On the Fourth Sunday of Easter we are reminded by the Church in the readings that Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and will ascend to his throne in Heaven, did not leave his people unprotected. He left us shepherds. He tells us why in the old testament reading and in the letter from St. John: the Church of Jesus Christ does not conform to the world, and so the world turns against it. It is quite difficult to go about in a world that rejects our fundamental beliefs, and we need shepherds to lead us. They lead us in the right worship practices, they teach and re-teach the eternal truths of our religion, and they steer us away from danger or rescue us when we fall into it by our own decisions.
Leading us in worship, teaching us, and governing us are the three sacred offices of Priest, Prophet, and King. All Catholic priests at their ordination are consecrated with Sacred Chrism, so they can stand in the person of Christ. They are consecrated to those sacred offices of Priest as they offer the sacrifice of the Mass, of Prophet as they teach the faith to the flock, and of King as they make decisions.
Deacons are ordained to service, and we cannot stand in the person of Christ. The priest and the bishop wears his stole straight down to be a reminder of his role as another Christ. Deacons wear our stoles across our chests to be a reminder we were not consecrated but ordained to service.
I bring all this up because when it comes to Good Shepherd Sunday, as a Deacon I have much more in common with you than I do with the priests, the bishops, or the Pope. They are the shepherd, and they work to be good shepherds. Each is accountable to God for how good a shepherd he is. You and I are the sheep, and we are accountable to God as to whether or not we are good sheep. If we make an effort to be better sheep, it helps the shepherd be a good shepherd.
So what do we need to know about ourselves as sheep? And to be a sheep doesn’t sound like something to be proud of. Sheep are not considered intelligent animals. They get themselves stuck and need the help of their shepherd to get unstuck. Yet this is the term Jesus uses to describe his children.
Sheep are hunted by wolves, which Jesus mentions in his story from the Gospel today. Sheep look for safety in numbers, which is why we have flocks of sheep. The shepherd protects the flock because the wolves are always trying to get in and grab one. When the flock gets going in one direction, the shepherd is the one who has to make sure it doesn’t go into danger.
At the same time, sheep sometimes wander away from the flock, where they are even easier for the wolves to get. The hired hand will just let that happen, for he does not really love his sheep. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much he will leave the 99 and go get the one lost sheep.
There are not many sheep in Buckhead these days, so all this might sound a bit foreign to our modern, suburban, ears. But we can look at patterns today where we need the help of our shepherds. Perhaps we can see where we could try to be better sheep, too.
Two of the biggest issues where the shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ are challenged by the behavior of the sheep are sexual ethics and economics. Times change, and social norms change, but the truth of Jesus Christ never changes. We live in society and are affected by it. God asks us not to be affected by society but to change society so it conforms to his timeless truth.
The timeless truth of Jesus Christ is relentlessly pro-life. The church has prohibited abortion and artificial birth control since the first century, and it stands today almost completely alone while modern society has embraced both. Since the Pill was made widely available in 1965, it has been a challenge for Catholics to remain distinct rather than go along with the changing social norms. It takes great courage and great faith to stay with the shepherd when all the other flocks and many of the other sheep in our flock wander away. The shepherds also must have great courage to exercise their teaching office and explain the timeless truth to the wandering sheep in such a way that they can come to embrace it.
Our modern economy has also evolved over the past centuries, and it has become much more efficient. Professional economists praise efficiency and productivity gains because they see economics as a system for allocating scarcity. The Church sees economics as how God’s children will be stewards of their gifts and take care of each other. It does not support productivity for the sake of productivity. It only supports improvements that improve the common good.
The shepherds of the the flock are loving us sheep when they remind us that workers – wherever they may be – are not “human capital” but “human persons.” All human persons, the unborn, the factory worker, the aged dealing with Alzheimers, are God’s children and none should be discarded because of utilitarian reasons. Good sheep listen to their shepherds to hear the word of God in a world that rejects Him.
Our shepherds are not for hire; nobody signs up to be a Catholic priest or bishop, or Pope, for the money in it. They have given their lives over to the service of the sheep, with years of preparation and formation before they are ordained. We see here in our own parish they work well past the normal age of retirement. This is a labor of love, love for God and love for his people.
Our Lord gave us shepherds because he loves us. He asks his shepherds to love his sheep. You and I and all the priests and all the bishops were all made in the image and likeness of God. We are his delight, the apple of his eye. We are his greatest creation, the one which when he saw at the beginning of time he pronounced “very good.” To some of his children, he called them to be shepherds, to give up their lives for his sheep. Love of God, and love of neighbor, are why those men could say “yes” to God’s call. They love God, and they love us, with all that they have and all that they are. Let us love them as they love us.