Fourth Sunday of Easter Year
In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ inclusive message provokes both faith and hostility. Following Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers were suffering persecution and hardship. Faith and hostility often come after Jesus’ inclusive message. Rejection and hostility caused the disciples to reach out to new audiences – moving outwards to new relationships and new ways of engagement. John was reaching out to them Jesus was the good shepherd; that he is trustworthy; that he is willing to give his life for them; and that we can safely follow his voice – "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me" rather than the voices that can very often lead to a sense of hopelessness, despair, or emotional or spiritual trauma in directions not conducive to peace, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and kindness.
When the question was put to Jesus whether he was the Messiah, he Jesus responded, “I told you and you do not believe” immediately before identifying with today’s image because is suggests leading and protecting rather than abusing, dominating, oppressing or neglecting those in his and our care. It includes leading and protecting, not abusing, dominating, oppressing, or neglecting those in our care. It reflects God's vision for a united humanity that follows the way of love acting like siblings and caring companions to those in need in contrast to self-seeking, oppression, abuse of power, and brutalising greediness. Much of this was the criticism of the leaders by prophets such Ezekiel and are equally applicable to many of our political and religious leaders, e.g., the leadership in the Philippines now. Neither is leadership about being a distant saviour or distribution of resources. So despite great distress and division, God has a vision for our world in which every nation, race, people, and tongue are united. It is a vision that first looks for a home in our hearts.
As we commemorate Mother’s Day, we cannot help but be mindful of the many mothers who have lost their children in the ‘war on the poor’ (drug war) in the Philippines, in the ‘war on democracy’ in Myanmar and the brutal war in Ukraine and so many other countries that often do not rate a mention in the media. In many cases the love that has been engraved on the hearts of many mothers has instilled in them a passion to embrace the struggle for the rights of the victims and families that also experience grief and pain. We have many mothers who encourage other mothers to speak up against community violence or neglect of children living with disabilities or the disproportionate impacts on people from Covid 19. For more than two years we have heard how the pandemic was the great equalizer. Unlike us, pandemics and plagues do not discriminate, but we know that though a virus may not discriminate, our society in Australia, the USA, the UK and other places has in fact discriminated.
There is nothing sentimental or pious about the image of Jesus. He speaks through the image of a socially and religiously marginalised person who lives on its lowest rung, who lives on the fringes of society and has endured the hardships and dangers of the wild. The gospel focus however is not on the peripheral perceptions of shepherds but on ‘relationship’ and ‘commitment’ – a preparedness to give one’s life which occurred time and time again with health workers during the pandemic.
Jesus identifies with the vagabonds of society – who listened to him because they heard a different message from him. He led them from stagnation to new life [new pastures]. He took on the risks and dangers of the lifestyle knowing that wolves existed, as they still do as Pope Francis knows in dealing with bishops who oppose his call to inclusiveness, mercy, and justice. We have heard, as we prepare for this Federal Election on May 21, how people in marvelous woollen outfits and make-up try to outsmart anyone who calls us to care, share and be in solidarity with others. The First, or Old Testament presents the one who will shepherd the people when religious and political leaders fail to act justly and lovingly.
Jesus words are of encouragement, empowerment, and responsibility – which people are more likely to respond to. Where is the Shepherd’s voice today that calls us to greater service, compassion, peacemaking, and standing with people left on the margins in society and church? Can we hear the voice of Shepherd through today’s prophets and witnesses? For example, through the voices of children who though labeled as ‘our future’, show they are ‘our present’ in their calls for climate justice. The shepherd’s voice comes through the groaning voices of people left behind and from our burning home – the earth. Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise -- a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.
Jesus has taken on our skin, sweated as we do, faced death and betrayal as many people do today – yet gives himself in love not to a shapeless mass of humanity but to each child, woman and man made in God's image and likeness. This is love enfleshed in caring for every sister and brother who crosses our paths whether likeable or not, attractive, or not, well off or not. More than anything, to love as he did, is to care for anyone who limps, who hungers for bread or justice or love or peace and freedom, who is homeless, who is troubled in heart or tortured in mind and body. In other words, to open our arms to a world desperate for our compassion.
This good shepherd day is not just about Jesus but about us. Little wonder today the Church also highlights ‘vocation’ – how we are in the world. The true leader recognises the struggle and pain of those in their care and speaks out and risks vilification and abuse. Many of us have at different times held the hand of some who has come asking, seeking, wondering if they were truly welcome; if there was a place for them to stand. Here we witness to the breadth and expansiveness of God’s inclusive love and mercy that is empowering and all embracing.
Let us not lament the failures of our churches and leaders. We too are called and sent. As we reflect on God’s beautiful creation and the work before us, we are not alone. We know that God walks with us. We know that Jesus joins with all people and the earth who are groaning. We know the Risen Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion - wounds that are now superimposed on the earth and all suffering humanity. This is a cause for trusting his voice. This is the voice that urges us to follow the paths of goodness and mercy. Let us hear his voice deep within and speak it, live it, and show it.
Abide with us, Great God of relationship and love;
that we may abide in you–
bravely living each day open to new challenges;
fiercely loving those you have given us to care for;
and earnestly seeking in all we do
to seek justice, to love kindness,
and to walk humbly wherever you lead. Amen