THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 26, 2015

 

Reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12

Reading from the first Letter of John 3:1-2

Reading from the holy Gospel according to John 10:11-18

 

The only sound in the church was the splashing of the water as it cascaded into the Baptismal Font. In the early evening, the sun, deep in the western sky turned the stained-glass windows into prisms of light as the penetrating rays dappled the walls in reds and blues. It was my custom to sit 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 Regina Coeli. These waters are your tomb and your mother. One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase that continues to fascinate me as it did 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 itself around and to reconcile. Some, failing to do that will dismiss one part of the phrase and retain 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, sometimes 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 and embraced me. Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal and the ensuing responsibilities are tremendous.

In the early Church, when adults were adults were baptized in the course of the Easter Vigil. The Elect came to the Font’s edge and shed their clothes, symbolizing their ridding themselves of everything that was of their former lives. Naked, they entered the waters to be immersed in them. Drowning is an apt image. So is dying. Then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side where they emerged 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 to be lived is Christ’s own. The love bond that results in 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. Perhaps there can be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what the 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 thus living the Priesthood of the Baptized. 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 not by his own power but 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 today’s Gospel. 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 that is 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, but be careful not to be comforted knowing we are sheep. Not the brightest of God’s creatures, I’m told, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden of conscience or responsibility. They simply follow. That is not the case here. Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and of knowing the sheep, thus at one 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 a call to embrace passivity. The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members share 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, 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?

Francis, the Bishop of Rome, as he prefers to be known, from his first moments as pope, calls the church to be a servant church, a church that ministers to the poor, whose shepherds walk in the midst of the sheep, even smelling like them, and getting mud on their shoes. His vision of church is not one of some lording it over others, ruling, as it were, as monarchs or princes. As Francis said, he serves next to, not over others. Just notice the type of people whose feet he washes in the Holy Thursday context. That says much.

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 the realization that there is one human family, that we are all brothers and sisters in the human experience. And realizing that, 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, Iraqis, and Iranians. So are those of every family and tribe on the face of the earth. That is not easy to deal with, but it is the truth and is our responsibility if we have put on Christ. That is what it means to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us.

Every time we gather to celebrate Eucharist it is be more fully transformed into the Body of Christ so that having shared in the meal we may be sent forth to be that presence in the world until all have been fed and all have been embraced by the love of God that comes to us through Christ.

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 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. 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. And remembering I find the courage to go on.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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