Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
Today we have the image of shepherds and sheep, with Jesus presenting himself as the saving Shepherd foretold by the prophets. It's about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Though the imagery is old, the message is topical. It is relevant to us here and now. . By faith we accept Jesus, and our relationship is a deeply personal one. The bond of love uniting us is based on the love that unites the Father and Jesus. Our new existence is founded on God's unbreakable love and faithfulness.
In order to reach eternal life we must listen to Jesus and obey him. The alternative opening prayer puts this in practical terms. We need to tune our minds to the sound of his voice. Self-centredness can make us deaf to that inner voice. Easy options can draw us into more comfortable paths than the one he has traced. Pressure to abandon our Christian principles is all around us. But God is faithful and will not let us be tempted beyond our strength. No one can drag us away from him, The Father has entrusted us to his Son. The same God who kept faith with Jesus by raising him from the dead will also raise us by his power.
Paul and Barnabas 'spoke out boldly', and made an impact on their hearers. Sharing our belief in the gospel can be as fruitful now as in apostolic times. All the baptized, particularly after confirmation, are duty-bound to spread the faith as best they can. All of us are in the service of the Risen Lord. But here's a sobering thought: How many evils persist in our society just because good people say nothing and do nothing? A breviary hymn for Eastertide (no.25) spells out what the Risen Lord wants of us: Now he bids us tell abroad/ How the lost may be restored/ How the penitent forgiven/ How we too may enter heaven.
"Good Shepherd Sunday" invites us to think and pray about how priestly ministry the catholic church will fare into the future. In 2018 Ireland the average age of ordained priests is about sixty eight, a statistic that urgently calls for significant change in how we recruit priests for the future, and what is to be expected of them. In an article about this impending crisis, Padraig McCarthy invites us to remember that there is no such thing as a priest-less parish. "There may not be an ordained priest as is the practice at present, but the parish is a priestly people. How will this take flesh in the coming decades? Are there factors which had value in the past which now are an obstacle to the mission of the church? What new model of ministerial priesthood is called for?" McCarthy sets out three questions to be faced by bishops, priests and laity:
1) Who will be the true shepherds in the coming years?
2) How will those shepherds carry out the mission to those outside the fold?
3) What needs to change in the Catholic Church, so that each local community can have a full Eucharistic celebration every Sunday?
My first pilgrimage to Rome included a visit to the Catacombs, the earliest Christian cemeteries in existence. There is some remarkable art in the catacombs, images that are very simple and unadorned compared to the art that would emerge in later centuries. They are very striking just because of their simplicity and directness. An image often found in the catacombs is that of the Good Shepherd, showing a young beardless man with a sheep draped around his shoulders and holding a bucket of water in his right hand. Clearly the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd that we find in today's gospel spoke to Christians from the earliest days of the church.
The shepherd image conveys the personal nature of the relationship between Jesus and his followers; it portrays the close personal care that the shepherd has for the sheep. The shepherd has gone looking for the one sheep that wandered off and having found it, takes it over his shoulders back to the flock . There is a close bond between the shepherd and this one sheep. He knows his own and his own know him, just as the Father knows him and he knows the Father. Jesus is saying that his very personal relationship with his heavenly Father is like the relationship he has with each of us. There is much to ponder there. When it comes to the Lord we are not just one of a crowd, lost in a sea of faces. In a way that we will never fully understand, the Lord knows each one of us by name. He relates to us in a personal way and he invites us to relate to him in a personal way. He wishes to enter into a personal relationship with each one of us. I am often struck by a line in Saint Paul's letter to the churches in Galatia, where he says, 'I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me'. We can each make our own those words of Saint Paul. When Jesus says in today's gospel that, as the good shepherd, 'I lay down my life for my sheep', he is saying that he lays down his life for each one of us individually.
Today is Vocations Sunday. The Lord has a life-vocation for each of us. He calls us in our uniqueness with our particular temperament, our unique identity, the background specific to each of us. Each of us is unique. Parents know how distinct each of their children is. They will give the same love to all; they grow up in basically the same environment. Yet, from a very early age, their uniqueness becomes very evident. From the time of our baptism, we are each called to be the Lord's disciples, to follow the good Shepherd. However, the way we do that will be unique to each one of us. The particular way in which the Lord works through us is unique to each one of us. I can do something for the Lord that only I can do. Each person in this church can do something for the Lord that only he or she can do. Each one of us has a unique contribution to make to the work of the Lord in the world, to the life of the church, and that contribution is just as important as anyone else's contribution. We each have a unique vocation and each vocation is equally significant. Each one of us is vitally important to the Lord. When we each respond to our unique vocation, we give a lift to everyone else. When any one of us fails to respond to that vocation, we are all a little bit impoverished.
The first reading talks about the stone that was rejected by the builders becoming the keystone of the building. There is a clear reference there to Jesus himself, the rejected one. We can all feel at times like the rejected stone, for whatever reason. Yet, we are never rejected in the Lord's eyes. He continues to call us in the way that is unique to us. He sees us as the keystone for some aspect of his work. He recognizes the potential for good that is within us all. On this Vocations Sunday we commit ourselves anew to hearing and responding to the call of the good shepherd.