Who Are His Sheep?

Monday and Tuesday the Fourth Week of Easter – Acts of the Apostles 11:1-26, John: 10:11-18, 22-30.

Yesterday’s and today’s readings are in sequence, both the first reading and the gospel. I’d like to think about them together because this provides a fuller look at how the Church first spread beyond the Jewish enclaves around Jerusalem and into the Gentile communities of the Near East. They also show us how Jesus is simultaneously fulfilling the specific promise of Israel’s Messiah yet defining the community of “sheep” to be saved by criteria that are not restricted to a Jewish heritage.

Good Shepherd, 5th-century mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna | image from flickr.com.

Let’s start with the gospel readings where Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd to describe Himself. The first aspect of the good shepherd He points out is self-sacrifice: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is in contrast to the paid worker who abandons the sheep in tough times because he only works for money. The second aspect is a hard-to-describe quality of knowing: “I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” How can we understand this? This type of knowing can only come from a few things: perhaps a long, close acquaintance such as one with a friend, family member, or co-worker with whom you interact every day; or another way to “know” someone comes through the bond of love and trust that transcends the physical aspects of the person. This second type of knowing we might see in a mother and child, forged through gestation, feeding, and care over years, present in their mental and physical attachments. Or we might see this in a husband and wife who have grown so close in love that they know what the other person is thinking, they anticipate the other person’s needs before they are spoken, they instinctively know when the other enters the room without having to look up. This is what I mean by a love and trust that transcends the physical aspects of a person — you don’t need to see them to feel their presence, you don’t even need to have them be present to hear them in your mind, how they might react to something. In this way, love and trust fuse people together in an altogether more-than-physical way. We might dare to call this way of knowing mystical because it belongs to the family of spiritual mystery that we encounter in the liturgy.

Jesus is saying that He knows His sheep and they know Him in this way. More than that, this is the same way that He and the Father are in relationship. How incredible! I’d definitely use the term mystical once we understand that this is a sharing in the Personhood of the Trinity. I don’t want to lose track of the first way I identified above, the close acquaintance gained by repeated interaction. This is displayed in Jesus’s constant prayer to the Father throughout His life — whether in the desert, on the mountain, before meals and miracles, or simply in His solo time. This way of prayer is an essential element of our mystical “knowing” when we have a hard time seeing the physical presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus models for us the love and trust born of filial relationship as well as the prayer life that reinforces the companionship, love, and trust: these are our ways of knowing God.

The message of the Good Shepherd would have meant something specific to His Jewish audience. The Word of God first used this language with Ezekiel (see Ezekiel chapter 34), and the full message was that God Himself will come to replace the bad shepherds (i.e., chief priests and leaders) of Israel: “my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep … I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ez 34:8,11). Thus, when Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, by invoking Ezekiel He is telling them that they have fallen down on the job of shepherding God’s people and that He Himself is God, here to do the work Himself.

Initial M depicting the parable of the Good Shepherd from a French illustrated manuscript | Creative Commons, courtesy the Free Library of Philadelphia.

What’s more, the Word of God tells Ezekiel that His sheep are more than just those living in Israel: “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture” (Ez 34:13-14a). Here we see a different and broadened definition of God’s people than “descendants of Abraham and Jacob” or “house of David” or “of the twelve tribes.” In other words, the genetic heritage that grants the Jews the status of Chosen People is not equivalent to the group of people who will be saved (here called “my sheep”). I make this point not to diminish in any way the important status of the Chosen People, but to point out that the eschatological end God envisions for humanity is not restricted to the Chosen People. God reveals Himself as the great “I AM,” the only God, to the Chosen People so that they can nurture this truth over the millennia and become a shining light for all of the nations. As He tells Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6). Thus, Israel as a light to the nations, is there precisely so that salvation may reach beyond it, “to the end of the earth.”

Jesus is the promised “light to the nations.” Remember, when he is presented in the Temple as a child, holy Simeon took him in his arms and declares Jesus to be, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Thus, we can see the trajectory of these various threads. When Ezekiel relates that God will feed his sheep “on the mountains of Israel,” he is referring to the spiritual wisdom and revelation of Judaism. Those sheep from outside of the Jewish nation will be brought to “the mountain heights of Israel” to feed on the good pasture of their spiritual wisdom. In this manner, Jesus glorifies Israel while being a revelation for Gentiles. He does not create a new religion but fulfills all of the prophecies and promises within Judaism: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). He upholds Judaism while making way for the eschatological expansion of the faith to the rest of the world. So, yes, His ministry is primarily, overwhelmingly, focused on Jews, Jewish towns, and Jerusalem; His chosen twelve disciples stand as the chosen twelve tribes, and all of His Words and works are those that He seeded in the minds and mouths of the Jewish prophets over the millennia. But multiple times throughout the gospels we receive the message that the reign of God that He brings is open to non-Jews: the exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, healing of the Centurion’s servant, etc.

The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew, chapter 15 is especially interesting because some people use one of Jesus’s quotes to show that He only came for the Jews: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:14). But that interpretation takes the quote out of context. This is actually His answer to his disciples who want Him to send the woman away — it’s a statement that reveals what they’re thinking and not a fulfillment of their request to dismiss her. In fact, after she shows perseverance in asking for His help, He commends her and grants her wish for her daughter. The lesson is clearly a contrast: the woman’s perseverance of faith stands out against constant skepticism and lack of acceptance from the Jews. Jesus makes abundantly clear that His saving work is open to all who have faith.

