Jesus is telling us that the love between himself and his followers is based upon complete trust; just the sound of his voice is enough to show us the way. In a baby, hearing develops before sight. Voices are more primitive than faces. Jesus, the Word of God, has spoken amongst us, and before we come to look on the face of God his voice sounds in our ears.
Today's gospel comes at a crucial point in the Gospel of John. The opposition to Jesus and the threat upon his life are intensifying. He has just cured a man born blind, and the authorities are looking for ways to destroy him. They are also starting to persecute his followers. The man born blind is thrown out of the synagogue for witnessing to the healing power of Christ. The stage is split between those who listen to the voice of Jesus and those who refuse. There is a deep division among the people between those who accept Jesus and those who reject him.
Jesus's image of the sheep and the shepherd is far from the peaceful image we can have of the English countryside (at least, we city dwellers!). The landscape Jesus calls to mind is not that of a peaceful pastoral scene, but the violent, unsafe landscape of his own time, when the shepherd and his sheep would have been under constant threat from thieves and wild animals. The shepherd is constantly watchful of his flock and knows that the flock's safety depends upon the strength of their bond with him. If the sheep fail to recognise his voice, they will wander off to almost certain doom. It is this troubled scene that Jesus calls to mind with the image of the good shepherd.
Jesus is the good shepherd, who calls out to us in the midst of life's troubles and uncertainties. He is entering into greater and greater danger and he calls on his disciples to follow him, such that when the violence and conflict increase they are united to him and to one another. This unity is not just an earthly belonging together, but is founded upon the unity of the Holy Trinity. When Jesus tells his disciples that he and the Father are one, he is telling them that the community he is calling them into, the community of the Church, is not just an earthly institution.
As we journey through the confusions and the dangers of life, Jesus calls to us like the shepherd calling to his sheep. We tend to think of sheep as passive creatures, we criticise people for acting like sheep, but the sheep that Jesus is talking about are far from passive. Just to survive a sheep needs to be constantly aware, listening for the voice of the shepherd. And they can only do this successfully as part of a flock.
A sheep needs to be alert, listening for the voice of the shepherd, not straying from the flock. The message that we often hear today is that you need to be independent, able to stand on your own two feet, making your own way through the troubles of life. This message can only gain hold in a society where a significant number of people have financial independence, and where the dangers around them can be held at bay by increasingly expensive security arrangements. The reality of life for most people in this world is that you cannot survive on your own, you need the help and support of other people and you need the help of God.
When we follow Jesus in his Church, we are far from being passive and unthinking sheep; we are actively following his voice and opening our lives to the love of God and the love of our brother and sisters in the Church. This is what gives us the courage to be bold in the midst of life's dangers, to live full lives, not constantly looking over our shoulders for the next threat. It is what enables us to be truly who we are. As we place our trust in him we learn our true dignity as sons and daughters of God, the dignity that enables us to grow to the maturity of the children of God.