17 Apr 2016
4th Sunday of Easter, Year C
The crowds from all over were gathering to hear them speak; in particular their leader, he was an especially powerful shepherd. His message really spoke to people, and he ignited in them a passion and excitement for what they were all about. And there were arguments, as we know. But, at the end of the day, the shepherd and his followers had spoken their piece . . . and people loved it and began to follow them.
Now, I could be talking about Paul and Barnabas, spreading the good news of Jesus to anyone and everyone who would listen. But I could just as easily be talking about . . . maybe our presidential debates: the crowds of people stirred up with passion to follow this candidate or that candidate, listening for the voice of their shepherd in all of it.
Of course, I could just as easily be talking about . . . maybe the people of Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s: listening with undivided attention to their shepherd, Adolf Hitler. We could say the same with our modern-day terrorist groups: “People were gathering to hear them speak; in particular their leader, he was an especially powerful [and influential] shepherd. His message really spoke to them, and he ignited in them a passion and excitement for what they were all about.”
And that’s kind of the story of our world, isn’t it? That’s what advertising is all about: getting people excited about what you have so they’ll buy it. Every time we go to the internet, every time we go to our smart phones, every time we watch the news or engage in any human activity whatsoever, people are trying to get us to go along with them. That’s what preaching the Gospel is all about. I wouldn’t be up here if I wasn’t trying to encourage you to be better disciples and followers of Jesus.
“People were gathering to hear them speak; in particular their leader, he was an especially powerful shepherd. His message really spoke to people, and he ignited in them a passion and excitement for what they were all about.” And there’s nothing inherently bad about doing that. Morally, it’s rather neutral. What makes preaching and influencing others good or bad is, of course, the message that’s preached, and the effect it has on people.
I was just reading an article about a young man who had committed suicide. And, as it turned out, his girlfriend was voice he listened. She’d gotten tired of him telling her all his problems, and so she said: Well, just go kill yourself, then. And he did. Now, to us that might sound ridiculous—why would he listen to her and go kill himself? What kind of hold did she have over him? But, really, how many times have we let someone influence us to the point of making a bad decision?
For our youth, there’s a lot of pressure to do any number of things which aren’t good for them, for instance: drugs, binge drinking, looking good at any cost, relinquishing their faith for something more exciting, and so on. Or they’re encouraged to “go it alone,” and forget about parents, and mentors, and real friends who actually care for them. Of course, that’s what “radical individualism” is. Youth are bombarded with pressure to make unhealthy and even harmful decisions. And sometimes they do. Sometimes the Voice of Christ the Shepherd is muted by other more in-your-face voices.
And, of course, that doesn’t go away with adulthood. Although, we do get better at filtering out who’s a good person to listen to, and who’s not. And that’s largely because we have hindsight. We can see where our decisions have led us and we get better at making decisions. We get better at paying attention to the Voice of Christ our Shepherd.
Of course, how do we know it’s the Voice of Christ we’re following? How do we know we’re being influenced by Christ and not by someone else? What makes us Catholic Christians different from all those other people who are loyal to their shepherd, like: the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, or those who today follow ISIS with blind loyalty, or those who let their lives revolve around whatever the latest fad is? What makes us different?
And the answer seems to be in how our Shepherd speaks to us. God always speaks to and through a community. It’s never a lone voice we’re following as Christians; it’s always a community of voices that say the same thing. Even our Shepherd himself is a community—we call it the “Holy Trinity.” Jesus doesn’t speak on his own; he speaks with the Father, and through the Holy Spirit. As he says, “The Father and I are one.”
Our Shepherd, God, is a community. That’s different than other cult leaders. Hitler was a single man; and people followed him alone. So was Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Julius Caesar, Pharaoh. They were all single persons, and they were the lone source of their own ideologies. That isn’t the case with our God, the Holy Trinity.
But our Shepherd’s Voice doesn’t stop there, with the Trinity. There’s also the “great multitude,” which Saint John speaks of; the “great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” The Shepherd’s Voice is heard in the community of believers, in the Church. Not this particular person, or that particular person, but in the whole of the community. Ideas, practices, beliefs, and values that stand the test of time, and are universal are ways we heard our Shepherd’s Voice.
Just look at all the ways God has revealed his Will: through a multitude of leaders, from Noah and Abraham, to Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary; through the Apostles and countless disciples, saints, spiritual writers, theologians, poets, musicians and artists, the poor, the rich, and everybody in between; the young and old, the middle-aged, the clergy and laity, the famous and the obscure.
They’re all ways we hear the Voice of the One Shepherd, and they all reflect the Peace and Love, Joy and Life of the one Holy Trinity. And that is very different from how the lone leaders and powers of the world operate. Among other reasons, this is what sets Christianity apart—it’s who our Shepherd is, and the way our Shepherd makes their Trinitarian Voice heard.
How do we know if we’re following the Voice of our Shepherd? Well, it’s a Voice spoken through the generations upon generations of the community; it will be a source of strength that carries us through “distress;” and its message will lead us to the still waters of faith, hope, and love.