Year C: Fourth Sunday of Easter
I Give My Sheep Eternal Life
Jesus said, my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
- What do you think it means to recognize Jesus’ voice?
- 2. Where in your experience are you hearing Jesus’ voice these days, and how are you responding?
- Most of us express our faith using the words or faith expressions of others; our doctrines, the saints, and the many prayers handed down to us. In your own words, how would you describe the ways you know and follow Jesus?
- What about Christianity do find most hopeful and why?
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
The passage we read today from John’s Gospel is part of a very contentious conversation that Jesus is having with some Jews. Immediately preceding today’s reading John tells us that Jesus was walking around the temple area when some Jews said to him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep’ ” (John 10:24b-26). Today’s reading picks up the story at this point and contrasts Jesus’ sheep with those to whom he is speaking.
In order to understand John’s intent in describing this conversation we should remember the situation in which John is writing. The first followers of Jesus did not have to choose between being a Jew and being a follower of Jesus Christ. There were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. As we mentioned earlier, however, by the time John is writing at the end of the first century AD, those Jews who believed in the divinity of Jesus were being expelled from the synagogues by their fellow Jews. As long as individuals belonged to the synagogue, they did not have to participate in emperor worship, an abomination to all Jews, whether believers in Christ or not. Once expelled, however, they no longer had that protection and so would be expected to offer worship to the emperor. Those who refused were subject to persecution and death.
As John writes his Gospel he insists on the divinity of Christ, the very belief that his contemporary Jews might be tempted to deny. We see this in today’s reading when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” John does not want any of his fellow Jews to deny the divinity of Christ for the purpose of avoiding persecution.
So, when Jesus tells these Jews, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he is contrasting his sheep to the people to whom he is speaking. They do not know Jesus, hear Jesus’ voice, or follow him. Rather, they fail to understand what Jesus is saying. As Jesus continues, John pictures him emphasizing the point that John is trying to teach his audience. Jesus says, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” In other words, John’s audience need not fear persecution. Those who remain faithful to Christ will be safe in Christ’s hands, in God’s hands.
This passage recalls to our mind Jesus’ description of the good shepherd that appears earlier in chapter 10. In that discourse Jesus drew an analogy between his relationship with the sheep and the Father’s relationship with him: “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” (John 10:14). This relationship is the reason no one can snatch the sheep out of Jesus’ hand. The sheep whom Jesus has been given have been given him by the Father, and no one can snatch anything from the Father. It is at this point that Jesus once again identifies himself with the Father. “The Father and I are one”
When Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” he has answered the original question that the Jews had asked regarding whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. Our Gospel selection does not tell us their reaction. Jesus’ answer so angers his listeners that they “picked up rocks to stone him” (John 10:31). When asked why they are stoning him they say, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God” (John10:33). Here John states very clearly, as a charge against Jesus, the10:33), the truth that he is emphasizing Jesus is God.
We read this Gospel from John during the Easter season because it does insist on Jesus’ divinity. Jesus rose from the dead, thus revealing his true identity to his followers. Jesus will take care of his sheep. One need have no fear, even of martyrdom. Jesus gives his sheep “eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
Speaking in Your Own Voice
When the religious authorities push Jesus to speak plainly, what they mean is to adopt their theological categories and use the conventional words they understand. This becomes clear in the episode immediately following Jesus’ statement about his unity with the Father. The response of the religious authorities is to pick up rocks to stone him. Jesus asks, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” (John 10:32). The authorities answer that it is not for good works that they are going to stone him, but because Jesus is making himself equal to God. All the authorities can hear in what Jesus has said is what they have antennae for. Official ears perk up at anything that smacks of idolatry, a blurring of the boundaries between Creator and creature. Everything else Jesus has said has been lost on them.
However, when Jesus speaks plainly, he tries to detail his experience in words that are so expressive they have the possibility of communicating the experience to others. He has his own voice. Although he may borrow shepherd language from past Scripture, in particular Psalm23, the language is recast in the light of his experience. He is speaking plainly, telling what it is like to bring true messianic hope to those who can receive it.
Those of us who grew up in Christian traditions learned to talk about Jesus in inherited language. It may have been the language of Personal Savior, or the language of Jesus as true God and true Man, or the language of Jesus as Giver of the Spirit, or any other designations Christian denominations have developed. Although this language had been hammered out over the centuries and was necessary for community life and worship, it was basically somebody else’s language. Often when we tried to use it, it was obvious we were borrowing another’s voice.
I think it is important to have official Christological language. But I also think believers should find their own voice about what they receive when they hear and meditate on the Christian myth and ritual. In classic theological language, faith seeks understanding. What we have received as faith, we have to appropriate as understanding. This understanding certainly includes insights, inspiration, confession, praise, and thanksgiving. But it also acknowledges lack of comprehension, lack of interest, and lack of relevance. A real faith that struggles with real understanding needs a real voice.
As we make the gospels our own, we necessarily begin to speak about what we are experiencing. At first, our voice may be stumbling and tentative. We may worry we are not orthodox enough. But, at this stage, our inner journey should not be rushed too fast into a premature doctrinal conformity. Orthodoxy can always be consulted. Or we may compare ourselves to others who seem fluent in spiritual talk about Jesus. But, at this stage, our inner journey should have its own pace. Competitive comparisons are out of place. Finding our own voice does not mean we do not learn from others. It is merely a warning that parroting ideas we do not understand will not help our faith development. We must trust our own path and the provisional yet real voice that is emerging.
This gospel text has one suggestion for us as we find a voice around our relationship with Jesus. When Jesus shifts into his own voice, he often combines descriptive language with images. His relationship to his followers is like a shepherd to his sheep. Then he plays out the image to express and communicate the nuances of what he is experiencing. We should try the same. When we hear the words of the gospel and manage to receive some of their meaning, what is it like? It is like rain on parched land, or a letter that has finally arrived, or like finding something that we did not know we had lost, or…
When it comes to speaking in our own voice, there is a Jewish spiritual teaching story that repays meditation. When Rabbi Zusya grew old and knew that his time on earth was nearing a close, his students gathered around him.
One of them asked him if he was afraid of dying.
“I am afraid of what God will ask me,” the Rabbi said.
“What will he ask you?”
“He will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Moses?”
“He will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?”
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.