By: Fr. James Gross
Imagine that you are standing in a packed courtroom. You are the defendant in a case, and you’re trying to prove that you are innocent of the charges brought against you. The folks in the gallery may have already made up their minds about you. The judge or jury members might not be very sympathetic toward you. But there is one person on whom you can count, the person who’s standing right beside you—your defense attorney.
Jesus assures us that the Holy Spirit will dwell in us and remain with us. The term he used to describe the Holy Spirit is translated in today’s gospel reading as “advocate.” One of the meanings of the original Greek word that St. John used here, paraclitus, was that of a defense attorney at a trial. To use the term of “advocate” implies a level of friendship and optimism. My advocate is willingly there by my side. He genuinely cares about my well-being, and isn’t going through the motions.
Jesus is leading us to ask ourselves something: what does the Holy Spirit do for me personally as my advocate? Maybe he informs my conscience. Maybe he gets you moving to pray and work when you might not be inclined to do either. Maybe he opens the door of your heart to divine grace and pushes you to become better.
“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” In our modern-day culture and its love of short sound-bites, that verse works remarkably well. Behind St. Peter’s advice in today’s second reading is the expectation that his readers ARE ALREADY immersing themselves in the Word of God, and that their love for Christ is so strong as to be outwardly visible. He expects that his readers count on the Holy Spirit to be their advocate, in both good times and bad.
To speak of the Christian life without being fortified and confirmed in the Holy Spirit leaves out a big piece of the puzzle. Saints Peter and John knew that when they rushed to the city of Samaria. Those newly baptized members of the faith needed the Holy Spirit’s gifts in order to participate completely in the mission of Christ, to persevere in their confession of faith, and to grow in love. In only a couple of weeks the Church will celebrate Pentecost. These teachings of Christ that we heard today are a great reminder that we are sent to extend the Pentecost event into the world. To do this we need the fire of the Holy Spirit burning brightly in our hearts.
I like to use the following example. Let’s say you decide to have a swimming pool installed in your back yard. You need to have an excavation team dig the hole, put in the tub, fill it with water, buy all the accessories and cleaning equipment you need, and you landscape the area beautifully. You’ve completed all the work and spared no expense. Now picture yourself, day after day, spending whatever free time you have sitting at the edge of the pool, dipping your bare feet in up to your ankles. St. Peter’s words to us today imply a certain challenge. How many of us never dive into the pool? The person who forever sits at the edge of the pool doesn’t have to think about swimming across it. Have we gotten so used to pushing our hope farther out on the margins, to places hardly anyone else can see? Are we “playing it safe,” and never choosing to dive in?
I have experienced a lively, Spirit-filled community at St. Anthony’s. That doesn’t mean that we demonstrate this in showy, external gestures: in these parts we don’t take on the “Holy Roller” appearances. But our fervor and concern for one another are still evident. What difference does the Holy Spirit make in our lives? The Church makes a big deal out of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, so as to witness to and, if need be, suffer for Christ. If we blend in and assimilate in the world too completely, people will not notice anything distinguishing about us. And if there’s nothing distinguishing about us, people will fail to identify the hope that animates our hearts. Someone first needs to notice that I’m filled with hope in God in order to ask me why I have that hope.
Recall our Lord’s words during the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Anyone who claims Christ as their light cannot fade into the background. As a saint of the early Church once put it, for a Christian not to be salt and light for the world is as unnatural a thing as if the sun were not to shine.
St. Peter is quick to urge us to conduct ourselves with gentleness and reverence. When we display confidence in our faith and share it with those we meet, we do not have to “prove” our position in a pugilistic or obnoxious way, as though the goodness of Christ’s teachings require our imposing them in order to be good.
“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” When we use the word hope, we do not refer to mere wishful thinking, or a chance that maybe things will work out okay for us. Christian hope is the most realistic thing there is. The Church has often used the symbol of an anchor to describe hope. As the anchor keeps a ship from being tossed about at sea, the virtue of hope is what attaches us to God in a world that tosses us about. Hope is about substance, not luck. When our hope is strong, we find God and root ourselves in Him, because He is the advocate who always pleads our cause.
By: Fr. James Gross
One of my seminary professors was an Irish-born priest by the name of Fr. Carroll. Once in a while, when one of us students would ask a question that he thought was simple enough for us to figure out by ourselves, he’d sigh a little bit and say in his Irish brogue, “Have I been with you for so long a time and still you do not know me?” Every time I hear this gospel I think of good old Fr. Carroll—may he rest in peace.
