ONE OF the problems that John's gospel sets itself to consider is the standard Christian difficulty: "How do we know it's all true?" The fourth gospel was written much later than the others, at a time when hardly any eye-witnesses will have been available for the events of Jesus's life, and therefore when the Church needed to be shown that its own experience of the risen Jesus was valid and authentic.
The answer the evangelist gives is, quite simply, that Christians, if they will only realise it, already know the Lord, not as the subject of stories about events that took place long ago, but as someone who can speak now, in authentic accents, to those who acknowledge his command, and as John seeks to express this truth, • there is a charming intimacy about today's gospel reading that is not_always to be met with in the fourth evangelist.
Probably we should do well not to think too closely about what shepherds were actually like in the ancient world; the demands of their profession made them a somewhat ruffianly lot, well able to look after themselves in a fight, and exercising iron control over their pea-brained charges. The essential features of the picture drawn for us today are the related elements of "knowledge", and the "belonging".
The image is first drawn negatively, by way of the one who does not "belong"; because his way in is not the conventional one, he is marked out as "a robber and a thief". The image is next drawn positively; the one who belongs uses the door, the gate-keeper opens to him, and he indicates his knowledge by that unique ability to "call each one by its
name". It is no coincidence that it is John's gospel which presents us with that Mary who recognised the Lord after his resurrection only when he addressed her by name.
Not only does he address them, but they respond to him, and as the gospel develops one can almost hear the sheep doing whatever is the ovine equivalent of wagging their tails. It is a bit hard to follow if you concentrate too closely on the illustration: When he drives out all his own sheep" suggests that the shepherd is at the back, which is however instantly contradicted: "He goes before them, and his sheep follow him". What is crystal-clear, however, is the reason for all this, the central point of the teaching: "For they know his voice". And, of course, the Good Shepherd is both behind and before his charges, surrounding them with love and protection.
This is the point for all Christians, that we know the Lord because when he speaks the accent is unmistakeable if we are listening properly. The evangelist sombrely underlines this by stressing immediately that "they" (i.e. his disbelieving hearers) did not understand what he was saying to them.
Jesus therefore tries another way into the idea; he describes himself now as the entrance. It is beside the point to argue that he cannot be both shepherd and gate. The message for John's beleaguered Christians is that not only can they check for themselves the authenticity of Jesus's voice, but that if they go his way ("If anyone enters through me") they will find themselves in the pasture of God.
A final contrast rounds the passage off, between the thief who comes only to steal, kill and destroy, and Jesus who has "come in order that they may have life and have it abundantly". It is a glorious vision that we are offered here.