4th Sunday of Easter (C) - “Remain faithful to the grace of God.” Los exhortan a permanecer fieles a la gracia de Dios”
After Paul gives a lengthy speech in the synagogue in Antioch, a speech summarizing the history of salvation for the Jews and how all of God’s promises have come to fulfillment in Jesus who has risen from the dead, “many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas.” These folks heard the voice of Paul and saw something attractive in Paul and Barnabas, and through this encounter, the direction of their lives was changed. They began to follow a new path. They didn’t scoff at what they heard. They were amazed at what was said and wanted to hear more. Paul and Barnabas, who themselves were converts to Jesus, whose lives were changed in the encounter with Jesus, speak to these new followers and “urge them to remain faithful to the grace of God.” Conversion is a grace - a gift. It is not the result of our efforts or understanding. Conversion happens when the heart is freely moved to follow and to stay with this presence that one has met. Conversion is not a once and done thing but something that is continuous and happens over time, through a journey that is often arduous. Paul and Barnabas tell them to be faithful to that place in which they received or experienced that grace, even if it takes you someplace new, unknown, and unexpected. These people who have met Paul and Barnabas have a desire that what they see in Paul and Barnabas become their own. Conversion doesn’t happen by simply having the right answer or knowing the right thing to do. Rather, I need to follow someone - be in relationship with someone - who is living the life that I desire - a life that resonates with my heart.
In the Gospel, Jesus is having a conversation with the Jewish leaders who ask him, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer but rather explains why they do not believe. “You do not believe, because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The Jewish authorities have heard Jesus preach. They’ve seen the miracles he has done. But they are not listening with their hearts. So even if Jesus would say, “Yes. I’m the Messiah”, it would not be enough. It was to them a preposterous and blasphemous claim. So when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one” - a clear claim to his divinity, “the Jews again picked up rocks to stone him.” If we don’t allow the difference we see and hear in Christ - the something more that is beyond our understanding - to open our hearts and move us to follow in order to verify the claim, we become bitter, angry, and respond with violence.
Those who follow Jesus are moved by the experience of being known by Jesus. Jesus says, “I know them, and they follow me.” Those first disciples had the experience of Jesus knowing their hearts - knowing what they were looking for. “What are you looking for? Come and see.” “He knows what I need. He knows me - that I am a sinner, and still wants me and loves me.” This was the experience of Peter. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” “Come, follow me.” How many times does Peter take two steps forward and one step back? How many times does he need to be corrected by Jesus? Even after Peter denies Jesus three times, in the resurrection scene on the shore of the sea of Tiberius, Jesus reminds Peter of what his heart knows to be true: “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Follow me.” Jesus is urging Peter to be faithful to the grace he has received - to continue following - because Peter is need of continued conversion. Each correction was a sign of Jesus’ love for Peter, and with each correction, Peter grew in affection for Jesus. “I’ve messed up, and he still wants me to stay with him. He continues to call me.”
Conversion happens in this dialogue with God. The goal of the Christian life is for God and his grace to become ever more pervasive in our life, but that doesn’t happen by being handed a rule or given an answer that fixes my problem or reduces the drama in my life. God becomes more pervasive in my life when I listen for his voice, stay in the place where I have met this grace, and am willing to change. What moves someone to follow and to stay with Jesus is the “taste” or “foretaste” of eternal life that comes in the encounter with him. It is a sense of belonging to God - that my life is in his hands - that I am being taken care of - and nothing can cut me off from that life. Jesus says of those who follow him, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” That was the experience of St. Paul who said, “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” This awareness is what Paul is preaching and what is attractive to those who hear him and see him. They are hearing the voice of the shepherd through Paul. Paul, like Jesus, was persecuted and rejected by people “jealous” of what they saw happening before their eyes. Were they jealous of the numbers of converts that Jesus was getting and Paul and Barnabas were winning, or were they jealous of the joy and life they saw in Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas - a life that was more effective gaining followers than their system of rules and laws and their ability to manage and to control their situation and other people?
We are here because we’ve experienced a grace. I’m a priest because I’ve experienced a grace. Someone is married or living the consecrated life because they have received a grace - a grace that has moved them to follow a new path in life. Many engaged couples speak of the sense of being “known” and feeling safe and protected when with the other. When entering the seminary or the convent, the person who has responded to God’s call has sense that they “belong” there. We are all on a path to conversion - for God to become ever more pervasive in our lives. Are we going to make mistakes? Yes. Are we going to sin? Yes. Are we going to face situations that seem impossible and totally against us - greater than our abilities? Yes. We do not know how God is using us (and using others) when things do not go the way we plan, but we become a light to others and an instrument of salvation to others when we listen for his voice, stay where we are - in the community he gave us, and are willing to change. God doesn’t stop calling us, the members of his flock. He doesn’t stop leading us and correcting us. May we remain faithful to the grace of God and not stop following the Shepherd.