Fourth Sunday in Easter

There are seven “I-Am” statements in John’s gospel.  Jesus says; ‘I-Am the Bread of Life’; ‘I-Am the Light of the world’; ‘I-Am the True Vine’; ‘I-Am the Resurrection and the Life’; ‘I-Am the Way the Truth and the Life’; ‘I-Am the Good Shepherd; and todays, ‘I-Am the Gate’.  Each one of these statements is a treasure house to be explored.  As a whole, these statements illuminate each other.  Perhaps the most obscure for us is, ‘I-Am the Gate for the sheep’.

Jesus is the Door, the Gate, the way into the sheep fold, and the way out to pasture.  The person of Jesus is both the entrance into the Church, the sheepfold, and the missionary gate through which we are sent out into the world to gather the lost sheep.

In ancient Palestine, the shepherd was quite literally the gate for the sheep.  A sheep fold was a cave or a square enclosure of walled rocks with thorny brambles on the top to discourage thieves and predators.  There was only one way in or out.  The shepherd would sleep across this threshold.  The body of the shepherd was literally the gate for the sheep; protecting them from harm, providing them a place to rest, and during the day, a way to go in and out to find pasture.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In ancient Palestine, the shepherd did not drive or herd the sheep, with the help of a sheep dog, like we do in western countries.  In Palestine, to this day, the shepherd leads the sheep.  As John tells us, ’’the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice’’.  Not just in a vague impersonal way, for John also tells us, ’’he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’’, another translation says, ’’he walks in front of them’’.  I love the intimacy of the story, he calls each one of us by name, we know his voice.  There is mutual tenderness in the relationship between shepherd and sheep, between Jesus and the baptized, those he has called by name.

We are also called to use discernment in recognizing the voice of the Good Shepherd; and warned not to listen to the voice of strangers. ’’They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers’’.  A very powerful warning to us. To listen to the recognized voice of the master, who calls us by name, to not listen to the voice of strangers.  But how to discern the difference, that is the question?  Can the voice of strangers not sometimes be seductive and alluring?  The key to discerning the difference is in the last verse of our passage. ’’I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’’, to the full, overflowing, pressed down, shaken together, running over. The voice of the stranger calls us to be less than what we can be. The voice of Jesus calls us to life; to be fully alive, to grow to the full stature of human flourishing. He calls us my name.