We have already received so much. We have been introduced to Jesus and have been given the name which is above all other names. We have been adopted as children of God, sons and daughters of the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ. We have been called to belong to his sheepfold: he has called us by name, we belong to him, hear his voice and he leads us out. It is a matter then of knowledge, love and unity. These are themes in the readings of today’s Mass.
It is a bit of a cliché that we are all supposed to be mortally offended at being compared to sheep. Preachers often begin their preaching on today, Good Shepherd Sunday, by rehearsing this cliché. Offended though we may be, it remains very difficult to stand up and to stand out from the crowd where courage is needed and we fear that others will be offended or angered by what we have to say. We can always take the comparison with sheep this way: we are creatures that need to be cared for, comforted, protected, ministered to in various ways. If we decide that we are not creatures who are needy in these ways then there are consequences, not only psychological but spiritual.
A renewal programme in ministry and theology used to invite participants to take it in order to ‘minister to yourself’. But this is precisely what we cannot do. We need humility to allow ourselves to be ministered to, we need the openness to receive and to accept what others have to offer us.
The kind of life we are now speaking about consists in knowledge, love and unity. These are the themes of the Good Shepherd discourse. ‘I know my own and mine know me’, Jesus says, ‘just as I know the Father and the Father knows me’. ‘I lay down my life for my sheep – greater love has no man than this’ and ‘having loved his own, he loved them to the end’. ‘That they may be one’, he prays in John 17, that the scattered sheep may be brought back into unity, all of humanity (all those ‘other sheep that are not of this flock’) are to be brought into unity.
We have already received so much and so are not only sheep needing to be cared for but also, at the same time, shepherds entrusted with the care of others. It is the calling of each person who follows Christ, of everyone who belongs to the priestly people. What we normally refer to as the ministerial priesthood is there not just for practical reasons but in order to give us sacramental signs within the community of knowledge, love and unity, signs that this life of the community is not natural but supernatural.