The Good Shepherd, the Sheep and Community
Fr. Jordi Rivero, based on the Gospel of John.
We rejoice that Jesus is our Shepherd, but we often overlook that He shepherds a flock, not isolated sheep. If a sheep strays from the flock, the Shepherd goes after her to bring her back (Cf. John 10:11-18).
It is in His flock, the Church, that the Lord gives us new life in baptism, feeds us with His Body in the Eucharist and forgives our sins in confession. But It is not enough to receive the sacraments and “go to Church”. Church is not a gas station where we get our supply of graces for a private journey with God. Faith cannot be just a matter between Jesus and me. We need community to be committed to love and serve one another as brothers and sisters.
The Lord prayed in the Last Supper that we "become perfectly one" so that we be witnesses of His own unity with the Father:
That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me (John 17:21-24).
Think of the unity of Jesus and the Father. He tells the Apostles: "If you know me, then you will also know my Father" (John 14:7). When spouses have lived together in for years in a relationship of profound love they can also say, "If you know me, then you know my spouse". Through their love they have come to know what the other is thinking without using words and they are attentive to please the other. They are as if two bodies with one soul. In community we grow into a similar union by the grace of God. St. Gregory Nazianzen writes about his friendship with St. Basil: "We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit.... you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other." St John Chrysostom wrote:
You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my brothers, my sons, my limbs, my body. You are my light, sweeter to me than the visible light. For what can the rays of the sun bestow on me that is comparable to your love? The sun's light is useful in my earthly life, but your love is fashioning a crown for me in the life to come.
As Jesus was about to give His life for us, He prayed that we be one with Him! He repeats three times: "That they may be one". Jesus shepherds us so that we become one with Him and lay down our lives for others. He is revealing a love that, as in the above examples, is only known by the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us that the Spirit reveals "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived" (1 Corinthians 2:9). But we must believe it is true and move towards it. That is the vocation to community.
For modern Christians, the way early Christians were committed to each other in community, seems inconceivable. We are tempted to think that the Holy Spirit would not do the same with us. The result is that, typically, our experience of fellowship at Church is superficial. We have friends in Church; we may try to be polite on the way in and out of worship; we may even participate in a church group or ministry, but do we really believe that Jesus is calling us to a depth of community where we lay down our lives for each other?
In the Acts of the Apostles the believers were “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Their bonds of union and support were both spiritual and material. Community was their way of life. It is in community that we learn to listen to the voice of the Shepherd and to distinguish it from the voices of the world; it is community that He often speaks through others what we do not like to hear. All parents know that it is in caring for others that we are challenged to grow in virtue way beyond what we though we could. We need to listen to what He says to the community if we are to understand the context of what He tells us personally. It is in community that the Shepherd teaches us that we belong together in a covenant of mutual support; that we need each other to grow to our full capacity of love and sacrifice.
The Good Shepherd gave His life each day for the sheep until he died devoured by the wolves. The hired hand is very different. For him, sheep are a job, not a relationship. He is with them only as long as they are profitable. There is no love and no willingness to stay and suffer for them.
The sheep can also act as hired hands towards the Shepherd and each other. Do we really LISTEN to Him? Do we follow Him WHEREVER He leads us? Do we love one another or do we view our “ministry” or “apostolate” as a job that we need to do in order to be right with God, without any real commitment to brothers and sisters?
A sheep on her own cannot be nourished by the Shepherd nor will she survive the wolves. The wolves represent the devil who is always trying to separate the sheep in order to devour them. The wolf works inside of us, in our minds and hearts. He knows and exploits our fears, weaknesses and wounds; he does all he can to bring division between brothers and sisters. He makes us think that we must run away.
In order to overcome the devil's attacks we need to:
1-Live fully our vocation. Otherwise, we become distracted and weakened and then stray.
2-Know that we belong and need our community.
3-Prepare for battle, ready to suffer and persevere, united with Christ to the Cross when we feel like running away. We cannot be over-confident and lower our guard. Many seem to be doing great, but when a wound is touched, they feel even aversion to brothers and sisters whom they loved.
4-Be careful to discern the origin of our thoughts. The devil can plant ideas that appear very real to us.
5-Do not be lead your emotions or feelings. The devil can work on those.
6-Do not change commitments under trial. Wait until peace returns. Under trial we tend to forget all the blessings we have received in community.
7-Break the isolation and talk about our concerns. Do not allow steam to build up. Go to accompaniment. Under trial it becomes most difficult to open up and be vulnerable.
All this takes lots of humility, honesty and love.
Since the beginning the sheep have been tempted to abandon the Shepherd as the Apostles did. More often though, the temptation comes in a way that is easier to justify. The devil tells us "Stay with Jesus and keep un practicing your faith, but leave the community”.
Do I run away from my family/community when it gets difficult to bear the faults of others or when they have failed me, or do I persevere and give my life for them?
If I have run away from family/community, do I trust in the Lord that I can return and be forgiven? I'm I willing to be humble and return?
We sheep, are also called to be good shepherds. Am I a good shepherd to my family/Community? Do I know, belong, love, give my life as Jesus does? Do I let them know me, love me, give themselves to me?
What are the fears that block me? The wolves are real and we are afraid of being hurt. Do I persevere in humility and willingness to suffer for others?
We cannot do it on our own but the Lord gives us brothers and sisters and promised to be with us always.