“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10, 27-30
Last month, the Australian media gave a lot of attention to comments about gay people made on social media by a high-profile Australian Rugby player. While officials of the Australian Rugby Union stated that the player is entitled to hold to his religious beliefs, they indicated that his contract would be terminated because of his intemperate, discriminatory and bigoted comments posted on a public media site. In the player’s view, gay people have no place among Jesus’ sheep. So, in the context of today’s gospel reading, I found myself wondering who’s “in” and who’s “out”. I even wondered if John had quoted Jesus accurately, and what exactly Jesus meant when he said: “My sheep listen to my voice;”
We all know from experience that many people get turned off religion when they hear categorical statements made about who is “saved” and who isn’t. Over the centuries, fanatical adherents from a wide range of religious institutions have publicly voiced this kind of discrimination. I find it depressing, for it gives religion a bad name. Every now and then, I encounter somebody or other who has the gall to judge my orthodoxy, to give me a spiritual once-over with a measuring rod of their own making. I find myself wondering about how such people arrived at their calculation standards. However, I am always comforted by the remark of an elderly religious sister who was pressured into reluctant retirement after spending thirty years among poverty-stricken people in India. In her delightful Irish brogue, she would sometimes say: “It’s better to be around sinners. They don’t put on airs and graces, you know.”
Yet, today’s gospel reading still leaves me with the uncomfortable impression that some sheep belong and others don’t. Moreover, the other two readings don’t help me very much. The second one from the book of Revelation gives me the message that those who are persecuted for their faith (members of John’s Christian community) are definitely “in”: “He will guide them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7, 17). Persecution and the threat of death are not exactly the most attractive indicators of assuring anyone that he or she is in the right group of sheep.
There’s a bit more encouragement for me in the first reading from Acts. It describes something of the dilemma experienced by those who set out to proclaim the message Jesus had entrusted to them. When Paul and Barnabas experienced opposition in Antioch, we are told that they “shook the dust off their feet in defiance” and went to Iconium. They had made no impression at all on a group that insisted on basing their religious practice on soul-destroying, rigid adherence to rules and regulations: “Paul and Barnabas spoke out even more boldly: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you (Jews). But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we will leave you and go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13, 46). However, those (converts) who did listen to them “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13, 51)
Therein, I suggest, is to be found the clue for recognizing just who belong to Jesus’ sheep. They are the people who have come to the realisation that God truly loves them. We all struggle to be convinced of that. But people whose lives are bound by rigidity and correct and controlled performance rarely demonstrate much in the way of love and joy.
Underneath that is a question for all of us: Is the parish or community to which I belong noted for its vibrant, energetic, joyful members who are ready to engage with one another and make visitors welcome? There’s a challenge for our churches today! Is there anything attractive about them? Do we read welcome on the faces of their leaders? How much energy is expended on reminders about who can and who cannot receive communion? And then there are the really momentous questions and debates as to whether “altar girls” are allowed or grudgingly tolerated, or whether women qualify to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. Can you believe that St Peter’s Basilica in Rome still has a dress code, and temple police to enforce it: Men in shorts, women in short skirts and with bare shoulders are not permitted to enter. Control is the order of the day. One wonders if Paul and Barnabas would shake the dust from their feet today if they experienced the controls practiced in some of our parishes and churches. But let’s not go too far in the direction of shaking dust from feet. There are some very vibrant parishes and communities in which people are actually “full of joy and the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps it’s true that Jesus’ sheep are distinguished by their graciousness and their cheery smiles.
But we can’t leave today’s gospel reading without giving some attention to the opening words attributed to Jesus: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice…” Guided by God’s Spirit, we are invited to listen to the voice of Jesus in the depths of our heart, and in the cries of his and our brothers and sisters calling for compassion and care in the world around us.
This fourth Sunday of Easter is also “Vocation Sunday”, and therefore a reminder to us to live true to our vocation as disciples of Jesus. Whatever our state in life, as Christians we would do well to remind ourselves that each one of us might be the only gospel that some people will ever read or encounter. Our vocation as Christians is to somehow be the face and the voice of Jesus to the people who come into our lives each day, and to see the face and hear the voice of Jesus in everyone we meet. I think we have little difficulty in seeing reflections of Jesus in those who have been officially recognised as saints. But we often fail to see Jesus reflected in the very ordinary “saints” we encounter in the office, on public transport, in the newspapers and magazines we read, and in the people who live with us. About 12 years ago, I was struck by a book review I came across in The New York Times. It was about a book written by Pauline Chen, a surgeon who specialised in liver transplants, but who took time out to write about what she described as “the troubled relationship between modern medical practice and the emotional events surrounding death”. She even admitted to the discomfort she experienced in medical school, when she and others were given “lessons in denial and depersonalisation” which were intended to help would-be doctors to achieve high levels of technical competence without letting their emotions get in the way. She then wrote of doctors she met who were unable to empathise with the relatives of dying patients or even confront their own fears about death. However, she wrote movingly about her experience of a man whose heart began to fail rapidly after a long battle with colon cancer. She called his family, and then summoned the surgeon on duty. The man’s wife arrived first and Dr Chen took her to her husband’s bedside and quietly slipped away (as hospital protocol required). When the surgeon arrived, he quietly took the woman’s hand and gently explained what was happening. He indicated what the monitors were registering and whispered to her that her presence and her holding her husband’s hand were a comfort to him as he breathed his last. The surgeon stayed with the woman for another thirty minutes. Shortly afterwards, the man’s wife stepped out and quietly thanked the surgeon and Dr Chen. Pauline Chen went on to explain that what the duty surgeon did that morning completely changed her way of dealing with dying patients (Pauline Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality and William Grimes, New York Times, Jan 10, 2007, Doctor Confronts the Human Drama’s Inevitable Finale). The face and voice of Jesus are reflected to us in unexpected ways. We, in our turn, might reflect something of his face and voice to others.