John the Evangelist
Contemporary icon by William Hart McNichols
Who am I? Does it really matter who I am? I’m just another disciple – I began to follow him when I was still a boy, I grew up with him, I learned from him. He captured my heart and my imagination in a way that changed me forever.
I was at his last supper, sitting next to him – so close that at times I leaned against his chest. So many times I’ve tried to remember all the things he said, all the things he taught us, that last night he was with us.
I was at the foot of his cross, I saw them pierce his side – I watched him as he died. I took his mother into my arms and we wept together on our way home. So many times I’ve tried to remember all the things that happened on that terrible day.
I was at his tomb, and his body was gone – it was just an empty, shadowy cave. The cloths were still lying there, carefully folded and set aside. So many times I’ve tried to remember what happened that day of Resurrection: the empty tomb, the way we felt, the coming of Jesus, the sound of his voice, the peace we knew.
I was in the boat that day on the lake of Galilee, and I saw him on the shore. He even fed us breakfast – one more time he blessed the bread and broke it for us. So many times I’ve tried to remember everything he said to us that morning, and tried to understand everything that he meant.
Sometimes now I forget when he said something. Did he say it before he died? Did he say it after he died, when we saw him in his risen body? Or did he say it years afterward through his Spirit? I forget sometimes because it’s been so many years; I forget most of the time because it really doesn’t matter. It’s always his voice. It’s always the same Jesus, it’s the same Spirit, it’s the same voice.
But listening to Jesus’ voice is always like peeling an onion: you get through one layer, and you find there’s another underneath. You work your way through that layer, and there’s still more underneath. To get to the heart of the onion, to understand who Jesus is, to understand what he says, takes a lifetime of reflection.
Take the gospel you heard today, the story of the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus didn’t tell that story just once; he spoke of the Shepherd many times. The Shepherd, after all, was our great hope.
Year after year, first as young boys and then as grown men, we went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication in the Temple; and year after year at the Feast we heard the readings in the synagogue from the great prophet Ezekiel:
My people were scattered for want of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts….
My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth
with no one to seek or search for them.
So I shall lead them out of the nations, and gather them from the countries;
I shall bring them to their own land and tend them on the mountains of Israel.
I shall feed them with good pasture:
I myself shall be the shepherd of my sheep.
Every time I heard Ezekiel’s words, my imagination was caught up in God’s great plan: God planned to rescue his people, God planned to lead them himself. And when I heard Jesus reflecting on Ezekiel’s words, and I saw that they had captured his imagination, too, and when I saw that Jesus understood the compassion and the pain of God, the ache of God for his lost and hurting people – then I loved him.
But when I saw that Jesus felt God’s pain, that he loved in the same way God did – at last I came to really understand: Jesus wasn’t just teaching us about the Shepherd, he is the Shepherd, he is the one who came to save God’s people.
But how was Jesus going to save us? The Romans were in charge. And the priests and the Sadducees and even the Pharisees were so afraid of the Romans that they were collaborating with them. There was no chance for Jesus: anyone who spoke up for the people was going to end up on the cross.
So they killed him. That was the end, they thought. But it wasn’t the end – it really was the beginning, because now that he was no longer in that bruised and broken body, he was free.
He was free to be anywhere and everywhere: he could stand in the room with us, he could walk on the road with us, he could speak to us in the Scriptures, he could be with us in the bread and the wine, he could speak in our hearts through the Spirit.
And so he was free to come to us. There was that time after the resurrection, when we were gathered all together in a little room, afraid of the authorities, unsure what to do or where to run, and we began praying for his help. And as we prayed, we heard his Voice:
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me.
The sheep hear my Voice, and I call my own sheep and lead them out.
And then we remembered, we knew, that he would take care of us, he would lead us to safe pastures. And when we ran away – to Damascus, to Antioch, to Ephesus – he went with us to all those new places, taking the faith to people there.
And there was that time long after the resurrection, when we were gathered all together again, unsure about what to do – should the Gentiles become part of the church? Should they follow the whole Jewish law? And as we prayed, we heard his Voice again:
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me.
The sheep hear my Voice, and I call my own sheep and led them out.
And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also,
and they will heed my Voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
And then we remembered, we knew, that Jesus’ love was for everyone – not just for his first disciples, not just for Jews – it was for everyone. And so after we prayed we voted, and the Gentiles became part of the church.
He was always there. He was there in the beginning, he was there after he died, and he is still with us now. He still calls us together, we still hear his Voice in the Scriptures, we still hear him in our prayers, we still know his presence in the bread and the wine.
Because he is alive in the Spirit, he is free to be with us forever.
How can I tell you about presence, this Voice beyond words, this great Spirit that reveals and creates the love of God? Long ago, I tried to put it in words. This was the very best that I could do:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
He was present with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
What came to be in him was life, and this life was a light for all people.
The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it.
Yes, he was in the world, and the world was made by him,
yet the world did not recognize him.
But all those who did accept him, he empowered to become God’s children.
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
and we have seen his glory.
For more about John, go to
The Gospel of John (there are many excellent New Testament translations)
William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vols I & II
Raymond Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John, Vols. I & II