In describing himself as a good shepherd and his followers as sheep, Jesus emphasises the intimacy and warmth of the relationship they have with him. The heart of this relationship is mutual knowledge and love: ‘I know my own and my own know me’. That would be significant enough but Jesus adds ‘just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’. In many passages in the Gospel of John the little word ‘as’ reveals the height and depth of the relationship with God that Jesus has made possible: love one another as I have loved you; as I am in the Father and the Father is in me so may you be completely one in us; as the Father sent me, so I send you.
The intimacy of this relationship is seen in other ways. The good shepherd calls his sheep and they recognise his voice. Peter says in the first reading that there is no name other than the name of Jesus by which we can be saved. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection the moment of recognition is when he calls her by her name. Then she knows who it is, and knows also that she is known. The relationship with Christ in this life is in a glass darkly, Saint Paul says, but a time will come ‘when we will know even as we have been known’.
Saint John’s way of putting this is: ‘we do not know what we are to be in the future, except that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is’. This echoes an idea in ancient philosophy that the person who wants to look at the highest reality must become like that reality, must have an eye, mind, or soul, adapted to such a vision. Jesus adds something extraordinary to this: he teaches us that the highest reality is already looking at us, knowing us and loving us, calling us into being and calling us by name. It is not, then, that we must make an effort to draw God into a relationship with us (that would be paganism) but that God has alerted us to the relationship he wants us to have with him. And he has firmly established that relationship between humanity and himself in the sacrifice of the only Son.
The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. This is another way in which we see that this relationship with the good shepherd is a relationship of love. Jesus is committed to his disciples, fully given for them. The Eucharist shows this most clearly, the gift he gave them on the eve of his death so that they might remember his sacrifice. That sacrifice originates, he says, not in any justice to which God must be obedient, but simply and completely in the love of the Father and the Son. ‘The Father loves me because I lay down my life. I lay it down of my own free will and this is the command I have been given by my Father’.
The relationship of intimacy and warmth into which we are invited is the relationship between the Father and the Son. It is their mutual knowledge and love, what we call ‘the Holy Spirit’. Their knowing and loving is the foundation stone of our lives, our point of reference in all things, the originating source of the new creation, and the ground on which to build our lives.
There are other sheep that are not of this fold. It is not immediately clear what Jesus means by this. There are others who will come to be disciples through the preaching of the apostles? When he is lifted up from the earth, Jesus says, his sacrifice will draw all people to himself. So the others who are not of this fold are, it seems, everyone else. All humanity is potentially the one flock of which he is to be the one shepherd.
The good shepherd calls and leads his sheep to participate in the knowledge and love he shares with the Father. His teaching is all about this new relationship we can have with God. The mysteries of his suffering, death, and resurrection seal God’s commitment to this project and cause it to begin. Our job is to recognise his voice and call on his name, to believe in his knowledge and love of us as we seek to grow in our knowledge and love of him.