The Fourth Sunday of Easter [C]
Acts 13:14,43-52 + Revelation 7:9,14-17 + John 10:27-30
April 17, 2016
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. This name stems from the Gospel passage for today.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He left the paradise of Heaven to seek out and save us who are lost sheep, who have mired ourselves in our sins. The entire Season of Easter is about celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death. But on this Fourth Sunday of Easter in particular, we reflect on what this means for you and me on a daily basis. We Christians, although justified in the Sacrament of Baptism, continue throughout our lives to stray from God. We need the Good Shepherd.
In our own time, Pope Francis has said that he wants to shepherd Jesus’ Church with the help of Lady Poverty. This Sunday, on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Scriptures from Mass help us to reflect on what this demands from us.
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“Know that the Lord is God; / He made us, His we are; / His people, the flock He tends.” We heard these words proclaimed in the Responsorial Psalm, which comes from Psalm 100. Usually we don’t think of a shepherd as having “made” “the flock He tends.” A shepherd might be involved in bringing together the ram and ewe that actually “make” sheep, but how could you say that a shepherd “makes” his flock? But that’s what the Bible says, both in Psalm 100, as well as in the 23rd Psalm, which of course is all about the Good Shepherd.
The unusual fact that this Shepherd “made us” reveals our destiny, which is a loftier destiny than most sheep. For your average sheep, its destiny is to provide wool, mutton, and milk. The sheep is a means towards protection from the elements and nourishment. But it’s foolish to think of us as sheep along these lines, because God needs neither protection nor nourishment. So that begs the question: why are the images of the Shepherd and His flock fitting to describe God and us? What are we for? Why did this Shepherd make us?
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Here is why this Good Shepherd made us. “For His Name’s sake” He made us: for His sake, not for our own sake. He made us for His life in Heaven, not for earth. Unfortunately, too often, you and I not only live in this world. We live for this world, and for ourselves, as well. The imagery of the 23rd Psalm evokes the reality of God’s life in Heaven: “green pastures”, “still waters”, a table prepared by the Lord, and a cup that “runneth over”.
There’s a stark contrast between the natural differences between God and us fallen sinners, and the tender intimacy that the Shepherd has for, and wants for, His flock. This is a closeness that we don’t deserve, but that the Shepherd desires for us. The Good Shepherd will go to great extremes for His flock. He will give up His life for His sheep. In the same chapter that today’s Gospel passage comes from, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd… just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” But Jesus will do even more.
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In today’s Second Reading from the Book of Revelation, we hear our parish’s patron saint—St. John the Evangelist—describe one of his visions. He points out that “‘the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water’”. In fact, three times in today’s Second Reading—and forty times in the entire Book of Revelation—the word “lamb” is used by St. John. But in this sentence from today’s Second Reading, he uses this word in an unusual way. This “lamb” is also a “shepherd”: “‘the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water’”.
This “lamb”, of course, is the Risen Jesus. This lamb is our Good Shepherd, the God who chose not only to become man, but also to offer His Body and Blood along with His soul and divinity on the Cross… for you. This crucified and risen God-man is a sheep like you, but also your divine shepherd. The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd are one and the same person.
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This is where we need to reflect on the differences between poverty and wealth. This crucified and risen Jesus wants to lead us along the way of poverty. This crucified and risen Jesus also teaches us what we need to know about true wealth. Ask yourself: what types of poverty did Jesus possess on Calvary? What sort of wealth did He possess? Or, to ask the same questions in other words, for whom was Jesus living on Calvary? For whom was He dying: for Himself, or for others?
When we allow Jesus to lead us into biblical poverty, we enter into true wealth. But if we don’t recognize biblical poverty for the gift it truly is, we not only won’t be likely to seek biblical poverty, but we won’t find true wealth either.
So: what is biblical poverty? It’s not destitution. Destitution is never a good. In fact, the Church asks her members to alleviate destitution as much as possible through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. On the other hand, biblical poverty does not demand taking a vow of poverty like consecrated nuns or monks who may not receive a paycheck. A vow of poverty can be a very great good, but it’s not asked of ordinary lay persons. But biblical poverty is demanded of every Christian.
