Icon of Christ the Good Shepherd

Pope emeritus Benedict often remarked that he thought it was not so much atheists who damage the Christian faith as it is the “practical atheists” who do the real damage.  The “practical atheists” are those who profess themselves Christians but who then live as if God does not exist.  At the heart of this practical atheism which is very present in our day and also very easy to fall into is an in-authenticity of relationship.  We say one thing yet we do another and we convince ourselves that no one is the wiser; including God.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday when we, as Church, reflect on the truth that the risen Lord is indeed the good and beautiful shepherd who came to seek out and save the lost.  But here is the rub: we cannot reflect and proclaim the Lord as Good Shepherd and ourselves remain in-authentic in relation to him.  To proclaim Christ as the Good Shepherd demands an authenticity of relationship on our part.  This authenticity of relationship is witnessed to us in today’s gospel (Jn. 10:27-30) – the relationship of us and the Lord and the relationship of the Son and the Father.

Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me…”  The movement of authentic relationship begins with our Lord.  When we were lost in the darkness of sin and death, God came to us.  God became incarnate and took on the full weakness and suffering of humanity.  God took on everything except sin.  “I know them…”, says the Lord.  Christ can authentically say this because it is true.

“My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me …”  There are two parts for authenticity of relationship on our part.  One, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and two, we follow.  To say we hear the voice and then live as if the voice does not matter is not authentic.  To proclaim Christ as the Good Shepherd means we must continually “tune” our ears to the voice of the Good Shepherd, we must trust and we must follow.

This gospel passage also reveals the wonderful authenticity that makes up the relationship of the Father and the Son.  Christ (in reflecting on the deep and abiding security of the sheep entrusted to his care) says, No one can take them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can them out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.  Our Lord, as Son, is expressing his gratitude for what the Father has freely given him.  Authenticity of relationship finds its fullest expression in gratitude for what is freely given rather than in using the other for ones own need.  Here, I think, is found another subtle yet withering aspect of practical atheism and it is found more in those persons “in” church rather than those persons “outside” church.  God is used as a means for my personal satisfaction and this becomes the only reason that I turn to God.  There are tell-tale signs to this in-authenticity on our part: going to church is more about social status than conversion, worship is more about getting my emotional hit than it is about my coming before the living God and gratitude of heart gives way to demand and fear.

This brings us to the great gift gained through the authenticity of relationship with the Good Shepherd and it is a gift that cannot be pretended.  Either it is there or it is not.  When we live in relationship with the Good Shepherd we gain hope and we gain trust.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.  No one can take them out of my hand.  In-authenticity of relationship, practical atheism cannot give this, no matter how hard it pretends that it can.  As Scripture tells us; a tree is known by its fruits.

We must let these words sink into the soil of our hearts, break apart any hardness that remains there and till the earth that hope and trust may take root and grow!  These words are spoken by the one who has risen, the one who has conquered the tomb and the chains of death!  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.  No one can take them out of my hand.  

Facebook users are probably familiar with the “Go home, you’re drunk” memes.  In this meme there is a picture of someone saying or doing something stupid with the caption, “___________, go home.  You’re drunk.”  If there were a meme for this Good Shepherd Sunday I think it would be a practical atheist saying, “Oh, I am a Christian but I live as I wish.” and the response would be, “Practical Atheist, go home.  You’re drunk.”