Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter
Year B: Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (12:30 Mass in English)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
In the gospel readings during Easter time, we follow how the risen Lord establishes the Church as his way of always being present in the world. It is therefore no coincidence that we in today’s gospel passage listened to Jesus’s speech about himself as the good shepherd; and, in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, to a homily of St. Peter where he, quoting today’s responsorial psalm, concludes what the good shepherd ultimately brings about: the fullness of salvation. All framed by the second reading from the First letter of St. John, reminding us how this is the revelation of God’s love.
Israel’s prophetic tradition foretold the Messiah, God’s elect appearing in the last days, as a shepherd gathering not only the scattered tribes of Israel but all peoples of the earth under Yahweh, Israel’s God, the only God. The role model is king David, himself once a shepherd, who called the Lord his shepherd in the famous, consoling poem of Psalm 23. The prophets also foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, re-establishing the Davidic kingship now turned into an eternal reign.
What Jesus adds to this understanding of, or finally reveals about, the Messiah Shepherd, is that the Messiah is God in person. We heard Jesus underlining his mission to take his sheep, i.e. the Jewish people, and unite them to “other sheep … that are not of this fold”, i.e. all the Gentiles, the non-Jews, into “only one flock” with “one shepherd”. Thus, he describes the Church. Believers in Christ at all times, from all places, are his flock, adopted children of God through baptism, the greatest gift from God after the gift of life itself. And Jesus Christ is our supreme Shepherd, meaning that from him, the spiritual authority of other shepherds is derived. Shepherds he ordains in the Church through his Spirit.
This becomes concrete later on in the same gospel, John 21, where Jesus puts St. Peter into a leading shepherd office, by three times exhorting him: “Feed my sheep”. Peter is given a share in the shepherd task of the Messiah through becoming united to Jesus in faith, self-giving love and service. Then the voice of Peter becomes the voice of Jesus. The flock follows not Peter but Jesus, who through Peter exercises leadership of the flock at all times; i.e. through Peter’s office, what we today call the Pope, when its holder speaks in full connection with the Church’s Apostolic tradition. Full participation in the flock, i.e. full protection and nourishment from the shepherd for the eternal salvation, thus requires full communion with Peter and his successors.
Because Jesus Christ is the one shepherd over all the flocks of the earth, his first vicar, St. Peter, tells us in the first reading that Christ is the one and only saviour; his name being “the only one by which we can be saved”. If this makes us feel awkward, related to contemporary slogans about “inclusiveness” and “non-judgementalism”, it is completely in order. Jesus Christ is not one of many wisdom teachers, mystics or peace prophets. Rather he is the incarnate Son of God, the one who speaks and acts in the very person of God, i.e. from a divine nature. And therefore, what Peter says is true: Only in Jesus Christ we can find the fullness of salvation, i.e. communion with God that God offers to all human beings, as Christ is God united to his creation. This is what Jesus says about himself, like e.g. in today’s gospel. This is the Christian truth claim. It does not exclude that elements and pieces of that fullness could be on offer in other religions and philosophies. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the “rays of light”, dimensions of truth, available in all great world religions, and also claims that a non-believer who follows his or her conscience, i.e. seeks the objective truth, can be saved. Please note the “can be”, not “will be”. It is fully up to God.
All elements of truth present in other religions and philosophies, or in the conscience seeking objective truth, indeed participate in the fullness of truth found only in Christ. They are on their way, as it were. But they are, from all God has revealed about himself to humanity, not there. Therefore, St. Peter’s declaration is universally valid: there is no salvation through anyone else than Christ. The fact that this makes us feel awkward in the calm security of the pew, tells us that Peter’s and the Church’s declaration indeed is true and that we can do better in proclaiming it to the world.
The Christian truth claim is also that God has given each one of us the freedom to affirm and respond to the fullness of truth or not. The freedom not to affirm the fullness of truth, while still remaining loved and respected by anyone who affirms it; that is also unique with the Christian claim of truth, important for the philosophical understanding of the equal dignity of every human person and human rights as necessary, basic elements of our natural, human communities seeking the common good in time.
What the early Church of the Acts of the Apostles teaches us to do is this: With respect for everybody’s right to respond freely, and through words and deeds combined, but without compromise or hesitation, offering the fullness of truth to the world – Jesus Christ, the good shepherd for all people, who gave his life and got it back, for our eternal life, and therefore is the only one that can give us a share in God’s divine life. All starting already here and now, as he freely and supernaturally gives himself to us in the Holy Eucharist, the closest to God we can come, remaining in our natural world. Amen.