I have been wondering what it is about Jesus which has persuaded you he is the Messiah and the one to follow in your faith journey? What have been the qualities of this figure in the Bible which continue to engage you and provide you with hope and trust in God?
The verses from John’s Gospel, 10:1-10 for today’s reflection come immediately after the story of Jesus restoring the sight of a man blind from birth. The temple authorities did not recognise the signals Jesus gave of healing, teaching, praying and behaving to persuade them he is the Messiah.
Jesus came from Galilee, he healed on the Sabbath, he has not given due respect to the religious authorities, he broke ritual rules of cleanliness and associated with the wrong people. I suspect their list of non-compliance was long and reinforced by their dislike, fear and resentment of the man who was an outsider. To them he would never be a leader to follow.
The imagery and language Jesus uses to describe his being, work, role, gifts and relationship with God would have been familiar to those to whom he was speaking: shepherd and sheep, the vine, the gate, the way, the bread, the light, the truth, the servant – and there are others, which all made sense to his audience and his disciples. Some of these as characteristics of leadership we are able to check out in our connected global lives.
Technology allows us to assess and judge different leaders across countries, faiths and churches. We can shop around and look before we commit to following or doing what is asked. It gives us an interesting perspective to the concept of thieves and bandits coming in and leading us astray.
So, I wondered how do you recognise Jesus’ voice rather than a stranger’s voice, when many of those around him were declaring Jesus to be the ‘stranger’ leading the people on wrong pathways in their religious lives?
The blind man had his sight restored. For the very first time in his life he was able to see; and he saw the Messiah and he worshipped him.
For those who are blind, it is the shepherd’s voice calling out the names of those following who recognise his personal call to each of them. Mary did not recognise the risen Jesus in the garden till he spoke her name. We hear and listen hard to what is being said as we seek to discern the voice of Jesus, otherwise we may be taken in by false voices; and thieves and bandits can look like friends and kindly leaders helping us on our way.
In our tech savvy world we can check the facts to our own satisfaction and decide who we want to believe or not. We establish our community, or our sheepfold by shared values, beliefs and practices. We know our leader because our leader ‘knows’ us, understands us and works with us, for us and alongside us. When division and difference occur, our capacity to remain in relationship despite the tensions, comes through the voice of wisdom in a recognisable tone to which we can all respond. Do we hear God clearly enough in these times?
Then there is the demand for absolute obedience from many leaders when they come under pressure or want to remain in control no matter what is going on. Such demands are no longer generally effective, although there are still leaders in the world and in some churches and faiths demanding such submission and obedience. Demanding blind obedience for whatever reason is effectively stealing and robbing the trust, love and free will of the other person.
Jesus never robs, steals or demands the sheep follow him, he doesn’t kick them out of the safety of the sheep fold if they refuse, nor does he abandon them and leave the sheep to make their own way.
In the parable told by Jesus, the ‘gate’ and the ‘shepherd’ metaphors are two ways of thinking about Jesus and his leadership and his relationship with you and I and with God. Both provide protection, order, liberation and abundance, not restraint, coercion or fear.
The ‘gate’ metaphor sadly, has been used as a way of dividing people. Who’s in or who’s outside, the right Christian from the wrong Christian, believer or non-believer, masters from slaves, straight people from gays, men from women, white from black, poor from rich, educated from uneducated and so on.
However, the ‘gate’ does not exist or function to separate some sheep from others, but to lead people in and out of the sheepfold so they will be protected and fed. The gate becomes the way to distinguish between the shepherd who leads sheep to fertile ground and from the thieves and bandits who steal and kill.
The gate is the way to abundant life, and anyone leading to a different way is taking away life and its abundance. Those who use the gate of Jesus as a divide by which to separate people can be understood as the bandits and thieves against whom Jesus is sounding a warning.
Jesus repeatedly reminds us he came not to judge but to save (3:17; 12:47) yet his very presence brings about discernment and judgement of what is right. In 9:39 Jesus said of himself:
I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.
Jesus’ presence becomes a moment of discernment through which it is possible to see the blindness of the pharisees and also ourselves, and we can start to see our own limits and the gates we have closed for ourselves and for those around us when we no longer hear Jesus’ voice or recognise he is speaking to us.
I think Jesus is reminding us very clearly of the differences between him and other leaders. Instead of being a thief and a robber, offering a gate to a futile and meaningless life, full of judgement, rejection, greed and consumption, Jesus is a gate to a full life now. The kingdom of God according to Jesus is good news, not bad news. Through Jesus we can experience God’s richness and fullness. Jesus is unique. He comes to bring life, unlike those who come to take it away.
‘Life’ is a function of the gate: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (v.10). Life is the present gift, not something solely for an afterlife and it is offered to all believers. Life is dependent upon Jesus having come. The abundant life Jesus offers refers to a quality of life believers experience now. The life of faith participates in the abundance of God to whom all things belong.
The gate or gateway is the portal, the opening, the way to abundant life. The sheep come in and go out and find pasture (v.9) The gate offers protection from those who would kill and destroy and access to the abundant pasture God provides for the flock, for all who recognise Jesus’ voice and follow him.
Jesus the ‘gate’ is a way through, not a way to separate. This gate is a distinct person from God who comes to bring bread and light and water and life. This gate is not doctrine or dogma or religion but a specific person with a particular purpose and way, who is inviting us out into the great and fertile land flowing with abundant goodness.
The person, Messiah, the anointed one is not owned by anyone and cannot be used to exclude or make exceptions, in spite of the way religion has created his name and uses it. The words, ‘I am’ associate the Saviour and Messiah with the person Jesus, whose humanity unites us all and includes us all with him and with God.
John’s Gospel offers several occasions when Jesus teaches about himself using ‘I am’. I am the bread of life (6:35); the light of the world (8:12); the good shepherd (10:11); the resurrection and the life (11:25); the way, and the truth and the life (14:6); and the true vine (15:1).
These all highlight characteristics of Jesus and his leadership, his way of being in the world with his followers of God, the metaphors allow us time to reflect on what it is resonating with us as I come back to my original questions and wonder, what it is about Jesus you recognise and follow as Lord?
As you think about Jesus’ leadership, it is up to us to think about how it is we offer and show the pathway through to Jesus, living life abundantly in God’s creation, offering salvation, hope, faith and healing rather than judgement, despair and exclusion.
I think about what keeps us from flourishing and working towards this goal everywhere for everyone? Jesus reminds us that one way we can show the way, lead and live abundant lives, is to work towards the flourishing of others. It is in giving we receive.
The Lord be with you.