The events in the Gospels sometimes look different to us if we view them through the lens of the Apostles. Today Philip and Thomas are the one who speak up. Before we evaluate their questions, let’s step back and consider the context of this reading.
Today’s Gospel begins at chapter 14, verse 1 of the Gospel of John. Why does that matter? Well, at the end of chapter 13 Jesus tells the Apostles a couple of alarming things. First, the Lord predicts that one man from within his inner circle would betray him. Secondly, after Peter brashly declares that he will lay down his life for the Lord, Jesus says, with a tone of anguish in his voice, “Peter, this very night before the cock crows, you’ll deny that you even know me—not once, but three times.”
Sensing that these men were reeling from what just happened, Jesus hurries to console them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In honesty he foretold which challenges would soon arise, but in compassion he builds them up with several marvelous teachings. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” What a generous image: heaven is not so small as to fill up, but neither is it so big that the individual gets forgotten or lost in the throng. God is the Father of humanity, and of each one of us. He wants to gather all of His family home, with not one among them missing.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This declaration comes after Thomas protests that he doesn’t know where Jesus is planning to go. One commentator I read put it this way: “Thomas always liked the feel of solid facts under his feet, and perhaps did not have much poetry in his nature.” Recall that Thomas is the one who won’t accept the testimony of his brothers the Christ was raised from the dead until he can see it for himself. Notice here that Jesus embodies all of the things he mentions. To suggest, “I know the way” is one thing, but to suggest, “I AM the way” is another thing entirely.
Christ makes himself our guide and our standard of holiness without exception or reservation. Whom else could we follow, believe in, and dwell with, no matter what? For any human being such a burden would be unbearable, but for the Son of God, it is His purpose and destiny. I once heard a speaker tell a group of high-schoolers: “You will choose a way in this world. You will consider something to be the truth which you defend. You will search for the meaning of life. But where will those choices take you?” In other words, ignoring God does not leave a person without having chosen “a way.” But without Jesus, where are we going?
Jesus ups the ante even more when he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Here’s where faith in Christ has to part ways with democracy. Our freedom is directed to protect our ability to choose Jesus as our way, truth, and life. His status as such is not subject to opinion polls. When confronted by the Sanhedrin in Acts of the Apostles, Peter told them, “We must obey God rather than men.” There is no other name through which people find salvation than the name of Jesus. We do not say this to be arrogant, but because Jesus is trustworthy.
Then comes the question from Philip: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Philip manages to startle Jesus, a man not easily startled. According to a scripture commentary I once read, the Lord’s response to Philip is one of the most staggering sayings in all of literature: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Do we realize the implications of Jesus’ claim? He is revealing the interior life of the Holy Trinity to us! Think of what we behold when we look upon His face! By bringing us into the circle, so to speak, of the Communion of the Persons of the Trinity, Jesus entrusts us with knowledge, as complete as we can take in, of the very mystery of God’s identity. No other religion dares to claim this, and neither would we, were it not for the teachings of Christ.
What does this mean for the Church? Jesus, and no mere man, established the Church. I like to think of the Church as a vehicle of the access He gives us to the Father and the Holy Spirit. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the means by which the Way, the Truth, and the Life is made present to us. Unless we understand and appreciate this, the countless sacrifices and heroic deeds performed in Christ’s name over the past 2,000 years will not make sense to us.
Some folks try to turn earth into heaven as though heaven won’t be there. We cannot get caught up in that trap. Christianity refuses to offer us an escape from the realities of evil and suffering. What it does offer is a final victory over them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us. What kinds of things are troubling us? Maybe it’s age or illness, or the hurts others have inflicted. The Apostles soon came to learn that none of those things have any power over Jesus Christ. Let’s reassure one another of this as we receive Him in the Eucharist.
By: Fr. James Gross
The Church gives this day the unofficial title of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we hear a part of Jesus’ discourse declaring that he is the shepherd of the sheep. In the modern world plenty of listeners will be tempted to tune out this whole idea, to consider the analogy antiquated and beneath their dignity. Sheep are simple animals, after all, and we’re nothing like them! Sometimes I feel like responding to this by saying, “For once, it’s not all about you.” The imagery of the shepherd is far more demanding of our attention than that of the sheep. We don’t call it “Lowly Sheep Sunday,” but “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The weight of this metaphor is on God’s action. And in the middle of this Easter season, we are to meditate on the characteristics of our Messiah and on his own words.
