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This Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, and in its very short Gospel, Jesus makes a very simple point: You belong with me.
It is hard to exaggerate how enormously significant it is for us that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord and King of the Universe, says this.
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he says.
Everyone who has made a conscious decision to follow Christ will know what that means. When we read the Beatitudes, or when we kneel before the Eucharist, we aren’t just experiencing something we know to be true — we are experiencing something we know, personally and intimately.
Encountering Christ is like being with our favorite family member — or, to use Jesus’ analogy it’s like a sheep hearing a shepherd or, closer to our experience, like a dog hearing its master’s voice.
A dog can be tricked or bribed or tempted into doing the wrong thing, but when the master comes home, the dog knows immediately where its true allegiance lies.
We hear Christ’s voice the same way. We may get distracted and stray away, but when we stop and listen and pay attention to his voice we know who he is, and we know where we should be.
It turns out that having the King of the Universe as your advocate comes with some very strong perks.
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish,” said Jesus.
The Second Reading, from the book of Revelation, describes just what that eternal life looks like.
“The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them,” it says. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This description of heaven describes exactly what we love about the happiest memories of our childhood, when people who loved us watched over us and provided everything we needed, and we had no worries and no fear.
Our memories are happier than the actual experiences were, probably — and being with God will be happier still.
Then Jesus says something which is at once comforting and terrifying: “No one can take them out of my hand.”
The devil can’t snatch us away. Neither can our persecutors.
The kind of persecution that is increasingly common in our day, physical martyrdom, can’t do it. The Second Reading describes martyrs this way: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That is what the Sri Lankan martyrs in today’s headlines are experiencing.
The kind of persecution that we experience in America can’t take us away from Christ, either. In the First Reading, the Christians’ opponents “were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.” Not only that, they “incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory.”
In other words, they mocked the Christians, made their arguments seem absurd, and froze them out of their society. We experience the same thing in our culture today — and it shouldn’t stop us any more than it stopped them.
Which brings us to what is terrifying about what Jesus says.
While no power can take us away from Jesus Christ, one small thing can: Our own willingness to shrug him off and follow our favorite sin instead.
Of course, we don’t just belong with him. We also belong to him.
Jesus finishes by spelling out his relationship with Christians in plain terms. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “A baptized person belongs forever to Christ.”
In The Inferno, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s description of hell, those who were baptized and then rejected God are punished more severely than those who were never baptized and never rejected him so directly. That is because baptism has given us a special relationship with God — and when we turn against him it is an even greater sin.
The Inferno reserves the worst punishment of all for sinners who betrayed their friend and their God, both at once — Judas and Brutus.
The moral is: Stay where you belong.
“The LORD is good,” says the Psalm, “his kindness endures forever, and his faithfulness, to all generations.”
Lord Jesus, give us the grace to always stay safe in the palm of your hand.