Monday, April 26, 2010

I Am The Sheepgate. Whoever Enters Through Me Will Be Saved

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 11:1-18
The Apostles and the brothers
who were in Judea
heard that the Gentiles too
had accepted the word of God.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem
the circumcised believers confronted him, saying,
‘You entered the house of uncircumcised people
and ate with them.”
Peter began and explained it to them step by step,
saying, “I was at prayer in the city of Joppa
when in a trance I had a vision,
something resembling a large sheet coming down,
lowered from the sky by its four corners,
and it came to me.
Looking intently into it,
I observed and saw
the four-legged animals of the earth,
the wild beasts, the reptiles,
and the birds of the sky.
I also heard a voice say to me,
‘Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.’
But I said, ‘Certainly not, sir,
because nothing profane or unclean
has ever entered my mouth.’
But a second time
a voice from heaven answered,
‘What God has made clean,
you are not to call profane.’
This happened three times,
and then everything was drawn up again into the sky.
Just then three men appeared
at the house where we were,
who had been sent to me from Caesarea.
The Spirit told me
to accompany them without discriminating.
These six brothers also went with me,
and we entered the man’s house.
He related to us how he had seen the angel
standing in his house, saying,
‘Send someone to Joppa
and summon Simon, who is called Peter,
who will speak words to you
by which you and all your household will be saved.’
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them
as it had upon us at the beginning,
and I remembered the word of the Lord,
how he had said,
‘John baptized with water
but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us
when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I to be able to hinder God?”
When they heard this,
they stopped objecting
and glorified God, saying,
“God has then granted
life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too.”
We have now entered a momentous part of the Acts which describes the inauguration of the mission to the Gentiles. It may not seem a big deal to us but it involved a radical change in thinking for the first Christians who were all Jews and still felt like Jews and maintained many of the religious customs of Jews. It changed the whole complexion of the Christian ‘movement’ inaugurated by Jesus.

It opens with the conversion and baptism of Cornelius, a Gentile centurion in the Roman army. But it also involves a conversion on the part of Peter who becomes aware that God’s calling in Jesus is extended to people of all races and religions. All of this is contained in chapter 10 which we will not be reading. (The story of Cornelius is dealt with on the 6th Sunday of Easter, in the Year B.)

What we see in today’s reading is the reaction of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem to the news of a Gentile’s baptism. It involves a major breakthrough in the development of the Church’s awareness of its identity.

The apostles and their fellow Christians in Jerusalem had heard that the pagans were accepting the word of God. We will see here and elsewhere in the Acts that in matters of importance, the apostles did not act alone. Guidance came from the Spirit, the apostles interpreted and exhorted, but the consent of the whole church was then sought (”the whole group”, 6:5; “apostles and the brothers”, 11:1; “the church”, 11:22; “the church and the apostles and elders”, 15:4; cf. 15:22).

The Christians in Jerusalem seem to have received this news with mixed feelings because when Peter went up to Jerusalem the “circumcised believers”, that is, the Jewish Christians, criticised him for visiting the homes of the “uncircumcised” and even eating with them. (We remember how Jesus too was criticised for consorting with the ‘unclean’ and eating with them, which led to his speaking the three beautiful parables in Luke 15 about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son).

The “uncircumcised” were those Gentiles who did not observe the laws of clean and unclean food and hence were in violation of Jewish regulations concerning food preparation. At this stage it is clear that the Jewish Christians saw themselves, even in a religious sense, as Jews. We know that they continued to go to the Temple to pray and here they have not yet changed their attitude to non-Jews and see them as a source of contamination.

Peter then shares with them a dream which he had. In this dream there appeared every kind of living thing that could “walk, crawl or fly”. He was told to kill and eat. He recoiled in horror. As a devout Jew he had never touched food that was regarded as ‘unclean’. He was made to realise in no uncertain terms that “what God had made clean, he had no right to call unclean”. In case he did not get the message, this vision was repeated three times.

Just then he also got an invitation to join three men in going to a house in Caesarea. This house, as we were told in the previous chapter, belonged to Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. It seems that he was an out and out Gentile, with no connections whatever to Judaism. Peter went, together with six companions, under the guidance and the approval of the Spirit.

When they got there Cornelius said he had been told by an angel to summon Peter to his house. Peter had a special message for him to hear. Peter had barely begun to explain the message of Jesus when the Holy Spirit came down on all of the household just as the apostles themselves had experienced it (at Pentecost). The “household” (familia in Latin) included not only those related by blood (parents, children, other relatives) but also slaves and all who were under Cornelius’ authority.

