22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25 Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.’
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Jesus’ words in this passage of John’s gospel have long been favorites of mine: “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27a).
What does it mean to “hear” Jesus’ voice? Jesus is speaking to a group of Judeans whom he has just characterized as not believing. Clearly, in one sense, they must “hear” what he is saying. But in another sense, in a deeper sense, they do not.
My husband is an identical twin, and when asked if she can tell her father and her uncle apart, my daughter’s first response is, “Of course! They sound different!” Most people when meeting my husband and his brother for the first, or even the fifth, time generally cannot distinguish the difference in their voices. But for their children, who trust and know them, they couldn’t sound further apart.
Recall when you were a child, with a parent or trusted guardian at a busy park or perhaps a department store. When you would lose sight of your parent, amidst all the grown up legs and movement, maybe you stopped to listen. To hear their voice calling for you, by name. Likely, before they even uttered your name, you recognized them.
This is what I think Jesus means when he talks about his followers hearing his voice. We aren’t just to listen to Jesus’ voice as one among many—perhaps with some wisdom, but generally indistinguishable from the crowd. We are called to hear Jesus’ voice as we hear the voice of a beloved parent. We are called to recognize the good news incarnate in the voice of the Shepherd. And to trust.
But it’s also much more than that. Because when a child hears the voice of their parent calling in a park, they don’t simply recognize it and walk away—at least not if their relationship is a loving and affirming one. When a child hears the voice of a trusted loved one, their next inclination is to respond.
In the Acts story for this week, Peter says, “Tabitha, get up!” And hearing him, Luke tells us, “Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (Acts 9:40).
Because simply to recognize the voice of Peter would, in that moment, not have been enough. The life-giving miracle for Tabitha and her community comes only when, upon hearing, she responds.
I had the opportunity this past week to see a reproduction of the 1988 Lee Blessing stage play, A Walk in the Woods. Set in the cold-war era, the play follows a pair of US and Soviet arms limitation negotiators as they seek to listen to one another across the diplomatic table, only to come to discover that it is when they are away from the table—during their walks in the woods, that they can truly hear each other.
Although the play portrays a very particular moment in history, as does John’s gospel itself, this idea of hearing is at its heart a timeless one. In our current national and global politics, whether the conflict is between Americans and Soviets, Judeans and Galileans, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Muslims, Blacks and Whites, or any other distinguishers of difference that we might choose to signal out, relationships are only built when we hear one another. When we recognize and respond in ways that are motivated by trust rather than fear.
And so, Jesus says, “My sheep hear me.” And to us sheep, if we choose to listen, our Lord promises, in the words of Psalm 23, restoration, comfort, goodness, and mercy “my whole life long” (Psalm 23:6).
The Rev. Amy Allen is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
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