FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 2, 14a.36-41
1 Pt 2, 20-25
The biblical readings of this Sunday offer us a rich reflection about the meaning of Christian life in the light of the Lord’s Resurrection. The way of the disciple begins with the sacrament of baptism, which seals the initial decision to conversion and confers the gift of the Holy Spirit (first reading). Such way is a constant imitation of Jesus, who “left us an example, to have us follow in his footsteps” (second reading). The Christian life is, in the last analysis, a following of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, adhering ourselves to him with active faith and hearing his voice continuously (gospel).
The first reading (Acts 2, 14a.36-41) is the conclusion of Peter’s discourse on the day of Pentecost, a part of which we already heard last Sunday, and which now in its last part is transformed almost to a dialogue with the audience. Peter addresses himself to “the whole house of Israel” and begins with a solemn affirmation of faith in the glorified Christ, emphasising again the opposition between the actions of God and those of men (cf. Acts 2, 23): “God has made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified.” (v. 36) That is to say, God has exalted Jesus, giving him all power in heaven and on earth, granting salvation to all men and women in his Name.
For Luke, Jesus is the Lord and Messiah from his birth (cf. Lk 2, 11; 4, 18). The newness of Easter consists in that God publicly confirms his lordship and his being messiah. Beginning from Easter, the old scriptures that referred to the Messiah found their full realization in the Risen Christ. “Hearing this”, Luke comments, “they were cut to the heart.” (v. 37) The reaction of the audience is significant. It does not deal only with a sentiment. From the biblical meaning of “heart”, it should be interpreted as a true awareness of their own responsibility and of the urgent decision to change from the depths of their being. In the Bible, decisions are made from the heart.
Before the action of God who has resurrected Jesus, nobody can remain neutral and indifferent since the resurrection of Christ is the beginning and the foundation of a new world. Hence, the reaction of those present –made from “the heart”– becomes mature in the decision to adopt a concrete behaviour, a different way of life. That is why, they ask Peter and the other apostles: “What are we to do, brothers?” (v. 37) Some authors think that this dialogue reflects some type of rite practiced by the catechumens during their admission to baptism in the early church.
The response of Peter is an authentic synthesis of the conditions and effects of baptism, an event that marks the beginning of the Christian life. Four aspects or essential moments can be identified, which could have corresponded to the significant moments of the baptismal celebration in the early church and which, in any case, are a true plan of conversion for the Christians of all times:
(a) Conversion (metanoia) is the first moment. It is the fundamental and indispensable experience that transforms the whole perspective of the believer. It involves a breaking away from the old way of thinking and living, bound to sin and idolatry, and demands a new orientation of one’s whole existence according to the Gospel values.
(b) The baptism in the name of Jesus is not a simple rite of symbolic purification, but a true communion with the life and power of the Risen Lord. Paul explained it as a personal experience of what happened to Christ in his death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6, 4-5).
(c) The forgiveness of sins is the first effect of Christian baptism. Although it presupposes the prior conversion of the person, the forgiveness of sins as a breaking away from the old self is not only a fruit of a personal decision, but first of all a gratuitous and loving action of God which radically transforms man and whose external sign is the sacrament of baptism.
(d) The gift of the Holy Spirit is the seal and the guarantee of what happened in baptism. In some cases Luke places it in relation with the gesture of “imposition of hands” (Acts 8, 16; 9, 17; 19, 5-6), which probably formed part of the baptismal rite (cf. Acts 19, 5-6). The expression “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38) does not refer to any gift or special charism of the Spirit, but to the Spirit himself. The believer, penetrated and animated by the Spirit, who in the Bible is always associated with life and divine power, is truly a new creature, animated from within him by a divine vital principle that assures the permanent communion with the newness of the Risen Lord.
Peter concludes affirming that the promise is not limited to those present, but that it is extended to the Israelites of all generations (v. 39: “for you and your children”). From this qualitatively new history that opens with the resurrection, Israel cannot and will never be excluded. But the horizon is still wider when the perspective becomes universal: “and to all those still far off whom the Lord our God calls” (v. 39). The real Israel is made up of all those who, welcoming the Word and receiving baptism (cf. v. 41) have received the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The second reading (1 Pt 2, 20-25), which was probably an old Christian hymn, constitutes another rich Easter catechesis that invites to a Christian life after the image of Christ, patient and blessed. The author of the letter refers to the sufferings to which the believer is subjected daily and exhorts to imitate Christ who “suffered for you, and left you an example, to have you follow in his footsteps” (v. 21). It is not an invitation to resignation or an exaltation of pain, but the presentation of a new perspective and new meaning of inevitable suffering in the light of the passion of Christ, presented as paschal lamb and suffering servant.
Jesus has shown the value of saving and solidary pain. Contemplating Christ, insulted and maltreated, who does not return the threats nor acts with violence, suffering will no longer be a simple curse that has to be endured. Following his way of self-giving and love, one’s life can be made into a redeeming and peaceful existence, close and committed to the outcasts and suffering of the world.
