Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A.
The most central mystery of our Catholic faith is the mystery of the Trinity. And in the Gospel of John, perhaps more than in any other gospel, Jesus gives us an insight into this mystery. In particular, He gives us an insight into His relationship with God the Father. Jesus says that He knows the Father and the Father knows Him (John 10:15), that He loves the Father (John 14:31) and the Father loves Him (John 15:9), and that the Father and He are one (John 10:30). If this is true of the Father and the Son, it must also be true of the Holy Spirit. Among the three persons of the Trinity there is perfect knowledge, perfect love, and perfect unity.
It’s no surprise then that we, who are made in God’s image in likeness, who have this Trinitarian pattern stamped on our hearts, should desire the same three things: to be known, to be loved, and to be one. These three fundamental desires lie in the heart of every human being. And these three fundamental desires produce three fundamental questions: Who am I? What is the meaning or value of my life? and Where do I belong? Often these questions lie hidden and buried until some crisis shakes them loose and brings them to the surface. But once we become aware of these questions, we feel compelled to answer them, and don’t feel at peace until we do so.
The beauty of our Catholic faith is that we don’t have to come up with answers to these questions on our own. Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, is the answer to every question of the human heart. In our gospel today, we hear that the Good Shepherd calls His sheep by name. He knows His sheep, and His sheep know Him. When faced with the question about our identity—the question, Who am I?—we don’t need to come up with an answer ourselves. Jesus knows who we are; He knows our name. And to know someone’s name in the Bible isn’t simply to know a fact about them—it is to know the essence of who they are. That is why the revelation of God’s name to Moses in the Old Testament is so significant. It’s not just a fact about who God is, it is an unveiling of His deepest nature and identity.
To tell someone to create their own identity, to tell them that no one can define who you are but yourself, is to condemn that person to a life of endless and anxious searching. Anyone who’s lived with themselves for long enough should be willing to admit that the last person who really knows who they are is themselves. We are a mystery unto ourselves. How can we be expected to know who we are? How can we be expected to answer the question of our identity by ourselves? We are also constantly changing, and it’s not always easy to tell what is fundamental to our identity and what is a matter of circumstance. Only the Good Shepherd knows the real me; only He knows my true self. There is nothing more liberating than to receive our identity from Jesus. This God-given identity doesn’t restrict, but expands our freedom. And it makes our identity secure, because although we change, God does not.
It is not enough to be known, though; we also desire to be loved. To love someone, on the most basic level, is to say to them, “it is good that you exist.” And while this has never been used successfully as a pick-up line, and while you will never find it printed on the inside of a Hallmark card, it is true of love on the most basic, fundamental level. How many of us, after all, have doubted the goodness of our existence, at least at some point or another? How many of us have secretly longed that someone would say this to us, and really mean it: “it is good that you exist.” It is easy, when we are young, to look at other people, to see their beauty and success, and think ourselves worthless by comparison. It is easy when we are old, and are no longer able to do or enjoy the things we once did, to wonder what the point is of going on living. That we are loved, and loveable, is a question that haunts us, from the moment we are aware of the question to the moment we die.
The good news is that Jesus is the answer to that question. The Good Shepherd not only know us by name, but He leads us good pasture. He gives abundant life. He gives salvation. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” Jesus says in our gospel. Jesus is the way to true love; He is the gate. Love, therefore, has a standard; it has a norm. It is not whatever we want it to be. Love that does not take the shape of Christ is no love at all. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for His sheep. This is a love that gives, not a love that takes; a love that respects the other as a subject and does not turn the other into an object. Much that is done in the name of love today is not deserving of the name. It is not a love that gives life, but that steals, slaughters, and destroys. It denies the goodness of existence. Jesus is the Father’s great “Yes” to existence; He is Father’s affirmation to the fundamental value, worth, and dignity of being a human being as the Father created us to be.
And the Father did not create us to be solitary individuals, but to be members of a community. We are made to be known, to be loved, and to be one. The Good Shepherd calls each of his sheep by name and He calls them to belong to His flock. He knows when any of them are missing, and He will not rest until He finds them and returns them. It is God’s will that there be one Shepherd and one flock. It is His will that we be one, even as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one. This is the reason for the Church. The Church exists to bring about the unity of the Trinity in the human race, and to do so across all time and space. We can confidently say to every person that we encounter: you belong in the Church. Not everyone may accept this invitation, because they may recognize that if they are to enter into the sheepfold which is the Church they must pass through the narrow gate which is Christ. But it’s our job to invite, and to tirelessly proclaim that in Christ they will find the satisfaction of their every desire to be known, to be loved, and to belong.
And, so, brothers and sister, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let us recognize once more that Jesus is the one who knows us, who loves us, and who gives us belonging. Let us give thanks that we don’t have to create our own identity, justify the value of our own existence, or build and sustain our own community. Jesus has done that for us. Ours is to receive the abundant life that He came to bring, and to invite others to do the same. Amen.