In today’s Gospel, Jesus declared: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” We’re very used to hearing this teaching. Its familiarity, I’m afraid, can weaken our understanding of Jesus’ message.
There are three parts to this statement. The first is: “My sheep hear my voice.” Jesus is teaching us that when we hear his voice we enter into a new relationship with him. He isn’t speaking of our ability to hear sounds coming from his mouth; he’s speaking about our ability to hear his message, to digest it, to meld it into our every fiber.
The second part of the teaching is: “I know them.” He’s teaching something very profound. He’s saying that he knows who we are. He sees the beauty of our hearts and minds. He knows our struggles. He knows our sins. He knows our potential and how we use the gifts we have. His knowledge of us is loving and non-judgmental because we’re in harmony with him, because we’re in communion with him. We hear his voice. We listen to him.
“They follow me.” What does this mean? Does it mean that we say yes to doctrines that define him? Do we believe that he’s a man? Do we believe that he’s the Son of God? What do we mean when we say we follow him?
A scribe once told Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you where ever you go.” Jesus said this to him.
“Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”
Following Jesus is demanding. Following him may mean that we won’t have a place to live. It may mean that we must abandon our family. Remember when Jesus was preaching and someone told him that his mother and brothers were outside and wanted to speak with him? His answer continues to challenge us. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother and sister and mother.”
Over the centuries we Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, have created a great deal of wiggle room around his invitation to “Follow me.” We’ve pretty much cleansed his invitation of any of its radical implications.
I looked back into the bulletin files to see what I wrote about this same Sunday three years ago. I said pretty much the same thing but brought in an incident that took place a few months before, February 12, 2019. Twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded on a beach in Libya by members of the Islamic State. I’ll end today’s reflection with same question I ended with three years ago. What does it mean to be a Christian?