Fourth Sunday of Easter
Let’s face it. We like being in charge. I know I do. It’s in our DNA. It’s our innate drive to determine our own destiny, make our own choices, set our own course for the future, leave our mark on history, make a difference in the world. Well, maybe we aren’t always driven by such grand designs, just the immediate future, even just the next half hour. Ultimately, it’s all about being in control of your own life.
You go to bed when you want to, you get up when you want to. You do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever and for whatever reason you want. No one to tell you where to go, what to say, what to do. You get to hang out with whoever you want, for as long as you want, as often as you want, wherever, whenever … all up to you. That would be sweet, wouldn’t it?
If you’re in preschool, you’re thinking that would be when you ride the big yellow bus to school and get a weekly allowance. If you’re riding the big yellow bus to school and have a weekly allowance, you’re thinking that would be when you’re in high school and have a driver’s license. If you’re in high school and have a driver’s license, you’re thinking that would be when you’re in college and have your own credit card. If you’re in college and have your own credit card, you’re thinking that would be when you graduate and get a job. If you’ve graduated and have a job, you’re thinking that would be when you move away and get your own place. If you’ve moved away and have your own place, you’re thinking that would be when you have a family and a successful career. If you have a family and a successful career, you’re thinking that would be when the kids leave home and you finally retire. If the kids have left home and you’re retired, you’re thinking that would be when you’ve downsized and live on a golf course. If you’ve downsized and live on a golf course, you’re thinking that would be when you stop paying taxes. And you know there’s only one real reason you stop paying taxes.
A huge part of this streak of independence and this drive to make something of ourselves is the knowledge that we’re on our own – scary at first, but always better than the alternative. Yet we rarely find true satisfaction and fulfillment living independent of other human persons. Essentially, we are social creatures. We need to depend on other people. We need to be responsible for other people. We want to be able to share our joys and our challenges. We don’t ever enjoy being alone and disconnected. Most of us like the fact that we have families, friends, neighbors, classmates and co-workers, even if we don’t like them all the time. It helps that there’s more than a handful in each category, to keep us from going totally insane or completely bored out of our skulls. But in each and every instance, we still prefer to be the one calling the shots.
Then we come to church on Sunday and we contradict every self-determining principle we espouse and have tried to live by all week. We tell God the Father we want him to rule our lives, and we want to fulfill his will. We tell Jesus we want to be his disciples, and we want to live by his commandment of love. We tell the Holy Spirit we want to be recreated anew so we leave behind our selfishness, our blindness, and our hardened hearts. We sing a few songs, we drop a buck or two in the collection, we shake a few hands, we receive communion, and we go back to our lives where everything is as we left it, and we’re in control, and there are few surprises.
We are familiar with the iconic image Jesus speaks of in the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, of a shepherd leading a flock of sheep to pasture. “He calls each one by name and they follow him. They recognize his voice. They will not follow a stranger.” We can probably also recite from Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose, he refreshes my soul.” It is a popular psalm. We sing it at funerals all the time. Yet ironically, we do not always welcome the shepherd we claim to follow. We like the visual. But its meaning often fails to resonate within us. The shepherd calls us by name. He did so at our baptism, and he still calls us each day to repent and believe the good news. He calls us to suffer and die to our sins, and rise to the new life of grace. He challenges us to forgive those who sin against us as we ask forgiveness for our own sins. He reminds us we are children of light and of the day, that we keep our baptismal garment unstained until his return, that we keep careful watch for we know not the day nor the hour.
But do we truly recognize the voice of our shepherd? Have we not preferred at times to follow strangers when their message can be so much more attractive? Look out for number one. Whoever has the most toys, wins. Eat, drink and be merry! Everyone gets what’s coming, so keep your eye on the prize. Look good, feel good, whatever it takes. It’s a dog eat dog world, every man for himself. Hasta la vista, baby. Don’t we sometimes argue that Christian discipleship shouldn’t be so challenging all the time, that Jesus doesn’t really want us to renounce all our possessions, and hate our parents and family, and forgive our enemies, and turn the other cheek, and rid our hearts of pride and jealousy and lust?
In the first reading, Peter reminds his listeners that “God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Perhaps we are not always mindful that we continue to crucify him … when we take back what we promised at our baptism, when we rejoice in deeds done in darkness, when we harm the Church which is his body by our divisiveness, when we oppose his Holy Spirit by returning to our false gods and our lack of faith. Peter’s listeners are moved to ask, “What are we to do?” They are not fixated on themselves and their sinfulness. They are looking for real answers. We should be asking the same question, “What are we to do?” “Repent and be baptized,” he tells them. We’ve been there and done that, but we are still listening to the voices of strangers, and following them. Perhaps we should do differently than we have been doing, and not keep returning to our former ways. Perhaps we should listen more attentively to the voice of our shepherd, and seriously heed Jesus’ message of reform. We want to affirm him as our shepherd, so we need to listen to those whom he sent to teach in his name. The message we hear should challenge us to grow, to embrace the cross and discipleship, to become more like Jesus Christ. We ask that he heal our wounds and give us his life in abundance. But unless we are serious about letting him shepherd us, it is because we do not really trust that his care for us is genuine. So we hold out for the voices of strangers who tell us what we want to hear. He is the gate of the sheepfold. All others come only to steal, to slaughter and destroy.