Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I am the door of the sheep

"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."

Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which he spoke to them. Then Jesus said to them again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture."

- John 10:1-9

In the readings from Monday and Tuesday, Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. He described himself as 'the light of the world, while I am in the world,' repeating his phrase from an earlier teaching. In his dialogue with the Pharisees, who, after debating among themselves, rejected the formerly blind man from the temple, and also Jesus' divinity, he began to speak of judgment in yesterday's reading. Today, he continues this dialogue in the text.

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. Jesus always returns to relationship. It doesn't matter what the nominal subject is, in some sense. Whether we are speaking of judgment, or goodness or truth ... always, Christ in his words and actions returns to relationship - to love. So, after Jesus' words introducing the subject of judgment, he returns to themes of relationship. The Good Shepherd is not only himself the good and true shepherd, but just as importantly, the sheep know his voice. This is a mutual relationship of love and care, and loyalty. This last sentence in this paragraph is so touching, and thought-provoking, and so telling us of so many things: "Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." In this context, we must recall what has just happened. The man blind from birth, whom Jesus healed, stood up in the temple before the leadership, as sole witness to this tremendous healing. Even his parents would not stand by him, for fear of being put out of the temple, ostracized from the community. Now the healed, who was once blind but now can see, is rejected. But Jesus finds him again, and reveals himself and his divinity to the formerly blind, who seals this revelation with an emphatic confession of faith, "Lord, I believe!" So, Jesus' words about the mutual recognition of the sheep and the Good Shepherd is something that we are to understand at work in this healed one, who has been called as a witness out of the old family, and into a new one.

Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which he spoke to them. Then Jesus said to them again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture." The Pharisees fail to grasp anything that Jesus is speaking of here. My study bible has a note: "In calling Himself the door, Jesus signifies he will bring his flock into an enclosed sheepfold with a central gate. Normally a hired guard would tend the gate while the shepherds rested through the night. But Jesus is the tireless Shepherd, always guarding the entrance. No one can enter except by way of Him." It is important to understand the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. But what I find powerful in this speech is not just the immediate understanding of this Good Shepherd, but the clear notions of recognition and mutual love and loyalty Jesus explains by his example of the Good Shepherd. The sheep hear and know his voice. Everyone else who comes before the sheep, claiming to be a leader, to have the words of life, is a phony. The sheep understand because "they cannot hear" them. But the voice of the shepherd is the voice that calls to the heart and is heard by the sheep. Many times in the gospels, Jesus' immediate presence has sparked an understanding in the crowds, even in the temple police when they tried to arrest Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles, but could not from hearing just one sermon. There is a mutual recognition that goes on with this Good Shepherd and his sheep, a relationship that goes more deeply than any other. We recall St. Paul's words from the letter to the Hebrews: "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). In this depth, the sheep know the Good Shepherd, and hear him when they cannot hear anybody else. As with the healed man who was blind from birth, with the Good Shepherd these sheep will find pasture, even when cast out by those whom they do not hear, amongst the din of their voices.

How about ourselves? Do we relate to this passage? Do we feel that we are the sheep who hear a voice? Once again, this passage transcends categories and extends itself to all we feel, see, believe. What is truth? How does it work within us? What makes up the sense of the words Jesus said, that "The one who sent me is true?" Do the words burn our hearts, as with the apostles on the road to Emmaus? How does it define you, set you free to embrace a true identity, and to grow in it? As we embark on our Lenten journey, we should think about the sheep and the Good Shepherd, and where we find pasture...what do we hear in our hearts? From darkness to light, as with the healed man who was blind from birth, we awake to who we are, in this spiritual freedom of the Good Shepherd. St. Paul wrote, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17,18). This is a lifelong journey. The voice of the Shepherd that we hear reveals us to be his sheep, and continues to give us our image of who we are, just as the formerly blind man has been rejected from the temple, but found his pasture with Jesus. Do you know who you are? Are you one of the sheep? What - or Who - do you hear in your heart?