It was perfectly clear to Peter that there was no way he could deny baptism and membership of the community to this Gentile, who up to this he had regarded as unclean and a person not to be mixed with. “If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?”, he told the Christians in Jerusalem.

Peter could not deny the Gentiles the invitation to be baptised and to enjoy full fellowship in Christ with all believers. The Jewish believers were compelled to recognise that God was going to save Gentiles on equal terms with Jews. By divine action rather than by human choice, the door was being opened to Gentiles.

Peter explains why he allowed a pagan to be baptised. However, he does not answer the objection that he had lodged with the uncircumcised. According to Luke, Peter was considered to have been the first to receive pagans into the Church, in spite of the episode of the Ethiopian eunuch, which we read on Thursday of last week, and the date of the evangelisation of Antioch to which Luke does not refer till later (in fact, immediately after this incident). Against this background the council of Jerusalem (which we will see in the middle of next week) appears as a kind of sequel to, or repetition of, the discussion in today’s passage. It is clear that Peter’s leadership is being emphasised.

The people in Jerusalem accepted what Peter told them and gave thanks to God that even the Gentiles could experience “the repentance [i.e. radical conversion] that leads to life”. Not just repenting the past but undertaking a complete turn-around in their life involving a total commitment to the Way of Christ.

This story is just one example to be repeated again and again in the life of the Church of how change does not come from the centre, which in fact is often resistant to change, but from the outer limits.

The same is true of our Church today. There is always this tension between the central institution and the more charismatic and prophetic elements which are often more in touch with the grass roots and with the changes which are taking place in society which call for changes too in the thinking and behaviour of the Church. This tension is a good thing and is necessary both for progress and continuity.

The Second Vatican Council is an excellent example of this process.

+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 42
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
Send forth your light and your fidelity;
they shall lead me on
And bring me to your holy mountain,
to your dwelling-place.
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
Then will I go in to the altar of God,
the God of my gladness and joy;
Then will I give you thanks upon the harp,
O God, my God!
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 10:1-10
Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter
a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere
is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate
is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him,
and the sheep hear his voice,
as he calls his own sheep by name
and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize
the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me
are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal
and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.”
“Two kinds of sheepfolds or corrals are mentioned in today’s reading. In the common town sheepfold, the shepherd makes his special call and his sheep follow him out confidently. Out on the range, however, the shepherd sleeps across the corral opening: his body is the protecting door. So we live, pray and are saved through Jesus our Good Shepherd.” (Vatican II missal)

We now jump from chapter 7 to chapter 10, omitting the whole episode linked with Jesus as the Light of the World and the dramatic healing of the man born blind, texts which we reflected on during Lent in relation to Baptism.

We begin today to consider two images that Jesus gives of himself: the first is that of a gate and the second that of a shepherd.

We have to imagine a sheepfold as an area surrounded by walls or wooden fencing but open to the sky, and with only one entrance. The walls kept the sheep from wandering and protected them from wild animals at night. Only a genuine shepherd enters the sheepfold through the single gate. Thieves and brigands will try to enter by another way, such as by climbing over the walls or breaking through the fence.

“All who came before me are thieves and robbers but the sheep do not listen to them.” Jesus is referring to all the “false shepherds”, including some of the Pharisees and religious leaders of his time who are quite unlike the true prophets of the past.

The real shepherd, however, enters by the gate and is recognised and admitted by the gatekeeper (the one mentioned above who sleeps across the entrance). There are many sheep in the sheepfold belonging to different shepherds so the shepherd calls his own sheep out one by one. He then walks ahead of them and they follow their shepherd because they know his voice. They never follow strangers. (This is quite different from the custom in Europe, Australia and North America where the sheep are driven from behind.)

We are told that his hearers failed to understand the meaning of what Jesus said. They failed to realise that the parable applied particularly to the religious leaders.

So he spoke more clearly: “I AM the gate of the sheepfold.” Here we have the second of the seven ‘I AM’  statements made by Jesus in this gospel. Again Jesus’ points to his divine origin by using the name of God which was given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14).

On the contrary, Jesus, as the Gate, the Way, has come “that they may have life and have it to the full.” This is a constant theme we have heard many times already and especially in chapter 6 about Jesus as the food and nourishment giving us life.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'I am the gate for the sheep'

It's as though there was no gate before. The sheep were penned in, waiting to be hauled out for slaughter one by one. (I'm trying to imagine how people might have chosen an animal to be sacrificed in the Temple.)

Providing the sheep with a gate makes the sheepfold a place of safety rather than an antechamber of death. The pasture now available to them is an opportunity for life rather than death.