In our First Reading today, we get a scene of which I, as a preacher, am particularly jealous. I like to listen to good communication – TED talks, speeches, even preaching of various denominations. Well-crafted messaged satisfy me, and I try to do the same in my own life. However, the message of preaching is only half of the matter. The other half is the response.
And St. Peter hits it out of the park today!
He has just given the Church’s first “homily.” After the descent of the Holy Spirit, he and the other Apostles went out of the Upper Room and began proclaiming Jesus boldly. Peter stood up in the midst of those gathered and told them the story of Jesus as he had experienced it first hand: how Jesus began preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee, going about doing good; how He went to Jerusalem, as the people would know, and was arrested, tried, and condemned; how he was crucified and buried. And now, as Peter has experienced for himself, this Jesus is alive! He has seen Him; he has eaten with Him!
And what’s more, through belief in Jesus, we too can have the eternal life that He brings. The people hearing this message “were cut to the heart.” They were stunned by Peter’s words. Then, they do what I dream of my hearers to do: they ask what they have to do! How often do we respond to preaching like this?
It’s not all our congregation’s fault, though. The message must come from the point of view of someone who has experienced Jesus as well. It must be a message on fire with the reality of the life that Jesus offers – “life abundantly.” Too often, our response becomes, “Ho-hum. Let’s stand for the Creed.” “Gosh, I hope traffic isn’t too bad today.”
The primary point of preaching is not to inform. It is not to entertain. It is not a platform for me to share the tale of my week, or my favorite TV show, or the latest movie I watched. While these things may illustrate the message, the true point of preaching is not to instruct. The true point of preaching is conversion. And that is exactly what we see happening in the Acts of the Apostles today.
In Peter’s words, the crowd heard the voice of the Shepherd speaking to them. They heard, and they listened. Their response is what we all want: a conversion of heart that leads to action – a deepening of the desire to know Jesus better. Each week, I pray for this conversion – for myself and for my little flock here. Yes, it feels nice to have folks say, “Nice homily, Father,” but what I really want is to hear, “Now what must we do, Father?” What must we do to further the Gospel in our community? What must we do to fill others with the life we have, presumably, found here?
Jesus, the Sheep Gate, is the way through which the sheep “come in and go out and find pasture.” The Apostles didn’t just have that experience of Pentecost and remain in the Upper Room. The pasture is never inside the gates. Rather, it is “out there,” where the world is waiting for more abundant life. This experience of quarantine has actually kept us out in the pasture. We cannot at this point come into our sheepfold of the parish church; however, the Shepherd remains present, and we, your shepherds are also with you! As members of the flock of the Lord, we were never meant to remain passively inside the gates. This moment is our time to be in the pasture and to apply what we have learned from the Shepherd.
Being a disciple is more than just coming into Church. In fact, being a disciple is about going out of Church! Here, we listen to the Voice of the Shepherd, and seek conversion – not because we are in a bad place now, but because, like soil, our hearts need to be periodically “turned over” in order to produce the fruit that Jesus is seeking from us. However, if all we do is complain and yearn for the time we can be able to “safely” practice our faith by being inside the church, then we have missed the point of conversion. We must be where we are, because that is where Jesus has taken us!
We ought to enjoy our time here inside the gates. We should encourage each other and be encouraged. But now that the Shepherd has fed us, we have work to do. “What must we do?” We must go out and share our experience of Jesus with a waiting world in the pasture.