By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
First Reading: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Response: Psalm 100:1-2, 3, 5; Second Reading: Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; Gospel: John 10:27-30
The first reading describes an already flourishing Christian movement in the years 46-49 A.D. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus had taken place about 10 years earlier. His conversion moment is detailed three times in Acts of Apostles three times. The disciples were slow to accept their former persecutor as one of them. Through the influence of Barnabas, he was accepted into the Christian community at Antioch, Syria (See Acts 11:22-26). This brings us to the context of today’s first reading. Luke begins chapter 13 of Acts with a list of prophets and teachers active in the Antiochian Church. The great Barnabas is listed first. Saul of Tarsus is last. That position will change. Paul’s dominant and hyperactive personality will propel him upwards. While the prophets and teachers were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said (though a prophet), “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” After more fasting and praying, the congregation imposed their hands on them, (the laying on of hands), “and sent them off.” Such is the background to the First Missionary Journey. It began as a ministry of Barnabas and Saul, and ended with the same pair – but in reverse order, as Paul and Barnabas.
The first reading locates them in what today is central Turkey in a city also named Antioch. As devout Jews they went to the local synagogue on the Sabbath. They must have favorably impressed the presiders at the synagogue, who invited them to address the people. By this time, Saul (now called Paul) was already in charge. He rose to speak. A sermon followed. Some Gentile converts to Judaism were present. They were attracted to Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them after the service. Word spread quickly about the two missionaries. They were invited to speak on the following Sabbath. This time, the synagogue was full. Success gave birth to jealousy. Their critics had spent a week considering the words of Paul on the previous Sabbath. They were ready. They cursed and contradicted everything Paul said. Paul announced that, from now on, the missionary efforts would be directed to Gentiles. Thus, the opposition they encountered was God’s way of revealing what the Holy Spirit meant about “the work to which I have called them” — their mission to the Gentiles was born. Their work was no longer limited to a chosen people. It was to the world.
Psalm 100 serves as a response to the first reading and a connection to the gospel of this Sunday. The psalmist invites “all you lands,” that is, the Gentiles, to sing joyfully to the Lord; to serve him; to gather before him in worship. The connection with the gospel of the day is in the words, “We” – that is, even the Gentiles – “are his people, the sheep of his flock.” The people’s response repeats this theme, “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” In the gospel, Jesus speaks of “my sheep.”
In the second reading, the prophet or elder John is still absorbed in visionary experience. He sees a countless multitude consisting of people from every nation, race and tongue (language). Separation and divisions of humanity brought about through human pride in the story of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1-9, is seen as ended – in fact, reversed. They stood before the throne of God and the Lamb of God in white robes (a symbol of victory) and holding palm branches — another symbol of victory or triumph. An elder present before God’s throne explains, “They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” This could mean baptism or martyrdom. They worship God forever. There will be no more suffering, no hunger, no thirst, no hot sun scorching them. Why? Because they are the flock of the Lamb. He will be their shepherd, leading them to fresh springs of life-giving water. A final consolation, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The context of today’s gospel is the Feast of Hanukkah, celebrating the anniversary of the rededication of the temple in mid-second century B.C. It was winter, and Jesus was walking up and down in the covered and colonnaded walk called the Portico of Solomon. We encountered this place two Sundays ago as the place where disciples would gather to hear the apostles proclaiming Jesus after his resurrection. Jesus’ critics taunt him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” His reply, “I told you, but you do not believe.” The reason they do not believe: “because you are no sheep of mine.” This brings us to the opening of today’s gospel and sounds like a reworking of the earlier parable of the Good Shepherd. He continues, “My sheep hear my voice.” This would be illustrated after the resurrection when Jesus encounters Mary of Magdala. She does not recognize him until he calls her name (See John 20:14-16). Also, in contrast to the men taunting him, who are not his sheep, “My sheep hear my voice.” What is the advantage of being his sheep? “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” In John 3:35, Jesus had said, “Anyone who believes in the Son has eternal life, but anyone who refuses to believe in the Son will never see life. The anger of God stays on them.”
Recalling that John is writing his gospel in the 90s of the first Christian century, we can see the polemics (verbal attacks) at that time between Christian synagogues and Jewish synagogues over converts. “No one can take them out of my hand.” Considering a similar claim made of the Lord God in Deuteronomy 33:3, “In your hands are all the holy ones,” this is Jesus’ claim to be God. There is an echo of Wisdom 3:1, “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God. No torment shall ever touch them.” The sheep of Jesus are gifts from the Father, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of my Father’s hand.” In John 6:39 Jesus said it is the will of the Father, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.” In Isaiah 43:13 God speaks through the prophet, “I AM. There is none who can deliver from my hand.” The author of the gospel seems to realize that the implicit claims to being God that we have seen so far should be made explicit. Therefore, he depicts Jesus saying, though not as the Lectionary translates from Greek, “The Father and I are one,” but correctly, “I and the Father are One.”