Monday, April 18, 2016
My Sheep Hear Me and I Know Them: A Sermon on John 10: 22-30
[This sermon was delivered by me at St. Bartholomew's Church, on April 17, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Easter (and my 50th birthday); you can hear the audio here]
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that is so embedded in or understanding of what it means to be Christian that it’s easy to miss how radical the Gospel is.
Here is Jesus promising to give his sheep—that’s us; sorry about all the wool—eternal life. That was controversial in Jesus’s own time, where the Saducees denied the resurrection of the dead, let alone in ours, when only what can be scientifically measured and proven has validity to so many.
Not radical enough for you? Jesus is only getting warmed up. Because next he matter-of-factly tells the people asking him straight out if he is the expected Messiah—a big enough claim—that he and the Father are one.
In Jesus’s own day, that was a shocking, seemingly blasphemous claim. This short sentence is one of the reasons why C.S. Lewis wrote that “a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
That captures a little of the reaction of the religious authorities to Jesus’s flatly stating that he was one with the Father. Imagine it from their perspective for just a minute: you’re an oppressed member of a monotheistic people, conquered by polytheists who claimed that their rulers could be “deified,” as was Augustus Caesar, and now, here is this charismatic rabbi who you are hoping may be the Messiah, equating himself with God.
Whole volumes of theology have been written around the few sentences that make up today’s Gospel reading. What does it mean to be one with the Father? What does eternal life mean—how does it work? Hard questions. Deep questions.
But, not, I’d suggest, the right questions to tackle first. Jesus is telling us something profound about his relationship with God. He’s also telling us something about our own relationship with God, too, since this is the Gospel that tells us in its first chapter that “to those who received [Jesus], who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God.” (Jn 1: 12). If we looked only at that first chapter, we might assume that receiving Jesus is a question of right belief, of an intellectual acceptance of Jesus as the Light of the world, as the Son of God, as the Messiah. An affirmation of an idea accepted.
But today’s Gospel tells us something very different about what it means to receive Jesus, to believe in his name. It echoes the beginning of the chapter, where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, and tells us, “I know my own, and my own know me.” (Jn 10: 14). Now Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
It’s about relationship, not about doctrine.
When I was a boy, being raised in the Roman Catholic Church, we heard a lot about Holy Days of Obligation. If you haven’t heard the term, it’s defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.” That’s from section 2185 of the Catechism (you see I haven’t quite overcome my legal training).
However, “Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest.” The Catechism warns that “The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.” [CCC 2185].
These days are defined in the Code of Canon Law.
Now, that’s an interesting way to get people to come to church—the law of the church requires you to attend and rest on certain days, including but not limited to Sundays.
It’s a system of rules and duties. A legal approach, really. And it’s in one sense an easy approach—follow the rules, and you’re being “good.”
But that’s not what we see in the Gospel for today. Jesus calls his sheep; he knows them, and they hear and recognize him, and they follow him.
Not under compulsion.
Not out of duty.
Out of love.
The Good Shepherd, this chapter tells us, will lay down his life for his sheep—and Jesus does just that. We’re still in Easter, and the shock of the Crucifixion is wearing off under the joy of the Resurrection, but it’s still close enough to remember. The Good Shepherd loves the sheep enough to die to protect them.
What about the sheep?
Well, let’s look back at the original Good Shepherd—the Lord in the 23rd Psalm. The Psalmist describes the Shepherd as “restoring my soul,” and comforting the sheep. The Psalmist even says that as long as the Shepherd is present, the sheep can walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and still fear no evil. And for that sheep, life isn’t the Valley of the Shadow of death—it’s green pastures, a banquet, an overflowing cup. In other words, life in abundance.
The sheep is loved, comforted, cherished. I think it’s pretty clear that sheep love the Shepherd, too.
It’s a very comforting image, isn’t it? A soft fluffy animal hears the voice of the one who loves it, and cares for it, and that animal comes running.
I think that’s about half the videos on YouTube in a sentence.
But how does that apply to us, in 2016.
Do we hear Jesus’s voice?
Well, the fact that we care enough to come to Church in an era where that’s not only no longer expected of us, but positively uncool suggests that we do. We come because something in the Jesus Movement resonates with us. We come because there’s something in that voice that makes us want to hear more. Maybe we don’t fully hear him, maybe it’s just a faint whisper—but we hear enough that we want to hear more.
And so we follow him.
But what does that mean?
It’s not about rules, and right belief. It’s not about doctrine. Bishop Charles Gore, as long ago as 1925, wrote that the Church’s role and authority in teaching doctrine “can never be understood till it is the life and not the doctrine which is put into the first place.” By the life, Gore meant what he called “the Way. He got the term from the Early Church—just last week we heard, from the Acts of the Apostles, about Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” sought to capture “any who belonged to the Way.”
For Gore, the Way was what Jesus called us to live. Not a set of abstract beliefs, or intellectual precepts, but a “life of brotherhood”, “self-surrender, self denial, equality” above all else.
I know. Sounds pretty hard to achieve, doesn’t it? But it’s a way, a path. It’s a journey. We go by steps. A life based on loving our brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters. A giving of ourselves to something beyond our own egos. A belief, a real belief, in that each and every one of God’s children is as beloved and important as all the others, uniquely cherished for herself or for himself. And that our duty is not to test and judge each other, but to help each other along the way.
That is the green pasture the Good Shepherd is leading us to, and that’s what we take little steps toward or away from every day.
We’re not called to be miraculously, suddenly perfect. We’re called to make room in our hearts and walk the way. We don’t walk it alone, and there is no set destination. That’s why we’re following the Good Shepherd.
We just take the next step, and trust that the way will lead us home—the long way round.
1. Charles Gore, THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE CHURCH (1924) in RECONSTRUCTION at 799; Gore, SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, at 5-6, 16.
2. Acts, 9:1-2.
3. REPORT OF THE FIRST ANGLO-CATHOLIC CONFERENCE (“REPORT”), 1920 at 193-194 (1920).