Easter 4: 17 April John 10:22-30
Sheep stealing. Can it ever be eradicated? In 1 John those who left the fold were effectively stolen by false teachers and prophets (2:19; 4:1-6). Is the community really so vulnerable that it can be picked off by these false shepherds? The answer in 1 John is to explain that these were never really sheep in the first place. Surely God will never let the real sheep be snatched away! Our passage ends with this kind of assurance. Who is being assured? With little doubt a troubled Christian community. Since the beginning of John 10 the focus has been on leadership and its competitors. The real sheep will not listen to rogue shepherds.
The pastoral imagery, for all its romance and beauty, especially when imagined in green temperate climates instead of the harshness of Judean hills, is imagery of conflict and pain. It had long been an image for rulers, Pharaohs, kings, and is perhaps best known to us in the shepherd king, David. Ezekiel arraigns the political leaders of his day, the shepherds, who were neglecting the flock (Ezek 34). The shepherd messiah would rule in justice and peace (34:23-24). The hungry sheep would be fed. The lost sheep would be restored. Jesus used the imagery of his own activity, of God’s activity, through the parable of the 99 sheep. Shepherding was a big metaphor which could encompass the vision of the reign of God with the full range of political, social, and personal dimensions which that entails. It is much bigger than ‘pastoral’ care, understood often in a very limited sense without the wider dimensions.
To acclaim someone as the shepherd is to make a statement about counter claims and competitors. Acclaiming the reign of God the shepherd calls into question all other claims to authority. It is dangerous and leaves one vulnerable to expedient discounting by those who recognise threat or find such alternatives as subversive or just untidy and bothersome. Some or all of these responses killed Jesus. He would give his life for the sheep.
As we move backwards through the passage we can see how these issues have emerged. From reassurance that the sheep would not be stolen (10:28-30), we move back to the assertion that the real sheep hear and recognise the voice of the true shepherd (10:27). 10:26 asserts that those who refuse to believe do so because they do not belong among the sheep. Back in 10:24-25 ‘the Jews’ had gathered around Jesus asking if he would tell them whether he was the messiah. As we have seen the image of shepherd is closely linked to the image of the messiah or king. Jesus has presented himself in word and deed without, it is implied, saying straight out: I am the Messiah. If they had eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have recognised him. One might smile at such folly in the cloisters of Solomon the wise (10:24); perhaps John means us to. Perhaps the first verse, with its reference to the festival of rededication of the temple, Hanukkah, and to winter, is evoking celebrations of hope for Israel as God’s holy flock. Perhaps winter hovers symbolically behind what is to come.
Before us we have Jesus confronting his dissenters. We also have a story read in first century Jewish Christian communities confronted by dissent from fellow Jews and probably also by divisions caused by dissenting Jewish Christian leaders. The communities would have seen the conflict of their day mirrored in the conflicts of Jesus’ day. It is a power struggle for leadership of God’s flock. Something terrible has happened. The flock has not responded; only some have recognised the hidden messiah, the true shepherd. And even that flock is being dissipated by dissent. It is some compensation that sheep are now being gathered from other folds as the sheepfold opens its gates to Gentiles. But the danger is real.
At one level the resolution is sectarian and self assuring. People who leave us could not have been genuine in the first place. The real sheep stay. We know that because no one can snatch them from Jesus and God’s hands. And, conversely, we know that no one can snatch them from Jesus and God’s hands, because the sheep stay put. It is circular.
At another level the resolution is the opposite of sectarian. It erects no fences. It simply trusts the processes. Like Jesus in this scene, it presents no compelling argument, but only a life, words and deeds. Those words and deeds in John’s gospel are not compelling argument. They are presentation and invitation, implying a huge claim: that here is the Son offering life from the Father. The Son is giving the sheep that life, the life he lived.
It is inevitable that the conflict is transposed into a conflict over christology. The passage ends with the words: ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30). Its immediate reference is to what precedes. It explains why in 10:28 Jesus speaks of his hands and in 10:29 of God’s. But it is more significant than that and becomes the basis for the exchange which follows in 10:31-39, which must reflect the kind of conflict going on in John’s communities. So Jesus is shown defending the right to speak of himself in God-terms because he is not claiming to be God or equal to God. He is to be equated with God in the sense that his life and work demonstrate God’s life and work and, for John, that is made possible because he is the incarnation of God’s own holy wisdom and word (John 1:1-18).
Despite the elevated images used to clothe this claim, the Christians of John’s communities had to struggle to ensure that the envoy did not eclipse the sender, because to many Jews it sounded like that and, arguably, often still does in what Christians say about Jesus. For John, God remains God. Jesus is not a second God. Ultimately everything about Jesus points away from himself to God. Such subordination of Jesus into the role of the sent one paradoxically brings with it a merging of Jesus into God, a merging of sender and sent one, to a point where confusion was certainly possible, especially where in some circles like John’s it had become customary to explain the relationship by drawing on models which transcended human reality (such as wisdom and logos).
Behind such constructions is the reality which Christian faith affirms, that to eyes that can see we recognise God in the story of Jesus and all who hear the voice of God, there and wherever, are God’s sheep. All constructions are to serve that truth and all constructions need examination that they take on the character of doorways for people not closed gates.
First Reading: Easter 4: 17 April Acts 9:36-43
Epistle: Easter 4: 17 April Revelation 7:9-17