Being Christian is the best, isn’t it? Before I took my faith seriously, bad things used to happen to me all of the time; people were rude to me, I had horrible luck, I got hurt often, and things just often didn’t work out. But now that I take my faith seriously, now that I’ve said “yes” to God with all my life, things are great; people are always nice, I’m always protected and cared for, and everything just seems to always works out for the best.
Okay, yeah. None of that is true.
It sounds so strange to say, right? That after going down into the waters of baptism, everything in our life would be easy. Clearly this cannot be the case. And yet, some people implicitly accept this. People ask all of the time, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” They have this innate expectation, for some reason, that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people, that being Christian, following Christ, means that everything should go right.
Unfortunately, we now that it doesn’t. Unfortunately, we face many hardships as Christians. And so on this fourth Sunday of Easter, this Good Shepherd Sunday, we are left wondering: if Christ is truly are the Good Shepherd, then why do these things still happen to us?
For me, it’s important to remember what that title means and why Jesus deserves it.
We call him the Good Shepherd because he cares for sheep. Throughout scripture we read that he heals people with miracles, feeds them with abundant food. He is concerned not only with their spiritual lives, but with their physical well being. And so he continues to do with us, feeding and healing us through the sacraments, giving us comfort in tough times, showing us his love.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he goes after his sheep when they’re lost. Jesus did not dine with kings and queens, but with tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were sick and unclean. He went to the excluded and forgotten to return them to the community. And so he does with us, reaching out to us even when we reject him, calling our name even when we won’t listen; he is constantly trying to bring us back to God, never giving up on us.
And of course, as the greatest of shepherds, he was even willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for the sake of others. This death, once and for all, set us free from our own sins, gave us an opportunity for life everlasting.
Jesus did all of these wonderful things, for them, for us.
But there’s one thing he didn’t do, one thing that he never said: He never promised that we, as his flock, would be free from hardships. He never said that everything would go well for us if we followed him. In fact, he told us quite the opposite: “you will be persecuted because of my name.”
We see this in our readings this weekend. In our first reading from Acts, Paul and Barnabas are filled with the Spirit, so much so that they preach and the entire city shows up. All that is in their hearts is a desire to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They selflessly go on mission for the sake of the Kingdom. And how are they repaid? Their own people get jealous of them, rise up against them, and throw them out of the city. Not exactly a comfortable or desirable situation.
The same can be seen in the second reading from the Book of Revelation. Notice how are the saints in white robes addressed: they are those who have “survived the time of great distress,” who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. The saints, the ones who have joined the Lord in perfect unity for all eternity, the ones who offer us an example of what we strive to be one day, did not escape hardship in their lives, did not enjoy happiness and comfort. No, quite the opposite: they bathed themselves in the blood of the lamb; they did not hide from the suffering of the cross, did not run from the pain that Christ endured, but united themselves with it, became a part of it.
It’s because of this that it has always fascinated me to hear Christians ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I just look at them, and I look at the cross, and I say, “Let me get this straight… You follow a man who was betrayed by his followers, rejected by the religious elite, and wrongfully murdered on a cross—a man who said that if we wanted to follow after him that we had to take up our own crosses—and you’re asking why life is sometimes difficult for Christians…? I’m sorry, but what did you really expect?”
Christ is our Good Shepherd, yes, but let’s remember what that means. He came, not to lead to the nearest luxury resort, a place of comfort and safety; he came to shepherd us to the kingdom of heaven where we hope to live and serve with him for eternity. He does not live to protect us from hard work or discomfort; no, he lives to protect us from our own selfishness that leads us to hurt ourselves and others. Most important of all, he did not die so that we wouldn’t have to; he died so that our own deaths would amount to something, so that our deaths would be a participation in his.
Being a Christian is not about having a magical genie in heaven who gives us all that we want and protects us from all that brings us harm. Being Christian is about following the one who shepherds us and taking up his example. What Jesus did and continues to do for us was not so that we could continue on with our lives as normal, but was meant to guide us, free us, and empower us to do as he did, to be good shepherds for the world, people who are willing to go to the lost, protect the weak, and even lay down our lives for another. Christ is the Good Shepherd precisely because he leads us to things that will make us more like him.
This Good Shepherd Sunday, I think it’s time to get rid of the tired and cliche, “why do bad things happen to good people,” and instead ask ourselves something much more powerful: “Lord how am I being asked to be a shepherd like you today? How do you want me to care for others, go to the lost, and lay down my life, just as you did?”