Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18; 16:5-15; Ps 23.
In these weeks of Easter, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances, the empty tomb; Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Locked room; the road to Emmaus; and now comes this passage from John’s gospel. Like all John’s writing it has layer upon layer of meaning hidden within it, and one must dig deep in order to reveal hidden truths contained within.
TODAY IS KNOWN AS GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY emphasizing Jesus’ self-sacrificing elements in his own life: “The good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” He contrasts the good shepherd who owns the sheep to someone who is simply hired to look after them. The hired man thinks primarily of his own welfare and, if he sees a wolf coming, takes off, leaving the sheep to be attacked and scattered in fear and terror. Jesus, on the other hand, will not be like a hired person: “I lay down my life for my sheep.” The good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. Perhaps he contrasts himself with those mercenary religious leaders among his own people – and to be found in every religious grouping – who do just what is expected of them but have no real commitment or sense of responsibility to those in their charge.
As early in biblical records as Psalm 23 it’s said: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing… He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake… I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (NIV) Eastertide grounds us in the life of the risen Christ. That is not something static but enthusiastic. We are set in motion, caught up in the motions of God towards us and with us, drawn into the changes the Son creates for the Father through the Holy Spirit of truth, comfort and help.
Jesus gives us an image of the Shepherd and the sheep. This I believe is classical parable territory for Jesus, for so often in trying to describe a deep theological point of view, he literally looks to what is around him, and uses it as a means of describing something about God or himself, in a way which will relate to those who are listening. It does not take much for us to work out that humanity is represented by the sheep, and the Shepherd in this stance is Jesus himself. The thief and bandit will follow their own way, and potentially lead others astray. But those who hear the voice of Jesus, and go wherever he calls them, will have life, and as John tells us have it abundantly.
We are also given passages from The Acts of the Apostles. We begin to hear how the early Church came together, how many people came to be baptized by the disciples and the early Apostles, and how the Lord “added to their number those who were being saved.“ In Chapter 2, we are told that All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” These new Christians soon began to form small communities, living together in a communal way, and before exceptionally long, there was a need to provide some coherent structure to their way of living.
We live in the motions of the Son’s love for the Father through the Spirit, the bond of their love and power. What is being opened out to us is the reality of the life of the Spirit. The resurrection appearances are not just some sort of show and tell. They reveal the greater and more radical truth of our humanity as found in and with God. That is captured for us in the image of the Son’s going to the Father. In today’s Gospel, that fundamental sense of orientation and direction is understood in terms of righteousness.
The Spirit, Christ says, “reprove[s] the world of righteousness.” What does that mean? It signals the contrast between the world of human sin and folly, our unrighteousness, on the one hand, and God’s absolute justice, the divine righteousness, on the other hand. That is found in the Son’s relation to the Father in the Spirit. True justice or righteousness is not found in ourselves but in our relation to God. In these lessons from John’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us about the Holy Spirit, about the nature of the divine life of God as Trinity. The Resurrection points us to the Ascension, to the homeland of the Spirit. It is all about a kind of orientation of our hearts and minds in the going forth and return of the Son to the Father.
This does not mean a flight from or an ignoring of our lives here and now. Quite the opposite. The Spirit of truth ”will guide you into all truth.” And as James indicates in his Epistle, God has “brought us to birth by the word of truth.” The word of truth and the spirit of truth are intimately connected. They belong to the nature of our life with God in mind and heart because of the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in the body of our humanity. “Because I go to my Father” here signals the way in which all things are gathered to God, the way in which we are gathered to God in Christ. That is something now and not just by and by. “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
This is traditional and classical advice that belongs now to this new orientation and direction that we have in our lives because of Christ’s going to the Father, his relation to the Father in the Spirit of their mutual love. That becomes our life, our life in the Spirit.
But only through the double mystery of Christ’s going from us. It is “expedient,” good for us, Jesus says here “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.” The double mystery is his going from the disciples and us into death and his going from them and us to the Father in his Ascension which is the culmination of the Resurrection. These spatial images of the comings and goings of God are profound. God is not found simply in our comings and goings as if our experiences were the measure of God and of his truth in our lives. No. It is the other way around. Our lives find their truth and meaning in God’s engagement with our humanity through the Son and in the Spirit. We are gathered into the comings and goings of God with God in God, the motions of the divine life itself.
We participate in the very life of God himself. This is the great wonder. To be open to this mystery and wonder is the great joy of the Resurrection and lies at the heart of the teaching of this Gospel. The Spirit “reprove[s] the world,” corrects the world, Christ says, of three things: “of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.” This is a way of recalling the victory of Christ over human sin and wickedness and over “the prince of this world,” the devil; in short, over everything that belongs to the untruth of our humanity in our denial of God. It is all about our being gathered into the truth of God whose truth is the truth of our lives. The truth of our humanity is found in the truth of God and we are held in that truth by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. There is no truth that lies outside of God.
Our challenge is to let the Holy Spirit “guide [us] into all truth.” In an age which is skeptical and uncertain about us and about truth itself, we need these readings to recall us to God and so to ourselves. It is all about our being grounded in the Word and Spirit of God, and all “because I go to the Father.” We have been “brought to birth by the word of truth” and we live in that word of truth by the Spirit of truth. Such is the wonder and the mystery of the Resurrection in us. We are freed to live to God and for one another. It is all about new birth and new life.
Spirit works in each of us individually, but his ultimate purpose in doing so is to bring Jesus’ people together. He unites us to Jesus and makes us his Body and for that reason there is no such thing as a loner Christian. We need the Church. St. Paul draws on that body imagery and reminds us that for a Christian to leave the Church would be like an eye or an ear or a finger or a toe deciding to leave the body—it just doesn’t work that way. To leave the Church is to leave Jesus’ Body and to blasphemously and deliberately undo the work of the Holy Spirit.
Notice that, Jesus doesn’t say, “Peter, the Spirit will guide you into truth. John, the Spirit will guide you into truth. James, the Spirit will guide you into truth.” No, he points to them all as a group and says, “The Spirit will guide…all my Church—into truth It is all part of the Spirit’s work of applying Jesus to us. He unites us in Jesus’ Body and as he guides us into truth, it is specifically Jesus’ truth. Jesus goes on to say:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
If we want real life, real power, and real vitality, we need to follow the advice St. James gives us in the Epistle: “Be quick to hear and slow to speak.” The power of God—the new life he offers and the light that we should be shining brightly in the world as Easter people—are here in the truth that the Holy Spirit communicates to us so powerfully—the message of the Gospel itself and the Word of God. The uncompromised proclamation of the Word of God and his Gospel has always been the power behind the Church.
If we want to be Easter people, if we want to be people full of the Spirit and full of spiritual life and vitality, we need to be people steeped in the Word and in the Gospel that Jesus declares to us and applies to our hearts by his Spirit. If we want to transform our world, the power to do that comes as we first allow the Spirit to transform our own lives with the Gospel message. If we want to be bearers of the light of Christ—burning brightly and holding it high—the solution isn’t in gimmicks, it’s not to add things to the Gospel—it’s to live the Gospel itself and to carry the Gospel message to the people around us—the message that men and women are great sinners, that Jesus Christ is an even greater Savior, and that true life flows through his cross.
The good shepherd deeply desires that many other sheep should come to identify themselves with him. “There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well.” The goal is that “there will be only one flock, and one shepherd,” that the whole world will be united with its God and Lord. This is the meaning of the Kingdom which is the heart of the Gospel message.