April 17, 2016
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
Today the creators of our lectionary readings do us no favors by leaving out two crucial verses in the Gospel reading for today: one before the beginning and one right after. In verse 20 some of the people are saying: Jesus “has a demon and is out of his mind.” After our reading in verse 31 it says, “they took up stones again to stone him.” When these verses are not read it is quite easy to turn this story into an account of Jesus as a man who has flowers in his hair, kids on his lap, lambs at his feet—a conventional, status quo, comfortable Jesus—gentle, meek, and mild. My generation sang songs of harmless people with flowers in their hair—happy people high on life.
But when you add those verses you see Jesus is once again in the middle of a serious fight with those who believe he is evil and should be stoned to death before he leads more people away from the true God.
What has Jesus done in this conversation to create such animosity?
The context gives us some help: we are told this took place at the Feast of the Dedication that is during Hanukkah, which is celebrated every December. Hanukkah you’ll remember is when our Jewish brothers and sisters remember the hard time that began in the year 167 BC when the Syrians invade Israel and set up their pagan worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Judas Maccabeus leads an armed rebellion that after three years drives out the Syrians. Then the Temple is cleansed and rededicated to the worship of Almighty God. Since Judas Maccabeus, in liberating the Temple, has done in his way what David and Solomon did in theirs driving out the enemy and opening the Temple, it is presumed it is God’s will that Judas and his family become the new kingly dynasty of Israel even though they are not descendants of David.
So here in the middle of Hanukkah when Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, he’s not saying he’s great with sheep but that he is the King who will take care of the people, just like King David, who also was a shepherd. So since Jesus is using shepherd-king language his accusers to ask him, “Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah?” because Messiah, which means ‘the anointed one’, is also another way of talking about a King.
But Jesus says look at the works I do to know what kind of Messiah I am: I heal the sick, welcome outcasts, and seek to draw together all people into one community, not through exclusion and violence, but through sacrificial love. So there will be one flock and one shepherd, drawing together the whole human race, as we hear in Revelation, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
And then, Jesus tells them the reason he will accomplish this vision: he says, The father and I are one. It is at these words the people pick up stones to kill him.
We live in a culture that thinks religion has only to do with what a people do in their solitude, but that politics has to do with what happens in the real world. Therefore, it is a great temptation to stick with comfortable Jesus, for he is so harmless. Status quo Jesus will not question the morality of war or of consumer capitalism. He will not make any demands on my busy life.
Harmless Jesus will not challenge the false self. Thomas Merton writes: “Each of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. I wind my experiences around myself and cover myself with glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed, I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundations.” Seeds of Contemplation
Of course this status quo Jesus also can’t deliver on the promises the real Jesus makes. The real Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Only Jesus the Messiah, the King, who “loved us and gave himself for us”, who is one with the Father, can deliver on this promise never to let us go, to hold onto us forever.
In December 1997 while all the women went shopping the men went to see the movie “Titanic”. At the beginning Jack and Rose fight to cross the enormous chasm created by class and privilege. At the end Jack and Rose fight to survive the sinking of that great ship into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Throughout the movie Jack says to Rose: don’t let go. “Don’t let go Rose” as she hangs off the stern of the ship, held only by Jack who is struggling to pull her back over the rail. “Don’t let go Rose” as they are on the back of that same railing as the ship plunges straight down into the water; then “Don’t let go Rose” as Rose floats on a headboard and Jack dies of hypothermia.
At the last Jack and Rose, like every couple, must let go because they are only mortal.
But Jesus says to us today: “No one will snatch you out of my hand.”
The question for his listeners is this: Is Jesus just a blow-hard guru promising the moon until Rome kills him on a cross and he sinks from sight?
Or is Jesus the good Shepherd, Messiah, and King, who is One with the Father, and therefore capable of holding onto his flock forever?
As Thomas Merton puts it: Our inner [true] self is, in fact, inseparable from Christ and hence it is in a mysterious and unique way inseparable from all the other ‘I’s’’ who live in Christ, so that they all form on “Mystical Person’, who is Christ.”
And if he holds onto us forever it means he is holding onto us now, in this very moment, which changes everything.
In his grasp sins are forgiven, problems relativized, resentments released, love strengthened, and life given its ultimate purpose and meaning: to be a living witness of the one flock from every tribe, nation, and language that in Jesus can sayA, “The Father and I are One.”