Neo-Coptic icon of the Good Shepherd, egg tempera on gesso; via Dr Stéphane René

Fr Neil’s homily on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 8 May 2022

The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice¹

Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Gospel is taken from John 10 where the Lord speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.

The crowds wanted to know plainly if he was the Messiah or not. There was an urgency for the people who had anticipated the fulfilment of the prophets’ message for a number of years. This message was that God would send a liberating messiah who would defeat the enemy who oppressed God’s people.

One might forgive the people’s limited vision that identified as their enemy the pagan Romans who were both cruel and unbelievably ruthless. Christ would indeed defeat their enemy but humanity’s real enemy wasn’t the Romans. One has simply to ask where the Romans are now, if not merely consigned to the history books? The Romans were just a symptom of the real problem.

Christ came as Messiah to defeat humanity’s real enemies: the Devil, sin, death and hell. Christ reveals that victory would be achieved as the Good Shepherd and not as a guerrilla freedom fighter. As Good Shepherd, Christ leads his people from fallow ground, through the valley of the shadow of death, to verdant green pastures. Like a Good Shepherd he will lay down his life to protect his flock from the enemy who wishes to scatter, enslave, despoil and destroy.

As Good Shepherd he will call to his flock so that they hear his voice and follow to the safety of pastures new in the eternal kingdom of God. Listening to the voice and call of God is crucial to finding our freedom from slavery to sin and death so that we might take our place in heavenly glory. It is the voice of God that helps us to identify and respond to the particular vocation and path he has laid out before us, or even find our way back if we have got lost along the way.

We live in a world that is so often dominated by overwhelming noise. This worldly noise competes for our attention, promising all sorts of wonderful fulfilments of our heart’s desires.

Over the last nine years we have heard repeatedly about the need to create a culture of dialogue particularly in relationship with the wider world. Certainly the voice of God is heard when we are able to stop, listen and pay attention in stillness so that we might begin the process of open dialogue as a prerequisite for evangelisation.

Yet here we need to strike a note of caution. How well did it go when Eve had open dialogue with the Devil? Open dialogue can only ever be fruitful if it is with people of good will, those genuinely seeking the truth. Even the Devil can appear as an angel of light so as to deceive the faithful. The greatest trick of the Devil is to twist our thinking into believing that that which is good is really evil and that which is evil is really good. For example, the Church’s teaching that marriage as exclusive to a male and female and is a life long covenant is said to be “homophobic, unrealistic, cruel and compassionless”. The Church’s teaching against abortion, in defence of the unborn child, is spoken of as “being rooted in a patriarchal oppression of woman’s rights and bodily autonomy”. The Church’s denial of euthanasia is said to “condemn the dying to a loss of dignity” and “a long, slow, cruel death” that “dictates against the individual’s choice to end their life early”.

How are we to distinguish the movement of the Spirit of God, that which is good and holy, from the profane and demonic? Where can we hear the call of Christ the Good Shepherd above the din of all this noise?

It is folly to think we can engage healthily with the wider society of which we are a part, if we haven’t first learnt how to openly dialogue as individuals with the holy things of God. When was the last time we picked up a Bible and practised a systematic prayerful reading of Scripture? Have we looked into the actual teaching of the Church on any particular subject, or have we only listened second-hand to what someone else has told us the Church teaches? The Catechism is a great place to start. What of the lives of the saints? What made them saints? What was it about them that reflected the Divine in the manner in which they lived their lives? This dialogue with the Church bears its greatest fruit when we enter into it with a prayerful mindset.

Of course in prayer it’s right that we bring to God those things that are on our minds. Yet prayer is more than lists of things we want. Listening in stillness allows space for God, by the prompting of the Spirit, to speak to us in the particular situation of our lives and lead us into the fulfilling of our vocation. This listening in prayer is to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice as he calls us to follow him from death into eternal life.

This Sunday is also referred to as Vocation Sunday, with a particular emphasis on the call to the priesthood, diaconate and monastic life. Is our vocation crisis due to the fact that God isn’t calling men and women to these particular ministries? Or is it that as communities of faith we have forgotten how to listen in prayer to the Good Shepherd’s voice? I am convinced that a community of faith that is able to prayerfully delve into the Church’s rich treasures of scripture, tradition and the lives of the saints will manifest within their community those who hear the call of the Christ to not only navigate this present crisis but raise up men and women to these particular offices of service.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.²

¹ John 10:27
² John 10:27–28