Christ’s words in today’s Gospel reading at Mass rank high among the unsavory truths that Our Lord preaches.
He tells his newly chosen Apostles and us too, “I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves.” And turning to the persecutions of his witnesses, he does not say “If they hand you over” or “If they persecute you” but “When.” The Lord foretells even divisions within families and hatred “by all” toward those who witness to his Name.
We can imagine and sympathize with the fear and confusion that the Apostles must have felt upon first hearing these words. Peter may have thought, “But Jesus, shouldn’t people rejoice in hearing the Good News?” Or Jude may have said, “Is not a sheep among wolves a lost cause?” The foretelling of their sufferings surely shook them up.
And we know that when the wolves descended upon the Lord in his Passion, most of his Twelve scattered. The Apostles could have used the words of the prophet Isaiah, “We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Is 53:6). Jesus taught us to witness as meek sheep, for “though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7). Suffering his Passion, Christ accomplished our salvation. But he also exemplified for his Apostles and for us the kind of witness they and we would be called to in the face of persecution. Like them, we recognize our own failures to stand by Christ when the going gets tough. We also follow the Apostles in testifying to Christ by imitating his sheep-like virtues in the midst of the wolves in the world.
The Apostles’ growth in understanding of their mission did not stop on Good Friday. For after meeting the Resurrected Lord and receiving His Holy Spirit, the Apostles were further strengthened to fulfill their preaching mission. Then they must have remembered the two encouraging tidbits that we hear from Jesus today: “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say,” and “whoever endures to the end will be saved.” Jesus reminds his Apostles that it will be through the power of the Holy Spirit, whom they will receive at Pentecost, that the Gospel will spread. We who are baptized and confirmed share in this same Spirit and are given the same help for testifying to Jesus Christ. He comforts us with the assurance that His grace will suffice to make us effective witnesses. And what’s more, he promises us the eternal reward of salvation if only we persevere through the trials and persecutions that the world will send our way.
Image: Artist Unknown, Woodcut of the Good Shepherd and the Risen Christ with St. Thomas