Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
World Day of Prayer for Vocations
4th Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2017

Every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, the gospel is taken from chapter 10 of Saint John’s gospel:  Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” discourse.   It’s fair to say that given life in 2017, few of us have any first-hand experience with the relationship that Jesus describes between the “Good Shepherd” spoken of in today’s gospel and the sheep – the flock – entrusted to his care.  The image does, however, provide a distinctively contemporary challenge.

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 who are given to our care.

The impact of the metaphor becomes 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, have 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 threw 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 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 in 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 takes the high road:  not returning insult, not threatening, but submitting to those who judged him unjustly.  He loves unconditionally.  He serves to the end.  And he forgives in his last breathes on the cross.

Herein, my brothers and sisters, we discover the mystery of God’s plan 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 our often complicated world view into the heart of God and his plan for our lives.

The challenges of life that face all of us – and especially so many of you who have joined with me for this special Mass today on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations – could not be greater.  Yet, we can’t simply point a finger at the world around us as the source of our challenges and problems and feel as though we’ve done something noble in responding to life’s struggles.  The bigger issue that confronts us today has less to do with our world and its skewed value systems and far more with ourselves and how we understand what it means for us to be authentic followers of Jesus.  When we come to terms with our relationship with Jesus, everything else will fall into place!

You see, once we acknowledge that relationship and open our hearts to the power and presence of God within, we give Jesus room to grow.  But as Jesus takes hold of our lives, he prompts us all to reflect upon our place within his mission to bring life and salvation to our world.  He challenges us by his word and example, to embrace the promises made at our Baptism to live as his disciples.  He calls us, as we heard in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, “to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” that will sustain us in all things.  And then Jesus reminds us – time and time again – that our relationship with him can never solely be a private dimension of our lives that give us a warm and comforting feeling amid the struggles of life.  Authentic discipleship always leads to mission – to service of the people of God.

In a message for World Youth Day 2017, which was held on April 13th during Holy Week, Pope Francis called upon young people like yourselves to follow the example of Mary who, after saying “yes” to becoming the mother of God, did not remain closed in on herself but went out of her way to help her cousin Elizabeth.

“Mary does not shut herself up at home or let herself be paralyzed by fear or pride,” the Pope wrote.  “Mary is not the type that – to be comfortable – needs a good sofa where she can feel safe and sound.  She is no couch potato!”  Upon meeting her cousin, the Holy Father explained, “Mary proclaims the Magnificat, a revolutionary prayer in that while she is aware of her own limitations, she completely trusts in divine mercy.”

Like Mary, young men and woman today can also experience “great things” if they allow their hearts to be touched by God in the “journey of life, which is not a meaningless meandering but a pilgrimage that, for all its uncertainties and sufferings, can find its fulfillment in God,” the Pope said.

Finally, the Holy Father remarked, “I would like to remind you that there is no saint without a past or a sinner without a future.  The pearl is born of a wound in the oyster!  Jesus, by his love, can heal our hearts and turn our lives into genuine pearls.”

So, what about you?  How does Pope Francis’ challenge – and that of the gospel itself – speak to you?  …  What are you going to do with your Baptism?  Are you going to acknowledge it, but only as an isolated moment in your journey of life and faith?  Or, are you going to tap the gifts of God that have been give to you to build up the Body of Christ in our midst?  …  How are you going to shepherd the lives entrusted to your care?  Will you lay down your life – your comfort, your well-being, your pride, your status – for the sake of others as Jesus did?  Or will you be like the Pharisees, who have all sorts of opinions about others but never go out of their way to encourage or support or forgive another.  …  When are you going to be the disciple whom Jesus calls you to be?  When you’re perfect – which will never happen – or when you’ve dismissed all other options for your life – which also will never happen?  Or are you able to trust enough in God’s mercy so that you can bring who you are as a follower of Jesus into every aspect of your life, regardless of what you do for your life’s work?

My friends, Jesus is calling all of us to be his disciples and to build his Church.  And for some of you, right now Jesus is revealing his plan for you to serve the Church – your brothers and sisters – as a priest, a deacon, a religious sister or brother.

Open your hearts to the Spirit of God.  …  Trust in God’s mercy and love.  …  Seek to live fully the Baptism that you’ve received.  …  Shepherd generously the lives that God gives to you.  …  And become the person that God has created you to be!