St. John's, Centreville
May 12, 2019
4 Easter C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the gospel reading is always taken from the tenth chapter of the gospel of John, with its images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
In our reading this morning, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the festival of the Dedication, which commemorates the rededication of the temple in 164 BC after it had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes when he made sacrifices to Zeus on the altar. The festival is now known as Hannakuh. As Jesus is walking in the portico, the area outside of the temple, he is asked by some of the Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah. They want to hear him say "yes" or "no". "Tell us plainly," they say. If he says he is not, then he is not a threat to the political leaders and they can ignore him. If he says "yes", they can arrest him for blasphemy and get him out of the way. A direct answer will get him discredited or killed.
Jesus replies, "I have told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me." He has opened the eyes of the blind, and he has performed other miracles in their presence. Jesus is telling them that his life and his teachings have provided all the evidence they need. Everything that Jesus has done has been in the name of God that the Jews claim as their own. They are not asking because they want to believe, but because they want to debate or argue with Jesus. His actions have shown who he is. But still they do not believe.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish." Jesus' care for his followers goes much farther than a shepherd caring for his sheep. His sheep will never be snatched out of his hand. His sheep will have eternal life. No one can separate them from God.
Our gospel lesson looks at the relationship between sheep and shepherd - a relationship of love and trust. The sheep know the voice of their shepherd and they follow him. When several flocks are mingled together at the watering hole, the shepherd need only give his distinct call and his sheep will separate themselves from the rest to follow him home. They know to whom they belong. They trust their shepherd to lead them to green pastures and still waters. Sheep need to be led or they will wander off and get lost.
Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that they do not believe because they do not belong to his flock. Now Jesus is not putting all Jews in the same category. Jesus was a Jew. His followers were Jewish. Jesus is not discriminating against an entire group of people. But the Jewish people he is talking to, some of them religious leaders, some of them political leaders, do not want to listen to him and they do not want to follow him. Jesus is turning their world upside down and they don't like him upsetting the applecart. They do not want to lose their perceived power and prestige. They want to discredit him and get him out of the way.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me," Jesus says. Do we follow Jesus' voice? Or do we follow the many voices that compete for our attention - like the voice on TV that tells us that we will be happy or fulfilled if we just buy this particular car or some other product; or the voice of the popular teenager in school who tells our children that they are not worthy if they are not wearing the latest designer labels; or the voice of the co-worker who says you are a "nobody" unless you are "seen" at a certain club or restaurant.
What voice do we listen to? What voice do our children listen to? Is it the voice of the Good Shepherd urging us to follow him; or is it the voices in our culture trying to draw us away? Whose voice do we listen to?
Whose flock do we belong to? Are we in Jesus' flock or another flock? I think we would say we are believers, we are in Jesus' flock. That is why we are here Sunday after Sunday, hearing God's word, receiving God's sacraments, reciting the creed and the Lord's Prayer.
But do we ever doubt that we are believers in Jesus Christ and what his life, death and resurrection mean for us? Do we ever doubt that we are sheep of Jesus' flock? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would say yes. At some time or another, we would say that we are not good enough or devout enough or prayerful enough to be counted as one of God's sheep.
I think many of us assume that to be a true believer and a follower of Jesus Christ, to belong to Christ's flock, we should never have any doubts or worries or fears. We should live in total confidence that we are in God's hands. We should never be embarrassed or confused about what we believe, that we should have a sharp, articulate answer on the tip of our tongues whenever we might be asked a theological question. We think that worship should always be a profoundly meaningful experience, that we hang on every word of the sermon, that we are fulfilled at communion, never feel bored, or cranky or left out. Believers should always have an unfailing sense of belonging to God. Believers should never have dry times in their spiritual lives. Their connection to God is always close and intimate. They are always upbeat, always on the mountaintop.
If we think that is the only kind of person who can be a true believer, than none of us would be in Christ's flock. None of us can live up to these perfect standards. We all have dry times in our spiritual lives. We all have times when we wonder where God is. We don't always have the perfect answer to some theological questions asked of us. Sometimes it is hard to worship. Sometimes it is hard to feel close to God.
The way true believers believe is the way most of us believe - really good on some days and not so good on other days; with strong faith one day and not enough to get us out of bed in the next. We need to have a willingness not to be certain about everything, to have doubts and uncertainties, to struggle and be confused.
We are not believers in an institution but in a relationship; a relationship with God that changes day to day and year to year, as we change and grow, as the world around us changes. Just because we are believers in Jesus Christ does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us - accidents, illness, disease, broken relationships, death. It does mean that God will be with us through it all, encouraging us not to fear but to put all our dependence on God alone. Some days we are firm in our faith. Some days we are like lost sheep. We belong to Christ's flock, not because we are always certain about our faith in God, but because God is always certain about God's love for us.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows us each by name and leads us to eternal life. May we follow where God leads until God calls us to our heavenly home. Amen.
Some ideas taken from "The Preaching Life" by Barbara Brown Taylor, pg. 140-146.