First Reading: Acts 4:8-12 Responsorial: Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29 Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2 Gospel: John 10:11-18
The question of the relationship between believers and the larger, often unbelieving community has been a perennial challenge for communities of faith. This concern for how to deal with “the nations” arises throughout the Old Testament tradition. However, the responses to the question do vary as some passages urge Israel to avoid the nations and their ways, while other passages speak of the role of the nations in God’s plan and the Lord’s desire that they will one day come to faith in the Living God.
Christians faced like challenges from the very earliest days of the Church. Would the Gentiles be welcomed to the Church as Gentiles, or must they become Jewish first in cultural and religious terms? St. Paul’s perspective, that the faith of Christ sufficed for all, Jew and Gentile, won the day and the Christian community did open its door to the nations and all the challenges of a diverse, complex community spread over great distances. While that quality of openness gave the Church an advantage in its missionary work, it also brought the Church into direct contact with cultures and communities that opposed, despised, and even persecuted the believing community.
In the first reading for this Sunday, we step back before these challenges to the very beginnings of the gospel. Peter the denier has been transformed into the bold proclaimer of Christ. His preaching to the crowds on Pentecost resulted in the conversion of many. Peter went on to do great deeds in the name of the Lord Jesus and now finds himself attracting the ire of the Temple authorities. As these events unfold, it is difficult to miss the parallel with the ministry of Jesus who likewise preached and healed and experienced persecution by the authorities.
In this passage, we have a glimpse of early Christian biblical interpretation as Peter takes up an image from the Psalms and applies it to the recent events of the Christ event. The rejected stone has become the cornerstone – in other words – God’s plan surprises us yet again. Jesus Who appeared defeated by Good Friday has been raised and vindicated by God. This truth of the resurrection turns everything upside down as the One Who was reviled and abused is now revealed as the glorious One, reigning over all.
Even as Peter’s experiences recall Jesus’ ministry, there is a notable difference in the content of his preaching. Jesus announced the kingdom and taught His followers the way of discipleship. In Acts, Peter and the other preachers will focus not on the kingdom, but on the person of Jesus. Their teachings primarily concern His identity and the truth of the transforming grace that affects those who live in relationship with Him.
The First Letter of John also reflected on the changed reality for the believer who comes into relationship with Jesus. Believers become “children of God” who experience a new way of living and a new hope for further transformation in the age to come. But notice that this transformation will have effects for the believer in the world as well. The larger world will not understand this relationship with Christ or its power and love.
The passage from the Gospel of John speaks of the importance of the relationship between believers and Jesus. Jesus uses the biblical metaphor of the shepherd to express His relationship to His followers and His dedicated care of them. As He indicates, His motives are entirely unselfish, founded on His great love for them and His desire to protect and care for them. He also roots this love for His followers in His loving relationship with the Father. Jesus is bringing them into that love and life-filled intimacy which He shares with the Father. And since relationships are by their nature mutual, the “sheep” here know the Lord and His voice.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the question of the relationship between the Church and the world has occasioned intense debate. And there is a new urgency in our cultural setting where media and cultural institutions have become so hostile to Christian faith. We live in an environment where politicians, pundits, and even popular entertainments mock the faith, Church teaching, Church leaders, and believers themselves. It has become easy to relate to the words of 1 John: “the world does know us!” As tempting as it may be to respond in kind or give up on “the world” the bold example of Peter teaches otherwise. Above all, it is the self-emptying love of Jesus which reaches out in relationship to those who deny, abandon, and persecute Him that summons us to engage and love even a corrupt and unbelieving world. If we hear His voice, we must speak what we hear – words of grace and life for the world.