Many of us will find it difficult to understand Sunday's three readings because, as children, we often were taught to have a relationship with an institutional Church instead of with a personal God. We found our security in a Church that answered all our questions, not in a Jesus who led us down uncharted roads.

The author of I John never experienced our childhood education. He expresses his faith in his relationship with Jesus, even to the point of trusting Him to the gates of eternity (I Jn 3:1-2).

"Beloved," he writes, "we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

The author gives no details about how this is to happen, what form our bodies will take in the after-life, where heaven is, or how long eternity lasts. He simply professes his belief that eventually we'll be "like" the person with whom we spent a lifetime developing a relationship, the one person we constantly tried to know and imitate.

Jesus and us

As Peter reminds his Christian community in our first reading (Acts 4: 8-12), "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved." Those who relate to Jesus experience no other relationship which brings more life and fulfillment.

Yet scholars tell us that one of the reasons Luke composed his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was to explain how a religion originally geared for Jews was now, 50 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, being embraced almost exclusively by Gentiles. How could those who should have logically related to Jesus reject both the relationship and Him?

Luke believes there will always be something pulling us away from an intimate liaison with Jesus, something always tempting us to make an institution, a place or a ritual the center of our faith instead of a person. This seems to be why he has Peter quote the famous line from Psalm 118: "The stone rejected by you, the builders, has become the cornerstone." The very person others overlook is the center of our life and faith.

The Gospel (Jn 10: 11-18) helps us understand why we're often tempted to make such a mistake. Accustomed to hearing this well-known passage, we zero in on Jesus as the consoling, guiding shepherd, and hardly notice that He also says, "A good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep."

Jesus makes clear that He does this because of His relationship with His Father. "No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father."

Dying daily

Relationships always include a death. No one can be one with another unless one dies a lot. Somewhere, somehow, someone figured out it's far less demanding relating to an institution than becoming one with another person. The latter requires a daily dying.

John's Jesus warns us what to expect when dogmas, traditions and philosophy become more important in our lives than our relationship with Him. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd."

BY the end of the first century, John's Christian community was beginning to split apart. Some obviously believed there were more important things in faith than "listening" to Jesus' voice. They forgot that we always split from others when we stop listening to them.

Next time you meet a Protestant, remember the only reason they're there and we're here is because someone refused to die. Someone stopped listening, stopped relating to Jesus and others.