Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
3rd Annual Men’s Conference – 4th Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2017
What an incredible gathering! What a great day to celebrate our faith in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead! What a powerful sign your presence is to our world as we resolve to live that faith as followers of Jesus!
The gospel just proclaimed for the fourth Sunday of Easter is taken each year from chapter 10 of Saint John’s gospel: Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” discourse. In today’s passage, Jesus talks about a sheepfold, of all things – the enclosure where sheep were kept at night. Sheepfolds were generally formed by a wall of loosely piled stones. In the wall was a single, narrow opening and the “gate” at that opening was none other than the shepherd himself. At night, he would sleep in the middle of that opening. Any sheep wanting to wander out or any thief trying to get in would have to go through the shepherd first. In short, the shepherd was on the ground – literally – as the first and final guardian of the particular flock of sheep given to his oversight and care.
In a rather graphic way, what becomes clear from today’s gospel is that the work of shepherding is hardly some idyllic, romanticized effort. Palestinian shepherds were held absolutely liable for every single sheep entrusted to their care. “Good” shepherds, who were motivated by a sense of responsibility rather than money, considered it a matter of honor to lay down their lives for the sheep in their charge, taking on very kind of wild beast and marauder in defense of the flock.
When we reflect upon such qualities of a “good” shepherd, the significance of this metaphor for Jesus and ultimately for all of us becomes pretty obvious. Jesus vowed to lay down his life for his “sheep” – the people of God. We, in turn, as his followers, are called to do the same for the people entrusted to our lives and to our care.
The impact of the metaphor is all the more significant, however, when we recognize the context in which Jesus shares this imagery. In the verses that immediately precede the “Good Shepherd” discourse, Jesus confronts the Pharisees – the religious leaders of his day and age who, in so many respects throughout the gospels, had lost their way. … They typically placed heavy burdens upon the shoulders of struggling souls who were looking for a way forward in life through faith. … They did battle with sin by literally casting stones at public sinners while refusing to acknowledge their own inabilities to follow the laws of God. … And they self-righteously challenged the very mission and message of Jesus, claiming to possess all knowledge of God while being unwilling to allow room for the revelation of God that was being poured forth into their world through Jesus.
In short, Jesus holds up the actions and attitudes of the Pharisees as a challenge to both religious leaders and all individuals who, in their – and our – self-consumed and self-centered ways, fail to recognize Jesus and to embrace the gospel he proclaimed. … Sadly, the Pharisees set themselves apart, over and above those who were given to their care. … Jesus, on the other hand, using the selfless image of the “good” shepherd, comes close to his people, taking on human flesh. He offers hope by giving himself to us and to God, his Father, on the cross. … In familiar terminology, Jesus took the high road: not returning insult, not threatening, but submitting to those who judged him unjustly. He loved unconditionally. He served to the end. And he forgave in his last breathes on the cross.
Herein, my brothers, we discover the mystery of God’s plan to battle the forces of evil and to win salvation for us all. Jesus leaves us – his followers – a model of selfless, sacrificial, forgiving love – a “new” standard of love that transcends legalisms and measurements, that renews and re-creates all human relationships, that enables us to see through the most Godless and secular world view into the heart of God and his plan for our lives.
The challenges facing us as Christian men could not be greater. Yet, we can’t simply gather here today and smugly point a finger at the world around us as the focus of our concern and disdain. The real battle that we’re called to wage is less with our world and its skewed value system and far more with ourselves and how we understand what it means for us to be authentic followers of Jesus.
As a starting point for that understanding, we need to acknowledge that all of life comes together in Jesus’ cross. God could have chosen to relate to his creation in any way he wanted. Yet he chose to relate to it – to us who are made in his very image and likeness – through his son Jesus, who took on human flesh and substance. And he chose to have Jesus carry a cross so that we, in our suffering – pain – and grief might discover a God who understands, because he too carried a cross – a God who reminds us that we do not suffer alone – a God who assures us, that, like Jesus, our crosses, carried in faith, give way to life and resurrection.
And what underlies this motivation on the part of God to relate so intimately to his creation – to me and to you? Love – an utterly pure and generous love. He doesn’t love us because we have somehow merited his love. God loves us simply because that is his nature. He loves us to the point of suffering and dying. The cross – the central image and the focus of our lives as Christians – becomes the supreme proof of God’s love for us and the measure of our love for one another. … You understand this reality as you fiercely love and care for your families.
The focus of this year’s conference coincides with the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of our Blessed Mother to three young peasant children in Fatima, Portugal. We entitled our conference, “Mary’s call to battle!” And we surely do face a battle in our world and in our lives.
Yet, our battle against the evils of this world and the sin that still abounds in our lives will never be won by waging wars of hatred and discrimination or by self-righteously casting stones upon lives that are already broken and wounded. Our greatest weapons will be found when we have the courage to peer deeply within our lives – to face our own sinfulness – to admit our powerlessness – and to acknowledge our need for God. Then and only then will we be able to effectively confront the forces of evil in our world – because we’ve first come to know them ourselves and have overcome them with the armor of righteousness born of God.
When I think of the example of Mary, there are two phrases that she offers in the scriptures that set her apart in all of salvation history as both a model of faith and discipleship. … The first phrase comes in Saint Luke’s gospel, following the news proclaimed by an angel that she is to become the mother of the Savior. In the midst of confusion and concern, she courageously asserts, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” In other words, she hands herself over to the will of God. God’s will and God’s way become the determining factors of her life.
The second phrase that Mary utters comes at the wedding feast of Cana when Jesus performs his first miracle in Saint John’s gospel by changing water into wine. Following her exchange with Jesus, Mary instructs the servants to “do whatever he tells you.”
And what is it that Jesus tells us to do as his followers? What are the words and actions of Jesus that both characterize his mission and ministry and serve as the foundation for our lives as Christian men? … Let me share a few with you as we all reflect upon the challenges that confront us on a daily basis: “Let the one among you without sin be the first to cast a stone.” Do you remember those words from Saint John’s gospel, when the righteous Pharisees sought to stone to death a sinful woman? … How about these? “Put your sword into its sheath. For all who live by the sword will perish by the sword.” Even as he walked to the cross, Jesus would not respond to injustice with violence. … What about these? “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was ill, you visited me. Whenever you did this to the least of my brothers, you did it for me.” We will be judged – not by the multiplication of our words of prayer and praise, but by our willingness to touch the wounded and broken. … “As I have done, so you must do” – words of challenge spoken by Jesus the night before he died as he served his disciples and washed their feet. … “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do” – words of mercy and love that are spoken by Jesus as he hung upon the cross.
Brothers, the weapons that we have been given to confront the evils of this world are far more powerful than any of weapons of war and destruction. They are born from the cross of Jesus – and they are the weapons that he has used to bring salvation to our world: forgiveness, mercy and selfless love. Make them your own as you care for your families and seek to build a peaceful world.
In reflecting upon the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions, Pope Francis shared these profound and challenging words. “O Mary, lead us to your Son, as we are not Christians ‘for show’, but who are called to ‘get our hands dirty’ in order to build with your Son, Jesus, his Kingdom of love, joy and peace.”
My brothers, therein is the true battle that we are called to engage with Christ our Shepherd, whose voice alone we must heed and follow.