So: what is biblical poverty? Is it the same thing as the “poverty of spirit” that Jesus preached about as the first Beatitude? Is biblical poverty something exclusively spiritual, so that you can bear it regardless of whether you have ten dollars in the bank or ten million dollars? If biblical poverty does relate to one’s material possessions, does biblical poverty demand the giving up of material goods, or merely detachment from them?
The best and way to see an illustration of biblical poverty is by looking at the lives of the saints. These men and women—laypersons, religious, and clergy in every century from the first to the 21st—are those St. John the Evangelist is describing in today’s Second Reading. His vision is “of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” In the Apostles’ Creed we profess this as the “communion of saints”. The life of the Church in Heaven is the focus of the entire Book of Revelation. In today’s Second Reading from that book, we hear how “the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd” this communion of saints. “One of the elders” observes that these saints “‘are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” These are the ones who have entered into the poverty of the crucified and Risen Jesus during their lives on earth.
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There are many canonized saints who were religious sisters or brothers before they died and joined that “great multitude” in Heaven. These saints lived their earthly vocation by means of a vow of poverty, never—after taking that vow—accepting any money in her or his own name, or owning any personal possessions. Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the best examples of this type of saint.
But other canonized saints were married lay persons with families, careers, and some measure of personal wealth and possessions, just like most of you. These saints never took vows of poverty, but they did live their lives according to “biblical poverty”. One of the best examples of this is Saint Thomas More.
Thomas More was a husband and father, and this vocation was more important to him than anything else in the world. He served his country as the Lord High Chancellor of England—which is to say, he was the King’s right-hand man, holding an office similar to the Secretary of State in our nation. At the same time, he possessed much that the world had to offer. He personally possessed great material wealth, owned a huge country estate, and had many servants. And yet, in the midst of all his possessions, he lived biblical poverty. Perhaps that sounds like a confusing contradiction. But consider its source.
The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament was the source of Thomas More’s moral and spiritual strength. Seven days a week, St. Thomas rose at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. in order to spend several hours in prayer, before participating at Holy Mass seven days a week, before beginning his workday when required. He participated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass seven days a week in order to draw from the poverty of “‘the Lamb [of God] in the center of the throne’”. St. Thomas knew that life as a Christian was not meant to be about oneself, but about others: the many others who are neighbors, and the Other who alone is our God.
Here we see the heart of the sacramental life of us Catholics: in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Good Shepherd becomes the Lamb of God who was slain, in order to protect and nourish us, His flock, by means of His Body and Blood, soul and divinity. This is biblical poverty. We hear this in the Easter Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer that I’ll pray in a few minutes. In that preface, the priest declares to the Father: “By the oblation [that is, the offering up] of his Body / he brought the sacrifices of old to fulfilment / in the reality of the Cross / and, by commending himself to you for our salvation, / showed himself the Priest, the Altar and the Lamb of sacrifice.”
Consider that same biblical poverty in a more concrete form, by reflecting briefly on the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More. At the height of his life on earth—at least, as viewed from a worldly perspective—he was a wealthy man, and he did not renounce his wealth—nor did he need to renounce his wealth—to live biblical poverty. Because he practiced biblical poverty throughout his entire adult life, when Thomas More refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England, the king first took from him his office, and then gradually his material wealth. But that affected Thomas’ spiritual life not one single bit. For him, the source of his real wealth lay in Jesus Christ, and Thomas’ riches came from continuing to live for others and for the Truth, until he himself, as a lamb, was led to the scaffold, to be rewarded with martyrdom.
Compared to St. Thomas More, you and I live very ordinary lives. But we have at least two things in common with him (and if you’re married and have children, also a third). The first is being called to live biblical poverty, which is the ability to use your wealth as a means to serve others. This results in (a) not being attached to the wealth one has; and (b) not being imprudently concerned about having enough money. The second thing that we ordinary Christians have in common with a wealthy saint like Thomas More is the source from which to draw the strength to live biblical poverty. That strength is our Good Shepherd, who became the Lamb of God in order to take away the sins of your life, and who calls you to the wealth of His Supper.
 John 10:14-15.