4th Sunday Easter B (John 10:11-18)
In today's Gospel, Jesus speaks of the qualities of a good shepherd, and he lays claim to being the good shepherd. The good shepherd is always ready to give up his life for his sheep. The shepherd is the protector and the one who knows each one of his sheep and the sheep know him. I guess it’s reassuring if you’re a sheep to have such a shepherd. And here we are, his disciples, being compared to sheep. This is a familiar biblical analogy. Prophets and poets often used it. Isaiah tells us: "We have all gone astray like sheep." All through the Bible, people are compared to sheep, not a very flattering comparison. Sheep are not noted for their intelligence, or their strength, or their speed, or any other qualities we admire. Maybe they do need a protector like a good shepherd.
Some creatures have the ability to find their way home. Dogs do, cats do, pigeons do. But not sheep. Take them away from the fold and they will wander aimlessly. If they get home it will be by accident. Sheep need a shepherd to take care of them or they won’t survive. I don't like this biblical analogy. I'd rather be compared to a lion. "Look at him; he's as strong as a lion." He’s strong and courageous. "Look at him; he’s just like a sheep." It would mean easily led, not having a mind of his own, just going along with the crowd. Being a wimp! A lamb would be a little better. That would mean gentle.
Sheep is, however, what Jesus called his disciples. "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." What does this mean? From his side, it means that he loves his disciples and is committed to their care for time and eternity. From our side, it means that we’re vulnerable, we can be easily hurt. This may not be flattering, but it's true. We can be easily hurt, and perhaps have been. With skinned knees in childhood, or pets that ran away. In adult years, it’s broken relationships and broken hearts, and ruined reputations, and faded hopes, and unfaithful friends, and unfruitful efforts. We sometimes come out of the machinery of life battered and broken. Jesus knew of what he spoke when he called us sheep. We’re vulnerable. So what do we do with it?
First, accept it. We’re like sheep, but we often act as if we weren't. We swagger through life as if everything is under control. We’re big, and strong and tough. Come what may, we can handle it. No challenge is too great. The illusion of control. We are unhurtable. If we ever got to the place where no one could hurt us, or we couldn’t fail, we wouldn’t be real men or women.
Secondly, another thing we can do with the reality of our sheep likeness is to share it. Sheep are gregarious. They live in flocks and don't go it alone. For some reason we, like sheep need each other. When we’re surrounded by family and friends who are also vulnerable, we don't have to hide it any more and we can become more trusting of others. Perhaps this is a reason for coming together in the community we call church. When Jesus said "My sheep," he was talking about you and me. Jesus as shepherd has also experienced the role of sheep. He was vulnerable, even unto ridicule and death. He understands our pain because he’s been there. He’s felt the same pain. In our prayer we can ask him to remember, and we don't have to do a lot of explaining. So let’s cast our cares upon the Lord Jesus, the good shepherd. We can trust him to hold us gently and firmly in the hollow of his hand.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
3rd Sunday Easter B (Luke 24:35-48)
We occasionally hear about the work of some con artist. Perhaps we may have been bilked ourselves at one time. A con artist is a person who steals without the use of a gun. His method is to win peoples' confidence and then cheat them out of their money or something else they want. We often get spammed on our email, sometimes even by a con artist. Phone solicitors may call, especially at dinnertime. Not all phone solicitors are con artists, but the best defense against this kind of overture is to develop a healthy skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
The Gospels, however, call for the opposite approach. Here we’re challenged to believe in what seems to be too good to be true, the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel slogan might be, "In God's world, nothing is too good to be true." But believing isn’t easy. Just watch the disciples struggling to believe that Jesus is alive and risen from the dead. Luke's Gospel tells us that the disciples were together somewhere in Jerusalem. Jesus suddenly joined the group. And the disciples were frightened out of their minds. They thought they were seeing a ghost. This seems to be a strange reaction, since Jesus had already appeared to Peter, and Peter told the disciples about his experience. Jesus appeared also to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they were sharing that experience, when Jesus appeared again. Why did they think that Jesus was a ghost? Perhaps it was because the real Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus, was just too good to be true. Nothing that good ever happened to them in their entire lives. They were stuck with low expectations. It was hard for them to believe in such an extraordinary expression of God's love for them, a new life and hope promised by Jesus, their friend. And low expectations may be true of us as well.
One reason for this difficulty in believing may be a sense of our own unworthiness. It's hard to believe in the best when we know the worst about ourselves. All of the disciples had failed, Peter most of all. He had boasted shamelessly of his courage and commitment and his loyalty to Jesus. But when the chips were down, Peter failed just as Jesus had predicted. And he was so ashamed of his betrayal that he went out and wept bitterly. How could he expect the best when his own heart was filled with self-blame and remorse?
On a lesser scale, something like that has happened to all of us. We have failed and we know it. What then gives us the right to expect the best from life? Just to get by would be enough, and we’d settle for that. The good news in all of this is that God doesn't deal with us on a basis of merit. God never has. When things go wrong in our lives, usually the first question we ask ourselves is "What did I do to deserve this?" When things go right, we may ask the same question. God doesn't dole out good gifts to those who deserve them. We don't merit God's grace and love; we don't have that power. For our God is passionately in love with us, as Jesus came proclaiming, and living, and suffering, and dying and rising from the dead for each one of us.