What Jesus does today is to describe a familiar part of daily life for his listeners and apply it to himself. Everyone knew that shepherds would work together by combining their flocks at night so as to protect them from thieves, robbers, or wild beasts. For us, the question arises: how did the shepherds sort the animals out? Each morning, one at a time, a shepherd would speak and call out to his sheep, all the while walking slowly toward the entrance of the pen. Those sheep who belonged to that shepherd, who recognized his voice, would follow, and each flock would go its own way to graze in the nearby pastures.
Jesus accentuates his role when he calls himself the gate for the sheep. Back in this time in history, if there was no actual gate in the common pen, one shepherd would lie across the opening or threshold to the pen as he slept, literally making himself the gate. Anyone who wanted to come into contact with the sheep would have to go through the shepherd. How often do we ask Jesus to be our spiritual gate? Do we assign him to the task of guarding our hearts and banishing temptations? What becomes of us when the gate is unlatched and the doorway lies open?
“I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved.” The shepherd provides security because only in him do the sheep put their trust. In addition, the shepherd is vigilant, never permitting any kind of predator to get past him or scale the fence. He defends each sheep as though it were priceless. It is said that in the event of losing a sheep, the shepherd was expected to put up a fight and show physical evidence of bruises or injury in order to keep his job. All the more so did Our Lord endure the most awful mistreatment and violence at the hands of his persecutors.
“I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” We are physically alive in terms of nature, but we are spiritually alive through Christ, the Good Shepherd. He alone opens up for us our true human destiny and embodies its virtues. Some people will argue that religion narrows our experience of life by its many rules and prohibitions. But there’s a whole other side of the coin—namely, the peace and fulfillment that Christ alone can give. Why is it that certain people with the fanciest toys and possessions can be sad, still searching for what makes life worth living? They cannot deliver abundant life, but Christ the Good Shepherd can. His road is narrow and steep, but the destination—heaven—is sure.
Americans celebrate as a characteristic of their identity a strong sense of rugged individualism. We praise those in our midst who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We don’t think of the song lyric “I did it my way” as a harbinger of disaster. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for personal responsibility, but taken to the extreme, such expressions of individualism wage war against the concept of Christ as our Shepherd. When I insist on being my own shepherd, what does Jesus really do for me anymore? Is he reduced to a heroic figure from the annals of history, or the buddy from whom I seek advice when I’m in big trouble? Is there any such thing as allegiance or accountability?
The very existence of the Catholic Church challenges this conventional American mindset of absolute independence with regard to religious practice. The Lord Jesus set up His Church to be a shepherding presence, and has empowered leaders from its midst to exercise the function of shepherd in Christ’s name. This places an enormously high standard on Pope Francis and the college of Bishops, but let’s consider the alternative for a moment. The most vocal opponents to the Catholic Church’s hierarchy would not, in the long run, really eliminate hierarchy. They instead desire to set up a system in which everyone is hierarchy. And then, who can rightfully refute anyone else? A “shepherd-less Body of Christ” is far different in reality than it is in theory. Those who seek to liberate the Church from abuses through an extreme individualism actually introduce a whole new kind of chaos. If Christ is no longer our Shepherd in any meaningful or concrete sense, then anything goes.
We need to take to heart the example of the audience in today’s first reading. What Peter had to say to them lands like a sledgehammer: “God has anointed as Messiah this Jesus, whom you crucified…save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” How did Peter’s audience respond? We hear that they consented, then and there, to being baptized, but what’s just as amazing is what we DON’T hear. There’s no defensive attitude or making excuses. “You must be delusional. Things are just fine, aren’t they?”
The short answer is that, without Christ in our lives, no, things are not fine. Those newly baptized first converts knew there had been something—someone—missing in their lives. Eventually they came to see evidence of the shepherding love of Christ in the Apostles. The day of Pentecost was just that—one day. As time went on, they asked one another “Are these men for real? Did they mean what they said? Are they truly putting what they preach into effect?” Peter’s words were powerful, but how he and the others lived out their message did a lot to win people over. They demonstrate how to dwell with Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and to make a home for him in our hearts.
Lastly, we do well to remember that the Church urges all of us on this Good Shepherd Sunday to pray for vocations to the Priesthood, and to actively encourage the young men of our parish who exhibit signs of a possible call to the Priesthood of Jesus. If we do not do this, who will? If we do not do this, what kinds of opportunities for grace and union with Christ might slip through their fingers? We have reason to rejoice in the Church because of how well our Savior nourishes us. Through imperfect but faithful human ministers, the Lord Jesus continues to shepherd us. May the Church of Christ always have dedicated shepherds who make tangible for us the love of His Sacred Heart.