4th Sunday of Easter 2012
The image of the Good Shepherd is certainly one of the most beautiful and attractive descriptions of Jesus Christ. Christ Himself chose this self-portrait as an expression of his providential care and His concern for His Church, which is clearly to be identified as the flock of the Good Shepherd. This image of the Shepherd, then, which we hear much about in today’s Gospel directs our attention both to the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus, and to his flock, which is the Church saved by the Good Shepherd’s sacrifice of His own life.
But if the Church consists of the flock whom Jesus has redeemed by his sacrifice, we might well ask whether this Church, this flock of Jesus, must consist of all mankind, for our faith definitely teaches that Jesus died for the whole of mankind. Well, the answer to that question is a qualified yes, that the Church does in one sense embrace the whole of the human family, and yet in another equally true sense, at any given time the Church comprises only a relatively small flock in the midst of mankind. Both of these understandings of the Church are true, if properly understood, and both senses were clearly taught in the Second Vatican Council.
We see this two-fold teaching carefully presented in the great constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, or, the Light of the Nations, a title which belongs directly to Christ, and by derivation to His Mystical Body, the Church. In Lumen Gentium, then, we find both of these descriptions of Church, as being in one way The first meaning of the Church, the universal one, can be seen in section 13 of Lumen Gentium where it says, “All men are called to belong to the new People of God.” So Jesus clearly died for everyone. He laid down his life so that everyone might attain salvation by becoming part of His flock, which is the Church. In this sense, we are speaking about the Church as conceived in the heart of Christ, His intention to make the Church universal, the universal fruit of his loving self-sacrifice on the Cross which embraced all of humanity.
Then we also see the second, more limited definition of the “the Church” in section 9 of Lumen Gentium: “Hence the messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may appear as a small flock, is, however, a most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” Here the Church is seen not simply in its universal desire to include the whole human race, but the Church is now described as it actually exists here and now, as the flock which is actually gathered together from all nations and already shares the Communion in the Spirit of Jesus through their common faith, hope and charity.
However, the Church understood in this more limited sense, as the small flock already gathered in direct communion with Christ the Good Shepherd, as his flock here and now, is itself always and necessarily ordered toward sharing the messianic mission of Christ which is directed outwards to the whole human family. Thus, the Church in this world is never a closed society, but, as the first fruits of the saving in the world to come will the Church be a closed society, embracing only those who, in some way or other, often known only to God, have sought for Christ, even if they have not yet found him. So while the visible flock may be small, there are many who belong mysteriously, in an invisible manner, to Christ even though they are not yet members of his flock.
So Jesus includes both of these understandings of his Church in today’s Gospel. He speaks about his flock as already existing. They know him as He knows them. That means they love Him as He loves them and are his obedient servants, just as He is the obedient servant of the Father. They are his flock, in the full sense of the term: they belong to him, because He has died for them, and they in turn have died to themselves for Him in Baptism and this life. Thus they have become his possession.
Jesus has special care for these sheep, for Jesus is no hireling. The hireling is one who has no ownership of the flock, as Jesus explains; they are not his, and so the hireling does not care about them, and flees in time of danger. Jesus, on the contrary, knows each of his sheep personally, He calls each by name, and thus they recognize his voice. They recognize in Jesus and his teaching, the truth they are committed in their hearts to live in this world. When they hear his voice, they hear the truth, and they follow him wherever he may lead them.
But then Jesus also speaks about the Church in the universal sense, the Him? Surely the answer has to be that they, like the sheep already in the flock, are also in search of truth, a task to which they have committed their lives. Jesus says, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must lead them too, and they shall hear my voice. There shall be one flock, then, one shepherd.” Even though these strangers do not yet know Him as the Truth, as we do, nonetheless they are searching sincerely for truth. These sheep have not yet heard the voice of Jesus, and thus do not yet know Him; but Jesus knows them, and He already knows them as his sheep simply because He knows them in their search for truth and their deep commitment to live according to the truth, even though they have not yet heard the voice of Him who is Truth itself. They are his sheep, though not yet part of his flock, and one day, perhaps in this world, perhaps in the next, they will belong to his fold, for there is only one fold, and one Shepherd.
The world we live in does not easily accept the fact that there is only one Savior and one Truth, Jesus Christ, and that there is only one fold, one Church which is the new people of God, the sign and instrument of salvation, and the gathering place of all the elect. But St. Peter proclaims this truth in today’s first reading: “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men be which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Jesus likewise teaches the this same truth in the Gospel when he says there will be one Shepherd and one flock.
Vatican Council proclaimed the necessity of this Church in #14 of Lumen Gentium: where it says that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in his body which is the Church.” And in # 8, the Council identified Christ’s Church: ” This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”
Thus, the Church simply cannot consist of many bodies, because the Church is one body with Christ, his mystical body and His Bride, his other half, and since salvation comes through Christ alone, it also comes through his one body, alone. There is one flock because there is one Shepherd, and that one flock is really His, is “possessed” by by the Good Shepherd, as we possess our own body. Nonetheless, it’s also true that Christ has many sheep who do not yet belong to this one fold visibly, with visible ties, but they are related to Him and to His Body in many different ways, and one day in this world, or in Eternity they will fully belong to his fold.
As His Bride and Body, her mission always remains that of Christ Himself, to find his scattered sheep, sheep who exist in all times and places, and to proclaim His Gospel to them, so they can hear his voice, and become members of his fold. This mission not only brings men to Christ as Savior and Truth, but the same mission brings a hope of peace and unity to a very divided world. The sheep who do not find Christ yet in this world may belong to the final Kingdom, but every one of these sheep who find Christ and become members of his flock in this world also makes the world a little more unified, a little less violent and divided, and every little bit counts when it comes to peace on earth. Imagine what might happen in our world if the Church was successful in bringing a lot more sheep into the one flock, united in love and peace and loving the rest of the world as Christ does.
May the Good Shepherd be with his flock today and every day as she reaches out in a world that is powerfully resisting His truth. He has laid down his life for His sheep; we in turn must enable his sheep to hear his voice, and come to the Good Shepherd. The success of her mission is not just a matter of bringing the Gospel to souls for their personal salvation. Some may enter the kingdom only in Eternity, but those who enter in this world not only find personal salvation, but they also bring a great blessing on this world, a greater hope of peace and the unity of love that only Christ can make possible.