“The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers,” (John 10:4-5).
As a parent of young children I spend a fair amount of time at the park. My favourite park is about one kilometre from our house and on a beautiful sunny day the girls will hop on their scooters and off we go. This park in particular is in a part of city that has a lot of young families so you can count on the fact of it being a lively place on a summer Saturday. Of course, it can get rather loud on such days, children running all about laughing and playing and screaming. Parents chasing them, huddled about having their own conversations, or sitting on a bench.
When it is finally time to go I will stand at the edge of the playground and yell, “Charlotte! Grace! We’re going home!” And their little heads pop out from behind a slide or from inside the sandbox and they come scurrying across the wood chips and off we go. On occasion with tears, to be sure. My point is that when their father, whom they know and love, calls for them they are able to recognize his voice even amongst the cacophony of racket and competing voices that you find at a busy playground on a sunny Saturday.
This is a bit like what Jesus is describing in the parable that is before us this morning from John’s gospel. It’s a parable about competing voices, about the ability to distinguish between these voices, to discern the voice of the shepherd and to flee from the voice of the imposter, the thief and the bandit: “the sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers,” (4-5).
So, we have a sheepfold, presumably surrounded by a fence, with a gate and a gate keeper, and we have sheep. We also have people that enter the sheepfold though not all by the same way. The shepherds who love the sheep and who know them all by name have come in by the gate, let’s call them “Gatewayers.” Then there are the thieves and bandits who have come in another way, let’s call them “Otherwayers.” Towards the end of our passage Jesus will twice say, “I am the gate.” What does it mean, I wonder, to enter via Jesus? I think it means a few things.
For one, it means the shepherd knows that these sheep ultimately belong to the Good Shepherd. Immediately after our passage Jesus will change the metaphor ever so slightly so that he is no longer “the gate” but “the good shepherd.” And this Good Shepherd entrusts his sheep to the care of other shepherds that he has sent. Is this not how John’s gospel ends? With the restoration of Simon Peter by the risen Jesus and what is the command that Jesus gives to Peter but, “Feed my sheep.” Peter is now a shepherd who participates in the work of the Good Shepherd. True shepherds are sent with the authority of the Good Shepherd and they know that their chief job is to care for the sheep entrusted to them, to nurture them in the faith, not to use them for their own agenda.
In fact, the true shepherds have only one agenda: to proclaim Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). That’s it. That’s the agenda. Jesus Christ, who lived, died, rose, and is coming again as judge. It is he whom we proclaim, teaching everyone to trust in his supreme goodness and mercy and warning everyone that apart from him nothing can stand (Col 1:28).
Every word that you hear from every bishop, priest, and teacher if it is not a word that ultimately proclaims the Cross it is not a word that is worth listening to. It is a word that is worthless and will fall to the ground. Christ. Is. The agenda. Nothing else.
Some of the early Church Fathers looked at our passage and said that the gate is Scripture. Well is the gate Scripture or is it Jesus? The answer is, yes. We proclaim Christ crucified and we know this Christ as we read the Bible with the faith of the Church. And so one of the marks of a true shepherd is that they come to the Bible and their sole agenda is to magnify Jesus Christ. That’s it. Not to push their own agenda. Not to argue for some other cause that is important to them. But to preach Christ according to the Scriptures and in light of the faith of the Church. And so St. Chrysostom interpreted “climbing in another way” to mean, “teaching for doctrine the precepts of men.” That is, taking our ideas, our agendas, our desires and teaching them as doctrine rather than submitting all things to the loving care of Jesus Christ who we encounter in Scripture.
And so shepherds who know that the sheep entrusted to their care are not their own and whose only agenda is to preach Christ crucified therefore care deeply about the unity of the flock. They know that there is one shepherd in whose name they are sent and one flock for whom they are to care. A few verses later we see that one of the characteristics of the Good Shepherd is that he gathers and unites (John 10:16) whereas those bandits and thieves, those Otherwayers, they scatter and sow dissension (John 10:12).
Otherwayers want followers even if it means scattering the flock; Gatewayers want followers of Jesus and are willing to suffer for it.
When we hear competing voices within the Church, especially when it comes to matters of the faith of the Church, we must ask ourselves, are these voices sowing dissension and scattering or are they gathering people around the Cross?
Finally, true shepherds who enter by the gate are willing to suffer the violence of others precisely because it is the Crucified Christ around whom they seek to gather. True shepherds are willing to suffer the violence of others for the gospel because Jesus the Good Shepherd did just that and it is he whom they follow. We heard of this suffering in the words of St. Peter this morning: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness,” (1 Peter 2:24).
The love of God in Christ is a suffering love. It is a love that suffers others and bears fruit. And Christ’s suffering for righteousness is our example here (2:21). Those who cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ do not need to defend themselves when attacked, do not need to return the abuse, do not need to participate in posturing and threats, but simply entrust themselves to God (2:23). True shepherds are willing to embrace such suffering love, to keep on at their work, and to trust God who judges justly.
So, the true shepherds that enter by the gate know who the sheep belong to, have one agenda, care about the unity of the flock, and are willing to suffer others for the sake of love.
“And the sheep will follow him because they know his voice.” Sheep are not dumb. They know the voice of the shepherd and they can discern an imposter. Just like my children know my voice down at the playground. And when a preacher or teacher is proclaiming Jesus Christ, or not, you know.
Jesus continues: “They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Except that sometimes we do follow strangers. Sometimes their voice can be very appealing. Jesus himself warns that many will come in his name to lead astray (Matthew 24:4-5). Paul too warns the elders in Ephesus, “Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them,” (Acts 20:28-30).
These Otherwayers come with other agendas, other enthusiasms—often even seemingly “Biblical” ones—other than the one great apostolic enthusiasm and passion and agenda: to know Christ and to make him known. So, it is important to “beware” and to “keep watch” for voices that are incongruent with the suffering love of Jesus Christ. They exist, and they exist in the church today.
I do not mean to suggest that this is always clear-cut. While I myself hope and pray and desire to be a Gatewayer, I know my own heart and that it is prone to wander. I know that my motives and agenda are not always pure and that I myself have enthusiasms—like certain liturgical sensibilities or my love of the Prayer Book—that could threaten to usurp that one great enthusiasm that Jesus calls his shepherds to obsess over.
At any rate, while there is a certain attraction to the voice of strangers Jesus says that ultimately people will run from them because they do not find the abundant life that Jesus gives there. Which raises an interesting question about church decline here in the West: Is it in part because sheep run from the voice of strangers? Is it in part because we have not clearly and simply proclaimed Christ? What if we were to come back to the gate and recommit ourselves to being Gatewayers?
I had planned to offer a strategy for renewal at this point but I think I will have to leave that for a note in our weekly newsletter. Let me close by saying this: the Church needs shepherds, no less the Anglican Church. So pray. Like we do most Sundays, pray especially for all bishops, priests, and deacons. Pray that we would be people of the gate, pray that our chief enthusiasm and message would be Christ crucified. Pray that we would commit ourselves to Scripture. Pray that we would be willing to bear with one another in love. Pray that God would raise up more faithful shepherds. And pray for discernment so that amidst a panoply of voices and sounds the Church might more clearly hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who still speaks to his people today and whose voice is for them a spring of abundant life.
 The language of “Gatewayers” and “Otherwayers” is from Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary, The Gospel of John.