Our Gospel tells us that Jesus showed the disciples his badges of identity, his wounded hands and feet, his badges of authentic, astounding love for each one of us. And then, the disciples were incredulous for sheer joy and wonder. And Jesus shows his wounds of love to us and that joy and wonder are Jesus' gift to each one of us, as we gather to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
2nd Sunday Easter B (John 20:19-31)
I'm often overwhelmed by promises as I thumb through the ads in our national magazines, watch TV commercials, and listen to politicians defending party platforms that may be glib, or meaningless, or deceptive. Promises of health care reform, clean energy, support of a limping educational system, ending the unemployment rate in our country, prompt the bombardment of promises. Promises are enticing. Significant tax cuts will solve our financial woes. Increased national security will protect us infallibly from terrorist attacks. Struggling airlines can get us to exotic places at the lowest cost in years. Promises, promises, promises!
What really promises us happiness and fulfillment and real peace? What truly fulfills our dreams of a better life, without worry and anxiety? In today's Gospel, Thomas has the answer, faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. This faith comes not through seeing and touching, but rather through hearing the saving, life-giving message of Jesus Christ, growing in a deeper personal knowledge of him, and committing ourselves to him and his saving mission in the community of believers. In this we experience that great gift of peace which Jesus so freely gives. We are touched by God’s mercy which comes to us through the loving heart of Jesus.
Thomas is very much like ourselves. He fails to understand what he hears and he needs to be shown concrete evidence. Seeing is believing for Thomas. Fittingly, the name Thomas, Didymus, means "twin," and we are indeed his twin, you and I, for his skepticism is our skepticism, and his doubting is our doubting. The other disciples kept telling him, "We have seen the Lord." And Thomas' typical skeptical response was "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” However, when Jesus appeared the second time to the disciples with Thomas present, Jesus said to Thomas: "Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” In the power of Jesus' presence, Thomas proclaimed: "My Lord and my God."
We too who are Thomas' twins know his confusion and his struggle to believe, in our wrestling and searching about the meaning of life, and our quest for authentic peace. There are times when we may struggle in our confusion about broken relationships and perhaps divorce, about personal insecurity and self doubt, about illness, and unemployment, and poverty, and ultimately, death. Yet in the power of the risen Lord Jesus and his Spirit, we too can cry out with Thomas, "My Lord and my God." Faith comes not through seeing and touching but through hearing, hearing the life-giving Word of God proclaimed in the midst of the Church, and in the way we live our lives in relation to each other, in our sharing and our loving.
As Church, we are a people listening in faith to the teaching handed down to us by the apostles, hearing of the astounding, healing love of our Lord and brother, Jesus. We are one in fellowship, caring compassionately for each other's needs, and reaching out beyond our Church to the world as healers and life givers for others. Dissatisfied with empty promises, we gather regularly at the Eucharist to share in the body and blood of the Lord who sustains the life of our community and nourishes the spirit that God has placed within each one of us. In this is our peace; in this is our happiness. Peace be with you. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Easter Sunday (John 20:1-9)
More people go to Mass on Easter Sunday than on any other day of the year. Some who go haven’t gone since last Easter, and many who go only irregularly make a special effort to be present on this day. The result is that sometimes there’s standing room only. I wonder why this large attendance happens. I think that this day has a grip on our hearts. How can we explain this grip, this strange hold that Easter has on our hearts?
I suspect that it’s rooted in the temporary nature of our lives. Nothing human lasts very long. We see ourselves here today and gone tomorrow. People have populated this planet in the billions. All of us have lost friends and relatives over the years. The question arises, “Does death have the final word on everything?” Our minds revolt against that. Our dictionaries have words like “permanent,” “enduring,” “eternal.” (lifetime warranty, or at least, extended warranty on cars or appliances). Our minds rebel against the thought that all will come to an end, that nothing is permanent, that death is the end of life. We long for something that endures. And that longing is part of the reason Easter has a hold on our hearts.
Our love for people is another part of the Easter hold on our hearts. Mary Magdalene was at the tomb “while it was still dark.” She came to anoint the body of Jesus with additional spices. Why did Peter and John race to the tomb in the first gray hours of dawn? These friends of Jesus weren’t thinking in terms of common sense. A dead body is just a dead body. They were motivated by love. Even though Jesus was dead and gone, they couldn’t stop loving him.
These same thoughts and feelings lie at the heart of our Easter faith. We don’t stop loving people just because they die. Our concern, of course, goes beyond the physical bodies that have been buried or cremated, or returned to the dust from which they came. They had personalities; they were unique creatures made in God’s image. It has been said that “There is a sniff of immortality about our love for one another.” Our Easter faith is deeply rooted in that.
Those who came to the tomb had broken hearts at the death of their friend, Jesus. It not only broke their hearts, all their hopes were destroyed. Then on the third day, they discovered that he was alive again. And this time he was alive forever. The resurrection was an answer, not to selfish fears, but to unselfish love. Death had no dominion over him, and life made sense again, and hope returned.
St. John Chrysostom in the 5th century spoke to this in his powerful Easter sermon: “Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen and life is liberated! Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and power forever. Amen!”
This is why this Easter day has such a firm hold on your heart and mine. He is risen indeed! Let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia!
Al Grosskopf, S.J.