Sermon 17 April 2016 Fourth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 9: 36 – 43
Second Reading: Revelation 7: 9 – 17
Gospel Reading: John 10: 22 – 30
Hearing the shepherd’s voice
The Jews –and John means the established, institutional religious authorities – are getting irritated. They want to know. “Are you the Messiah? Give us a straight answer!” Well, Jesus gives them a typically oblique answer. “I have told you” he says – when as far as we and they know, he’s said no such thing as a straightforward Yes or No. Your evidence, Jesus says, lies in the things that I’m doing, the things you’ve seen me do. That should lead you to believe in me instead of my having to spell it out. Jesus isn’t a big fan of having to provide signs and wonders, visible proofs, to get people involved. He wants them to have faith, to believe because they see the right pathway to travel, to follow him. But, he says to the Jews, naturally you can’t understand that; you aren’t one of mine. You don’t belong.
There are some intriguing little details in this bit of Scripture. John, being John, never puts in descriptive details unless they add something to his story, usually symbolic stuff which can easily be passed over; and which we think could be left out without making any difference. But look at the beginning: It was the festival of the Dedication and it was winter (in case those non Jews listening to the Gospel might not realise when the Dedication was). And Jesus was walking in the Temple, – specifically somewhere named for Solomon. Dedication – also known as Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights – is in the darkest coldest part of the year when there’s the least natural light. John is using his usual technique of pairing up contrasts; here it’s light and dark, ignorance and wisdom. Dedication is celebrated for the miracle where there was only enough holy oil to last for one day of the rededication of the Temple but the lamps kept burning on and on, longer than anyone expected; and here is Jesus as the light of the world, died but resurrected, shining on and on through the ages. The officials gathering around him are shown as ignorant of who Jesus is, but he’s walking in Solomon’s portico. Solomon, described in Scripture as having immense wisdom.
John is having a rather naughty and pointed dig at “the Jews” saying: here is Jesus who is the miraculous light of the Dedication and who has the wisdom of Solomon; but you lot, lost in darkness and unable to recognise wisdom when you hear it, aren’t able to be part of his sheep because you can’t see the obvious. You sheep don’t hear his voice. You’re spiritually deaf, too hidebound in your own self-defined expectations of God, the Kingdom, and too concerned with observing the letter of the law instead of living out the spirit of it. You’re waiting for the Messiah but you can’t recognise him when he’s right in front of you.
I’ve never been happy with taking small bits of Scripture out of the larger context. This excerpt is only part of a narrative about Jesus being the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep; including Jesus saying he has other sheep who don’t belong but he has to find them and bring them into his flock. But…if that’s the case, why does Jesus seem to dismiss these Temple folk for being outsiders? Aren’t they some of the others he has to find? Or is Jesus – the Jesus of John’s Gospel – saying that they will never be one of the flock because they’ve already rejected him?
What does it take to belong? “You do not belong to my sheep.” This is a dismissive statement which seems to say “of course you can’t possibly know who I am because you aren’t part of my own group.” It might provoke the response, well, how can we get to be part of your group? (This isn’t only a religious question, as we all know!) Do you have to choose us or can we choose you? If we tag along on the fringes after you, will you acknowledge us and let us join? We read here that the gift of belonging to Jesus is eternal life, never to perish. That sounds like a very enticing membership benefit.
John’s Gospel isn’t meant to be read or taken literally. It’s almost always symbolism and words which point to other meanings. John’s Gospel reflects where the editor’s Christian community had arrived at in its development and thinking about who Jesus might be, his relationship to the one God, his participation in some sort of divinity, what it meant for those who followed the way Jesus taught them. Remember it was at least 70 years after the Crucifixion that this was written down, and John was deeply into theological interpretation instead of writing anything remotely resembling factual history as we know it – and probably not even much of the early oral tradition about Jesus either.
The clear anti-Jewish bias, meaning anti-institutional-Jewish, reflects this Gospel’s creation well after the Roman destruction of the Temple as retribution for Jewish rebellion. Rome barely tolerated Jewish religion, but not Christians who they saw as extremely dangerous to Roman authority. As a result, by the time of John’s Gospel, Jewish leaders had divorced Christians entirely from Judaism to protect themselves, expelling Christians from synagogues and making them anathema to observant Jews. Institutional Judaism rejected Jesus and his followers. Institutional Christianity responded by demonising the Jews – all of them, not just the leaders and decision makers.
This little story ends with that thoroughly provocative statement, “The Father and I are one.” No wonder the religious establishment of the time wanted to push him over a cliff, or shut him up. Saying that he was – at they understood it – the same as God? Outrageous! And if we read just beyond the ending here, the authorities went and got stones to punish him for blasphemy. The theology of who and what of Jesus is did arrive eventually at just that – he is part of God, is one with God, of the same substance as the Father according to the 4th century Nicene Creed.
One question for us is not “how do we become members of the flock”, but more “how do we grow into being genuine followers of Jesus?” We join the flock by being baptised, but do we have to stay on the fringes and wait to be invited into a closer relationship? Of course not; but we do have to listen for the voice we recognise. God the Father, or Jesus, or the Spirit – however we relate to the working of the Trinity, will find us. We can then choose to close our spiritual ears to that calling, we can ignore it by being too tied up with the things which block off our hearing. Are we hearing Jesus’ voice, or the seductive voices of what we think is a more rewarding road to travel. Maybe we could step back and cultivate a silence where God can get some input into the relationship. Perhaps we might try to rely on trust and faith instead of saying “show me” in signs and wonders. We heard the traditional words of Psalm 23 a short while ago – that’s a good bit of Scripture to hang onto. The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing. If we trust the Good Shepherd then we’ll be OK, even if the apparent result isn’t quite what we expected.
We do belong, but it’s not really an easy life, being a committed Christian. The reward – if you want to call it a reward – is that Jesus will give us eternal life, and we will never perish. Quite attractive, isn’t it!
Leslie Spatt © 2016