4th after Easter
Readings: Acts 2:42-end; John 10:1-10
by Ian Leitch

Did you notice the story the press in last month claiming that the average human attention span has shortened to less than that of a goldfish? The Canadian team that conducted the research attributed their finding to the onslaught of social media, mobile phones and computer games, and observed that these had most impact on those in their teens and twenties causing very poor listening skills. One father who read an article about it in his newspaper, decided to share it with his son, and so he read it aloud to him. When he had finished, the father asked, “Well, what do you think about that?” The lad glanced up from his laptop, and replied, “Sorry, Dad, what was that you said?”.

Irrespective of the goldfish and digital technology, the fact is that many of us are not very good at listening. And perhaps we listen least to those closest to us: parents to their children, children to their parents, or spouses to each other. All the time one can observe people who are close to each other not really hearing what the other is saying.

And if we treat each other like that, how much more do we fail to listen to the voice of Jesus! Yes, we like the comfort of knowing that Jesus is beside us every moment of our life, but how often do we really listen to His voice? Today’s Gospel reading starts with Jesus describing himself as the Shepherd who calls to his sheep – that is to us, his people. Jesus says of the shepherd, {… the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name … and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:3b, 4b)}.

Jesus is using the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep to unpack the meaning of a miracle that he has just performed. In John’s Gospel, a miracle is always a sign of something even more profound. Jesus had encountered a man born blind, and given him his sight. The Pharisees interrogated the man and demanded an explanation from him. When the man testified to Jesus, they threw him out of the Temple, even though they described themselves as the Shepherds of God’s People and Nation, who care for, protect, and nourish the people. Rejected by the Pharisees and expelled from his own community, Jesus sought him out again and brought him into the community of His own followers. For that man, salvation meant not only receiving his physical sight but spiritual sight also, recognizing who Jesus is, believing in him, and becoming part of his community. Jesus turned to the Pharisees who had driven the man out, and told them that they were spiritually blind. They were more concerned about guarding their power and authority than about the well-being of the people. But that man followed the voice of Jesus even before he could see him, and it led him to a new life. His days of isolation were over; he knew himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for and protected. It illustrates the meaning of the miracle – indeed, the message of the whole Gospel – that Jesus came to bring life, abundant life, eternal life for all who will receive it.

Eternal life described in John’s Gospel is not just about life after death. It is life that begins here and now. It is knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. It is knowing the voice of the Good Shepherd who truly cares for us. It is life in community, finding security and nourishment as part of his flock. It is life that abounds in meaning and value and endures even beyond death. It is life for all who hear his voice and follow.

Jesus uses the metaphor of a communal sheepfold to describe the care, protection and provision that we receive in His presence. Shepherds, who kept their sheep out in the fields by day, would each bring them back to a communal sheepfold in the village for the night. The fold was a courtyard with a very high wall around it and a strong gate to which only the gatekeeper had the key. Once inside the flocks were safe and secure, and each shepherd could get some rest. The gatekeeper would stand guard and admit only the shepherds. Anyone {who climbs in over the wall is a thief and a robber (John 10:1b)}. Jesus’ flock, who know His voice, are secure from those false shepherds who would lead them away from the truth; they will not follow strangers. They are secure in the sheepfold and know that, when Jesus calls them by name, He will lead them to nourishment in good pasture.

But the Pharisees, who are demanding to know whether Jesus is the Messiah, claim not to understand the metaphor – nor do they recognise themselves as thieves and robbers. So, Jesus uses a different illustration – again using the shepherd and his sheep. This time he imagines a sheep pen up in the hills – just a circular fence with a gap for the sheep to go in and out. Instead of the well-made door of the village sheepfold, this pen has only an opening. At night, the shepherd makes his bed in the gap – by blocking the opening with his body – protecting the sheep with his life. In the most literal sense the shepherd was the gate; there was no access to the sheep-fold except through him.

Jesus said, {“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. … I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:9,10b)}. But what is abundant life for us? How would you define it? Is it happiness? Or some measurable accomplishments? Or life with family and friends? Or success? Or wealth? When we think about abundance, we tend to be swayed by the world’s standards, which connects a abundance with affluence. Abundant life according to Jesus’ standards is just about the opposite of how contemporary society might define it. Not luxury or lavishness. Not assumed affluence. Not opulence or conspicuous consumption. Jesus teaches that abundant life lies in knowing that we will be safe and sound, trusting that our basic needs will be met, and believing that we are never alone.

We see it in Jesus’ healing of the man born blind — a man begging for his next meal, a man constantly exposed to the elements, a man without community, alone to fend for himself. He followed the voice of Jesus before he could see him, and it led him to a new life. His days of isolation were over; and he knew himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for and protected. His life was transformed for ever.

In our reading from Acts, we saw a picture of abundant life in the early church of the apostles They spent time in the Temple listening to God in prayer, they shared their possessions so that no-one was in need, they ate together in their homes with generous and joyful hearts, and their joy overflowed in their praise of God. In that abundant life, they had the goodwill of all the people.

In each of these illustrations the starting point is listening to God in prayer. Hearing his voice and following where he leads is our path nourishment and protection. It is the way that we grow and know our Lord better. We walk that path by spending some time each morning and evening quietening our mind of all that internal noise that rushes around our heads and listening in silence for the voice of God in prayer. Hearing him calling us by name.

Each day our ability to hear God speaking to us through the pages of our Bible can grow stronger. And when we prepare our hearts through prayer and worship we are able to more fully and more clearly listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd. He calls each of us to follow him, to walk more closely with him day by day. {The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name … and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:3b, 4b)}. Amen.