Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of John 10:1–10. In this passage we read about Jesus identifying Himself as the “Sheep Gate” for the flock. Our Lord further introduces Himself as the Good Shepherd who calls His sheep by name, and they follow Him. This passage offers several excellent points for our prayer and reflection.
One of the first things to note is how strongly Jesus stresses that being a member of His flock (the Church) is defined first and foremost by our relationship with Him. Thus, the Church is not primarily a social community of people who enter into a free association with one another; rather, the Church is a community of people whom the Lord has called by name and who have passed through Jesus as the Sheep Gate. Sometimes we can tend to understand our membership in the Church more on a social level than a spiritual level. The Church is first and foremost a community formed by the Lord and composed of those whom He has made His own. It is interesting to note that the doors of a church building are actually a symbol of Jesus as the “Sheep Gate” through which we (the flock) pass so as to enter into the sheepfold. This understanding of what it means to be Church has implications for the way we act towards one another and changes the motivation we have for coming to our local church building. First, it means that we accept and relate to one another, not out of our personal affections or common interests, but because we share the same foundational connection to Jesus who has called us. Sometimes we may not even like some of the people Jesus has called into the flock, but the same mercy of God that calls us also calls them. It’s not up to us as the flock to decide whom the Lord calls. It is the responsibility of the flock is to welcome and accept all whom the Good Shepherd places in our midst.
Second, this understanding of Church should also affect the reason we come to worship each Sunday. Namely, we come to be with the Good Shepherd, hear His voice, receive His protection and guidance, be nourished, and receive strength for the Christian journey. However, when people have a mistaken understanding of what takes place at Church, they can be motivated by the wrong attractions, which can easily become distractions. For example, sometimes we want to come because we like the music, we like the minister, we like some of the people there, we like the architecture, and so forth. These motivations may be interesting in themselves and may even bring us to the church, but they do not make us members of the Church nor will they sustain us during difficult moments. Only the love of the Good Shepherd and the personal connection to Him will keep us faithful despite the challenges we face. When have you been annoyed by the presence of someone who is a member of the community with you, and how can this reaction be an opportunity to purify your faith?How can a faith community imitate the hospitality and acceptance of Jesus toward those we do not know so as to welcome them more effectively?How are people made to feel unwelcome when they come to church?As you pass through the doors of the church this Sunday and remind yourself that you are passing through Jesus as the Sheep Gate, how will that affect what you are seeking from the worship experience?How can a faith community help people to move beyond superficial attractions to discover an authentic encounter with the Good Shepherd when they come to church?
Jesus stresses in this passage that His sheep both hear His voice and follow Him. This connection between hearing and following means that disciples must actively live out God’s will in their lives and not remain passive in the reception of their calling. It is not enough that the Shepherd calls us by name or that we merely hear His voice. That experience of God’s personal attention might be nice, but to truly be a disciple we still have to actively engage in the practical task of following Him. It’s easy to want God’s leadership in our lives when we get ourselves into trouble. That’s when we call out for help saying, “What should I do?” Jesus wants us to seek and follow His guidance in our blessings as well as our burdens. That means we listen to His voice and follow His lead when the going is easy, as well as when the going gets tough. The Lord cares for each of us personally and individually. He knows our struggles, temptations, challenges, and burdens. The Lord desires that our prayer be a deeply personal encounter with Him as the one who knows better than we do how to respond to the dilemma of each day. When have you sensed a truly personal rapport with the Lord and that God was calling you by name?How do you dispose yourself so you can hear the voice of the Shepherd giving you guidance and direction in your life?When does the personal attention of Jesus become uncomfortable for you, and how do you try to hide from the Lord so as to fade into the impersonal midst of the flock?Jesus goes before us as our Good Shepherd so we can follow. The reality is that the Lord will lead us to Calvary and ask us to carry the cross of faithfulness in a hostile world. When has being a disciple led you to take on a difficult or challenging situation of persecution or sacrifice?What are the ways in which we try to exempt ourselves from the need to follow Jesus so as to be content with merely hearing His voice?How can your faith community help people to be mature disciples who live out God’s will in their lives?
One other important element of this passage is when it warns us of the reality that there are those who try to be bad shepherds so as to lead us astray from Christ the Good Shepherd. These are shepherds who seek to use the sheep (us) for their personal gain and benefit. There’s no shortage of people who try to use others for their personal gain. This passage implies that such bad shepherds try to take the place of Jesus in our lives so as to lead us away from the Lord. Jesus indicates that if we are intimately connected with Him, we will be able to distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd from the voices of the bad shepherds and resist their destructive lead. To be intimately connected with the Lord means to live out a correct understanding of what it means to be Church and to be a mature disciple who hears, listens, and follows the voice of God. It also means becoming familiar with the Good Shepherd, knowing His teaching, learning His character, and sensing His presence. That requires spending time in prayer and study. Many of the great Saints reflected on the subtle tricks bad shepherds use so as to lure us away from Christ. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, emphasized in his days (sixteenth century) the practice of “spiritual discernment”
that was so prominent in the first centuries of Christianity
and that continues to be an important element to ensure spiritual growth. These writings are worthy of our reflection because they will help us grow in our maturity and ability to discern the various influences that come into our life each day. Another resource that has proven to be a classic spiritual resource for such discernment of good and evil influences is the book by C.S. Lewis entitled The Screwtape Letters
. This text provides an insightful and accurate understanding of how bad shepherds are alive and well in our world today and of the tactics used to lure us away from Jesus. You may be shocked at how real and effective are the subtle voices of these bad shepherds who attempt to corrupt, distort, and distract Christian disciples. Who are some of the bad shepherds who have tried to influence you away from following Jesus or living Christian values?What are the influences of our culture and society that can lead us away from a Christian way of life?How do bad shepherds try to distort our understanding of Church so as to weaken the intimacy we share with the Good Shepherd, which causes us to become people who are less able to discern between good versus bad influences?How do bad shepherds try to distort our understanding of mature discipleship so as to make us content to only hear the Lord’s voice but not necessarily to follow the Lord’s lead in our lives?When evil cannot succeed in making us turn away from the Lord, then evil will try to distort our reason for being drawn to the Lord. What does that statement mean to you?What can a faith community do to help people discern correctly the voice of the Good Shepherd and reject the influence of bad shepherds?
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises,
New York: Image, Doubleday, 1964.
1 Corinthians 12:10; Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos
and On Prayer
, Oxford: Faculty of Theology, 1987; A.D. Rich, Discernment in the Desert Fathers,
Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007; Lorenzo Scupoli, The Spiritual Combat,
Mesa, AZ: Scriptoria, 2012.