Insider and outsider, right and wrong, orthodox and heterodox, us and them — If there’s one thing humanity seems to excel at it’s turning differences into divisions, and building community around shared identity at the expense and exclusion of others. This is why, despite the near-universal and millennia-old religious calls for love and compassion and unity within diversity, and despite all the genuine gains we have made in the West in opening up the blessings of community life to more and more types of people, we are still plagued by xenophobia, racism, nationalism, misogyny, and (often violent) hatred towards queer people. Right now we are in a cultural moment where society seems to be walking in two directions at the same time, with both the welcome and rejection of ‘others’ simultaneously increasing.
While it cannot be denied that Christianity has often been used to justify this human tendency towards exclusion of others, it’s not the way of Jesus. It is instead a sad reflection of the hold sin still has on us as individuals and as communities of faith. In today’s Gospel reading, John 10.22-30, Jesus yet again finds himself a source of division and his response to this is instructive for us today.
To set the context, in Chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, and who was, therefore, understood to be cursed by God. Moreover, he did this on the Sabbath, and so marked himself as a Law-breaker. And so, Jesus transgressed religious boundaries in order to show compassion on someone believed to be outside the purview of God’s blessing. This double transgression divided those who witnessed it, requiring them to ask the question of what is more important as a determiner of faithfulness to God: Law-keeping or acts of mercy? Or, to use an analogy, what is more important: to colour within the lines, or to colour something beautiful? To the Pharisees (and moralizers of all times and places), the latter was a contradiction in terms — the lines on the page told you what beautiful looks like. But Jesus proclaims otherwise.
This question overshadows Chapter 10, which starts with Jesus’ Parable of the Good Shepherd, and now continues with today’s reading with an encounter in the Temple at the feast of the Dedication (the feast that evolved into what we now know was Hanukkah). People come to Jesus asking him to settle the debate: Is he or is he not the Messiah? Jesus simply points to his track record: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.” Jesus has come and proclaimed the Kingdom of God and the truth of his words has been validated by the miracles that accompanied them. There’s no need to continue the conversation — if they have not believed him so far, they will not believe him now. He continues:
…you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
Words are dangerous things, and these words have been used to justify religious exclusion and violence. But I am convinced this does a great disservice to what Jesus is actually trying to say. The people he’s addressing have seen and heard him at work but remain unmoved. It’s not exclusionary, it’s a simple fact: The shepherd’s sheep know his voice and follow him. The people in this story have heard him call and yet have not responded. Moreover, and I think most importantly for us today, He knows who is in his flock. It’s not for us to decide. Our divisions of theology and practice ultimately mean nothing. We don’t determine who is in the flock and who is not, Jesus does.
This passage is close to my heart, for it was these words of Jesus that came to mind as I was contemplating my relationship to Christianity towards the end of my period of intense desolation many years ago. I wrote then:
While I can’t say anymore that I “believe in” God or Christ, yet I remain as drawn as ever to and as impressed as ever by the person of Jesus of Nazareth as he is revealed in the Gospels. I find myself challenged more than ever by his call to transcend moralism and convention and live out a life of genuine goodness, compassion, and grace. There is an obvious irony in that in my position it is often his followers to whom I must try to learn to extend that compassion and grace as so many choose to view me as an enemy or are willing to write me off as deluded because my experiences run contrary to their (heck, and formerly my own) religious expectations. But be that as it may, I still retain an unshakable sense that in some way, whether reflective of some mystical reality I do not comprehend or simply because old habits die hard, this Jesus fellow is still my Shepherd and I still in many ways love the Shepherd’s voice.
In that moment, a lot of things became clear to me. As I was emerging from the spiritual darkness, I’d found many guides to help me rebuild the life of my soul, but none felt like ‘home’. I benefited so much from the Buddha’s teaching, but I knew I was not a Buddhist. I was inspired from what I learned about and from great artists, jazz musicians, and architects, but I knew all that was a hobby, not a life for me. But as Jesus’ voice, which I had not been able to hear for years, started to whisper softly once again, my heart recognized it and leapt like a lamb in Spring. I knew that voice. I knew who he was. I knew who I was. He was the Shepherd; he knew me as his own, and when he called to me, I loved his voice. And that was that. While in the moment, I was still very unsure of where things were going to go, it was only a matter of months before I found myself back in the Church, though under very different circumstances from before.
At the end of the day, this is why it isn’t up to us to be gate-keepers of the faith. (Indeed, as Jesus said earlier in the chapter, He is the gate for the sheep.) He knows his own. He is calling to us. He is calling us to genuine community, grounded not in ideology or class or race or any other human convention, but in openness and welcome, mutual compassion, service, and love. He is calling us. Do we love his voice? Are we listening? Will we follow?