On this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus tells us that all who listen to his voice and follow him are his sheep, that the Father has given the sheep into his care, and that they can never be taken away from him. Then he adds, “The Father and I are one.” We may wonder why he suddenly says that he and the Father are one when he has been talking about his sheep? Perhaps he wants to emphasize that no one can take the sheep away from him because he has the same power and authority as the Father. But in speaking of his unity with the Father at the very time when he is talking about holding his sheep in his hand, Jesus hints that we the sheep are also to participate in the union he shares with the Father.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus states this truth more clearly. In his prayer during the Last Supper, he says: “I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). The sheep who follow the Shepherd’s voice are called to become one with him as he is with the Father and the Spirit. St. Paul describes this profound unity using the image of the body; those who follow the Lord make up one unified Body with Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-27; Rm 12:4-5).
We see a picture of what this Body looks like in the second reading. St. John has a vision of a great multitude, standing before the throne of God as one people, worshipping him night and day. This is the Body of Christ in glory. And we are told that the blessed members of this assembly are there because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The Blood of the Lamb of God was shed upon the Cross, as Jesus gave his life for us, in order to give us “eternal life,” as he says in the Gospel. What does it mean that those who have been given a place in the blessed assembly of the Saints in Heaven have “washed their robes … in the blood of the Lamb”? It means not only that they have gratefully and joyfully accepted the amazing gift of reconciliation which Christ won for them on the Cross, but also that these sheep of his flock have followed Christ. This means they have done what he has done. They, too, have sacrificed themselves, died to themselves, in order to join him in bringing new life to others.
This is how God made us, as we read in the Psalm: “Know that the LORD is God; he made us, his we are.” He made us in his own image. He made us to love as he loves. In Christ we can see how God loves, only and always looking for the good of the other, with no thought for trying to get an advantage for self. This is what God “looks” like, and this is what his people who are joined to him look like. This is why Jesus says in the Gospel Acclamation, “I know my sheep, and mine know me.” He knows us and we know him because we look like one another; we think and act like one another.
Of course, in this life we do not live the fullness of this love. We struggle constantly with our imperfections and sin. However, it is important that we learn to see ourselves and others, not as separate, competing individuals, but as members of one Body. When we hear the voice of our Shepherd leading us in this way of love, we strive to follow him, as Pope Francis says in the Spiritual Reflection, “abandoning selfish behavior in order to set out on new paths of fraternity and of self-giving, in imitation of him.”
We see in the first reading the tragic consequences of not seeing ourselves as members of the same Body. Paul and Barnabas have come to Antioch to spread the Good News about Jesus. The week before they had spoken at length about him in the local synagogue. Now, one week later, they return to continue their preaching. They must have made quite an impression in their previous talk, because we are told that “almost the whole city gathered” to listen to them this time. However, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.”
They were “filled with jealousy.” Where does jealousy come from? We are jealous when we feel that someone else is receiving something that we should have instead. In this case no doubt the Jews in question feel that they should be getting the attention which the crowd is paying to Paul and Barnabas. Their primary concern is with their own status in the community. They want to be the ones who are heard. They want the whole city to gather and pay attention to what they have to say. Since they cannot have this, they resort to violently opposing Paul and Barnabas, and eventually succeed in driving these two out of their city.
What a tragic result! Paul and Barnabas have come to give them the word of life, a great gift from God, an invitation to know God and to become part of his Body in a way beyond anything they have ever imagined. But because they will not die to their own self-importance, and they refuse to humble themselves enough to consider that God might be speaking to them through these “outsiders,” they miss out on a very great grace. Indeed, as Paul tells them, if they persist in this way they will “condemn [themselves] as unworthy of eternal life.”
The eternal life they risk losing is what we glimpse in the reading from the Book of Revelation. Everyone in the great multitude of Heaven is united in love, not seeking any advantage for self but only looking to love and serve God and one another. There is no place in that blessed assembly for jealousy, self-centeredness, pride, or self-glorification. Anyone who refuses to love excludes himself from the company of the saints in glory.
These readings are prompting us, then, to examine our own hearts and see if we harbor any jealousy, any pride, any self-centeredness which renders us less able to function as part of the one Body of Christ. Let us humbly ask the Lord to remove these sins from our hearts and grant us the grace to follow his way of self-sacrificing love more closely.
In what ways do I fail to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd because of my self-importance? When and why have I been jealous of someone? When have I failed to be a good shepherd to someone God has placed in my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.