May 1, 2009

Fifth Sunday of Easter / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionOnce more during this Easter season, the Church draws from the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading for Mass.

This reading reveals the priorities and beliefs of the first Christians.

The setting is Jerusalem, where a Christian community has formed, very visibly and quite intentionally clustered around Peter and the other Apostles. Prayer, total devotion to the Lord, bold charity and a sense of unity characterize this Christian community.

The community is outward looking, seeing as its solemn responsibility the need to make Jesus known far beyond the circle of believers.

In this reading, Peter preaches. He speaks for all the other Apostles and, indeed, for the community itself. Peter quite obviously is the leader.

Acts says that Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Peter was speaking in and with the power and grace of God. He emphasizes that healing a cripple, recalled earlier in Acts, occurred with the healing ability of Jesus.

In his sermon, Peter insists that no salvation is possible without Jesus because God gave Jesus to the world as the Redeemer of humankind.

The First Epistle of John is the next reading.

The three epistles, attributed to John but actually written in the tradition of John, all have an eloquence and depth that is most appealing. The passage offered in this reading, in fact, is rather brief, only two verses, but it nonetheless is most expressive, reassuringly a declaration of the theological fact that believers are nothing less than God’s children.

The imagery is strong. No other human relationship so directly and well conveys the notion of love, caring and life-giving than that of a parent and child.

This reading also says that those who are worthy of being God’s children one day will see God, and therefore they will be with God.

St. John’s Gospel supplies the last reading, and it is a glorious revelation about the Lord Jesus.

Everyone knew what herding sheep was all about because, at the time of Christ, Roman Palestine was by and large an agricultural nation. Most people had their livelihood in farming or in herding. Sheep herding was a major industry.

Another image is important. Sheep are gentle animals, vegetarian and not at all aggressive. They also are quite vulnerable. Predators easily make sheep their prey. Since sheep are such easy prey, aggressors hunt for them. Because of their placid nature, sheep are unable to fight for their lives and need their shepherds for protection. Good shepherds care for the sheep, helping them to overcome the vulnerability created by their meekness and lack of cunning.

Jesus, in this passage, compares us humans to the sheep. It is a fact, but a fact that humans prefer to forget. Humans are vulnerable. We need the shepherd. He is the good shepherd. He lays down his life for us, and he does not want anyone to be lost.


In the Gospels, Jesus uses the strong image of the Good Shepherd on several occasions. It is an image that has survived the cultural transition in much of the world from the agrarian society of yesteryear to the modern technological lifestyle.

This weekend’s liturgy builds on this image, presenting it in the marvelous reading from the fourth Gospel. When the superb literary technique of this Gospel is added to the process, the image is stunning and beckoning in its brilliance. Its meaning is clear because of the frankness of the Gospel.

It is vital that believers, indeed all people, realize that humans are very much like sheep. In so many ways, humans are vulnerable. Their instincts—and sin all around them—threaten their eternal lives.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He overcomes human failure. He protects us in our vulnerability. He defends us against peril. Therefore, in Jesus alone is life, as Peter proclaimed so well. †

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