Homily 2016 Year C Easter 4: Acts 9.36-end; Revelation 7.9-end; John 10.22-30
Today is known in the Catholic Church as Good Shepherd Sunday: the gospel reading is always some portion of St John, Chapter 10, ‘I am the good Shepherd’. Here in the Church of England, it is also appropriately designated as Vocations Sunday, giving us an opportunity to reflect not only on the ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon, but to pray for a clear sense of calling in all God’s people as we participate in ‘God’s work of bringing truth and healing to the world’ (Daniel Hardy).
The gospel reading opens with Jesus sheltering on a cold winter’s day in the walled eastern portico of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a day of celebration, the anniversary of the renewal and rededication of the Temple 200 years before. A group of priests approaches him, putting a question that has long troubled them, and many others to this day: “Are you the Messiah?”
It is clearly not the first time that they have asked it, and Jesus with some impatience tells them that the question has been answered in many ways already, but they lack the eyes to see it. They have cut themselves adrift from the things of God by their stubbornness of heart: they do not belong to Jesus’ flock, and so cannot interpret the clear signs before them. They are, in fact, like those faithless priests who collaborated two centuries before with the Greek conqueror Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, believing himself to be God made visible. It was he who forbade Jewish religious practices, turning the Temple into a gymnasium, so that Jewish men endured painful surgery to disguise their circumcision so that they could exercise naked without shame. Antiochus filled the sacred space with pagan statues, even permitting the sacrifice of swine. This damnable apostasy was like another fall of man, and was reversed only by the courage and tenacity of the priest Mattathias and by his son Judas Maccabaeus (‘the Hammer’), who vanquished the vanquisher and drove from the Temple all his detestable enormities, Dedicating it afresh to the faithful worship of God. In choosing this day for Jesus’ showdown with them, St John makes clear how we are to assess ‘the Jews’ of his own day, and how we must judge those of Jesus’ ‘own’ people to whom he came, yet ‘his own received him not’.
This is in fact part of a longer wrangle that began three chapters and several months earlier, on the feast of Tabernacles, when again Jesus and the priests exchange a series of fairly heated disobliging remarks. The priests condemn Jesus for healing a blind man on the sabbath, in clear disobedience of God’s call and command. He in turn dismisses them as being ‘sons of Satan’, those ‘from below’ who are simply unable to see their God at work. Like the faithless kings of the Old Testament, these are the worthless shepherds who grow fat at the expense of the sheep; earlier in John 10, they are the ‘hirelings’ who run away at the first sign of danger.
These are images and arguments with which we are so familiar that they might fail to grab our attention, until perhaps towards the end of today’s passage, when we hear Jesus assuring the priests that his sheep know and are known by him; he leads his own to eternal life; they will never perish or be snatched away, for he and the Father are one. There are (John would have us see) in Jesus’ healing, liberation and sacrificial love, the distinguishing features of God, revealing an uncut umbilical cord that links him in Sonship to the very heart and nucleus of reality itself.
This is surely a comforting thing, especially if we like to think that our following of Jesus will defend us from every ill in this world, and ensure for us every bliss in the next. But as well as comfort, this description of the sheep as faithful and attentive followers of the Shepherd is also a challenge to us to participate in the life of the Shepherd: if, as Pope Francis reminds his clergy, the shepherds need to be close to their people and ‘smell of the sheep’, then we sheep should also imitate and reflect the concerns, priorities and agenda of the Good Shepherd himself. It is by being immersed in his life through prayer, Scripture and the Common Life of our Church communities that we will be inspired and enabled to follow whatever path is opened before us by circumstance and summons.
This model of learning through imitation and incorporation reflects the experience of those who are robed in white with palms of conquest in their hands in today’s reading from the Revelation. They achieve their victory through the victory of the Lamb, receiving what one Prayer Book Collect calls the “inestimable benefit” of his sacrifice.
In the same way, Saint Peter in his raising of Tabitha from the grave uses the language of Christ’s resurrection to teach that our rising will be made possible through his. He who once said to a little girl, “Talitha, rise up!” now says through Peter, “Tabitha, rise up!” And we all are called (mutatis mutandis and in our own particular back yard) to say the same.
Finding just that particular way through it all is not always the simplest task. It requires an attentiveness to Jesus our Shepherd, and not just the attentiveness of sheep. Another beautiful and compelling image is hidden helpfully in Acts (like a sixpence in a pudding), in the name Dorcas, the Greek version of Tabitha.
St Bede, in his commentary on the Acts, remarks that this name means deer or gazelle. These animals, he tells us, ‘dwell on high mountains and see all who approach, however far away they may be.’ In the same way, we who are Christ’s followers must ‘constantly direct our attention with wisdom to things above,’ while at the same time watch ‘with prudence’ the world unfolding around us. It is in this double attentiveness to God’s graceful call and to the world’s urgent need that our sense of vocation will emerge.
Let us pray that this may be so, and that we may be given grace to follow our Good Shepherd with attentiveness, and to carry out his work with trust in his guidance, that the will of his Father and ours may be done here as in heaven, and that all of creation may know Christ risen, and receive through Christ the victor’s palm.