The Shetland Islands are north of Scotland and just below the Arctic Circle. They are a group of one hundred islands with only sixteen inhabited. There is a daily ferry for travellers, but also private boats for hire.
Today we celebrate that God comes to us, communicates with us, and relates to us in three distinct ways as three distinct persons. It is no accident that we celebrate Trinity Sunday at this particular point in the liturgical year — after Easter, Ascension and Pentecost — because it was through those events that the disciples realised that God is a Trinity of three divine persons, and yet only one God.
Breathing in the spirit Pentecost Year B 23 May 2021 ‘Stay Connected’ says the sign outside the church at the top of the street and there’s a quote from the first letter of John: ‘Let us love one another for love is from God.’ This past year we’ve heard quite a bit about staying connected, …
Leaving the family home is one of life’s biggest transitions for children. There are many reasons why they ‘leave the nest’. It may be to go to university, to start a job, to assert independence from parental control, to live with friends, to travel the world, to get married or to break free from difficult family situations.
Many of the Old Testament prophets compared God’s people to a vineyard that needed tending and protecting. Equally, they were not afraid to call the people to order when they strayed, reminding them the same vineyard was producing only sour grapes and was ready for destruction. We know that Jesus was familiar with these scriptures and often used their images to proclaim his message of salvation.
At the Last Supper he initiates the New Covenant in his blood by consecrating the wine at table, commanding us to do this in his memory. And in his conversation with the apostles he speaks of himself as “the true vine” and his “Father as the vinedresser”, but more than that he develops the image, reminding us that if we are to bear good fruit we have to be united with him. The alternative does not bear thinking about: we will be cut off from the source of life.
In Jesus’s day, probably most people would have known how to graft vine branches, but few of us work that closely to nature these days. Nevertheless, this is a useful image as we think of the mission of the Church, reaching out to others to be connected to the source of God’s life. We have a classic example of that in the conversion Saul of Tarsus, the man who was zealously persecuting the early Christian community and who was struck down on the road to Damascus.
His conversion was the talk of the early Church and is widely reported in the New Testament, both in the Acts of the Apostles and in his own letters. It seems that Paul, as he became known, was not someone to meddle with, whether he was for or against you. You have only to read his letters to realise that he does not mince his words and clearly, to begin with at least, he was regarded by the early Christian community with suspicion and even fear: just note how Luke describes the situation in today’s extract from the Acts.
Barnabas acts as a mediator but even as Paul becomes accepted, he manages to end up in such a heated argument that the Hellenists are out to kill him. Fascinatingly, it is only when the brothers get him out of the way, that we hear the churches throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were able to live in peace.
If you read on in the Acts of the Apostles, you will find that Paul and Barnabas form a mission team. However, sadly, this partnership was to end in tears, when Paul would not hear of John Mark, Barnabas’s cousin, re-joining them after he had abandoned the work for a while. Maybe, we can take consolation from all this. The fact is that even after we have been grafted onto the vine, we remain the same people with our own complicated personalities and foibles, but the Lord can still use us to produce rich fruit.
© Majellan Media 2021
One of the most loved images of Jesus in the early Church was of him as the Good Shepherd who so loves his sheep that he lays down his life for them. In the Roman catacombs, the ancient cemeteries outside the city of Rome where the early Christian martyrs were buried, we find very early images of the Good Shepherd.
A young man, he is shown carrying a lamb on his shoulders. His sheep gaze trustingly at him and graze peacefully in his care. They know him, they recognise his voice, and they know that he will protect them from danger. He knows each of them by name and will never desert them.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd must have been a great source of consolation for Christians especially in the face of persecution. A common prayer in the early Church for those who had died was that they should be taken to heaven “borne on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd”.
Two thousand years later, Christians continue to find the image of the Good Shepherd deeply consoling and comforting, especially in times of trouble and distress. Psalm 23 is one of the most loved of all the psalms, often used at funerals. It speaks to us so powerfully of the steadfast love with which God cares for us, individually and as a community.
Today’s reading from John’s gospel stresses three characteristics of the Good Shepherd: he knows his sheep and they know him; he does not desert his sheep when they are endangered; and, even more than this, he lays down his life for his sheep. This last characteristic is stated not just once but four times in today’s short gospel reading. Such is the Good Shepherd’s bountiful and unfailing love, care and commitment that he lays down his own life for his sheep.
There is surely no greater love than this.
It is particularly touching that this year, when in our Sunday reading focuses on Jesus’ teaching that he is the Good Shepherd, we in Australia and New Zealand mark Anzac Day. We remember, give thanks, and pay our heartfelt respects to those many men and women who have served in wars in our nation’s name, and especially those among them who, in service to our country, laid down and lost their lives. We are the beneficiaries of their great sacrifice. Let us never forget!
Notice too that Jesus, in today’s gospel, explains: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). As we strive for unity, in whatever sphere of our lives, let us not confuse unity with uniformity. Let our aim be unity in diversity.
May the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd remind us to keep our eyes on him, to listen to him, and to place our trust in him.
© Majellan Media 2021
Committing to a higher power
I was recently re-watching the American political drama series, The West Wing. In one episode the White House chief of staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spenser) who is a recovering alcoholic offers comfort to the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) during a period when Josh is suffering with PTSD.
McGarry tells Lyman this story: There was a guy who one day when walking along a footpath fell down an open manhole and was trapped in a deep trench. Several people walked by and, despite his calls for help, none paid him any attention.
Eventually a friend of his came along and, recognising his pal he called, “Hey Harry! Can you give me a hand? I am stuck in this trench and can’t get out!”
Harry immediately leaps down into the trench. His friend looks at him incredulously and sputters, “Harry, what are you doing? Now we are both trapped!”
Harry turns to his friend and says, “Hey! It’s ok! I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out!”
The point of the story was that McGarry, as a recovering alcoholic, knew exactly what it was like to suffer mental anguish and hopelessness. As someone who had found a ‘way out’, he could offer Lyman empathy, support, and direction as Lyman tried to navigate his depression.
The potency of the Easter story is that Jesus has been there before us. He has suffered the worst that life can dish up; and has, not only found a way out, but has become our ‘way out’. His death and resurrection are the guarantor that, as the Psalmist proclaimed, “The Lord hears when I call out” (Ps 4:4).
The Easter story is neither a simple sop for broken hearts, nor an empty reassurance that God will rescue us from our troubles. As today’s gospel demonstrates, Jesus was raised still bearing the wounds of his suffering.
God did not spare Jesus the cross despite his “agony in the garden.”
Similarly, the character of Leo McGarry in The West Wing was a “recovering alcoholic.” He was not cured of his alcoholism. Through his participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, McGarry had committed his alcoholism to a “higher Power” and, thereby, found the strength to “not take the next drink”. But he also found the wisdom and charity to offer Josh Lyman the support he needed to begin the process of recovery from depression and hopelessness.
For us too, the story of the resurrection is one that can bring hope and encouragement; but by committing ourselves to the “higher power” of the actual person of the resurrected Jesus, we can find the strength to begin a new journey of recovery – to find a way out.
And more! In bringing our sufferings to Jesus, we also find the wisdom and the charity to empathise, support and lead others who need a “way out” of the darkest trenches of the human condition.
Ian J Elmer
© Majellan Media 2021