“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”
If you keep these words in mind and then re-read the first reading for Mass today, the truth of Christ’s care and concern for his flock becomes obvious, even in the midst of the turmoil in Christianity’s earliest beginnings:
“Those who had been scattered by the persecution that arose because of Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but Jews.”
The early Christians were persecuted and put to death, and those who were not arrested fled for their lives. Saul was determined to root out all the new Christians and purge them out of the community, by murdering those who believed in Christ.
This must have been a very discouraging environment for many of the new Christians. If modern people experienced this kind of mistreatment and suffering, many of us would become very discouraged. We wouldn’t hesitate to vent our frustrations to one another on how bad things had gotten.
Bad news travels fast and the gossip can often make a bad situation even worse. That’s what makes today’s account of how the new Christians proclaimed the good news about Jesus Christ to all the places they had fled to, so remarkable. They caught the fire of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and it never burned out, even when they fled for their lives. No one could take them out of Christ’s hand. He knew his sheep and his sheep continued to hear his voice alive in their hearts, in spite of everything. What a beautiful witness they gave to their love for Jesus!
The first reading says that when Barnabas arrived in Antioch and saw the grace of God at work in the new Christians’ lives, he “rejoiced” and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord. Perhaps Barnabas rejoiced at seeing them, because their love for Jesus Christ had not burned out, but had instead flourished. He may have also rejoiced because their public witness had drawn large numbers of people to the Lord. Antioch was the first place that people who believed in Jesus Christ were called Christians and for good reason.
The early Christians in Antioch also had good reason to be afraid to speak openly about their faith. The second bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius of Antioch (who was ordained by Saint Peter in 69 A.D.) was thrown to the lions. But, he faced his horrific death with courage. Here are a few of the words he wrote to his fellow Christians before his death:
“I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by the teeth of wild animals. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.”
The lions may have eaten this good bishop’s body, but his heart and soul lives forever because of his love for Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus meant in today’s gospel when he said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
Love endures. Only love endures. We are never fully alive, until we love. We all know the language of love. It crosses all boundaries, all cultures and time itself. Moments of genuine love are never forgotten, nor will they ever be, even in eternity.
Let us listen more closely than usual today, for Christ’s voice resonating in our hearts.
Mother Teresa said she saw Christ in the faces of the poor, that Jesus spoke to her on a train ride, and called her to serve them. My daughter told me a story recently, that has a lot to do with how we recognize Christ’s voice. She told me about a protestant minister that came to church on Sunday to meet his new congregation. He was dressed in old, dirty clothes, was unshaven and needed a bath, and he had the appearance of being homeless. He smelled food in the parish hall and went there to ask for some, but the cooks ran him off. He sat outside with a cup asking for change, but no one gave him any. Then, he went inside and sat down in a pew about mid-way in front of the altar. An usher came and asked him to move to the back of the church.
The former pastor went to introduce the new minister that night and the whole congregation was shocked to discover that he was the “homeless bum” in the back of the church. The one they all ignored. Then, the new pastor stood up and told the congregation that was actually his first sermon. They needed to go home and think about what just happened. Christ spoke to them, through the face of the poor, but they did not recognize him.
Do you recognize Jesus in the faces of those around you? That’s something for us to think about today as well.