As you probably already know, the Bible is more like a mini library than a single book. I say that because the Bible is composed of many books written by many authors over hundreds of years. When it was put together in its final form, the form we have, one of the books included was the book entitled, The Acts of the Apostles. We hear from the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading each Sunday throughout the 50 days of Easter. It is a very realistic book about the struggles of the Early Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The once fearful disciples have received the Spirit of the Risen Lord, and in their emboldened state ask themselves, “Now what? What is the Lord asking us to be and to do in the world?” I think that is what we all should ask ourselves each week at the end of Mass— “Now what? What is the Lord asking us to be and to do?”
The part of the story that we have from The Acts of the Apostles today has the apostles Peter and John arrested and placed in custody. The authorities demand of them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” The “this” refers to Peter who, just the day before, healed a beggar who had been born paralyzed but who now walks. The story goes that Peter said to this paralyzed man, “I have neither silver nor gold to give to you, but I will give you what I have. This is the only thing I have: in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, walk!” The man began to walk for the first time in his life, but instead of a celebration–which should have happened–Peter and John are arrested and thrown into prison. This is the pain that precedes every birth. This is the price our forefathers and foremothers paid in the first century so that the Church might be born.
A story that illustrates this comes from one of Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s books: Before the titles, Peter was walking along the street when, as you may recall from the book of Acts (3:6), a lame man begged alms, and Peter famously replied, “Silver and gold I have none, but what I do have I can give: in the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.” And the man did. Centuries later, after all the titles had been added, a poor monk traveled to Rome and interviewed Pope Julius II, who showed him the vast riches and priceless treasures of the Church. The amazed monk was shown room after room filled with treasures of art, sculpture, jewels, gold and silver. The proud pope said to the monk, “You see, my friend, the successor of Peter does not have to say, ‘Silver and gold I have none.’” “Yes, Holy Father,” replied the monk, “but by the same token, he can no longer say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.”
It begs the question: what is the most precious thing we can offer the world as followers of Jesus? And, does what we offer have transformative power in the lives of others?
Let’s take a look at today’s gospel story where Jesus contrasts the good shepherd over and against the hired hand. Jesus compares himself to the good shepherd, the one who will protect and defend the sheep against all harm. Not only that, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep; no hired hand will do that. Apparently, the sheep would graze freely in the fields during the day under the watchful eye of the shepherd. However, before nightfall, the sheep would be brought into a pen, an enclosure that had an opening for them to enter and to leave. There was no proper gate that you could close to keep the sheep inside, so the shepherd literally laid across the opening and formed a human gate. Over his dead body, and only over his dead body, could the marauding wolves attack his sheep. Symbolically–and in a very real way–Jesus did, and continues to do, the same thing for us. He lays down his life for love of his flock, you and I, and he does it freely. Here is another story that illustrates this well for me.
There were two warring tribes in the Andes, one that lived in the lowlands and the other high in the mountains. The mountain people invaded the lowlanders one day, and as part of their plundering of the people, they kidnapped a baby of one of the lowlander families and took the infant with them back up into the mountains. The lowlanders didn’t know how to climb the mountain. They didn’t know any of the trails that the mountain people used, and they didn’t know where to find the mountain people or how to track them in the steep terrain. Even so, they sent out their best party of fighting men to climb the mountain and bring the baby home. The men tried first one method of climbing and then another. They tried one trail and then another. After several days of effort, however, they had climbed only several hundred feet. Feeling hopeless and helpless, the lowlander men decided that the cause was lost, and they prepared to return to their village below. As they were packing their gear for the descent, they saw the baby’s mother walking toward them. They realized that she was coming down the mountain that they hadn’t figured out how to climb. And then they saw that she had the baby strapped to her back. How could that be? One man greeted her and said, “We couldn’t climb this mountain. How did you do this when we, the strongest and most able men in the village, couldn’t do it? She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It wasn’t your baby.”
What she meant by that was, “I’m invested in this child in a way that, through no fault of your own, you can never be. I am this child’s one and only mother. There is nothing that could have prevented me from being separated from my child. When you gave up, I kept climbing the mountain.” From the moment the child was kidnapped, this mother took on the role, the archetype if you will, of the good shepherd. She was willing to lay down her life, willing to risk everything, for her sheep. That is the kind of Savior we have in Jesus. He not only claims to be the good shepherd, he actually follows up his words with action and lays down his life.
A final story. A number of years ago, I stopped in at MacDonald’s on Mountain Road for lunch. It was about noon, and when I saw the long line up of students from Harrison Trimble High School ahead of me, I almost turned back. I’m glad I did not. Working the only cash that was open was a woman in her mid-50s. She was very efficient. She addressed every student with such dignity and respect and most importantly, she called everyone of them by their name. In that moment, she was acting as the good shepherd. In that moment I knew the gospel was being lived here and now and was not just a collection of stories in a book 2000 years old. Like Peter in the first century, we may not have silver of gold to offer each other, however, we have something far more important to share. It is our faith in Jesus Christ, who offers us his very Spirit—the very Spirit that gave birth to the Early Church. With his Spirit within us, not only do we rise up and walk, but we also become the encouragement for others to do the same.
Fr. Phil Mulligan