Sunday, April 25, 2010

Easter 4

Today’s reading from John’s Gospel
is an echo of Jesus’ longer discourse in that Gospel
about himself as the good shepherd
who lays down his life for his sheep.
Taking up this image, Jesus says
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.”

Some scholars argue that the image Jesus is using here
reflects the custom in the ancient near east
of the members of a village
keeping their sheep in a common pen at night;
when morning comes
and it is time for the shepherd to take his sheep
out of the pen to pasture
he would call them with a distinctive cry
and they would separate themselves
from the other sheep and follow him.

A pretty neat trick, if you ask me.
I can’t even get my dog to come when I call.

In John’s Gospel Jesus uses this image
to indicate how those who are members of his flock
will recognize his call and follow him,
separating themselves from those who do not recognize his call.
It is an image shaped both the concrete situation
in which John’s Gospel was written –
a situation of conflict between the Church,
the synagogue,
and pagan culture –
as well as the perennial call of Christians
to live in a manner that distinguishes them
from the culture and values of the world around them.

Thinking about our own vocation
to hear the voice of Christ and to follow him,
we might interpret this passage as a call
to separate ourselves from a world
that seems in many ways hostile to the Christian faith,
and, in particular, to the Catholic Church.
As we watch the Church and her leaders
pilloried in the press on an almost daily basis
over the scandal of sexual abuse by the clergy
and the cover up of that abuse by Church leaders,
some have suggested that this experience is showing us
that the secular world is out to get the Church
and that now is the time to circle the wagons,
pull up the draw bridge,
batten down the hatches,
leave the common sheepfold
and follow Jesus our shepherd to some place
where we can be free from these attacks.

Let me say that I think it would be a mistake
to take such a lesson from today’s Gospel.
My reason for thinking it is a mistake
is not because I think that there are no people in our world
who are anxious to use the current scandals as an occasion
to settle long-standing grudges with the Catholic Church.
I think some – though probably a minority –
of the current critics of the Church fall into this category.
As the ancient proverb says,
“When you want to beat a dog, any stick will do,”
and in this case the stick is the misdeeds of Catholic clergy.
Nor do I think it is a mistake
because I think that Christians should in no sense
seek to distinguish themselves from the world around them
and its culture and values.
Rather, I think it is a mistake
because Christians should be distinguished
not by their withdrawal from the world into a sheltered enclave
but by the way in which they live in the midst of the world.

Our way of living as those who follow Christ the shepherd
should not be one in which we flee our critics
into the safe haven of self-congratulation or self-pity,
but rather should be a life
of fearless self-scrutiny and on-going conversion.
What should distinguish us from the world
is our ability to hear the truth about ourselves,
no matter who speaks it,
and to repent and reform when needed.
The Christian calling involves
hearing the voice of the shepherd
even in the voices of those who would criticize the Church,
and to follow the shepherd into the new life that is promised
to those who let the blood of the lamb wash away their sins.
In the image from the book of Revelation
of the lamb who is our shepherd,
we see that following the call of Christ
is not a fleeing of the world to a place of invulnerability
but precisely our willingness
to let ourselves be wounded as he was
so that he might heal us.
And we are able to face the truth about ourselves,
to let the truth wound us.
because we believe the promise of Christ:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.”
The recognition of painful truth about ourselves
is the path to resurrection.

Some criticism is unfair and uninformed;
some is even malicious.
But the distinguishing mark of Christians –
both as individuals and as a community –
is not to flee from criticism to some imagined place of safety,
but our willingness to listen for the voice of our shepherd
even in the words of our critics.
Because our willingness to hear
uncomfortable truths about ourselves
grows from our faith
that no one can take us out of God’s hands.
If we are following the voice of the shepherd,
we have nothing to fear from the truth,
no matter who may be speaking it.