Sunday, May 12, is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Mass readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100: 1-2, 3, 5; Revelation 7: 9, 14-17; John 10:27-30.
A profound paradox marked the life of the early Christians and still marks our lives today. From the beginning, the way of Christ was always one marked by persecution, and yet it was and is one of profound joy.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we find many accounts of the persecutions inflicted on the apostles, especially on Paul. In today’s first reading, after Paul and Barnabas were persecuted and expelled from Antioch in Pisidia, they moved on to Iconium, “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Their joy did not lie in the absence of difficulties, but rather in their delight that they were called to be the instruments of proclaiming the good news to all who would receive God’s word. As they preached the saving Gospel of Christ, “The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord. All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region” (Acts 13:48-49). Their joy flowed from their unwavering commitment to spread as far as they could the word that saves.
In John’s vision of heaven from the Book of Revelation, he observes a vast crowd who have suffered great tribulation for the sake of Jesus. His vision, however, is not one of defeat, but rather one of joyful victory. One of the elders around the throne of God tells John: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). The elder further explains that for those who worship God and the Lamb, there are no more sufferings and no more tears. The Lamb, he explains, leads his followers to the life-giving waters where they shall never thirst again.
The symbolic images of John’s vision in Revelation reflect the truth revealed in the preaching of Jesus found in John’s Gospel. Before his passion, Jesus had assured his followers that he would shepherd them to eternal life in which they would never perish. The guarantee that all of their sorrows would be transformed into joy was rooted in Jesus’ unbreakable unity with his Father. The followers of Jesus cannot be taken out of his hand because, as Jesus testifies, “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” (John 10:29-30).
To follow Christ, it has ever been necessary to be willing to take up one’s cross every day. This is because there will always be tension between the values of a this-worldly kingdom and the Kingdom of God. Christ assures us that he is our Good Shepherd, and that while we may at times feel as vulnerable as sheep exposed to wolves, we have nothing to fear if we trust in and follow him. The Israelites, amid so much suffering in their journey, nonetheless celebrated in praise of their God: “Sing joyfully to the Lord. … Come before him with joyful song. Know that the Lord is God; he made us, his we are; his people, the flock he tends” (Psalm 100:1-3). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, by love has conquered every form of death and sorrow and transformed them into life and joy. In him, we have every reason to rejoice in hope.
Dominican Sister Mary Madeline Todd is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee.
She is assistant professor of theology at Aquinas College in Nashville and also serves through retreats, public speaking and writing.