I know them and they follow me”
It could be easy to read these words of Jesus to the Jews in the Portico of Solomon in the Temple and read into them exclusion and separation. It would be easy to read these words with a sense of smug self-satisfaction that we have heard the Shepherds voice. It would be easy to read these words as a justification for treating others poorly. It would be easy to read these words as an affirmation of our goodness and to think of others as bad.
Yet as tempting as such readings might be I do not believe they would be either faithful to the context in which Jesus spoke the words or helpful to our own.
Jesus’ life is about breaking down barriers and expanding the parameters of the unity that he shares with the Father and, might I say, the Holy Spirit to include others.
To help gain an understanding I want to reflect on a glimpse from three Biblical texts we have heard this morning. First, the context of the question that the Jews ask, “Are you the Messiah?” Second is to consider the claim of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd and the connection that this has to the 23rd Psalm. And thirdly, to examine the trajectory that Jesus is heading towards revealed in the words of vision found in the book of Revelation.
So to the first issue! When the Jews come asking Jesus “are you the Messiah?” we should understand this is as much a political question as it is a spiritual one. The Jewish people were under foreign rule; their King Herod was merely a puppet of the Imperial might of the Roman Empire.
The prophecies surrounding the coming of the Messiah and certainly the expectations that sat alongside these prophecies were tied to the overthrow of foreign rule and re-establishment of the independence of Israel as a Kingdom.
The questioners may have seen Jesus miracles; they might have been challenged by his teaching; but, to actually throw themselves into a relationship of conflict with the might of Rome, that was a completely different matter. Was Jesus the Messiah? Would he restore Israel? Was God’s grace and faithfulness to the covenant about to be manifest in their time?
The Jewish people had a pretty clear idea that they were God’s chosen ones and this was expressed in the holiness codes and exclusion of various outcastes and gentiles from the community. It was all about insiders and outsiders.
The beginning of John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to what his own and his own people did not accept him. This is being played in this interaction – the drawing of lines: ‘who is in?’ ‘who is out?’ For the Jews this was about ethnic identity which was tied to their religious conviction but Jesus challenges this suggesting it is not so much about identity or holiness but relationship: the ones who respond to his voice. The boundary between insiders and outsiders was being challenged.
Jesus’ claim at this point to be the Good Shepherd would have sounded blasphemous to those gathered. He was claiming to be God and he was claiming the role of the Shepherd found in Psalm 23. Jesus was not simply the Messiah, God’s chosen one he was far more than that.
David sang, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and now Jesus asserts he is that Shepherd. The Psalm was most likely written when David was at low ebb; it was a source of comfort in a time of distress. In the midst of persecution and challenges God accompanies people even setting them safely at meals where their perceived enemies sit.
In answer to the question that the Jews had asked, Jesus was expanding the horizon of his own identity for them. Jesus was not simply the Messiah, Jesus was the Good Shepherd. He was the Lord. He had authority and responsibilities further than they could perceive which lay even beyond the limits of life and death.
The expansion of the horizons for the Jews culminates in Jesus somewhat outlandish claim “I and the Father are one”.
This unity between Father and Son is further elucidated through John’s gospel but startlingly the relationship and unity that Jesus shares with God is to be opened out. There are ever expanding boundaries to the unity promised by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus prayer of John 17 prays that the disciples share, not only a similar bond of unity with one another, but are drawn into the very relationship of Father and Son.
The vision of unity is also extended in other ways to those who sit outside the exclusiveness of the Jewish insiders. Jesus extends words of grace to those who have been ostracised and to those who are not even Jewish. His claim that all people would be drawn into his death, when the some Greeks came seeking him, must have been bamboozling for the crowds.
Just as Jesus was expanding who he was for the Jews who came seeking a political leader so too he was expanding the vision of who could be drawn into the unity of the Father and of the Son.
Rather than establish any sense of exclusivity Jesus is driving home new possibilities of who might be accepted when he makes the claim, “My sheep hear my voice!” The distinction is no longer tied to religious or ethnic affiliation.
The expanded possibilities are realised in the words of the prophecy in the book of Revelation:
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Gathered in the final visions of glory at the end of the New Testament the possibility and hope of salvation is for people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. God’s grace and God’s love is forever expanding; it is ever incorporating others into the bond of Father and of Son and of Spirit.
It is my sense that when the Jews asked the question they wanted to limit God’s grace, to restore their nation, to reassert the exclusivity of who they were as God’s people: to be top of the heap.
Whilst Jesus words may sound exclusive when read in the context of John’s gospel they are a challenge to
such exclusivity and remind us that the relationship of Jesus with others was about new possibilities and new hope for all peoples.
I believe this is a vital message for us to hear in a world in which we already find ourselves divided on so many levels: political, racial, economic, spiritual and social. And in a world which continually encourages us to build select communities.
We are fed hate and hurt as reflected in the violence of the past week – in Boston, in Afghanistan, In Iraq and in every corner of the world where barriers were erected about people excluded: in refugee camps and detention centres; in prisons; in broken relationships; in racial and ethnic and religious tension.
Jesus response challenges our human tendency toward exclusion and opens out the life of God, dwelling always as community, and invites us in. This is the good news not just for a select few but for all peoples and the whole creation as God’s love and life expands to encompass all.