Sunday, May 8, 2011

Second Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:21-25 / John 10:11-16

What kind of unity binds together the sheep of Christ's flock? How is it supposed to be that all the various peoples of the world, with their diversity of language and history, of culture and perspective, of politics and priorities, can ever in any meaningful way be said to be one fold? When even within a given culture, indeed within a given nation, the faithful can seem to speak incommensurable claims about Jesus Christ and his Church, what hope does the whole Body of Christ have?

We generally imagine two kinds of unity, neither of which seems to help us here. One kind of unity is what we might call tribal unity. It is what unites people with a shared lineage or blood, shared history or experiences, shared privilege or shared discrimination. It might be as small as a family, or as large as a nation state, and may even cross national borders. Positively, it allows persons who would otherwise be total strangers find, in the bonds of common experience and identity, a real sense of fellowship. Such bonds are strong, because they tend to touch what we regards as deeply personal features of ourselves. However, for that reason, these bonds also powerfully exclude. Absent such common features or experiences, being outside the tribe means that, while one may be treated well by its members, one is never truly a member. Since the bonds are deeply personal, they cannot be acquired by intention alone, no matter how sincere. Indeed, one may find that even a lifetime of common cause does not allow for full membership in the tribe.

On the other hand, we have procedural unity. This is the unity of a corporation, of a legal entity. It is the kind of unity that is achieved by meeting the proper requirements and fulfilling the requisite obligations. It might be as small as a club or a classroom, or as large as a national labor union or an international business enterprise, or even a transnational political movement. Positively, procedural unities are potentially open to any willing to meet their requirements for membership. They are, by their nature, inclusive in a way tribal unities never can be. However, they achieve this feat only by being deprived of those deep personal bonds that make union a source of human flourishing. If people find deep bonds in a procedural or political unity, it will be apart from, even despite of, the nature of the union, and not because of it.

So, how is it that the flock of Jesus Christ binds us together?

On the one hand, it shares much of the nature of a tribal union. It is deeply personal, and depends not on legal ties, but relational ones: I am the good Shepherd: and I know Mine, and Mine know Me. Unlike the procedural unity, like the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, the unity of Christ's flock is founded on the intimate and irrevocable union between Jesus Christ and each and every sheep, as well as of the flock as a whole. So powerful is the love between Christ and the flock that the good Shepherd giveth His life for His sheep.

Yet, as Jesus reminds his disciples, the flock of the Shepherd is not an excluding one. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd. Indeed, all it takes to be a member is not to be part of a special people, or raised in a given culture, or inherit a particular history. Rather, what draws us and any into the flock is the desire to think and live as Jesus did. Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. We were, all of us, no matter what our backgrounds, no matter what the deep tribal ties we had, as sheep going astray, and whoever enjoys the unity of Christ's flock has done so not as a personal accomplishment nor as the inheritance of his people, but through the saving exemplar of Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sake, and rose from the dead: but you are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

It is Jesus Christ, who suffered and died, and rose from the dead, who is the sole source of our unity. Jesus, the life and the resurrection, is alone what binds us together. He is the sole source of our lasting identity, as the sheep who know him, who hear his voice, and follow him, even as following him joins together every and all who receive the new life of Easter. This is the unity of the Church, to know one another as kin and fellow sheep in the flock of Jesus Christ, because he died and rose again on the third day for our sake, and who, who hear his voice, are willing also to die after his example, living in the hope of the resurrection.

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