That’s why we have to pay special attention to His words in yesterday’s gospel: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Who are His sheep? “Other sheep that do not belong to this fold” may mean dispersed Jews in other lands, or — as we see fulfilled in the Acts of the Apostles — the “Greeks,” the Gentiles. Jesus establishes the fact that His sheep “know” him like He knows the Father, that they will “listen to my voice.” This spiritual, mystical knowing does not rely on genetic Jewish heritage. This is the knowledge that the Creator places in our souls at the moment of our creation. This is our response to God within us, cultivated as we listen to His call and by our prayers, our desire, our thirst.

In today’s gospel, Jesus repeats this language and makes even more clear that His sheep are not simply those of Jewish heritage. He says to the Jews gathered around Him: “you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” So, not only are the sheep to be saved and brought into this “one flock” open beyond those of Jewish heritage, some Jews will actually be excluded from the flock. The Chosen People kept the flame of God’s revelation to humanity alive, but the sheep to be saved are those who respond to God with all their hearts, minds, and souls — a different set of people not determined by the status of Chosen People.

I Am the Good Shepherd (contemporary), Jackson Studios | image from etsy.com.

Once again, we hear the Word of God before He is incarnated as Jesus telling Ezekiel these same things hundreds of years earlier: “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Thus, the Jews themselves will be sorted according to their acts and their hearts.

This message was lost in the fervor of the Jews being astounded at Jesus’s claim that “The Father and I are one.” They want to stone Him right after He says this. And then, of course, this great “blasphemy” (aka truth!) is used as the rationale for His Crucifixion. Therefore, this message did not sink in right away for the first Jewish followers of Christ who made up the Apostolic Church. When evangelizing throughout the Near East, at first they went only to Jewish synagogues. Today’s first reading tells us that the disciples fleeing the persecutions in Jerusalem “went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but Jews.” But some preached Jesus Christ to the “Greeks” in Antioch (meaning non-Jews, aka Gentiles). This is the first record of deliberate evangelization to non-Jews. The author writes: “The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” What does it mean that “the hand of the Lord was with them”? Throughout the Bible, the hand of God signifies protection, blessing, and anointing. God tells Isaiah: “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Is 41:10b). Thus, those preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch are strengthened and protected by God in their efforts.

So, when the church in Jerusalem hears of this unprecedented work and sends Barnabas to investigate, he “saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart.” Let’s remember that Jesus promised, “I know mine and mine know me,” so Barnabas, filled with the Spirit, recognized that same Spirit of Christ alive in the work of the disciples preaching to the Gentiles. This mystical knowledge, so palpable at Pentecost, continues to pulsate through the early Church, calling the sheep who thirst for God, Jew and Gentile alike. 

This is no small thing. As Peter tells us in the episode that yesterday’s first reading summarizes, “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). But God provides Peter with a vision as he prays in which all of creation descends from heaven on a white sheet. It is a sign of the purification of Creation by Jesus’s great sacrifice. With Christ as the new Adam, Creation itself is re-sanctified and is no longer unclean. God’s voice tells Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The ripple effects of the Christ event in the fabric of history are making themselves felt in this revelation to Peter. 

Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius (1709), Francesco Trevisani | image from flickr.com.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, Peter ministers to Cornelius the centurion and his household of Gentiles. Thanks to his vision, Peter is beginning to understand what Jesus was saying when he said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Cornelius tells him that he was praying at his house when an angel appeared and tells him that his prayers were answered and he should seek out Peter. This is a man who is spending time with God, who yearns for Him; a man who is one of the sheep. So, Peter admits, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Jesus promises his Apostles that the Holy Spirit will be sent to them after He ascends to heaven, and indeed this is what happens in the house of Cornelius: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-45). This is another Pentecost moment, and here the Holy Spirit descends upon Gentiles! Even the grumbling Jewish members of the fledgling Church in Jerusalem are mollified when they hear that the Holy Spirit was present to the Gentiles in the same manner He came to them: 

[Peter said]: “If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us
when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I to be able to hinder God?”
When they heard this,
they stopped objecting and glorified God, saying,
“God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too.”

The last two days’ worth of readings presents to us the growth of the Church beyond the Jewish community within which Jesus Christ came and ministered. It shows that the Spirit didn’t “force” a growth outside of the Jewish communities (as some scholars argue) but that this was a Spirit-fueled unveiling of a promise given to the Jews by Ezekiel and then Jesus. This idea of the eschatological sheep in God’s flock being defined outside of the strict genetics of the Jewish race was always present in God’s teaching. Just like the Holy Spirit came to infuse the Apostles in the upper room with the grace, wisdom, and courage to start their ministry in Jerusalem, the Spirit came to expand this grace to include Gentiles.

The growth of the Church unfurled precisely in the order promised by Christ, with the undeniable logic of the grain of wheat, dead to the earth but rising again in great bounty. No other gospel makes this as clear as the gospel of St. John, which is one of the reasons I find it so appealing. We find in the very first chapter, through the mouth of John the Baptist, that Jesus’s saving action would be for the benefit of the world, not just the Jewish nation: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). The first epistle from John also makes the scope of His mission crystal clear: “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2).

In my mind, the move of some theologians to reduce the mission of Jesus to only gathering the nation of Israel to fulfill the prophecies pertaining to the Jewish God is too limiting and deaf to the revelation of the Spirit after the Resurrection. It is of the same ilk as writings that attempt to distill some version of a historical Jesus from the Christianity that developed after Jesus. Historical underpinnings are very important, as is the deep spiritual Jewish formation of the culture within which Jesus was born. But an attempt to find a Christ “before” or “outside of” Christology simply denies the fullness of God’s entry into the stream of human history.

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  1. Pingback: What is the Lord's Peace? It's not the world's peace.

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