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May 7, 2006: FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Readings: 

Acts 4:8-12
I John 3:1-2
John 10:11-18

We frequently forget the authors of the Christian Scriptures based their narratives and quotes of Jesus on something other than what they actually saw the historical Jesus do or heard him say. None of them had ever come into contact with the carpenter from Nazareth between 6 BCE and 30 CE. They had often heard the stories about him with which the early Christian preachers filled their homilies and sermons. Yet the only Jesus they personally encountered was the risen Jesus. It was their experience of that "new creation" which determined how they thought and wrote. When we hear the Christian Scriptures we're hearing not so much what happened during the earthly Jesus' ministry as we're hearing how the risen Jesus intersected the lives of the sacred authors and their communities. They're relating not memories, but actual encounters which changed and gave meaning to their lives.

That's why Luke can confidently have Peter proclaim, "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved." Luke is supplying us more with his own faith than with the faith of the historical Peter. He informs us about the uniqueness of his experience by quoting Psalm 118: "The stone rejected by you, the builders, has become the cornerstone." Jesus was rejected 50 years before Luke wrote by the vast majority of his fellow Jews. But even more important, few individuals during Luke's lifetime as a third-generation Christian are willing to die enough to surface the risen Jesus in their own lives.

The author of I John concentrates on the rising dimension of the Christian's dying/rising experience. He agrees with Luke about rejection: "The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him." But he quickly reflects on both the present and future implications of such a rejection. "We are God's children now," he writes, "what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

The same force which gives the risen Jesus life also gives us life. No wonder we'll be "like him" one day. We're already like him in giving ourselves for others. They're simply two aspects of the same action.

It's precisely the giving aspect of Jesus that John the evangelist emphasizes. Notice how committed the good shepherd is to the sheep. "A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." No half-hearted or half-way dedication; no "I'll go this far and no further." John has discovered that the only way to gain life is to imitate Jesus' determination to surrender his life for others. ". . . I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down on my own."

Like us, Jesus' first followers knew that everyone experiences pain and suffering in life. Even atheists die. These Early Christians were different because they went beyond the unavoidable. They freely accepted a different kind of pain, suffering and death; a kind that could be avoided. It resulted from their freely giving themselves to others. Only this pain, suffering and death brought them life.

John was certain that the historical Jesus had "taken up" life again because John experienced something parallel when he imitated Jesus' laying down his life for "the flock."

But perhaps the most "dying" aspect of our commitment springs from something Jesus seems to refer to in passing. He's willing to give himself also for those "other sheep that do not belong to this fold." No one achieves life more deeply than when he or she reaches lovingly beyond "the flock," to those whom others are comfortable ignoring.