4th Sunday of Easter (C)
While preparing to write today’s reflection, I was struck for the seventh time this week (and the three-hundred-and sixty-fifth time in as many days) by the similarities between today’s church and the early church of the Acts of the Apostles. I am reminded of the theory of “God’s time”, which, for example, might say two-thousand and sixteen years is a nanosecond in God’s time.
Let’s try an experiment with today’s first reading from Acts 13. Enter the story with Paul and Barnabas as they go about their missionary activity. There they are, all fired up and filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking and urging and exciting the crowds with the story of Jesus. So compelling were they that the following week nearly everyone in the city came out to hear them preach. Naturally, not everyone was thrilled with Paul and Barnabas, their message about Jesus, or the throngs of people who came out to hear them, especially since they saw some of their neighbors in the crowd. They objected violently to the whole business and enlisted the help of their wealthy and powerful cohorts to force Paul and Barnabas out of the city. Undaunted, Paul and Barnabas seemed to shrug off the rejection and moved on to the next city to continue their mission.
Now, imagine that a Catholic man went to some small city near Rome and preached on a pivotal yet sparingly administered teaching of Jesus’. He excited and urged huge crowds of Catholics and people of goodwill into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching. So popular and charismatic was this person that the city was filled with people from every corner of the world who hungered to hear his refreshing and restorative words. Almost immediately, some residents became alarmed and objected not only to what they were hearing but to the type of people who it attracted. These opponents contradicted the man, disrespected his wisdom and encouraged their friends from all over the world to do the same. Still, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the man spoke boldly and continued to guide his opponents to a deeper understanding, but their hostility continued to grow. Undaunted, Pope Francis returned his attention to applying Jesus’ mercy wherever he went.
Which leads to today’s very brief gospel from John 10:27-30. Why do some people hear and others do not? If Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” [John 10:14] that would mean that there are sheep who don’t know his voice and therefore do not follow him.
Returning to the story of our fledgling church from the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that in every flock there are some who hear and some who do not.
Organized religion has to take the blame, on occasion, for drowning out the sound of Jesus’ voice. Even if someone desires to hear, human and religious constructs have the capacity to thwart even the most sincere seeker from reaching the level of consciousness that allows him or her to hear Jesus’ voice.
On the other hand, organized religion can take the credit for the deposit of faith from Scripture and Tradition, and the copious writings of the great Theologians which have created a vast bank of spiritual experience to help attune us to the sound of Jesus’ voice.
What religion and theology provide is an opening through which we can learn about God through the wisdom, experience and insights of others. But it is only an opening; our ability to hear is not limited by it. The many names for Jesus (the Word, Savior, Lamb of God, Morning Star, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and so on) provide an example of the various ways we can hear. If only we will listen.
I recently read that to ‘hear” Jesus’ voice—not only the universal truths of which he speaks, but Jesus’ voice—one must discern Jesus’ being, his BE-ing, grasp the nature of Jesus’ connection to God, and be able to name him, Son of God, for example.
This “hearing” is what defines the Christian profession of faith. To affirm Jesus as the I AM is to acknowledge that Jesus, the man, is one with God, not just an exceptionally enlightened Prophet with a profoundly rich prayer life and awesome leadership skills.
But there are many, many followers who love Jesus and want to emulate him, but who struggle with Jesus’ identity as the I AM. For many Christians, this is a cake walk. For others, it is difficult, mind-boggling, and perhaps will require a lifetime of following the Good Shepherd to grasp.
Can we avoid the gate and just climb over the fence to enter the fold? Nope. But, would Jesus, who self-identified as the gate, stand in the way of a would-be follower? Does the gate close to one who lacks absolute certitude but desires to know Jesus? Does Jesus only know the sheep with perfect hearing?
Some would say yes, that this is what Jesus meant when he said “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:14]. But the gospels also tell us that Jesus preferred to hang out with the sinners, probably because they were the ones with the better hearing.
Jesus talked a lot about ears and what people should do with them, but only Mark’s gospel includes a story about Jesus restoring a person’s hearing. [Mark 7:31-37]. My sense is that there were many sheep following the Good Shepherd who hung on his every word but who would not have passed the above three-prong spiritual hearing test, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus also said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [John 10:16].
To put this verse in context, by “other sheep” Jesus was likely referring to the Gentiles, but, returning to our experiment at the start of this reflection we can see that the Gentiles were the ones to whom Paul and Barnabas redirected their missionary action, and that the one flock Pope Francis envisions will be identified by their emulation of Jesus’ mercy.
As for my defense of Pope Francis (who has perfect hearing, by the way), I don’t judge the sincerity of Christians who object to new understandings or expanded interpretations of church teachings and what it means to their practice of the faith, but when that objection seems to be the result of a failure to hear the voice of Jesus and it devolves into disrespect for our Pope, condemnation of others, and division within the church, I feel as if we have gone back to the days of Jesus, or even a few hundred years before since the Prophets also received the same fate.
Perhaps in the next nanosecond of God’s time, we will be able to hear.