Posted on in Sermons by The Rev. David Marshall
Year C, 4th Sunday of Easter
Jesus is once again at the Temple, standing in the portico of Solomon. The people gather around him, filled with anticipation. They are even a little impatient, and someone calls out to Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
The thing you need to know is that Jesus has already demonstrated exactly who he is and what he is. At this point in the story he has:
- Turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
- Healed the young son of a royal official in Capernaum.
- He has healed a paralyzed man in Bethseda.
- He has fed 5000 people in the wilderness with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.
- He has WALKED ON WATER.
- And right before this conversation, he gave sight to a man blind from birth.
Just what are the people waiting for? Why are they still credulous? Why don’t they trust that Jesus is indeed the Messiah?
There is clearly some sort of misunderstanding going on. The people demand proof, and Jesus talks about shepherds and sheep. “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
This seems such a strange thing for Jesus to say. Part of the problem is linguistic. Jesus says, “I have told you and you do not believe.” Belief is central to John’s Gospel. For John, salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus. The problem is that John did not mean what we mean today when we say believe. John was talking about love and trust, cherishing and following, holding someone dear and loving them.
Most of you have heard me teach about belief already. The word that is translated as “believe” in English is “Pisteaus” in Greek. The problem we have today is that the word believe has changed in meaning and usage in the 400 years since the translators of the first English translations of the Bible did their work. Believe used to mean to cherish someone, to hold them dear, to love and trust them. Now we use believe to talk about truth. If you believe in something, you are accepting that it is true, or that is exists, or that it happened. Today, we would never say, “I believe in my wife Alice,” or, “I believe in my mother.” And yet, that is exactly how the word was used 400 years ago.
So, the first problem we have understanding the conflict between Jesus and the people who are questioning him in today’s story is that we read “you do not believe me” and think Jesus is talking about an idea, or an argument about truth, but Jesus is really talking about a loving, trusting relationship. That’s why he starts talking about sheep and shepherds.
Sheep do not need to believe that the shepherd is their protector and leader. They don’t ask for proof or signs. The shepherd leads them to pasture and water, protects them from wolves, and brings them home to safety every night. The shepherd and the sheep have a relationship that they both participate in. It doesn’t matter what the sheep believe or what the shepherd believes, for that matter.
There is a fundamental shift here. A completely different way of knowing God and a completely different way of living that Jesus is revealing. Jesus shows us how to participate in God and in all that God is doing by embracing life, by loving and caring for one another even in the midst of all our suffering, pain and loss, rather than bargaining with God and hoping that God will take away all our struggles and pain.
We have all bargained with God at one time or another. “Oh God, if you will get me out of this fix I promise never to swear again and I’ll attend church every week!” When we see people praying to God, especially in movies, they are almost always bargaining.
When someone we love is sick, we will go all-in, and bet everything, even our faith, trying to bargain with God. “Oh God, I know you are real, and I have complete faith in you, and now I need you to cure my wife of her cancer.”
After praying like this, what option do we have when the beloved one dies of their cancer? We either decide that God must have a plan too large and mysterious for us to comprehend, or we lose our faith altogether.
Jesus shows us the folly of bargaining with God and the blessing of participating in God’s love. He went to the cross and died. The Son of God died on the cross. The people taunted him, saying, “If you are the Messiah, get yourself down from that cross.” Even there on the cross, Jesus does not bargain with God. Instead, he continues to love. He turns to the beloved disciple and his mother and says, “Here is your mother. Woman, here is your son.” Take care of each other.
I was talking about this sermon with my daughter Kate this week and she shared a powerful story with me. Kate is 9 months pregnant. That’s right, 9 months. Her due date is Wednesday. As she told this story I could see how scary it was for her. By the time she finished, she had tears in her eyes.
The story is about a couple that was about to have their first baby. Several days before their due date they went to the doctor and everything was great. The baby was moving, active, perfect. Two days later, something changed. The baby stopped moving. They went back to the doctor and they could not find a heartbeat at all.
This was devastating to them, of course. What would they do? Would the wife go through all the agony of birth for a child that was already dead? An event like this is very hard on a marriage. The husband was praying for a miracle, but he just couldn’t bear to be with his wife, so he left and went to a motel. He sat in his room praying, pleading with God. For hours and hours, he cried and prayed.
Then he got an answer to his prayers. A sense of calm came over him, and he had a clear thought, and he knew that this thought was God answering his prayers. As he sat there in that motel room, praying God’s help, for anything, God answered, “What are you doing here?”
That was it. “What are you doing here?” Why are you bargaining with God rather than comforting your wife? Why are you hiding in a motel room rather than caring for your wife, giving her the love and comfort in her grief that God has for you and for her?
Resurrection life happens when we participate in life, loving one another as God loves us. Resurrection life is not something we can bargain for or win or earn. God loves us. God wants our love. The way we give that love is to love one another.
Jesus calls us to participate in God’s love and to be a part of what God is doing. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Jesus calls us to trust in love, to follow him, to participate in loving relationship with one another.
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
April 17, 2016