As we move through Eastertide, we begin to look forward towards Jesus’ return to his Father, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will come as an Advocate, or champion, to strengthen and guide the Christian community. The Spirit will be the driving force of the early Church, in the face of difficulty and persecution. Jesus draws believers to share in the love that he himself shares with God the Father; “I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you.” This is the love that sustains us as Christians. But even in difficult times, the Church cannot only look inwards. Today’s first reading describes Philip going to preach among the Samaritans – the age-old enemies of the Jews – and receiving a joyful welcome, while, in the second reading, Peter urges the first Christians to be witnesses to their neighbours. The Church is a community of believers who are strengthened by the love of God to look both inwards and outwards: to love and support one another, and to bring the Good News to the whole world.
We seem to live in unsettled and troubling times. Many people struggle to find steady work and a secure home for their families. Our country, and our world, seem unstable and divided. In the Church, too, it’s a time of uncertainty and uncomfortable change. We might be tempted to try to ignore the changing world around us, or to hark back nostalgically to a past that seems better.
At the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples are troubled because they know that change is coming. Judas has already gone out into the night, to betray Jesus. Peter’s denial of Christ has been foretold. The disciples realise that the Lord will not be with them for much longer, and they fear for the future.
Jesus’ response to their fears is to tell them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He will suffer and die, but his Father will raise him up, and his Resurrection will bring salvation to the world. Only by putting our trust in Jesus can we find our way through a world that seems strange and confusing. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The life of a shepherd probably isn’t very different today from what it was in the time of Christ. We might have a romantic idea of the shepherd strolling through the fields with his flock, but in reality, it’s a hard and exhausting job. The shepherd is out in all weathers, caring for the sheep and keeping them safe from danger.
Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, who knows his sheep, and calls them one by one. Unlike the leaders of Israel in his own time, who exploited their positions for their own power and advantage, Jesus’ concern is for the sheep – his disciples. His desire is for the sheep to have life to the full.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Church prays for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. Pope Francis says in his message for today, “The People of God need to be guided by pastors whose lives are spent in service to the Gospel.” The pastors and ministers of the Church are called to model themselves on Christ, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and keeps them safe. Let us pray for many young people to respond to the challenging call of Christ.
The two disciples walking to Emmaus know all the facts about Jesus: where he came from, what he said and did, and the circumstances of his terrible death. They even know about the empty tomb. But the story makes no sense to them. To follow Jesus, and be one of his disciples, was exciting and life-giving: but now, it all seems to have ended badly. The adventure is over, and the disciples are leaving Jerusalem, sad and downcast.
In the time that Jesus spends with the two disciples – unrecognised – he changes everything for them. He opens the Scriptures and explains the prophecies that were pointing to him. He makes their hearts burn within them. Finally, they recognise Jesus when he breaks the bread for them.
Knowing about Jesus can never be enough for a disciple. The facts alone won’t change our lives. But when we encounter the risen Christ in person, then it will begin to make sense, and our hearts will burn within us. Jesus is walking with us on the journey of life, even if we don’t recognise him. We meet him as the first disciples did, in the Word of God, and when he feeds us in the Eucharist.
Today’s Gospel shows us the humanity of Jesus. He weeps at the death of Lazarus, his friend. He shares in the grief of Martha and Mary. But this miracle is also a sign that Jesus is the Son of God, with power over life and death. Lazarus was thoroughly dead, four days in the tomb. At a word from Jesus, he is restored to life, and returned to the people who love him. It’s a stunning demonstration of Jesus’ power, and of his unity with God his Father. It brings many people to believe in him.
God’s will is for all his people to be fully alive and free. When we choose sin, we choose to be less alive. We may be tempted to hide in the dark tombs that we make for ourselves. But Jesus comes to seek us. Like Lazarus, he calls us to come out of our tombs, and to enjoy the fullness of life and freedom that comes from faith in him.
In Jesus’ time, it was taken for granted that sickness or disability was God’s punishment for sin. This idea lies behind the disciples’ question to Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” The man not only has to live with his blindness; he is also despised by those who judge him as a sinner, and has to live by begging.
