APRIL 25, 2021: 4th Sunday of Easter
Bishop Ariel P. Santos
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, which is also known as the Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year during this time of Easter, the reading is taken from John 10. God’s image in the Old Testament is consistent: He is the Shepherd of Israel. As it was said, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”. In Psalm 23, God says, “I will shepherd My people in Israel.” In the Gospel, Jesus claims to be the embodiment of God as He proclaims to be the Good Shepherd. He said twice, "I am the good shepherd."
The first time Jesus said He is the Good Shepherd is because He lays down His life for His sheep. A good man may die for someone else; for another man…but for animals? This would be a little strange and odd that a man would die for an animal. If someone dies for a fellow man – although deemed less strange and more reasonable – is already in reality unusual. We are in the context of a man dying for his sheep; and maybe, this already blows our mind. What more if we meditate upon the idea of God dying for man, His creature? Just like what the psalmist said in Psalm 8, “What is man that you would take thought of him? You are infinitely, indefinably of more value than man. He is just your creature.” If there is a big gap between man and animal, then there is infinitely and indefinably more distant gap between God and man.
God is Transcendant; He is Immanent. He is the Most High God, the Ruler of the universe – just like what a song says, “You are mighty God, Ruler of the worlds made; You are the Lord of all, the Great I Am, perfect in purity.” Yet, God calls us His friends. He, as the Good Shepherd, walked among His sheep. He would lay down at the door of the sheepfold to protect them. He even smelled like sheep. In fact, He became one of us. This is just how good our God is. Even though He is Lord of all, the Sovereign Almighty God, He became one of us. He walks with us, feels what we feel, stands where we stand, struggles with us, helps us, and suffers with us. Again, all because He is the Good Lord. Truly, who are we that He would value us this much?
In an ancient Easter Vigil song "Exultet" a line goes, “O love beyond all telling! To ransom a slave, You gave away Your Son. O happy fault that earned for us so great a Redeemer!” God gave His Son to ransom a slave. Wow, this really blows our mind! He is not at all like the other gods! The other gods of mythology do otherwise. It is the people who sacrifice their lives for their gods, and never the gods sacrificing theirs for the people. But our God sacrificed His own life for our sake. No other God would die for His people.
The day after the triumphal entry of Jesus into the Jerusalem, after going back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethany, He went back to Jerusalem and had an encounter with the Pharisees. In Matthew’s narrative where Jesus gave the seven woes, in chapter 23 verse 37, He told them, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” From this Scripture, we see this lovely image: a loving mother hen taking care of her chicks. If there is a fire in the barn or in the farm, the mother hen would literally put her wings under her chicks to protect them from fire, and would willingly burn to death protecting her chicks. This is the image being exemplified in the passage : not just protection from whatever but from death. This is how our God is because our God, Jesus, is our Good Shepherd.
God is already self-sufficient. He is God, after all. He did not have to create us. He did not even need to bring us into existence; much less die for us and restore us whenever we sin. But why does He do all these things? Simply because God is love, and love, as I always say, is the desire and the willingness for the good of another. Furthermore, it does not end with this desire but it further springs out into the bringing about of the good even at the expense of His own hurt – that is, the giving of His life. There is no greater love than this.
The second time Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd" is because He knows His own sheep. Jesus knows us! Even if He is the huge, enormous, immensely giant God, He truly knows each of us. Even the hairs of our head are numbered. In times when we feel like God has forgotten us, when we feel that He does not know what we are going through, when we think He does not hear our prayer at all, please bear in mind that all these thoughts are not true! God knows us and He calls us by name. He hears our every prayer, and He accomplishes what concerns us. In fact, He is with us! God rejoices when we rejoice; He weeps when we weep. He walks where we walk; He stands where we stand. He understands us because He became one of us, and He still is. God is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. The Easter song goes, “In every insult, rift and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide; where there’s injustice; where there’s bullying; He suffers still and yet loves us the more.” This is the love of God – divine - and indeed, there is no other kind.
Divine love is one way. Whatever our response is, His love does not change. Understand that it never meant tolerance towards our absence of response. Rather, it is all about being constant; just like how a parent is towards his child - loving, caring and forgiving despite the wrongdoings. God's love never changes. Our Patriarch told us before that our good works will not make God love us more; and our sins will not make Him love us less. This is because God's love is always one way – always from Him towards us. It has always been like that, and if we respond right, we will find life; and because we find life, then God is overjoyed. Love is wanting to see the good of another.
When Jesus said, “I know My own, and My own know Me," what should be our response? True sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd. Our Collect of the Day says, “Grant that when we hear Jesus’ voice, may we know Him who calls us each by name and follow where He leads.” Church, respond! It is not to please Him, not to earn His love because it is always there no matter what. Do respond so that we will find life for ourselves. He leads us in green pastures. If we follow Him, then we will get to green pastures, and we will get to quiet waters. It is for our benefit, not His. Obeying Him is never about satisfying His own ego. Rather, it is for us to benefit from His goodness. Truly, the key is obedience; and when we do obey, God is filled with joy.
