SERMON 17 April 2016
Last week we began a journey with John’s gospel which will continue until Pentecost on 15 May. It is hard to just plunge into a very different gospel and be able to understand what is going on, so I thought it was important that we have a bit of background.
John’s gospel is not like the other three, which are what we call the “synoptics”. Synoptic means that they have the same general point of view. They have common sources and also differences. They are telling us their Jesus story, following, if you like, what happened especially in his ministry and the life shared with his disciples. John was written later than the others, sometime around 100 years after Jesus’ birth, so some 70 years after his death. A lot had happened in that time, not least in the ransacking, the destruction of the Temple, which had been the focal point of Jewish life. After that, the synagogues became the central places of and for Judaism.
John’s community, the early Christian people for whom his gospel was written, were Jews who were still part of the synagogues. They remained, certainly for some time, within the communities in which they had always been. The difference was that they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was not without precedent: others before had been declared “Messiah” before. It is important to remember that this was a time of great unrest over Roman occupation and the people were looking for a deliverer. Not that this was what the Christians were really now expecting of Jesus. They had been learning more.
It held together for a while, but evidently some conflict arose with the Christian Jews within the synagogue of John’s community and they were put out, possibly for confessing Jesus as God. This was a painful break from their parent tradition. A new community was formed. When we read John’s gospel, we should note that there are two layers, if you like. There is that which is addressing the situation of his time, his community, and there is that which is what he is telling about Jesus. His gospel is not like an historic account of what happened but more a reflection on who Jesus was. It reads almost as though it is making a legal case for Jesus the Christ. He often uses words like “testimony” and “witnessing”. John also uses the term “the Jews” 71 times in 67 verses, appearing in every single chapter except what is called “The Farewell Discourse” from chapters 17-21.
One of John’s emphases for his community is for unity, for being one. We will hear more about that in the coming weeks.
Enough of the background. Let’s look at todays’ passage. Though, having said that, it needs a little bit of introduction too! What has come before the verses we have is the passage where Jesus describes himself as “The Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep. He also says he has other sheep that are not of this fold. We are told today that Jesus was walking in the temple at the time of the festival of Dedication. It was an important time. This festival marked the reconsecration of the Temple after it had been desecrated in 167BC by the then ruler sacrificing to the god Zeus within it. That event gave rise to a successful revolt. The conquerors were overthrown. Now the Jewish authorities want Jesus to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Will he liberate them? But it is probable that this is a sarcastic question. They have been plotting to kill him since chapter 5.
So we have this conjunction of the image of the shepherd and the Messiah. Nobody really knew what to expect of this ancient hope for the Messiah. They just had their hopes for deliverance. But they could identify with a shepherd. It was such an old image too. We heard the much loved psalm of David who had grown up looking after the flocks, “The Lord’s my shepherd”. Jesus tells his questioners, the Jewish authorities, that they shouldn’t need any more explanation. What he did demonstrated who he was. The trouble is they didn’t like it. They can’t recognise his voice. It is blocked out by what is in their own heads, their own minds and so their hearts are not receptive. They are not going to be able to follow. The only thing that is stopping them is that lack of ability to hear and to see.
When I was little I had a small framed picture of a young sheep, entitled “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me”. I loved that picture, but I have no idea what happened to it. Even then it seemed very comforting to think that God knew me, knew who I was and would call out my name, even though I really had no idea what it meant to follow him, other than going off to Sunday School. This passage tells its readers quite a lot about security. Remember the situation of those Jewish Christians sent away from their roots in the synagogue? “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus goes on to say “The Father and I are one.” This can seem as if it is indicating something in relation to the Trinity, but in fact the grammatical case of word for “one” used here is neuter. It is saying rather that Jesus’ work, God’s work, are one and the same.
What does all this mean for us here today? I think there is something very important in this approach that asks us just to look at what Jesus did so that we can be open enough to hear his voice, the voice that calls our name and invites us to follow. This isn’t about an intellectual argument or theological ideas about “Who is Jesus?” It is Jesus saying that everything he has done has been done within God. This is about God’s work. It is about God being with people. John’s gospel doesn’t use the word Emmanuel/God-with-us, but the gospel starts of by telling us that the Word was with God, was God and became flesh and dwelt among us.
How can we follow, day by day in our own lives, an idea that has no connection to us and our living? I suppose we can all be inspired by great speeches and visions of a better world, of justice and peace and harmony, but if we don’t see them in action, if we can’t hear what they mean, then the inspiration fades. What Jesus’ followers saw was his day by day involvement in their lives. His healing of the sick and feeding of the hungry were enacting what he was teaching. John’s gospel does contain less of this than the other gospels because John’s is concerned to make the case for Jesus. It does have several “I am” statements: I am the bread of life. I am the true vine. I am the good shepherd, all of which echo the name of Yahweh “I am who I am”. These are very grounded images that connect with people’s lives, the very stuff of life, the food, the drink, the work. Jesus is with them in their lives and asks them to be with him and with each other.
In a sense, our “being with” is what it is all about. We can’t be Christians just by coming to church and singing some hymns, praying, listening to the bible and a sermon. Hopefully these things all help us. But it is in our “being with” Jesus, being with each other, being with the needy, that we discover what Christianity is about. Not even “working for” or “working with” but being with.
So if we think of ourselves as part of the flock, a great diverse flock, and have our ears uncovered so we can hear, we discover a voice that asks us to follow who Jesus was then and is now, because that is the same. I read this last week “Many scholars over the years have pointed out that what is usually translated in Paul’s letters as “faith in Christ” would be more accurately translated as “the faith of Christ”…. It means we are all participating in the journey that Jesus has already walked.” It continues later “Most people think having faith means “to believe in Jesus.” But, “to share the faith of Jesus” is a much richer concept.”
What might that faith of Jesus’ be? It is John, in his epistle that tell us “God is love”. It is John, in the chapter 1 of his gospel that tells us “In him was life, and that life was light for all humankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” These are the big vision words that were lived out day by day by Jesus, because his faith was completely in God, nurtured in relationship with God.
Jesus points always to God. “The Father and I are one.” We are called to be part of that belonging. There is no entry test other than our willingness to hear. There is no threat of being cast out or dragged off. Remember that Jesus said that no-one will snatch them from me. We belong. Our names are known. If we fall away or get lost, the shepherd sees and looks for us. We will not perish along the way because this journey transcends time and place. What we do is more about our readiness to put aside the other voices that block our hearing. We don’t get near to having the faith of Jesus if we don’t manage to be with him, with each other and with all those with whom we are called to share the journey.
John’s community had to separate off from its centuries-old tradition and start off again in a new way. The church has always had to do that, to keep finding itself again in response to the voice that does not stop calling us on. That is not a threat but a call to go on discovering life and light and love because it is about being with Jesus, being with God, being at one. It is a call to know who the good shepherd is.
Psalm 23 Redux