“I came so that they might have life,” Jesus benevolently declares in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage. “…And have it more abundantly,” the Master continues with even greater generosity. Modern believers hearing this bountiful promise might well ask the question posed by St. Peter’s first hearers cited in this Sunday’s first reading from Acts: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Yes, indeed, that is the question of the ages: “What are we to do?” How does the contemporary believer lay hold of the abundant life promised by Jesus Christ? How is it seized? How is it appreciated? How is it made effective in each succeeding generation?
St. Peter, for his part, makes an immediate and practical demand of those who would share in Christ’s offer of abundant life. St. Peter urges, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” With these words, the chief of the apostles is simply saying, “Join the Church!” Such blunt advice might sound a bit premature on the lips of St. Peter on his first public venture after Jesus’ return to the Father, but this is what salvation would always entail. Internal conversion, that is, “repent” and external changeover, that is, “be baptized,” are still and ever have been the initial path to redemption, salvation and abundant life. They are also, of course, the entryway into the Church.
Over the course of time, the reception of baptism would imply, in fact demand, the sincere acceptance of all that the Scriptures teach, as well as regular participation in the believing community’s liturgical life, along with the faithful embrace of the Church’s order. To this day, the hearty embrace of the Scriptures, the sacraments and the structure of the Church constitutes the essence of the Christian life. Creed, cult and code are not only the outline of every catechism ever published; they are the daily outline of the Christian life. Firm and intelligent belief, alert and responsive worship, directed and generous participation, these describe the modern Christian just as much as these qualities designated the first generation of believers. “Repent and be baptized,” St. Peter demanded of his first congregation. The Church continues to demand both internal and external renewal from all those who would benefit from Christ’s promise of abundant life.
Jesus himself, also in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, indicates that the abundant life he promises still has still has some practical demands just as St. Peter’s first sermon had some practical demands. “Amen, amen, I say to you,” Jesus insists, “whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.” Then, dispelling all doubt, Jesus adds, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”
Jesus is asserting that the path to abundant life is not arbitrary. “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” St. Peter and the apostolic band knew that baptism, meaning the beliefs, the rites and the conduct that baptism implies, was the path leading to abundant life in Christ. Jesus insists that he himself is the gate to such abundant and eternal life; accepting baptism in its fullness pushes open that gate allowing the soul complete access to the abundant life Christ promised in his preaching and secured by his death and resurrection. The believer in Christ can readily “come in and go out and find pasture.” As long as the Lord is one’s shepherd, there is nothing the believer shall want. On the other hand, searching for life apart from Christ and apart from baptism, that is, apart from the Church, is a cheat and a disappointment.
There can be no green pastures full of repose, no leading toward restful waters, no refreshment for the soul, no rod and no staff to insure courage, no overflowing cup, apart from Christ and his Church. The words of St. Peter still ring clearly: “Repent and be baptized!”