Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Fourth Sunday of Easter

Jesus' Gifts and Promises 

Today's Gospel, John 10:27-30, is only four verses long, but it is packed full of meaning. Take a moment to reread the text. 

Jesus said:
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.” 

Let's dig in. 

There are three primary “actors” in this passage: Jesus, the Father, and the sheep. The sheep, of course, are a metaphor for Christians. Think about sheep for a moment. They aren't the brightest creatures in the world. In fact, they're rather stupid. They tend to wander off and get lost. They get themselves into all sorts of trouble, sometimes caught up in brush, sometimes turned upside down. They are completely dependent on their shepherd to take care of them and rescue them. Sound familiar? We, too, are completely dependent upon our Shepherd. We can be rather stupid. We wander off and get lost in sin when something attracts our attention. We get into all sorts of trouble, caught up in worldly desires and turned upside down in our morals. We need our Shepherd to care for us and rescue us. He is the One Who leads us to good pasture and fresh water, finds us when we are lost, helps us when we are in trouble, cleans us up when we are dirty, and pulls us out of all the silly situations in which we often find ourselves. 

Notice, too, that Jesus claims the sheep. They are His. 

What are the characteristics of these sheep? They are the ones who hear Jesus' voice and follow Him. Jesus' sheep have open ears. They hear Jesus' voice, and more than that, they respond. They follow Him. Their hearing is not passive. It leads to action. The Greek verb for follow is akoloutheō. It means to accompany on a journey, to take the same road, to join as a disciple, and even to conform wholly and steadfastly to another person in both life and death. These sheep walk with Jesus, committed to Him and to His way of life. They have faith in Him. They obey Him. They trust Him. They go with Him through trouble and trial as well as in good times. They conform to His character. 

Jesus knows His sheep. The verb here is ginōskō, and it can refer to a most-intimate kind of knowledge. One source says that this verb “frequently denotes a personal relation between the person knowing and the object known; equivalent to, to be influenced by our knowledge of the object, and hence, to allow oneself to be determined by one’s knowledge.” ( This kind of knowledge produces a relationship. It affects the emotions, the will, and the actions of the knower, who allows himself to be influenced and guided by his knowledge. Jesus knows His sheep in a personal way. He understands them. He enters into relationship with them. He allows that relationship to influence Him. 

When Jesus' sheep hear and follow Him, He gives them a gift and makes them a promise. Listen again to what He says. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of My hand.” Jesus gives His sheep eternal life. Right now, in the present. Those who follow Jesus begin to live Heaven on earth because they are with Him. They are in relationship with Him, which is what Heaven is all about. Eternal life begins now when we hear and follow Jesus, conforming ourselves to Him, believing Him, trusting Him, obeying Him. These sheep do not perish. They may die a physical death, but they do not die the spiritual death that would separate them from Jesus for eternity. The Greek verb for perish here is apollumi. It can also mean to be lost or destroyed. That does not happen to those who hear and follow Jesus. Jesus further promises His sheep that no one will take them from Him. As the Greek verb harpazō implies, no one will snatch these sheep from Jesus. No one will pluck them away from Him. No one will carry them off by force. No one will seize them as prey. They are safe. 

Some Protestants use this verse to argue that once people are saved, they are always saved, no matter how they behave. Catholics do not agree, for such a doctrine deprives people of the free will that God gave them. As human beings created un God's image, we have the ability to choose God or not at any point. We can choose to be the sheep that follow Jesus, the sheep who receive His gifts and His promises, or we can choose to be rebellious sheep that deliberately take off on our own and refuse to conform to our Shepherd even if we had previously done so. In that case, the straying sheep leaves Jesus' gifts and the promises, scorns them, and refuses to accept them. That sheep is no longer safe in the Shepherd's care and risks being lost for all eternity. Because Jesus is the good Shepherd, He will also continue to search for His stray sheep and draw them back to His side so that He can return His gifts and promises to them, but He does not force them or violate their free will. They must choose for themselves. 

Those who promote the “once saved, always saved” idea argue further that no one can take the sheep away from Jesus. This is true. No outside party can remove Jesus' sheep from His side by force. Unfortunately, however, a sheep can decide to leave. The verb apollumi clearly refers to third party action. It says nothing about the free choice of an individual. Those who follow Jesus are safe. Those who stray forfeit their safety by their own choice. 

Let's continue. 

The next part of the text explains why Jesus can and does offer such gifts and promises to His sheep. The Father has given the sheep to Jesus, and the Father is greater than anyone or anything that might ever try to pull the sheep away by force. Moreover, the Father continues to hold onto the sheep with Jesus because, as Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” No one will take the sheep (apollumi again) from the Father or from Jesus. They stand together as one to protect the sheep that hear and follow Jesus. 

Theologians have reflected on Jesus' last line for centuries. “The Father and I are one.” That is true on so many levels. They are one in divine nature and one in will. They are one in love and one in power. They are one in their plan for humanity. The Father is God, and Jesus is God. They are completely and totally united, completely and totally one, in a way that humans will never fully understand, but we believe. This is our faith. 

We learn from today's Gospel, then, that to be Jesus' sheep, we must hear His voice and follow Him. We must listen and act. Then, if we continue to do this, we will have access to the amazing gift Jesus holds out, eternal life that never ends, and to the promise of complete safety in the loving arms of Jesus and the Father.

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