Throughout the season of Easter, the Church proclaims excerpts from the New Testament Book, “Acts of the Apostles” as the first reading for both Sunday Mass and Masses during the week.
I have spoken about the New Testament Book “Acts of the Apostles” before- it is a companion volume to the Gospel of Luke, it’s purpose is to make the case that the divine life and presence that was revealed in the body of the Lord’s Jesus’ human nature is now revealed in Church, “Acts of the Apostles” describes what the revelation of Christ in the Church looks like, the form Christ’s divine life and presence takes as he reveals himself to the world through the Church.
This is very important for us to remember. If you profess the Catholic Faith, the Faith that is described for us in the Scriptures, you do not believe that the Church is merely some kind of an accidental “add on” to the revelation of the Lord Jesus- instead the Church is integral to what it is that Christ reveals. This is why the Scriptures describe the Church as being the “body” of the Lord Jesus and as existing in such a profound relationship with him that the relationship of Christ and the Church is aptly described as intimate as the relationship of a bridegroom to bride.
Bottom line: there is in authentic Christian faith no place for a “choice” between Christ and the Church or a Church without Christ. In attempting to choose you will ultimately end up with neither.
A relationship with Christ, the one true God who gives us the gift of his divine life and presence, is a relationship that happens in all its fullness in the Church. Our relationship with Christ is not simply a matter of ideas in our minds or feelings in our hearts, but a relationship to his Body- the mystical Body of Christ that is the Church.
The Church is, by Christ’s own will, the visible, tangible, concrete route of access to Christ’s divine life and presence in the world. The Church is the way that Christ has chosen for us to have a relationship with him!
This is what today’s scripture from Acts of the Apostles is all about as well: Peter, from his place in communion with Christ in the Church, offers to others the invitation to know Christ in the Church. That’s his mission- to extend to others the invitation to know Christ and share a relationship with Christ in the Church. Once those invited come into the Church, they accept a new and different way of life- a way of life that is expressive of their relationship with Jesus Christ- and as a way of life, it is expressive of Jesus Christ, not just in some things, but in all things!
Inviting people to know Christ in his Church is also our mission.
The Church does not exist to be a religious discussion club or theological debating society. The Church does not exist to manage and maintain faith-based infrastructure. The Church is not meant to be a repository for ethnic customs. The Church exists to create missionaries for a mission- and this mission, which comes from the Lord Jesus, is to invite people to know him and to share a relationship with him in the Church.
When this is happening, the Church thrives. When it is not happening, the Church falters.
When the Church is doing the mission that Christ wants it to do, her life is blessed. When the Church resists doing her mission, the Church fails.
Remember, the Church does not choose her own mission, but receives her mission from Christ and then sets about disappearing into that mission.
Our second scripture for today is an excerpt from the first letter of Saint Peter.
In this scripture, the Apostle Peter continues a spiritual reflection that he introduced to us last week. This reflection is about also about Christ and the Church and it is meant as a reminder to us that who we are as Christians, our identity, is a gift from Christ- a gift that was given to us at a great price.
What is that price? The price is the cross.
What does this mean? Peter wants for the faithful to understand that our relationship with God in Christ has happened because God in Christ chose to be with us in all things. This is what the Incarnation of God in Christ is all about. God in Christ chooses to be with us in all things.
When God in Christ does this, he makes all of human experience a route of access to his divine life- even the raw facts of life like suffering and death. We see this revealed in the cross.
Our relationship with Christ in the Church is not meant as an evasion from reality. Christians are not living in denial of the full force of the harsh facts of what it means to be human. Where Christ inserts himself, so too must the Church make herself present. Where Christ has gone, so also must his disciples follow. In a world gone dark, the Church is meant to bear Christ’s light. In a world parched in its thirst for God, the Church is meant to bring Christ’s living water. In a world that feels the absence of God, the Church carries into that breach Christ’s own divine life.
A Church that is authentic, strong, faithful- a Church that truly knows the Lord, shows its authenticity, its strength, its fidelity in its willingness to go where Christ was willing to go. A Church that does not, in her service to others and missionary resolve, make great sacrifices and in doing so, look like the image of Christ Crucified, is not the Church in truth.
Our Holy Father has spoken repeatedly against a “self-referential Church”, one that is content to celebrate itself, and whose singular focus is placating the needs of its own members, as if membership in the Church was akin to membership in a club.
This is not a the true Church, but an anti-Church (Yes! Just as there is an anti-Christ there is also an anti Church!). Such an anti-Church is a Church that has displaced the revelation of Christ Crucified with a fixation on its own ideas, opinions, causes and goals.
Such an anti-Church might exhibit strength of conviction in opinions about itself, even have well financed initiatives and institutions, but it will die in its sins.
Finally… our Gospel for today- another excerpt from the magnificent testimony of the Gospel of John.
Christ the Lord’s words about a shepherd, who protects his people is not just intended as a comforting image, a pious generality that indicates that in hard times Christ is with us. Christ is with us in all things, but that is not the point of today’s excerpt from the Gospel of John.
Christ is referencing an image of the God of Israel that resonates throughout the Old Testament- an image many of you might be familiar with as it is expressed in the 23rd Psalm- “the Lord is my shepherd”- God is likened to a shepherd for his people.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel has an extended prophecy in the 34th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel in which he foresees that in place of corrupt and faithless shepherds, worldly shepherds, God himself would come to his people and be their leader, their protector, their guide. God would literally and truly be the shepherd of his people.
The image would become the reality.
Christ the Lord is testifying in today’s Gospel that this vision of Ezekiel has come true! God has come in Christ he has come as shepherd for his people!
Christ is God the Shepherd and he has come into this world to lead, protect and guide his sheep- that’s the Church.
Here’s an interesting way to think about all this:
Christ is the shepherd of the Church and the faithful are the sheep. If we stay in relationship with Christ, with our shepherd, then Christ will lead us, guide us and protect the flock (the faithful). If we wander away from Christ, or separate ourselves from the flock, we place ourselves in great peril. Most often separation happens when we refuse to listen to Christ and accept his Word spoken to us in the Scriptures or a usurper shepherd, someone who seems similar to Christ, manages to coax us away.
Christ employs sheep dogs to help him keep the flock in relation to him- these sheep dogs are the priests. Think of priests as dogs (bishops are like the chief sheep dogs). Think of the collar your priest wears as an indication of his status- he is a dog and that’s his dog collar, Christ uses that collar to keep his dogs in line. A good priest, like a good sheep dog, is loyal and obedient to his master, the shepherd, and he is vigilant, focused with singular resolve on his master’s commands. Sometimes a good priest, like a good sheep dog, has to bark at the sheep, even show his teeth, but he does so only to alert the shepherd of danger and to keep the sheep in relationship to the shepherd and to one another.
At times a wolf might try to pass itself off as a sheep dog or sometimes as a sheep, and then the flock is endangered. This is why it’s best for Christ to have a lot of sheep dogs at his service- to keep the flock safe from the threats of wolves both outside the flock and those wolves that insinuate themselves within (the flock).
Christ is your shepherd. You are his sheep. I am his sheep dog.
And I think I’ve been barking at you long enough!