4th Sunday of Easter
21 April 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
In twenty plus years of ministry, I have never preached this passage from John. I’ve preached many times on the beautiful 23rd Psalm, the favorite scripture of the church for the last 100 years. I’ve used early verses of John 10, the ones in which Jesus announces that he is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life to take care of his flock. He talks about having other sheep who do not belong to the flock, who must be brought into the fold. But I shied away from this middle of John 10, because of the harsh words to the Jews, presumably the Jewish authorities. They demand clear evidence that he is the Messiah. He says, “I’ve told you and you do not believe….You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”
I get uncomfortable with passages that seem exclusive – these people are in and these people are out. It smacks of that old hard-line Calvinism – some predestined to belong, others not. But that’s not the way most Presbyterians think today. We know God did not give up on the covenant with the Jews, so how can Jesus say to them in this passage, “You do not belong to my sheep.” It helps us to remember that by the time the Gospel of John was written, there was some considerable tension between the growing group of Christ followers and the Jewish faith. When persons or groups are distinguishing themselves, unfortunately, it is often by a defining position which criticizes the other. Such is the case with John and the Jews. But the other thing to remember is that Jesus is not saying, “I do not want you in my flock.” He said just a few verses earlier that he has other sheep, not in the flock whom he wants to bring in. He is only stating a fact – they are not following him, listening to him daily, so they do not believe he is the Messiah because they have not spent enough time with him.
Even though we believe God is loving and just toward all, we should not avoid reading scriptures in which the uniqueness of Christ and the particularity of the Christian faith is expressed. In trying to be kind and accommodating to persons of other faiths, we do not need to stop being who we really are.
We just need to be respectful and understanding of who they really are – not our stereotypes of them. So as we engage this passage today, we have the opportunity to embrace the uniqueness of Christianity – that Christ and his Father are One – that through Christ, we are made one with God. It is a remarkable truth. George MacDonald, a Scottish novelist and theologian, calls it the center truth of the universe.
Let us pray for God’s Spirit to illumine us. “Make us one, Lord. Make us one. Holy Spirit make us one. Let your love flow, so the world will know, we are one in you.”
Hear the Gospel: John 10:22-30
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." (NRSV)
The Jewish leaders wanted some sort of proof. Jesus says, “Look at what I have done in my Father’s name and you will see. But you do not believe because you do not belong.” Now that is a strange way to put it. We think that we join a church because we believe. We believe. We belong. Jesus says, “You do not believe because you are not belonging.” He goes on to say that belonging means “listening and following him.” Again, we think that belonging comes first, then believing, then listening, then following. But Jesus says, “Listen to my voice and follow me.” Then you will belong to my sheep. Then when you belong, you will believe.
It is kind of like the man who says, “I don’t love my wife anymore.” And when asked what kindness and generosity he has expressed toward her lately, he says, “well none, because you see, I don’t love her any more. Don’t feel anything.”
But the trouble with that is that the very act of kindness and generosity on the part of the husband or wife or partner is what builds love. If we are not regularly building up love in all our family relationships and friendships, then love is diminishing day by day in all the little stressors and wounds that tear love down. Love must be rebuilt by loving, generous action. 1 John 3:18 says “let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.” Affection and attraction are about feelings, but with real love the feeling follows the action.
So it is with Christian faith. The action of listening and following Jesus makes you more a part of the flock of the Good Shepherd and when you belong to the flock, then you believe. And sometimes your believing needs the bolstering of others in the flock. Sometimes belonging means you are just walking where the other sheep are going, because you don’t really have the faith to be more than a follower. But just by being with others in the flock, your faith is sustained. Like the grieving man who cannot sing the hymns without choking up for months after his wife dies, but that’s okay because the congregation them sings for him. It’s like the kid who goes to Cedarkirk camp, having never left the security of home for a week, and discovers the sustaining power of God’s shepherding love, or a youth who goes to Montreat with a friend not knowing anything about Christian community and finds there a new sense of belonging.
I love the fact that there are people here at Peace who, even when they are not sure of their faith, keep coming to worship, coming to the table to taste and see. They keep saying prayers and reciting the creed, because they belong to the flock. Believing follows belonging. Only in belonging, does believing begin to happen. Believing cannot be sustained without belonging. But with belonging, believing will nearly always come, perhaps not some rational sense of knowing, as one knows facts, but a believing of the soul which is what faith is, an assertion of what cannot be clearly seen but only dimly in a mirror held in trust.That’s why our welcoming, open-minded nature at Peace is so valuable. We don’t assume people come in the door sure of their faith. A few do, but many people walk in with questions, with doubts, with profound needs that cannot even be clearly expressed. And what they need, what we all need is to belong to the flock, where we listen each week for the voice of our Shepherd, where we lie down in green pastures and are led by still waters, where we have feast set before us, even when it feels enemies are close at hand, and we are reminded that though we walk through the shadow of death, we have nothing to fear, for God is with us with rod and staff to guide us. We need a safe place where we can affirm our faith and express our doubts, where we can be real about pain and loss as well as reminding one another of the many blessings for which we can be grateful.
Our ultimate destination is to be so united with Christ that we have full union in the sacred communion of the Trinity. Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” This center truth of the universe is our unique claim in Christianity – that our God has lived as one of us, uniting God with us, and us with God. No other faith claims that. Now I am not saying that we should hold that truth arrogantly as if we have nothing to learn from other faith traditions – from Jews, from Muslims, from Buddhists, we Christians can learn many good things. We should hold the faithful of these religions in high regard, but we do not need to water down our Christian faith to do so.
We can hold with confidence, not cockiness, the essential core of Christian faith which has sustained the Shepherd’s flock for two thousand years, a faith tested and tried in the early church and articulated for generations in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made,of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven…” We can have an evangelical faith that is enthusiastic about the good news of our Incarnational God. And that faith loves actively and invites others to be part of the flock, to belong by listening to the Shepherds voice and following with us.True Christian faith does not cast a pall of blame on all Muslims once again because a couple of young men became terrorists in Boston. I don’t think the Jews are calling all Christians terrorists because many Christians in Germany terrorized them in ways that make Boston bombing look like a walk in the park. What Christ came to accomplish is the oneness of all humanity with God and with one another. When we are truly One with God, we cannot be anything but respectful and interested in the well-being of others.
We want all people to experience a Shepherd’s care, so that their deepest longings for peace and love are met. A soul that is satisfied by the profound goodness of God has no need to attack another. It is the hungry, the wounded, the greedy soul that lashes out unexpectedly. Innocent Jesus, fully God, fully human prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” When we are filled with all the fullness of love, all the security that comes from knowing our deepest needs will be met by our Shepherd, we too can pray, even for those who have harmed us, “Father forgive.”
Richard and I toured many beautiful cathedrals in our time in England, but this one in Coventry had a particular power, with the bombed out shell with the new cathedral structure growing out of the old. But the most poignant spot in the whole place is this: this cross, made of burned beams from the bombs of WW2 with the words, “Father, forgive” That’s what Christians do!