By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The midpoint of the Easter season is marked by the annual celebration of Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the Good Shepherd is the earliest known work of art depicting the crucified and risen Lord. Still today it is a beloved and familiar image in many locales across the world where shepherd and sheep roam in search of pasture as an essential component of rural and village life.
Jesus Christ embraced the image of the Good Shepherd universally known in the religious tradition of Israel. The 23rd Psalm declares that The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. Jesus proclaims that I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me; they know my voice and they follow me…The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Although many of us have not directly experienced the bond between the shepherd and the sheep, in the click of a computer key we can readily learn why the Lord identifies himself with this way of life. Or ask someone who has witnessed first hand the interaction of shepherd and sheep roaming together over hill and dale.
Even without seeing, we intuitively know that it is an image depicting a relationship that often requires total commitment for the sheep’s wellbeing, a willingness to sacrifice and endure hardship to protect them. It is compelling because the Lord did lay down his life for us and his life-giving Spirit continues to shepherd us in his body, the church.
John the evangelist, the beloved disciple, elaborates on images that portray how utterly dependent we are on Jesus if we want to make our lives ‘something beautiful for God,’ in the words of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. One is the Good Shepherd; another is the vine and the branches. Jesus plainly says in chapter 15 that I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who abides in me and I in him will bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. The Lord is the source and summit of our lives, the one who sustains us. His voice and words are the path to life in abundance. Without him we become lost, or we wither and die.
As compelling as the above images are we need to browse around the New Testament during these days in the Easter Season to grasp more fully the treasures of our Christian tradition as Catholics. The potential limitation of the images of sheep and branches is in the difficulty of distinguishing one sheep or branch from another.
In the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season we are given a panorama of the growth of the early church from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem, its circulation around the Mediterranean world, to its eventual foothold in Rome, the center of culture and power in the ancient world. The first generation of Christians knew they were the Body of Christ, disciples and friends of the Lord, and called by name with a variety of ministries and gifts.
The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles recalls Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost when his Spirit-driven fiery words stirred the hearts of thousands. What are we to do, brother? Peter responded with what we know as the basic Kerygma, the doorway to salvation. “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” With that began the great ingathering that continues to this very day. The portrayal that immediately follows reveals a flock and a vine that is moving and growing as the community of the Body of Christ, the Church. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common.
The gift of salvation is never only between Jesus and me. It is a grafting onto the vine of Jesus Christ, an entry through the sheep-gate into his flock, a baptism into his body, the church. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from his body, the church, and the church is the Lord’s real presence in this world. At St. Paul’s conversion we heard: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And toward the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus, the just judge say, whenever you did it to the least of my brethren; you did it to me.
In the aftermath of St. Paul’s conversion, the early Church’s most prominent missionary left us an overview of the Body of Christ that was anything but cookie cutter community. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. The Holy Spirit was molding this early ingathering of believers, like clay in the hands of the potter, into a living body of many parts.
The apostles and others in leadership in the church embraced the heart of the Good Shepherd. They had the smell of the sheep in the words of Pope Francis, and laid down their lives for the flock. This engine of God’s love was going on all cylinders, and the fire of Pentecost was unleashed upon the earth. We take up the torch in our generation.