deep fears that haunt our sleepless nights threaten to weaken or destroy our faith. How else can we explain the daily miracles of faith that give us new hope and the will even to begin over again if our marriages go bad or we lose our pensions or our churches burn down or our children die in senseless drive-by shootings or senseless accidents?
“I am with you always,” he said.
So perhaps what those frightened women had cause to fear that morning so long ago was the sudden realization that somehow, despite everything, despite the horror of Jesus’ death, despite the paralysis that drove the Eleven into hiding, despite their own sorrow, doubts, and anxiety, somehow it was — unthinkably, unimaginably, incredibly — true.
Christos anesti! Christ is risen.