I found it difficult to settle a theme for my sermon today. I found myself bouncing through several emotions, even contradictory emotions as I approached each reading.
The beauty and simplicity of Psalm 23, for example, seems to have nothing in common with the reading from Revelations. And neither seem to connect to Peter’s miracle described in the reading from Acts of bringing Tabitha back to life. And the Gospel reading. Where to begin! It’s John after all! In the Gospel Jesus seems impatient; tired of all the speculation about who he is and what he’s about. Did I really want to tackle this moody Jesus? Maybe I could just reread Psalm 23 and we could all go home happy, wrapped in lovely images for our Mothers’ day celebrations. In the end I settled down into John. It’s a wintry gospel reading and I was cold and grumpy; John seemed a good match for my own mood.
As always with John, the Gospel setting is important. In our Gospel reading this morning, John sets this last confrontation between Jesus and the more traditional Jewish authorities at the Temple in Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel, Jesus and his followers spend quite a bit of time in Jerusalem celebrating major Jewish feast days throughout his three-year ministry. This time Jesus and his disciples are in the Temple to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication.
The Feast of the Dedication is celebrated in mid December. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. after the defeat of Antiochus IV who had defiled the Temple’s inner sanctuary and decorated the Temple with statues of various Greek gods including Zeus. Today the feast is better known as Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights. This is more, however, than just a religious feast. It is also a politically charged, nationalistic celebration. Jewish people from all over the Diaspora arrive in Jerusalem to celebrate the successful rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus. It was this rebellion through which the Jewish people won back their right to practice their religion, a right that had been suppressed under Antiochus.
So, John sets this last confrontation between Jesus and Jewish authorities at a celebration of a successful rebellion. Furthermore Jesus is teaching in Solomon’s Porch, a covered walkway on the east side of the Temple. John refers to the location so specifically that I had to wonder if this was intentionally symbolic. I thought it was interesting that this porch was also known as the porch of judgment. And there’s an awful lot of judging going on in our Gospel today.
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus had been teaching in the Temple complex and around Jerusalem for the last few months. His preaching is drawing larger and larger crowds and creating quite a lot of speculation about who he is. Questions about his identity were on every lip and interest in him is becoming more intense. Was he the promised Messiah? Or was he just another itinerant quack preacher? Was he a charismatic prophet in the tradition of Elijah? Or was he trying to stir up a revolution against Rome and its Jewish collaborators? Was he possessed by demons?
It is within this context of conflicting speculations about Jesus’ identity that some Temple authorities approach Jesus and ask: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (10: 24) If he is the promised Messiah, it’s time to begin organizing an army to throw off the present-day oppressors.
Jesus responds: “I have told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my father’s name testify to me.” No words can describe who Jesus is. This purposeful obscurity reminds me of the answer Moses got from God when he asked who was talking to him. Moses didn’t get a name either; instead he got the cryptic “I am who I am.” What are we to make of this God/human who cannot be clearly identified?
Jesus does provide the answer. Actions, not words, testify to who Jesus is. And when he tells the questioners, “The Father and I are one,” Jesus infuriates them to the point that they take up stones to kill him. These people would have been able to accept a Messiah who might be sort-of divine or at least divinely sent, but they believe Jesus is claiming to be God. The traditionalists, who have confronted Jesus, see a human who is claiming to be God. They do not see God who acts in human form. At this point Jesus moves into what would be considered blasphemy in the eyes of traditional Jews. And it is this very claim that would cause an irreparable split between traditional Jewish thought and the followers of Christ.
Jesus claims they should know who he is by his acts. Wholeness and healing cannot be the outcome of a demon or a charlatan. Even our earliest stories describe a God who desires to walk with us and to be our companion. There are no words to describe this Messiah; Jesus’ actions demonstrate God’s nature. Jesus has performed not only signs, but more importantly has lived a life that demonstrates love, compassion and empathy. He has shared his table with the outcasts of society. He has demonstrated how to break down the barriers that keep humans from living in loving relationships with each other. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd with a staff to guide and defend the flock. He is the shepherd who will look for a lost sheep until that sheep is found. He is the parent who will welcome back with joy and celebration the prodigal children.
Jesus describes himself as in a relationship with the Father when he says “I am one with the Father.” Just as Jesus called his disciples into a relationship with him, Jesus invites all human beings into that relationship as well. Participating in a relationship with God leads to belief. Belief does not come first. I am reminded that Episcopalians say praying shapes believing. An action shapes faith. We also say: “They will know who we are by the breaking of the bread.” We invite others into relationship at our table as Christ has invited and taught us by his actions. As Christians we are called to imitate Christ, that is what it means to know his voice and to be within his flock.
Jesus is frustrated in this Gospel passage by those who want him to be something that is not within his nature. Jesus will not be another Judas Maccabeus who raises an army and fights for an earthly kingdom. Jesus does not depict his followers as soldiers, but as sheep. He invites us into a relationship with the divine through the gate he has opened for us and promises we will always be with him. By imitating Jesus we will hear the voice of God and know our direction is true – we will live into God’s reality of love by listening to God’s voice and imitating God’s actions.
Being in relationship with each other and caring deeply for those we encounter in our world is to imitate Christ and follow Christ into our destiny of divinity. Listen to your heart, the ear that hears the voice of God and respond in love.
In the words of the Hymn we sang today: “Shepherd me, oh God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life,” divine and eternal.