Fourth Sunday of Easter
7 May 2017
"They were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, 'What are we to do, my brothers?' Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:37-38).
The first reading startles us with the immediate response of the people in Jerusalem to Peter's preaching-it stands in contrast to the presumed way in which many of us regard our faith, even if we truly hold it dear. It is implicit and always there, and in a society that is still largely structured around Judeo-Christian principles it rarely requires us to do anything that would strike our fellow citizens as remarkable.
But not so with these folks gathered for Pentecost (the feast being celebrated in Jerusalem when Peter gives his speech). They are deeply moved, to the point of actually making a religious conversion: "Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day" (Acts 2:41). Would we have done so? Would we have so readily heeded the call to faith in the risen Lord were it the very first time we had heard the call? It is easy to live the faith when it is part of the fabric of our culture and family, but had we stood in the assembly with Peter and the others that day in Jerusalem would we have been among those baptized?
We can only speculate really, no one can say for sure what they would have done in that setting. Nonetheless, thinking of the situation that unfolded in the first reading reminds us of the Good Shepherd whom we meet in the gospel. The same Lord whom Peter proclaimed and in whose name three thousand people were baptized that day in Jerusalem is revealed to us as a shepherd who protects his sheep, "I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture," and as the shepherd who is willing to give everything for his flock: "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:9, 11).
Nowhere in this gospel passage does Jesus say that he will discriminate as to whether his sheep readily accepted him in a moment of dramatic conversion or whether they only recognized him through the habits and ingrained beliefs gained through many years of life. If we are like one of the eager crowd in Jerusalem or a Christian believer of many generations he accepts us all, and guards us as a shepherd guards his flock.
The Psalm speaks of the Lord as a shepherd too, and here "the Lord" as it is spoken by the Psalmist indicates not Jesus but the Father, the Lord God of Israel. Whether in the days of Israel of old or in the time of Christian revelation God always seeks out his children, protecting and guiding them into verdant pastures and leading them to restful waters, no matter how they came to belief.
Some do not like the language in these passages which seems to compare people to sheep in an unfavorable way, as though the faithful are excessively docile or easily led like sheep. Some especially were put off by Pope Francis' remarks some time ago about priests needing "to take on the smell of the sheep". But in the final analysis this parable is not about us but about God, acting in Christ, who is truly our Good Shepherd and faithful Sheep Gate, willing to welcome into his good pasture even those who arrive at the eleventh hour. (622 words)