This gospel, as with so many, is very familiar. Since the expression “I am” recalls the name of God, who is the “I am” in Exodus, these sayings emphasize that Jesus is God’s word in the flesh. This is one of seven “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel. The others include: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35), “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (John 8:12), “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9), “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25), “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), and lastly “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1).
In this gospel, the image of the shepherd brings together several aspects of Jesus’ identity. Leaders were often called shepherds. Good leaders were those who cared for people, in contrast to the negligent leaders or shepherds who did not; sheep are defenseless and totally dependent on a good shepherd. In the Old Testament, Yahweh was the divine shepherd of Israel who exercised his rule through earthly shepherds like Joshua and David. David was himself a good shepherd, who, before his kingship over Israel, risked his life to deliver his flock from predators that tried to kill them. God was known as the best of shepherds, who gathered and nurtured the flock. As the good shepherd, Jesus is the one in who God comes to God’s people.
As we know, Jesus Christ is the supreme shepherd over the one universal Church. The spiritual authority of other shepherds, like Peter and the apostles, is derived entirely from Christ, who gives his disciples a share in his saving mission to different degrees. When Jesus states: “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” It is only God himself, who has absolute power over life and death, that could make such a claim and hope to fulfill it. This occurs when Jesus lay down his life in crucifixion. By dying, Jesus reveals the lengths to which he will go to provide for others. How far will we go to provide for others?
This gospel is part of the Good Shepherd discourse which follows the story of the healing of the man born blind and his encounters with people who do not believe his story. This may be an example of how Christians should be willing to witness to Jesus in a hostile world. I don’t know about you, but the world feels pretty hostile to me right now. How can I witness to Jesus in this hostile world? This discourse is addressed to the Jewish religious authorities. We also read of the hired man, which represents the ineffective efforts to protect the community due to a lack of commitment to the community and the fact that he works only for pay. Is so much of what is going wrong in the world and in our lives due to a lack of commitment? How can we strengthen our commitments to our community and the world at large?
Knowledge of another suggest an intimate relationship. We are told that Jesus knows his sheep as the Father knows him. Who are the people in our life who TRULY know us? Do we feel that Jesus really knows us? Do we really know Jesus? What does it mean to be children of God? I contend that we need to be focused on the character or nature of God’s love. I believe God wants an intimate, familial relationship with each of us. The challenge is how do we find, keep, and maintain this relationship? According to experts, there are some “keys” to a healthy relationship: Taking interest, acceptance and respect, positive regard, meeting basic needs, positive interactions, solve problems, rupture and repair, and reciprocity. How do these translate into our relationship with Christ?
We are told that Jesus knows us completely. Some days, that’s a very uncomfortable thought for me. There are some days, I’m not even certain that I know myself. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and spiritual work over these past several months and find it challenging to take everything in, make changes, and more importantly internalize them and bring them to life. We are to believe that Christ, the good shepherd, knows us completely and is able to give us what we need at precisely the time that we need it. When in the heat of the moment or a circumstance, I find this hard to believe; but with perspective and some think time, I can see that Jesus is an effective leader/shepherd most of the time. Even if I still feel that some events could have had a “better ending” …
In this Easter Season, we are reminded that Christ gave himself for us – we must never forget it was a choice. Jesus did this willingly; he had accomplished everything he had come to do and then he gave himself unto death, death on a cross. What would Jesus want to accomplish in our lives today? In our world? In our Church? I fear it would take longer than three years of ministry …
Getting back to the gospel…
Sheep were often subject to danger – rushing walls of water down valleys from sudden, heavy rainfalls may sweep them away, robbers may steal them, and wolves may attack the flock. Driving snow in winter, blinding dust and burning sands in summer, long, lonely hours each day – the shepherd endures all these things for the welfare of the flock. Shepherds themselves were frequently subject to grave danger. Likewise, Jesus gave his life for his own. He who could save others did not choose to save himself. Through his willing sacrifice, Jesus made salvation possible for all who come to him in faith. Jesus made it clear that it wasn’t just for the Jews that he laid down his life, but also for the “other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd”. As a result, Jesus is the Good Shepherd over all.
I have come to believe that we are all connected and what happens to one of us happens to all of us. The marginalized in our society – groups that are excluded due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, language and/or immigration status, as well as the poor – are they included in the Church’s fold? As stated earlier, Jesus says “I am the door”. If we recall many of Jesus’ public acts, he’s not a condescending, divisive, harmful door keeper. Rather, Jesus allows everyone to pass through his door without question or bias. Think of the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, etc. that Jesus spent time with and “saved”. Today this list might include a gay man, a black single mother, or a person who came into this country illegally. Jesus would not question or condemn these children, nor try to change them; he would accept them unconditionally. The people I find I admire the most in our current times are those working with people who are marginalized – they are truly doing God’s work. If it is our goal to have an inclusive community, church, and society we need to let everyone pass through the door without question or judgement or trying to change them. For some of us this task is easy and for others it’s very daunting. Currently, I lie somewhere in between. I’m learning about my personal biases and systemic racism. I’m trying to learn and to listen when people tell me who they are. I need to believe when someone speaks their truth to me. It is not my job to question or necessarily help; my only job is to listen, to believe, and to pray for guidance.
I leave you with some of questions: Who are the sheep who are not in your fold? Why aren’t they included in your fold? How do you make your fold larger and more inclusive? Do you have the NEED and see the DESIRE to make your fold more inclusive? I think Jesus does.