Fourth SUNDAY of Easter (C) (April 21 2013)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares for his flock. Prayer for vocations

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Acts 13:14,43-52). We must turn to the pagans. This year the first readings for Sundays are from the Acts of the Apostles. The readings are chosen to convey a particular message, but at times are not satisfactorily understood without reference to the larger context from which they are taken. This is true in a special way for today’s reading. The first part of Acts concentrates on the Jerusalem ministry and on Peter’s role. This part has Peter’s discourse on the apostolic preaching, beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist and ending with the crucifixion and resurrection, and, if indicated, with the mission to bring salvation to both Jew and pagan (Acts chapter 10). The second part of Acts is devoted to Paul’s ministry to the non-Jews. This really began at Antioch on the Orontes, with the commissioning of Saul (to become Paul) and Barnabas. They first went to then island of Cyprus, then inland to Perga (in present-day Turkey) and from there to the nearby Antioch in Pisidia. Here in the Jewish synagogue Paul really begins his mission, with a homily paralleling that of Peter (Acts 13:13-41).. Synagogue congregations attracted both ethnic Jews and “God-fearers”, that is pagans attracted by Jewish monotheism and the strict Jewish moral code and conduct, but not prepared to take on Jewish ethnic rules and laws. At the end of the service Paul and Barnabas were invited to address them again the following Sabbath. However, division soon set in. The “God-fearer” gentiles were delighted by the new teaching on salvation without conversion to Judaism. The Jews considered the new teaching incompatible with their tradition and reject it. Paul and Barnabas recall the fundamental principle from Jesus himself onwards that the Gospel message had to be preached first to the Jews. Now that they had rejected, it they recall God’s words to the Servant of the Lord (fulfilled in Jesus) in Isaiah 49:6 that his Servant was destined to be a light for the nations. After being expelled from the territory by Jewish rejection, in keeping with Jesus’ words to his first preachers, according to Luke (Luke 10:11), Paul and Barnabas shake the dust off their feet, as a token that their responsibility to the Jews had ended. They moved on the city of Iconium (modern Konya in Turkey), then at an important road junction. The text stresses the spread of the Gospel among the pagans, who as usual in their new faith were filled joy and the Holy Spirit.

            This reading has a message for any age. One such message is the sense of urgency with regard to the preaching of the Gospel. Christ is the light of the world, and the Gospel message must continue. A second message is that any person, group or nation, that lets its own ideas or way of life, be they old or modern, get between them and the Gospel message will be bypassed. A timely message for once Catholic countries.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 99[100]). We are his people, the sheep of his flock.

Second Reading (Apocalypse 7:9,14-17). The Lamb will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. This is a vision of the final victory of God’s people in heaven, with some of the colourful language and imagery proper to this book. The number of the elect is beyond reckoning, and from all areas and social conditions. They are represented as being in the heavenly Temple, before the throne of God and of the Lamb (the crucified and risen Jesus). They are represented as victorious, in their white robes and with the palms of victory. Their white robes (pure within as well as victorious) are made so by the saving and purifying blood of Christ (the Lamb). In the Jewish feast of Tents Jews joyfully dwelt in tents. God will now be a Tent for them by his overshadowing presence. The redeemed have come through the great persecution — that from the emperor Nero and any future envisaged persecution or trial. By a clash of images the Lamb (the risen Lord) is represented as being their shepherd. He will lead them in heaven to the fullness of life, with past hunger and thirst over for them

Gospel (John 10:27-30). I give eternal life to the sheep that belong to me. This reading comes in John’s gospel after Jesus’ lengthy parable on himself as the Good Shepherd. It comes immediately after discussion with the Jews who fail to understand his message. Jesus is shepherd of his flock, but these are united with him through faith. This gift if faith gives a mutual understanding between Jesus and his own. Jesus’ words are reassuring for believers in him. He is no ordinary shepherd. He has come from God, and has the power to confirm believers in faith in him. His work is the Father’s work. He and the Father are one, one among other matters in their concern for the welfare and the faith of believers in Jesus, and in their power to see them through any difficulty.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares for his flock. Prayer for vocations

1. In the present liturgy this Sunday is devoted to “World Day of Prayer for Vocations”. Not much earlier it was known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The Gospel readings for all three Sundays of the three-year cycle, and the prayers for the Mass, are all about this same theme, Jesus as Good Shepherd. The Gospel readings for all three Sundays are from Jesus’ presentation of himself as the Good Shepherd in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel. The two themes, Jesus as Good Shepherd and prayer for vocations, can be very fruitfully combined. The need of prayer for vocations, and for what particular vocations, can best be understood in the context of reflection on Jesus as shepherd of his faithful flock.

2. A central truth in Jesus as shepherd of his flock is that this flock and the interrelation between Jesus and believers are constituted by faith in Jesus. Without this faith there can be no interrelationship between Jesus and his flock. It is only the sheep that belong to him that listen to his voice. In fact, in his debate on the issue with his questioners, Jesus told them that they do not believe, because they do not belong to his sheep (John 10:26). He had said something similar when referring to himself as the true bread of life: “No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:65).

3. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, stresses the truth that, given faith, no amount of persecution, trials, questioning, can destroy fidelity to him. Both he and his Father will defend his flock, that is, believers in him, against all attacks from outside and from within. The problems concerning faith in Jesus and fidelity to him vary from age to age. In our own day they are manifold, from prevailing doubt in the every existence of God to scandals and weakness in the Church.

4. This all leads to the other theme of the day — prayer for vocations. Jesus himself has called for this –- to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest. Prayer itself is an act of faith in the nature of the Church, Christ’s flock. We should pray for vocations for all the needs of the Church, for vocations to the priesthood, religious life, for lay people versed in the sciences, literature, the arts and in the many callings in which response can be made to the questions and problems endangering faith among the flock of the Good Shepherd.

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