Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Easter - "The True Mercy of the Good Shepherd"

by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla

“I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me.”  (John 10:11)

The gospel today is part of the famous Good Shepherd discourse in the gospel of John. Jesus is the sole shepherd of his people.  There is no other shepherd who is the true shepherd, and this is why they know him and follow him if he calls them.  There are other sheep in the sheepfold, but they do not know him and do not follow them.  

But those who recognize his voice he leads to a rich pasture.  Jesus is the legitimate shepherd.  He does not climb over the fence to get into the sheepfold.  He uses no tricks, no illusions.  His purpose in getting into the sheepfold is not to steal or slaughter like the thief or the robber.  Rather he enters by the proper gate, the gate of his own body, the gate which he tells us is himself.

How can he recognize his sheep?  They all have an instinctive sense for the true Shepherd.  Jesus says:  “They will not follow a stranger, because they do not recognize his voice.  Those who are his sheep have a sensitivity, a sensitivity that is acquired from the unique tone of God’s Word.  They recognize its pitch, its song, its melody, its cadences.  And they recognize the Word of God when they hear it, because they know the sound of Jesus’ own voice, who IS the Word of God.  This Word sounds different, completely different from the clanging of purely human world views, religions, ideologies.

When the Word speaks and makes the claim: “I am the way”, “No one comes to Father except through me”, there is a tone that is unique, for it is a unique claim.  All other ways, all other doors are false, they lead to a dead end, literally a dead end.  To the world, to those who refuse to hear the call of the Word, who refuse to recognize the voice of the Savior, this claim sounds like intolerance.  And it is, for it is the divine intolerance for all paths invented by men, which, no matter how well meaning, do not lead to the eternally satisfying pasture, to the Father’s house.  In an age in which tolerance is proclaimed as the supreme virtue, but which often masks a denial of truth, we must in fact be tolerant, for we cannot see into others’ hearts.  We must be tolerant , for we are not the Shepherd, we are not the Door. 

But one must stop at mere tolerance.  This is where the world stops. This is where our kids are taught to stop, at mindless tolerance.  We are urged to look at the many paths available with an open mind and choose one of them, knowing that in the end they are all the same, they all end up in the same good place.  Instead what we should do is to seek the spiritual instinct for the genuine sound of the divine call.  We should beg for this, and teach others to beg for this, to beg God for the musical ability to hear the song of God who sings to us the song of love and to be able to sing it ourselves.

But instead some of us become irritated at the absoluteness of Jesus’ “I am” claims:  I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; I am the Resurrection and the Life; I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Gate.  This has irritated the world ever since Christ uttered these words, for the world contrasts the supposed arrogance of these words with its own doctrine of many paths and thereby of many truths.

But truth is not divisible.  This is shown in the Christian understanding of truth when the truth is seen to be absolute love.  The Good Shepherd will give his life for his sheep:  there is no higher, not even comparable, truth.  How gloriously the Epistle of St. Peter put this:  “By his wounds we are healed”.  The word of the Cross is linked to the Word of the Shepherd.  He meekly endured all manner of humiliation; he bore our own sins in his own body on the Cross.  He did not rise up in anger against the suffering and sin of the world that was imposed upon him, laid on him.  He submitted in obedience. He left everything for his Father to judge. He has healed us. He has given us that instinct to hear his example as the genuine call of God.  He speaks to us from the Cross:  “Look, this is how much I have loved you, this is what the truth is, this is God, this is the meaning for which you seek.”  “For the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  There in the words of the Cross do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  And in that Word are we who are lost, found.  “At one time you were straying like lost sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

This call that is certain, this call that is unmistakable is heard so clearly in Peter’s post-Pentecost sermon as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “Let the whole house of Israel know beyond any doubt that God has made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified”.  There are the words of the Gospel, the words of the Shepherd, the word of the Cross.  They are certain; they are unmistakable.  The words that judge a people, a generation, a world—ah, no, not merely the Jews to whom Peter is speaking here.  These words unmistakably and certainly judge this our own world and this society which flees any sense of responsibility for the horrible mess in which we find ourselves.  These words are directed forever at those who pretend that the violence of terrorism that surrounds us, abortion and euthanasia on demand, an epidemic of drugs and pornography—that all of this has nothing to do with the cry of God from the Cross, the cry that is the cry of sin and death, and which cry is at the same time the song of the love of God. 

Peter, who in a sense is the first Pope, challenges the Jews of his time to recognize and risen Jesus as the Messiah.  And it is the Church today, carried by the Holy Spirit, that must, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, must cut to the heart, through the psychobabble and rationalizations that make the song of the Shepherd so difficult to hear. It is the job of the Church not to comfort the world that wallows in the false comfort of its own sentimental arrogance.  It is the job of the Church, and that includes the hierarchy, to bring the world to the point where they will ask:  “What are we to do?”  This is the place the world must be brought to: it must see in the Church the form of Christ; it must hear in the preaching of the Church, in the worship of the Church, the answer to the question that is the truth.  While affirming the Church’s mission to the poor and dispossessed, the job of the Church is not to ask the world: “What should we do for you?”  The job of the Church is to bring the world to that point, that crucial point to ask of the Church:  “What MUST we do?”  What must we do to turn this around, to stop the moral pollution, the violence, to make sense of our lives, to not die like a dog, the death of eternal meaningless?

There is only one way to do this: to do what Peter did, to do what our clergy must do, from parish priests to bishops to the Pope himself, the successor of Peter:  to preach Christ crucified as the Way, the Truth and the Life, as the only way to what every human being, no matter how dark his soul has become, longs for:  redemption and eternal life.

Mercy—Yes!  But there is no true mercy without the sharp sting of the Truth.

Father Richard G. Cipolla