April 21, 2024

The Other Sheep

The Other Sheep

4th Sunday of Easter 21 April
Readings: Acts 4. 5-12; 1 Jn. 3. 16-end; Jn. 10. 11-18
Theme: The Other Sheep

As I mentioned on Easter Sunday, I would like to dedicate these seven weeks that the church allots to the season of Easter for considering the meaning of the Resurrection according to a different aspect each week. If, for our first aspect, I spoke about the meaning of Resurrection as “Revelation” as the unveiling of the divinity of Jesus through the withdrawal of the flesh of Jesus—the tomb is empty and the body is removed—then this week, I would like to reflect with you on the way in which the transformed presence of Jesus amongst us in the Resurrection reaches out to those “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, as the Gospel of John for today puts it. What does it mean that Jesus has other sheep that do not belong to his fold?

The way that I would like to come at this aspect of the resurrection is twofold. First, I would like to say something about a question which I know some of you are deeply concerned about, which is that of our dear ones who are not Christians, who do not go to church and so do not profess a faith in Jesus. What about them, will they be saved? This question is particularly poignant when children or a spouse are in this situation. I think the first thing to mention is that our salvation is completely in the hands of the Lord. It is not up to us to say who is saved and who is not. Moreover, nobody should presume that they are saved. It really is not our call. Our role is to love the Lord and to serve our sisters and brothers. We should leave the rest to the Lord trusting in his loving mercy. Believing that our salvation is in the hands of the Lord relieves us of the burden of any kind of judgment about our or anybody else’s salvation. The Lord is our judge, and he is a merciful one. It is also important when we read the holy scriptures on these matters not to pick individual passages which simply highlight one aspect of this doctrine to us. When we read the scriptures, we should be careful of selecting what biblical scholars call “proof texts”, that is to say, simply selecting isolated individual passages which merely reinforce our own pre-conceived opinions. No, when we read the scriptures we need to do so with both eyes, we need binocular vision, being attentive to the general context, the relationship of one passage to others and the diversity of approaches to particular questions expressed in the variety of approaches which the scriptures represent. Remember, the scriptures are a library of books and not one single book expressing one single approach to these big questions. So, we need to learn as Christians to read the scriptures intelligently under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which makes present the resurrected Christ to us as we read and pray over them, and so we are very blessed to have a love for the scriptures because, as I mentioned on Easter Sunday, the scriptures, together with the sacraments, are the privileged ways in which the presence of the risen Christ is made manifest to us. Those who do not have access to the scriptures are hindered and we should do all that we can to open out for them the healing presence of the risen Christ speaking to us through the Holy Spirit as we read them. This is why in our reading from Acts today, the rulers, the elders and the scribes are so upset by Peter, because he is unveiling the true meaning of the scriptures to those who are meant to be its guardians but who have clearly failed to under its message. They have not allowed themselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit and so only see the healing work of the early apostles as a threat to their own pseudo-authority.

So, on this first point, I would suggest two things for those of you who are concerned by relatives and friends who do not believe in the Lord. First, encourage them to read the Bible as it is the best present you could give to them. If they inherit nothing else from you, make sure that you bequeath your favourite copy of the Bible as this will communicate to them how much this has meant to you in your earthly life. You should also pray for them that the Lord will be merciful to them as we should all pray that he will be merciful to us. Remember, it is not only in professing Jesus as Lord that our saving faith is manifest it is also manifest in compassionate deeds as the Letter of St James makes clear. So, never limit the salvation we are gifted with, to one interpretation of any single scripture passage. We should profess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, but we need to do the Gospel if we are to have faith and receive the gift of salvation. “Even the demons believe in Jesus, do they not?”

The second point on which I would like to briefly reflect with you during this fourth Sunday of Easter is that aspect of the Other Sheep which today are included in what we call other religious traditions. What about them? The Resurrection of the Lord speaks to this central issue today and it is not an exaggeration to say that the change in some Christian attitudes to this in the twentieth century has really been a paradigm shift in Christian history. In biblical times, the Jewish community are very much working out whether the message and special relationship between Yahweh and them is simply for them or for all peoples. As we heard in the scriptures on Easter Sunday, Peter, and even more so Paul, realize that the election of the Jews is for all the nations, all the peoples, so they are to be that community which manifests to all the loving rule of God in their community. This announcement of the Gospel to all nations is one which raises the question of what about the other religious traditions, how do they fit in to the unique message of salvation brought by Jesus? As with the first question, we should not assume the role of judge in this question. It is for the risen Christ to do this, and we should explore with our sisters and brother of other religious traditions how the risen Christ may be manifest in their lives, perhaps in ways which seem foreign to us, because the architecture of their faith is very differently arranged and the words and the symbols are different to ours.

I can only speak for myself here. But in my life, I have been very privileged to encounter the risen Christ in profound ways with my sisters and brothers of other religious traditions, and I am convinced that the liberation of the earthly Jesus from the confines of the flesh allows him to penetrate the hearts and minds of all people of good will in ways which only serve to open us up to wonder of the saving mystery of Christ which knows no limits having overcome the power of death and hell. In fact, encounters with people of other religious traditions have, in my experience, been ways in which one’s own faith can be deepened because these encounters reveal areas of one’s own faith that are only half-understood, half-believed or indeed only half put into practice in our own appropriation of the Christian faith. This does not mean that we should cease to evangelize. We should never hide our faith in the risen Christ, but we should realize that this risen Christ is the one who does the evangelizing through the power of the Holy Spirit and this often comes in mysterious and surprising ways.

So, the other sheep of our dearly beloved friends and family and those of other religious traditions may even have something to teach us about the meaning of the risen Christ whose mystery is infinitely greater than we can ever imagine or grasp in concepts. Let us then be open to the dimension-less infinity of this mystery revealed to us in the risen Christ. Alleluia, alleluia, Christ is risen!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.