Jesus, Lord of History
(Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday the first reading again concentrate on events in the period immediately after Jesus' Resurrection. Jesus' first followers are slowly coming to realise the significance of Jesus' appearance in history and they're also coming to appreciate that his death on the Cross wasn't the disaster they thought it was at the time, but the means by which Jesus brought his mission to fulfilment. That's partly what the gospel passage touches on.
We begin Mass by thinking of the times we've failed to give Jesus' saving work the significance it should have in our thoughts. We ask God for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
All the readings this Sunday - St. John's gospel, one of his letters, the Acts of the Apostles by St. Luke - come from sources that were composed during the early years of the Church's existence. All three of them, in their own way, illustrate the great re-adjustment that took place among Jesus' first followers in the period immediately after his Resurrection - the great shift in understanding about Jesus' identity and about the significance of his mission.
The men and women who had committed themselves to Jesus while he was still going around preaching, healing and exorcising evil spirits realised, after the Resurrection, that he was far more than a preacher, a healer and an exorcist. They realised that their involvement with Jesus meant they were caught up in the most important event in the history of God's dealing with humanity - and not only caught up, but called to play a leading part.
The Jewish people, of course, had a very strong sense of history and God's involvement through history. For the Chosen People knowledge of God wasn't contained in book, or a set of books. Their knowledge of God came out of the historical events and experiences they had been involved in over the course of centuries: Abraham leaving home and going into exile, the liberation from slavery in Egypt and so on. Each new event taught them something more about God and made it possible for them to grow in their relationship with God.
So when Peter talks, in the first reading, about "Jesus Christ, the Nazarene" being the cornerstone or the keystone of the whole building, he's thinking in terms of the way God had chosen to make himself known through historical events. In those terms Jesus is the keystone of God's whole plan of salvation.
In terms of purely human history - the history of the Roman Empire, say, or the history of economic development in the Middle East, Jesus' appearance had no significance at all: he was an obscure rabbi from a country village who got into a dispute with the Jewish authorities and ended up being executed by the Romans - like thousands of other insignificant troublemakers.
But in terms of God's dealings with the human race, and our vocation to live in communion with God, Jesus' mission is the most important and central event in history. The Second Vatican Council, in fact, described Jesus as "the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history". What that means is that Christ's ministry, his preaching, the circumstances of his death and his resurrection, have revealed God to us and made God available to us more than any other event, before or after.
This was what St. Peter and the other disciples started to realise after the Resurrection: that Jesus wasn't just a gifted teacher and healer. The early writings like the Acts of the Apostles testify to the great adjustment they had to make in their minds as they began to fathom the real significance of Jesus' mission, and their involvement in it.
If we move onto the second reading we find St. John making a different point about our knowledge of God and our relationship with God.
Here, now, in this life, we only get to see the tip of the iceberg where God's concerned. Even although God has come closer to us through Christ, he's still far too big and mysterious a reality for us to grasp completely. As long as we're still here on earth our knowledge of God is always going to be partial and incomplete.
But in the future, John says, "we shall see God as he really is". When we leave this world behind - as every one of us will eventually, of course - then we'll know God fully and completely. But even more important than that, John says, when we see God as he really is, "we shall be like him": the more we get to know God the more we start to resemble God. All our "unGodly" elements - our lack of love, our self-centredness, our insensitivity - fade away as we get to know God better, and we start to take on the character of his holiness.
These few lines by St. John give a good description of the element of mystery in our relationship with God. There's more to God than we can ever grasp here and now and a great deal about him that "has not yet been revealed". But in the future all the obstacles will disappear and we'll see him as he really is. That's the main object of our Christian hope.
The gospel passage, finally, tells us something important about Christ's vocation and about our vocation as his followers.
Before Jesus' ministry finally came to an end he had already worked out that it might end violently. He might not have had a precise idea of what was going to happen but he knew that after his fierce polemical attacks on the religious leaders, opposition to his preaching was growing and various groups were conspiring to have him killed.
So he started to interpret this as part of his vocation and mission. "This is the command I have been given by my Father," he says here - meaning that he'd come to see the giving-up of his life as the final action he had to carry out in order to fulfil his mission. He realised that he had to do more than just to preach about God. He had to become, as he says here, "the good shepherd" who would willingly "lay down his life for his sheep".
All during his ministry Jesus had taught people that the way to find God and live in communion with him is by way of sacrificial love, forgiveness, renunciation of our own self-interest and service towards others. These are the qualities that make up God's Kingdom and the more we take on these qualities the more we reflect God's own holiness.
As his conflict with his enemies intensified Jesus came to see that refusing to respond with any kind of violence or self-assertiveness, and in fact showing himself willing to surrender his life, was the most powerful way to demonstrate those qualities of sacrificial love, forgiveness, renunciation, and service of others that make up the Kingdom.
And it's in this sense again that Jesus can be described as the keystone or the cornerstone that St. Peter talks about, because it's through his whole witness - his teaching, but even more by the manner of his suffering and death - that Christ points us towards God, shows us how to live in communion with God and becomes "the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history".
I think those are the main points that are contained in this Sunday's readings. We should look at history not in terms of the deeds of the great and powerful but in terms of God's dealings with humanity and how he has revealed himself to us. Central to all that, of course, is the figure of Jesus, whose brief mission did more than any other event to bring us close to God and show us the path to salvation.