JOHN 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

This is where it becomes critical to keep in mind that the Gospel writer (of John) is giving us his presentation of Jesus after a half-century of history has already passed under the bridge. Any responsible reading of the Gospels needs to distinguish between the First Voice of Jesus himself and what the author might have Jesus say or do in response to his own (the author’s) context of challenges and concerns.

By way of illustration, just setting side by side the Gospels of Mark and John will reveal two very different Jesuses – however awkward that sounds. The direct, urgent, and concrete teaching of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel cannot be matched across the aisle with the lofty, abstract, and metaphysical teachings of Jesus in John. To put it baldly: they are not the same Jesus.

It helps to know that Mark was written during a time of rising apocalyptic expectations, out of the fray of the Jewish-Roman War that climaxed with the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, came after the messianic sect of Christians had separated from Judaism and begun its productive conversation with Greek gnosticism and the mystery religions. Had the author of Mark opened John’s Life of Jesus, he would doubtless have been baffled and very possibly not even recognized the Jesus presented therein.

In the intervening decades much had happened that made a revision (or an altogether new telling) necessary. The Jewish-Roman War ended in the year 73CE, orthodox Judaism officially excommunicated Christians from fellowship by the mid-80s, and at least a few Roman emperors had tried to eliminate the Christian movement by legislation and persecution.

Along the way there arose a number of messianic pretenders, brave souls who claimed to carry the mantle of Jesus for the next phase in his kingdom campaign. Apparently, many had been taken in by these pretenders – these thieves and bandits. The shifting allegiances within the Christian community had resulted in division,  confusion, and more violent crackdowns. This was the historical context of the community for whom John is (re)telling the story of Jesus.

We should be careful, then, not to superimpose our contemporary questions and concerns and make them assumptions in our reading. (Although, in keeping with the New Testament Gospels as reconstructions of Jesus for their times, there is nothing in principle that should prohibit a fresh retelling for our own time and setting. In that case, the challenge would be to keep the First Voice of Jesus from getting lost in our portrayal.)

This passage is not about the superiority of Christianity to other religions. Instead it’s John’s answer (through the mouthpiece of his Jesus) to the then-pressing question: Who is the real Christ? Most of the pretenders were guerrilla leaders, wonder-workers, or esoteric spin-masters. John’s answer was simple: Just listen, really listen, and you will hear his voice.

This was – and still is – the First Voice of Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion, do magic tricks, or reveal some secret truth. He taught love, loved life, and lived entirely in the moment.

That’s where abundant life flows.

 

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