4th Sunday of Easter
Preached April 22, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In today’s 1st reading we heard St. Peter make a bold claim, one that scandalizes the world in which we live today, just as it scandalized the world in which Peter himself lived. There is no salvation through anyone other than Jesus Christ, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.
It must be that way because this is not a matter of mankind reaching out to God, looking for God, or to striving to draw near to God by our own efforts. This is a matter of God, the transcendent Creator, coming to meet us in an utterly unique and unrepeatable fashion. When the very Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, becomes man, becomes one of us, that changes everything. The one who is the Truth and the Life has become our Way to the Father. The Good Shepherd has come in search of his sheep.
This is also fitting because in the final analysis salvation means being united to God himself. Only God made man can overcome our sins and unite us to himself in a way beyond anything we would have any right to expect, beyond anything that we would have ever conceived or imagined on our own. This is why on the Cross, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd lay down his life for his sheep; this is why he took it up again in the resurrection.
Today’s 2nd reading tells us: We are God’s children now; 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. In other words, the goal of salvation is nothing less than the vision of God, the Most Holy Trinity. If we attain the goal, then for all eternity he will be for us the light of our mind and the joy of our heart.
At the same time, this salvation that is in Jesus Christ is not just some private happiness to be enjoyed by each one in his own manner. If Jesus is the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone, that means that salvation requires that we let ourselves be built into a structure, the Church, the Temple of God, that is held together by Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, that means we must walk together with his flock to the sheepfold of eternal life. Salvation in Jesus Christ is inseparable from belonging to his Church. That is the reason for the ancient declaration: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” (cf. CCC 846, St. Cyprian of Carthage)
This does not exclude the possibility of belonging to Christ and his Church in ways that are known to God, but hidden from our eyes. No one is condemned except through his own fault; no one is condemned for innocent ignorance. Nevertheless, we act most humanly when we act from knowledge, rather than from ignorance. If someone is excused because of his ignorance he benefits from the pure mercy of God, without collaboration on his own part. In any case, we must not limit the flock of Christ to the sheepfold we see before our eyes, nor can we judge those who are outside. For all that, we can hardly count on what we do not know. The normal way in which one belongs to the Church is through faith and baptism. Just as Jesus Christ by becoming man made God visible in this world, so also his Church exists in this world as a visible institution, and we belong visibly to the Church through our baptism. That why the Church as a whole and each of her members is obliged to proclaim the Gospel to all men without exception.
None of this means, however, that simply belonging to the Catholic Church is sufficient. I am sure that there are Popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laity all burning in hell. It is not enough to belong to the Church in a bodily fashion; one must belong to Christ, in his Church, spirit, soul, and body. (cf. 1 Thes 5:23)
That means that it is necessary to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and not follow the voice of the world. The voice a person listens to is often revealed by his attitude to the sacraments.
There are Catholics who seem to view the sacraments as little more that rituals of belonging. They want the sacraments (baptism, communion, confirmation) for their children, but they do not want to go to Mass on Sunday and they resent the requirements for instruction and the very minimal standards that are set for godparents; they will even lie to the priest in order to get around the requirements and do what they want. Otherwise, the pretty much live their life as they please.
If they do not have time for Christ and his Church, perhaps that is because they are listening to the voice of the world: they want to be able to display their new cars, their fashionable clothes, and their jewelry; they have been seduced by the nearly endless variety of readily available entertainment that is offered to them; they choose ‘sexy’ over ‘holy’.
Catholics, however, who listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, might be dismissed by others as ‘hypocrites’ because their weakness, their sins, and their faults will be evident precisely because they live in the light of Christ. Nevertheless, they will fight manfully against their sins, sincerely seek instruction from the Church, will strive to build up a life of prayer, will put a priority on the fulfillment of their religious duties, which they will not perceive as a burden, but as a joy; as a result, they will not seek merely the outer shell of the sacrament, but the inner reality. They will treat the sacraments with reverence and gratitude and will seek encounter Christ in them and so receive his outpouring of grace and mercy. For that reason they will want to come prepared and will wan their children also to be prepared.
Finally, if salvation comes only in the name of Jesus Christ, salvation requires that we be willing to undergo a transformation that will make us become like Jesus Christ.