Just as Jesus and the Father know each other, so are we towards Jesus and vice versa. We also have this kind of relationship with Him. This is the reason why we have a mission to know God and to make Him known. To have an intimate relationship with the Father, through the Son, is eternal life. And the Son is a Person - God is a Person in Jesus. If we know Him and we say we do, it is not limited to just gathering information about Him. Instead, we grow in a relationship with Him. Jesus is not just a moral figure from 2000 years ago far removed from us. He is not a mere inspiration, or a motivational speaker – otherwise, there are many other self-help religions and Google-able authors online. Realize that Jesus is a Person, and we ought to know Him.
The question is: how do we know Him? It is by hearing from Him and by experiencing Him; by having a personal encounter with Him. We know Him through our faith and through building a relationship with Him. Saint Paul asks in Romans 10, “How can they know Him whom they have not heard? And how can they hear Him if there are no preachers?” Furthermore, he said in this famous verse 17, “So faith comes from hearing; that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.” Others would keep on saying, “Faith comes from hearing and hearing.” While that may partly be true, understand that there is an addition to it: faith comes from hearing and hearing about the Good News of Christ. This is what we need to hear. It is true that repetitive hearing shapes us as it is said in Latin, fides ex auditu. Faith comes from hearing, but my question is: what are we listening to?
There are many other voices in the world. Many are contrary to the voice of our Shepherd and to the Gospel. Hence, we are to take heed to what we hear. Repetition shapes the mind and the heart, and it also elicits a response. When we listen enough or when we are exposed enough to something, there will be a corresponding result. The advertising world knows this very well. Think about this: When we go to a supermarket, we see one product in one shelf and sometimes, we will find the same product in another display. Why? Because they want our attention, to see it repetitively so that we will eventually respond. This is what is called “product placement”. We also know the term “LSS” which stands for “last song syndrome” where a song remains in our memory, and eventually, we find ourselves singing the same song.
Saint Paul says in Philippians 3: 1b, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me, and it is reassuring for you.” Similar to what Saint Peter said in 2 Peter 1: 12, “I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them.” Moreover, in Jude 1: 5, it says, “I want to remind you about what you already know.” Therefore, let us be teachable. Let us not say, “ I will sleep during the homily because I have heard that already before." No! We are being constantly reminded. It is good for us to be reminded because it builds and shapes our faith, as well as strengthens it. Think about this: What if a father tells his child, "Don't eat anymore because you already ate yesterday." This is not how it goes, right? Why do we eat again? Because repetition makes us grow. This goes with exercise where we have to do it constantly. The key is repetition.
We grow in the knowledge of God by having a constant encounter with the Him. This is how we build our relationship with Him. As a suggestion, open your Bibles every day and read it. Make it a habit to check out the contents of the Cathedral of the King-CEC Facebook page. While you are at it, hit that like button and comment. Let us know that you are there. Let us know that you are being blessed. Make it a habit. And even though you already know these things, realize that it is beneficial for you to be reminded.
For us to grow, we need repetition. We need to be constant. When two people are in a relationship, they don't just go on a date just once and then get married immediately. There is the constant building of connection so that even after marriage, they continue to date because they do not stop growing in relationships. With God, the goal is to know Him and to grow in this knowledge. Aside from hearing Him, we taste and see His goodness. We encounter him; we commune with Him between the wings of the cherubim; and we experience Him.
May every time we come to worship Him be a great opportunity for us to truly experience and encounter Him firsthand. May we not settle with hearing about Him from a distance; rather, may we really touch, see, taste and experience the goodness of our God. May we come to the Eucharist as often as we can for that matter. Furthermore, may we utilize other means of grace – the Sacraments. We pray. We read His word. We hear from Him. We communicate with Him and express ourselves to Him as well. Again, the result of repeated encounters is growth - growth in our relationship with God.
May we truly and wholeheartedly know God so that when we make Him known, there would be that sparkle in our eyes, the glow in our face showing how serious we are in our relationship with Him.
I will close with this story: There is a famous actor who visited a certain city. He is undeniably eloquent and when he performed before the people certain pieces of oration, the audience was indeed pleased. Afterwards, He asked them if they have any more requests, or if they want him to recite a certain piece. One elderly man raised his hand and said, “Can you recite to us Psalm 23?” The actor replied, “Okay, I will; but on one condition. You go after me.” Then the elderly man answered, “Okay, I’ll do that.” The actor started reciting the verses and while he was delivering it, the people were spellbound and completely in awe. They were just captivated by his eloquence. When he finished, the audience just burst in an applause. Eventually, the actor sat down, and up went the elderly man on stage. He started, not as eloquent as the actor; he was not skilled like the actor and he was not even used to performing on stage. His voice was trembling. Still, he delivered Psalm 23 to the people. When he finished, it was dead silent in the hall. People were clutching their handkerchiefs and wiping tears from their eyes. The silence was broken when the actor came up to the microphone and said, “You know the difference between me and this man whom I have come to respect now? I know the psalm but he knows the Shepherd.” The relationship was just evident.
In whatever we do, may we have that same spirit within our hearts. May we strive to grow in the knowledge and the love of God because this is eternal life. I pray that whenever we speak of Him, whenever we demonstrate Him, whenever we show His love through us, people will know and say: This man has been with Jesus; just like the disciples. This man knows his God. May this be our witness because this is the way it is in the kingdom of our God.