The gospel (Jn 10, 1-10) introduces us today into the rich biblical theme of the “shepherd”, an image that brings to mind the God of the exodus who accompanies his people, the close and provident God of Psalm 23, the God who, as true shepherd of his people, in contrast to the corrupt leaders of Israel, decides to preoccupy himself personally of his people (Ez 34).
The text of John is undoubtedly inspired by this rich biblical tradition in order to present Jesus as “the Good Shepherd”, or better still, as it is read in the original Greek text: “o poimén o kalós” “the Shepherd, the Good One”, that is, the only and true Shepherd. In effect, the adjective kalós, “good” in Greek means the quality of a thing or a person that corresponds fully to his mission (cf. Mk 4, 20: “good soil”; Mt 7, 17: “sound tree bears good fruits”; Jn 2, 10: “best wine”, etc.).
Verses 1-5 present the contrast between the image of the shepherd and of the thief, brigand or hired man. Who these negative figures are is not mentioned (the Jewish leaders? the Pharisees? the false messiahs?). It may probably be a symbolic representation of all those who present themselves or acts as enemies of the sheep. The whole text is focused on the figure of the shepherd who “enters through the gate of the sheepfold (Greek: aulé). It deals with a clear allusion to Jesus who presented himself in the courtyard (aulé) of the Temple of Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths (Jn 7, 14) as the true shepherd of Israel, being rejected by the Jewish leaders.
The text emphasises, first of all, the relationship that is established between Jesus, Shepherd, and the sheep that belong to him. Jesus “calls” his own personally (“each one by name”) (v. 3). In the Bible, to call by name is the same as taking possession of someone. The sheep are his and that is why “they hear” his voice (v. 3) and “they follow” him (v. 4). The verb “to follow” expresses docility, a fundamental characteristic of the disciple before his master (cf. 1, 37.38.41; 8, 12; 12, 16; 21, 19.22; etc.). The following of Christ is described as vocation and call on the part of the shepherd; and like listening, docility and adherence in faith on the part of the believer. Jesus, Shepherd, “brings” the sheep out of the sheepfold, a space that recalls the Jewish institution of the temple, and “leads them out” (v. 3). Then, he goes “ahead of them” (v. 4). The expression reminds of Dt 1, 30: “Yahweh, your God, goes in front of you, and will be fighting on your side” (cf. Dt 1, 32-33; Nm 10, 33) and the exclamation of Psalm 68, 8: “O God, when you went forth at the head of your people!” The sheep “know his voice” (v. 5) and they follow him. It is not mentioned where is he leading the sheep, only that “he goes (poréuomai) ahead of them” (v. 4). The verb “to go” (poréuomai) is the same one that John uses to speak of Jesus’ going back to the Father (Jn 14, 22.214.171.124; 16, 7.28), from what can be interpreted of the expression in the eschatological sense. Jesus, Shepherd, is the new guide of the people of God towards eternal life, towards a full and true life. The following of Jesus, the Shepherd, therefore, is not humiliating or depersonalising. To follow Jesus, Shepherd and Messiah, is to find life.
Verses 7-10 begin immediately after the incomprehension of the audience (v. 6). Now Jesus uses another image and affirms himself: “I am the sheepgate.” (v. 7), that is, only Jesus is the entrance to a new atmosphere of life and freedom for the sheep that follow him. He is the door in order to enter into life and to attain salvation. In the Old Testament, the gates of the Temple are mentioned oftentimes: “Open to me the gates of justice; I will enter them and give thanks to the Lord. This gate is the Lord’s; the just shall enter it” (Psalm 118, 19-20). The gates of the temple or of the city, designated by metonymy (a figure of speech by which the totality is designated by one part) are the whole of the city or of the temple (Psalm 122, 2: “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem”; cf. Psalm 87, 1-2; 118, 21; etc.). To enter the gate was to enter into the precincts.
The image of the gate applied to Jesus indicates not only that through him salvation and life are attained, but also in him one finds salvation. That is to say, he is not only the gate, the entrance, but also the sacred precincts, the new temple of God (cf. Jn 2, 19.21: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up… he was talking about the temple of his body”). He is the definitive and perfect temple of God. “Whoever enters through me will be safe” (v. 9), that is, he will participate fully in the life of God and in the definitive salvation.
Moreover, whoever enters through the door that is Jesus “will go in and out”. “To go in and to go out” is a Semitic way of indicating the two extreme poles of human existence, which is a “going out” of the mother’s womb” and “entering” into the world, and a “going out” of the world and “entering” into true life. The two verbs indicate the whole existence of the believer. The “pastures” are symbols of the fullness of life and of all the messianic goods that man attains in Christ. In effect, the text concludes with a solemn affirmation that sets up the work of Jesus against the figure of the “thief”: “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.” (v. 10)