By Ed Schneider on the Fourth Sunday of Easter:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us always. Amen.
The Gospel tells us today that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. As today’s psalm tells us, he leads us to good waters, and makes us lie down in green pastures. But the metaphor of us being sheep is limited. Sheep are passive, and, so I’m told, rather dull, and I don’t mean dull as in boring.
But if we follow Jesus, then we can’t be passive. We can’t just say, “I believe in Jesus,” and then sit on our hands, waiting for the day we’re taken up into glory. Jesus gave us one commandment: we must love one another as he loves us. Love is not passive.
But love means sacrifice. And the writer of First John tells us today that we know love by Jesus’s example. He lays down his life for us; therefore, we’re to show that same love by laying down our own lives for others. But what does laying down our lives for other mean?
Well, in some cases it may mean literally dying for someone else. For example, we’ve heard of stories of mothers who starve themselves so that they can give their malnourished children extra food. But laying down our lives for others also means doing interior work. It means doing serious, probing self-examinations to learn how much psychological and emotional baggage we’re carrying and to what extent we’re inflicting that baggage on other people.
It means recognizing when we’re trying to control other people or situations for the sake of our own comfort level. It means not presuming to know what’s best for someone else. It means not presuming motives or jumping to conclusions about why people are poor, why they’re sick, or why they’re in prison. It means getting ourselves, our egos, out of Christ’s way, so that he has the space within us to transform us into his image, whatever that image is going to look like for each of us.
It means getting our egos out of the way so that Christ can use us as his hands, his feet, and his mouth to spread the gospel and bring healing to the world. Knowing all of this, we can now understand the connection in First John between showing love by showing down one’s life and John’s question: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?
Yes, my friends, First John is admonishing us to put our money where our mouth is. As John wrote, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth, and in action. This admonishment is more forcefully said in James 1:22: Let’s be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. And in James 2:14-17: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead!
In other words, we can say we believe and have faith in Jesus, but if we don’t live into a loving relationship with Jesus and reflect that love to others by helping them in their needs, then our belief and our faith mean nothing. Nothing! If our actions don’t match our words, then we’re hypocrites, people who wear pious masks, but whose actions speak otherwise.
Let’s remember what Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel about a future time when he will be in our shepherd: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory, all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people, one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus tells us he’ll welcome into his kingdom all those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and immigrant, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, and nursed the sick. He said that when they do these things for the least of those in his family, then they do these things for him.
Jesus wasn’t using a literary metaphor when he said they say they do these things for him. As Colossians reminds us, Christ holds everything together in him and through him. All things in heaven and earth were created through him and for him. In other words, Christ is in all, and through all.
But let’s not forget the goats. Jesus tells us he’ll condemn those who did not feed the hungry, did not give drink to the thirsty, drove away the strangers and immigrants, did not clothe the naked, ignored and imprisoned and left the sick to die. Oh, I can hear the goats crying, “But Lord, Lord, we thought we were doing what’s best by not feeding or clothing the poor, because we didn’t want to enable them and make them dependent on others! And because we believed poor people are inherently lazy and morally responsible for their own poverty, we wanted to encourage them to reform and carry their own weight! And we worked hard for our money, so it isn’t fair or reasonable to expect us to give it away to the indolent poor and to criminals. And why should we be responsible for helping the self-indulgent who made themselves sick by unhealthy lifestyles? Anyway, we have a responsibility to spend our money on ourselves and our families. Besides, didn’t you say, Lord, we shouldn’t throw our pearls before swine?”
And Jesus will say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” When we follow Jesus as the Good Shephard, we are to give others the same unconditional, sacrificial love that he first shows us. We’re to get ourselves, our egos, our prejudices, our social philosophies, our baggage, out of the way, so that Christ can work through us for the good of the world.
But in our brokenness and myopia, even those who follow Jesus fail at times to love as he first loves us. I confess, I admit, I do. One year ago this month, April, I saw a homeless man in our parish hall after Mass. He sat alone, drinking his coffee, and staring at the table in front of him. I thought to talk with him, but I was distracted with altar guild duties. Much necessary busyness.
I saw a homeless man in the parish hall after Mass. He got more coffee, then sat down after looking through a box of food left out for such as him. I thought to talk with him, but it was pleasant to speak with friends. Laughter. Camaraderie. Banter.
I saw a homeless man in the parish hall after Mass. He sat alone, with his hood partially covering his eyes. He was thin, with several days of stubble on his chin. I thought to talk to him, but I cleaned up after coffee hour. Dishes. Tables. Trash.
I saw a homeless man in the parish hall after Mass. He sat alone, in a now almost empty room. He was motionless. He was quiet. I thought to talk to him, but I was tired, and in a hurry to go home. Lunch. Nap. Book.
I saw a homeless man in the parish hall after Mass. He was there when I left, sitting alone. He did nothing, said nothing. I thought to talk to him, but I chose not to acknowledge that Jesus sat there.
Let us not fail to see Jesus in the least of these. And let us not fail to love them, as Jesus first loves us. Amen.