Jesus rejects this whole way of thinking. By giving the blind man his sight, he also gives him dignity and independence. God’s power is displayed in the man; he can now recognise Jesus as a prophet, and witness to him courageously in the face of the Pharisees’ hostile questioning.
The Pharisees, in contrast, reject Jesus, even when they can see the miracles he works. They “know” that Jesus must be a sinner, because he heals the sick on the sabbath. Their reasoning blinds them to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God.
The blind man has been given his sight by Jesus. The Pharisees remain wilfully blind. By the gift of faith, God opens our eyes to see Christ, and our ears to hear the Good News that he brings. The season of Lent is a privileged time to renew the gift of faith, and to clear away the obstacles that can prevent us from seeing Christ clearly.
John tells us that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” This is an understatement. In the time of Christ, Jews and Samaritans hated and despised one another. This is why the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel reading is so surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink.
But Jesus simply ignores such divisions, based on prejudice and suspicion. As a Jewish man, it was scandalous for him to be seen even speaking in public to a woman who was a Samaritan and a stranger. But Jesus sees another human being, who needs to hear the Good News.
After speaking with Jesus, the woman hurries back to her home town, to bring her own people – Samaritans – to hear the Jewish prophet she has met. Jesus has evangelised her – brought her good news – and now she becomes an evangelist to others. She tells the people, “Come and see,” the same invitation that Jesus offered to his first disciples. Her encounter with Christ has brought her to believe in him, and given her the desire to share her faith with others.
Pope Francis urges us to be an evangelising and missionary Church. We can only evangelise effectively by following the example of Christ – sitting down with others, listening to their stories, and inviting them to come and see.
Jesus is the Son of God, and he is also truly human. He experiences everything that we do – even the temptation to sin. After a long time of fasting in the desert, Jesus feels hungry, just as we would. It’s tempting to use his miraculous powers to conjure up food for himself. As he looks ahead to his ministry, he must realise that it will be a hard road – so it’s tempting to take the easy way out, and win the people over by a spectacular demonstration of his power. Or to give in to the powers of the world, and become a worldly leader.
Adam and Eve are deceived by the lies of the devil. Their story symbolises the way that we can be taken in by the superficial attraction of sin. We choose what seems immediately tempting, instead of what is truly good. One sin leads to another, until it seems impossible to find the way back to truth and integrity.
Jesus stands firm in the face of the devil’s temptations. To sin would be to go against his complete love and trust for his Father. He shows us the way to choose truth instead of lies, and what is truly good instead of what is only superficial. Our Lenten penance should help us to stand firm, and make the right choices in our lives.
When Jesus teaches us to love God and love our neighbour, we can probably accept it as an ideal to aspire to, even if it seems challenging. But when he tells us to love our enemies, surely he has gone too far? The Old Testament law of “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was meant to set a limit on revenge. Rather than allowing violence to escalate, the law permitted the wronged party to exact vengeance that was equal to the harm they had suffered. It was a law based on a realistic understanding of human nature.
But Jesus wants to transform our human nature. Instead of meeting violence with violence and hatred with hatred, he teaches his disciples to love their enemies, even in the face of oppression and injustice.
Jesus is giving us good news, not good advice. He is not asking us to do anything that he did not do himself. We can see the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as a description of Jesus himself, who did turn the other cheek to violence, and who carried his own Cross to Calvary. He is asking us to follow him.
As we come to the end of the Church’s year, the Sunday Gospel readings focus our attention on the “end times.” Jesus foretells the destruction of the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, which took place in 70 AD, when the Romans ruthlessly put down a Jewish uprising. He warns his disciples to expect natural disasters, turmoil and persecution of Christians. But the Lord reassures his disciples that God will be with them in the time of trial – not a hair of their heads will be lost.
When the world around us seems confusing and frightening, these words of the Lord encourage us to stand firm in our faith. St Paul tells us to “go on quietly working” – doing the right thing with patience and courage. The truths of the Gospel remain true for all time. God is with us.