Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :-
We are so used to hearing sentimental homilies about Jesus the Good Shepherd who we mistakenly think of as living a pastoral idyll that we fail to analyse the texts at all. In our gospel (John 10:1-10), if we take the trouble to read it properly the significance of Jesus as the gate of the sheepfold and the shepherd hits us with something like the force of a whip. There is no cosiness here, and certainly not a trace of cosy sentimentality, indeed, read properly this gospel is gritty and demanding. For John was writing to divided communities and for him there was no room for compromise, one was either right or wrong and John’s writings savagely defended the Lord and God he knew in Jesus and was not prepared to admit the faintest possibility of any other form of redemption or salvation. For our generation where everything goes and it is believed unjust to criticise others John’s gospel is very uncomfortable reading. Who then, was he writing to, and what does it mean to us?
First of all, it must have been against the Jews who had rejected the Christian message of salvation. We must remember that by the time of its writing in the 80’s AD the Christians would have parted company with what was to develop into the Rabbinic Judaism which emerged from the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the temple and its cult. Secondly John was writing to some of the many different forms of Christianity which emerged in the first century AD, amongst them some which believed that the proper way to salvation was through Judaism, with Jesus as a prophet within this system. Such people, as we know from the writings of St Paul in the 50’s and 60’s, dogged his missionary work intent on forcing converts to Christianity from paganism to espouse Judaism. There were undoubtedly other groups too with other positions some of whom would become very popular in Syria in the 2nd century. There were some people who denied the value of Christ’s incarnation and rubbished our human flesh, denying marriage, the birth of children and family life in espousal of forms of extreme asceticism. Right through the centuries Christian masters of the faith like Augustine would battle against such values and insist on the central significance of salvation through and in the human flesh which God the Son had been pleased to embrace. John’s gospel indicates fiercely his approach to all these alternative views: the thief comes only to kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. For Johannine Christianity any compromise with the truth was anathema, either one followed the party line or was irrevocably alienated from it.
We may be sure that the mainstream churches of the first century were waging these battles since they appear in many of the canonical writings. We see the situation once more in Acts (2:14.36-41) in which Luke portrays Peter taking the opportunity of a Pentecost gathering, and therefore of Jews, and hijacks the festival to convert people to Christianity. The following chapters of Acts follow this process of the enticing away of followers and the troubles encountered by Peter and John and their bearing witness to Christ through flogging, imprisonment and suffering. It ends with the death of Stephen as the first martyr. After this Luke’s account of the spread of Christianity moves out of Palestine into the Roman world as seen through the work of the apostle Paul.
What these various accounts demonstrate is the vibrant, even aggressive nature of the early faith, eager to win followers and prepared to face the severest hardships in taking the gospel out to the nations. There was nothing weak or namby-pamby about these early missionaries or their successors, as we see in our reading from the Petrine Letters (1 Peter 2:20-25) in which the writer gives his unequivocal account of the stance of Jesus who, though he had done no wrong and there had been no perjury in his mouth was insulted and bore our faults in his own body on the cross to rid us of sin and make us holy. Clearly for this writer again there is only one route to God, through the crucified Christ. You had gone astray like sheep but now you have come to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
One of the wonders for me of the ancient world is the story of the spread of Christianity amongst the pagans, where frankly all the odds were stacked against it. These accounts speak volumes of the firmness of belief and their dogged persistence despite opponents on every front. We have a lot to learn by way of encouragement and firmness of commitment from our forefathers in the faith in our age of apparent liberalism which is in fact a form of aggressive atheism and intolerance. Is the problem that we lack the fighting spirit and just want to keep our heads down? Surely it would be a tragedy if the faith was to die out in our generation for fear we might be pilloried in the press or by seeming friends. We need to learn the lessons of the New Testament and their fearlessness in opposition.