Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

As time passes, fewer and fewer people will experience the sheer terror of three simple words: “Hi, it’s me.”

With call display, number display, and your cell phones ability to connect your contact list and the number dialing in, there are fewer times that you can be caught dumbfounded by the reckless use of the simple phrase “Hi, it’s me.”

When it happens, of course, your options are limited. “Who is this?” seems rude, since the person on the line is clearly someone who feels close enough the begin a conversation with “Hi, it’s me.”

You can fake it, with something like “Oh, are things?” This can only carry you so far. Suppose the next thing you hear is something like “about that thing you said the other day...” Busted. It seems that even the generous application of the word ‘thing’ can’t save you in such a situation.

Scientists, of course, have been busy studying voice recognition, and have made some surprizing discoveries. It seems that not only can babies recognize their mothers’ voice and the voices of those close to them, but they can also do it when they are sleeping.

They began with non-vocal sounds like running water and a squeaky toy and saw increased brain activity in the sleeping babies. They saw a spike when they played the mother’s voice, and an even more dramatic spike in brain activity when mom was obviously emotional.* In the same article, another group of scientists discovered that babies cry in regional accents, found by comparing babies from Birmingham and Newcastle. Why babies from Birmingham and Newcastle are crying was not discussed.

All of this highlights what we already know—that those closest to us know our voice. They can hear things in our voice, excitement or sadness, and they respond. It seems that even sleeping babies have this ability, and thank God for that. As we get older (and wake up) this ability allows us to care for others, prompted sometimes by the sound of someone’s voice.

None of this is new, of course, since the ancients assumed that the God who is ever near could also hear your voice. Listen to the voice of the psalmist:

Psalm 5:3 In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 18:6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.

Psalm 55:17 Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.

Psalm 116:1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.

Psalm 119:149 Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, Lord, according to your laws.

The common thread here is crying out in distress, and seeking God’s mercy. And it assumes that God not only hears our prayers, but can hear everything that is being communicated through our voice. Thanksgiving joy is obvious to God, and our distress is obvious to God. Even in the process of asking, God can hear what we seek to share.

And this knowledge is central to the passage Jenny shared, part of a dialogue found in John 10. “Tell us plainly” some said, “if you are the messiah.”

25 And Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

And this is the conclusion of a chapter long look at the relationship between sheep and shepherd. Just a few moments earlier, Jesus began with this:

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

John, of course, is all about Christian identity, more so than any of the other Gospels. He is writing last, and he writes in the context of the increasing tension between the synagogue and the emerging church. Matthew, Mark and Luke are less concerned about identity, since their view of an emerging church is largely limited to Jews who choose to follow Jesus.

By the time John is writing, the situation has changed dramatically. The temple has been destroyed, synagogues are established to safeguard the Jewish religion, and more and more gentiles are following the way of Jesus. So two paths have emerged, and with tension and increasing separation, it follows that John would focus on Christian identity.

The corresponding description of the good shepherd and one flock is about mutual recognition, the promise that we will know and we will be known. A distinct community is forming, and the strength of this community will be mutual recognition and support, and the ability to define what it means to be a follower of the way.

Not surprizingly, we in the more liberal wing of the church have tended to ignore or downplay this exclusive view of the emerging church, and ignored John’s Gospel along with it. We have been much more comfortable with the moral instructions of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark and Luke than the “I am” identity statements found in John.

The reasons for this are varied. First, some decades ago we began to accept the validity of other religions as legitimate paths to God. With this belief came increasing discomfort with the Gospel that labeled Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life.’ It was easier to point to the Sermon on the Mount and find universal moral guidance than deal with the exclusive claims of Jesus found in John.

Then something curious happened. When we began to talk to people in other faiths they expressed some frustration with us. While we were busy trying to find universal moral guidance in other world religions—to find Jesus in all religions—we were rightly accused of doing what we always did, namely try to impose ourselves on others.

Instead, we were told, focus on your own tradition, believe the things you believe, and grant us the same respect. Don’t try to suggest that we’re all a little Christian anyway, but be good Christians while you allow us to be good Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on.

And this takes us back to John. Rather than be embarrassed by John’s Jesus, we need to embrace him as truth for us. If we are going to follow the urging of our co-religionists, we need to embrace the Gospel that is focused on Christian identity and be strengthened by it. We need to embrace our truth and live it out while to respect other religions’ ability to do likewise.

And it’s not easy. We imagine truth as binary—you have it or your don’t—rather than something that is subjective and personal. But like any matter of faith, the world will be a better place if we can respect others to hold their truth close while we do the same, even if they seem to contradict each other.

In other words, the world will say “you can’t all be right and therefore none of you is right” and we must say “my truth can be my truth and your truth can be your truth and it’s better to live in peace than insist I’m right.”

In the end, we listen carefully and this is what we hear: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The path we choose to follow leads to the heart of the God, led by the Good Shepherd of the sheep. He speaks, and we hear his voice. We speak—and some times we cry out—and he hears our voice. We are bound together, shepherd and sheep, and in this way we can be a blessing to all people. Amen.



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