Easter 4, C
John 10: 22-30
When my 6 year-old is particularly of a mind to surprise or astonish, conversations can become rather drawn out. She’ll first demand attention. Mumma. Mumma. With the clothes tugging and the hand grabbing. Mumma! And when she is absolutely sure she commands undivided attention, she’ll pause. Then exhale. Then smile her funny little mischievous smile. Then inhale deeply. Then start. Can. I. have. a. piece. of. the. thing. that. and on the sentence goes, drawing out each moment. until. you. just want to shake the rest of the words out of her mouth where they must have collected and be waiting to tumble out after collecting in her brain all that time.
This is where we find “the Jews” today – ready to shake the definitive word out of Jesus. How long will you keep us in suspense? Now, “the Jews” do not get a particularly good rap in the Gospel of John, primarily getting associated with treachery, collaboration, betrayal and a stubborn adherence to old and corrupt ways. Still, in the verses just before the lesson today, we learn the Jews are divided – some convinced that Jesus is a lunatic – not actually an entirely unreasonable position: he’s been deliberately acting in a such a manner so as to antagonize some very powerful people. Some are nonetheless convinced that the fruits of his labors, bringing sight to the blind, that sort of thing, are not the fruits produced by someone beset by the demon of lunacy. They are starting to wonder if there isn’t a real powerful sort of something in this Jesus guy. But the man won’t talk in plain talk. He insists on metaphors and analogies and enigmatic references.
We don’t know who asked the question – the Jews who kind of wanted to believe, but needed things spelled out just a little clearer – How long will you keep us in suspense? we really just need to know. Or the ones who felt he was an arrogant, crazy, maker of waves. They would have asked the equally legitimate translation from the Greek – How long will you continue to annoy and vex us? They wanted Jesus to make a clear, unambiguous statement they could attack.
Jesus satisfies neither camp.
Jesus knows what we so often would like to ignore. One simply cannot plainly, logically, satisfactorily explain the complexities of a mystery beyond understanding. He speaks instead in terms of a way of living, a way of relating, a way of protecting, a way to follow.
Sheep. We are the sheep in this allegory. If we’re going to be sheep, there is something you should know.
That really bad rap sheep get, the stupidity thing, the bleating helplessness thing – it’s all a bit overblown, the product of a vicious rumor started largely by cattlefolk. A rumor propagated by cow folk who, for the most part, don’t like sheep. The cattle folk don’t like sheep largely because, well, because they are not cows. Cows can be driven, pushed from behind, running from the hooves of the horses and the noise of whips and yelling cowboys and barking cattle dogs. Do that to a flock of sheep and they will run in circles. They will run in circles because they are trying desperately to get behind whatever is making the chaos, rather than being in front of it, chased by it. Who’s stupid now?
Sheep do, however, have a horrible sense of direction. They prefer to follow. The way to get sheep to where you want them to go is to gain their trust, and lead them there.
ECLA Bishop Leonard Bolick relayed the story of a retired pastor who organized tour of the Holy Land. On a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the pastor told the group they would see many sheep and shepherds. He suggested that they think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd, noting that shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them, never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them. Apropos to the moment, the bus was stopped for a herd of sheep to pass. After the pastor’s reflection, the group was surprised to see a man with a stick beating the sheep. The pastor got off the bus and confronted the man, “Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.” “That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.” (story adapted from Delmer Chilton, Two Bubbas and a Bible)
If we are indeed, the sheep, then we face a choice – will we spend our lives running from the butcher or running to the shepherd? The butcher chases us with fear – of isolation, of poverty, of illness, of separation, of pain – very real, concrete fears. That leaves us with the frightening question – can I believe hard enough, long enough, well enough to escape the butcher? It’s a reasonable question, but not the right one.
Author Debie Thomas writes, “At first glance, Jesus’s reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you don’t consent to belong. In other words, belief doesn’t come first. It can’t come first. Belonging does.
According to this text, whatever belief I arrive at in this life will come not from a creed or a cleverly worded sermon, but from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and listening in real time for the voice of the one whose classroom is rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys. If I won’t follow him into those layered places — places of both tranquility and treachery — I will never belong to him at all” (Debie Thomas, Belonging)
“Maybe, by refusing to “speak plainly” Jesus was honoring human life for the incredibly complicated thing it is. After all, one doesn’t “speak plainly” about the greatest mysteries of the universe. Jesus came to teach us about truth, about love, and about eternal life in God’s just and transformative kingdom. One doesn’t simply profess belief in such weighty and mysterious things — one lives into them, questions into them, believes into them, grows into them.
Sheep know their shepherd because they are his; they walk, graze, feed and sleep in his footsteps, beneath his rod and staff, within constant earshot of his voice. So we believe in the Christ as we belong to him — as we allow ourselves to become fully and deeply his. He walks ahead of us, and we will only learn his path by walking it.” (Debie Thomas, Belonging, Journey with Jesus)