THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 29, 2012

 

The Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12

John’s First Letter 3:1-2

The Holy Gospel according to John 10:11-18

 

 

The only sound in the church was the burbling of the water in the baptismal font.  In the late afternoon, the sun, deep in the western sky turned the stained-glass windows vivid as the penetrating rays dappled the church in reds and blues.  As I was wont to do, I sat near the font for vespers, the evening prayer to end the day.  Light played on the water’s surface as the tower bells tolled the Angelus.  These waters are your tomb and your mother.  One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase that has fascinated me from the first time I heard it.

Some may say that the phrase is an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms that the mind struggles to wrap around and to reconcile.  Some, failing to do that would dismiss one part of the phrase or the other.  My choice is to ponder and plumb the depths for meaning.  Sometimes that can be a scary course that surfaces implications difficult and demanding, often implications with which I would rather not have to deal.  The tomb part, the dying, isn’t so bad; the possibility of dying to sin and everything that would separate us from the love of God comforts a troubled spirit.  One can rest there.  It is the birthing part that troubles.  Entering the tomb to die is essentially passive, a letting go.  The community baptized me.  It was done to me.  Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal, the ensuing responsibilities, tremendous.

In the early Church, when adults were baptized, in the course of the Easter Vigil, the elect came to the font’s edge and shed their clothes, ridding themselves of everything that was of their former lives, and naked, they entered the waters to be immersed in them.  Drowning is an apt image.  So is dying.  But then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side, emerging there to be clothed in a white, alb-like garment.  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  That is the birth that goes deeper than putting on as one would a shirt or a pair of trousers.  The new birth results in identification with Christ.  The new life lived is Christ’s own.  The love bond that results is tremendous and will never be broken.

John spells out the implications in bold relief.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ is the only Son of God, the Father’s beloved one.  The baptized are born into that relationship and assume the mantle of God’s beloved.  Perhaps there can be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what that identity means.  The baptized are called to do what Jesus does, called to act in, with, and through Christ, to do all in his name.  What power resides there!  That is what Peter declares as he reminds the leaders of the people that the healing of the crippled man that now incriminates him was done by his power by was done in the name of the Risen One whom they condemned.  Peter says this not to denounce the leaders but to invite them to repent and embrace the Name.

Hear the words of the gospel today.  Jesus speaks of his role as shepherd, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep just as the sheep know him.  The language speaks of intimacy of relationship, reflective of Jesus’ relationship with the Father.  I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  Be vulnerable to those words.  Let them penetrate to the core of your being.  Then hear the conclusion to the declaration: I will lay down my life for the sheep.

Again, not to belabor the issue, we might be comforted to know we are sheep.  Not the brightest of God’s creatures, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden of conscience or responsibility.  They simply follow.  Not so here.  Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and knowing the sheep, at once being both sheep and shepherds.

The language begins to limp.  So let’s speak in clearer terms.  What is your experience of Church?  What is your experience of parish?  What role do you play?  The call to membership is not to embrace passivity.  The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members have shared responsibility.  The faith resides in them.  Members must know each other just as the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father.  The caring for each other must reflect the depth of that knowing.  The members come together to celebrate the sacraments.  It is the community that baptizes.  The members of the community are co-celebrants of Eucharist and not mere passive spectators.  They are called to full, active, and conscious participation.  Passive attendance won’t cut it, if you will.  When you gather with your parish community is the love so strong that you know the others would lay down their lives for you just as you would for them?

Sometimes the evening news doubles as powerful catechist.  The image was of a car in flames.  A fallen motorcycle lay in front of the car.  A group of people, most of them strangers to each other at this point, realizes that there is a young man, the cycle rider, under the car.  No one hesitates.  They move in on the burning car and together they lift it as one of their number stoops down and pulls the man from beneath it, saving his life.  Later, to a person, when their deed was praised, they refused to be called heroes.  They just did what anyone would have done in those circumstances.  Would that were so!

There’s more.  Jesus says: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  Jesus’ call is universal.  His desire is that there be one human family, that all believe they are sisters and brothers in the human experience.  Our sense of responsibility must be universal, too.  No one is outside the pale.  Kenyans and Ugandans are our brothers and sisters.  So, too, are Israelis and Iraqis.  So are those of every family and tribe on the face of the earth.  That’s not easy to deal with, but it is the truth and is our responsibility if we have put on Christ.  That’s what it means to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us.

The gospel concludes with Jesus’ being confident as he moves toward the crucifixion.  Notice that he is the actor and not the passive recipient of the impending execution.  I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.  No wonder the cross, that horrid instrument of torment, has become for us a symbol of hope and life.  Jesus suffered these things and so entered into glory.  So will we if we do the same.

Where will all this take us?  God only knows.  But if we believe that God loves us with the same love God has for Christ, what does it matter?  Hear again what John says in the second reading.  Listen and remember.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  That will happen even if the worst befalls us.  That is the promise.

So it is that often I paused by the font and remembered.  Remembering gives the courage to go on.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

 

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