The “upper room discourse,” comprises chapters 13-17 of the “Gospel of John,” and has no real equivalent in any of the other Gospels. It is by far the most extended conversation between Jesus and his disciples found in any of our four canonical Gospels. By style and content, this dialogical discourse clearly appears to be a composition by the author whom we know as “John.” The man wrote the discourse out of his mystical experience of the presence of Christ to him, with him, in him. If one doubts the origin in a mystical union, read the passages slowly and prayerfully, and see if they do not speak to your own union with Christ; they cannot be understood by private, secular, inner-worldly “reason,” but are communicated by the Spirit to a man or woman attuned to “the Spirit of truth.” Apart from spiritual attunement (which is a living union with God), these words make little or no sense. A truly spiritual human being from any tradition who reads these words will feel at home in them. They are one of the mystical masterpieces in all of literature.
That the discourse is set on the verge of Christ’s death is highly significant: they are presented as his parting words, his final conversation with his inner circle of disciples—and hence with those of us who are his intimate friends, living on the edge of eternity. And these words have much meaning to a man or woman who is aware of existing between time and eternity, and striving to live in communion with Christ, with the divine reality that he makes present. If your heart and mind are set primarily on fulfillment in this present life—possessions, wealth, status, family—these words will sound like “double-talk,” or “nonsense,” as I have heard one clergyman characterize them. Again, what is engendered out of communion with God must be understood by someone living in that same spiritual tension—life stretching into eternity beyond death. Otherwise, they are only words to be believed or not, rather than an analysis of existence in Christ—that is, of a genuine spiritual life.
The discourse spoken and heard between time and eternity leaves no doubt that the genuine Christian life, lived in accordance with the spirit of truth, the holy Spirit, is not what is often peddled by the churches: “If you believe in Jesus, you are saved; if you do not believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” The variations of this over-simplification and distortion of spiritual truth depend on the particular denomination; the Catholic variety is more often “receive the Sacrament, and be saved; miss Mass and be damned.” If verses in John’s Gospel can be lifted out of context and be used by peddlers of a vulgarized Christianity, the dialogical discourse spoken by the Word within the attentive, loving mind serves to reground the disciple in the truth of divine-human communion: “Yet a little while and the world will behold me no more, but you will behold [or, gaze upon] me, because I live and you will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I in you.” The word “behold” or “gaze upon” is not a seeing with bodily eyes, but an inner awareness of divine presence. The mutual indwelling or communion of the divine with the human is accomplished not by “religious beliefs,” or even by faith alone, but by mutual love. On the human side of the partnership, this love is not a sentimental feeling, but utter obedience to will of God: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…If one loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him….”
God is at home in the one at home in God. The dwelling place of God is in the soul or consciousness of the faithful-loving disciple, who humbly contemplates the word of Christ, who keeps his word, doing God’s will. The cult of worshiping God in the Temple has been replaced by the simplicity of reverencing God in one’s heart through listening to the Word and incarnating the word in the world through loving action. The Creator-God is also the Saving-God, at home and at work in the obedient disciple, through whom Christ continues his transforming Presence in the human community. Truth is not a collection of doctrinal formulations, but a process of becoming one in faithful love with the one who “loved us to the end.”
"Symbol” comes from the Greek word symbolein,literally meaning “to throw together,” or “to bring together.” Symbols united reality. In the case of our language about God, symbols are intended to bring together the divine and the human. Despite claims in popular culture, God and humankind are not identical: one is the cause, the other is an effect of that cause; the divine is wholly free from space-time, whereas we human beings exist in space-time. To communicate anything about divine reality, symbols are needed. And among these symbols are words, or language symbols, as well as gestures, art, and music. Symbols are needed for mind to communicate with mind.
All of our language about Jesus is symbolic, and needs to be properly interpreted. A mind must search for the meaning intended by another mind. To understand the meaning of word symbols requires mental effort. Most of us have learned that many people put insufficient effort into seeking to understand someone’s meaning. Often we think we understand the words of another, but we do not, or we “do not know as we ought to know,” using St. Paul’s phrase. The evangelists employed language symbols to communicate to ancient readers the truth and beauty of their experience of “life in Christ Jesus.” These writers felt so much joy and spiritual renewal through their union with God in Christ, that they wanted to share their joy, and did so by writing down their thoughts and circulating them. The evangelist John, a master in the use of language symbols, has Christ Jesus declare: “I have come that you may have Life—Life more abundantly.” Clearly that is the evangelist’s experience of what he has found through faith-union with Christ.
One must seek to understand word-symbols in light of the experiences of the one speaking or writing. As any adult knows, the word “love” has vastly different meanings, depending on the one using the word, on the occasion, on the intention of the one speaking. One way that the evangelist John sought to communicate his experience of Christ was by using the Jewish symbol of God as the good shepherd, as in the 23rd psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want….” The evangelist experienced himself being guided, tended, shepherded by God in and through his faith-response to Christ. In calling Jesus “the Good Shepherd,” the evangelist tells us that he experiences the love and providential care of God in and through the Resurrected Christ. “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you,” John writes, speaking for the Resurrected. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.” All such expressions written by the evangelist John testify to his experience of God through his loving faith-union with the Risen Christ.
And whom, we may ask, does God shepherd in Christ? A reasonable answer would be: everyone who allows God to rule and to guide him into true Life. Potentially, this includes every human being. But each of us has discovered in ourselves an ability to turn away, to rebel, or simply to ignore the silent, subtle promptings of God as he seeks to shepherd us. We are not likened to sheep because we are wise, prudent, and understanding, but because we “often go astray like sheep,” to use the language of Deutero-Isaiah. (Perhaps we can even at times be justly likened to mules, “who must be driven to pasture by blows.” Can you ever be like a mule?)
To call Christ “the good shepherd” is a way of saying that he is the rightful, just ruler over humankind—over and in all human beings potentially, and actually over those who submit to his gentle and wise rule. All who “do the will of my Father” belong to Christ. Ultimately, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, Christ is the head over all of humanity. He is not the head of one group only, or of some “elected” or “saved” individual beings, but over each and all of us, from the beginning of history to the end. That is why we call Christ “LORD.” He is the beginning and end of each one of us, and of all of us together. To you, to me, to everyone, the Risen One says: “You are mine. I have given my life for you, so that you may know true love, peace, and happiness.” Such is Jesus, “the good shepherd.”