Sermon on John 10:22-30 for April 17, 2016, 4th Easter C
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “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. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats. That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.
When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.
In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing. The action here takes place during the festival of Dedication. If you are trying to recall when in the Hebrew bible you read about, do not bother; it is not there.
Rather, this feast commemorates a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV. He had been trying to wipe out Judaism, and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the alter, he could ruin it for the Jews.
Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted. The violent Maccabean revolution began, and was eventually successful. The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated. So Jesus is in the temple at the time of that Dedication anniversary. In case we miss the symbol, John also tells us that this gospel scene takes place in the winter.
Jesus is walking in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.
The symbols continue. John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon. Again, a symbol. It calls to mind several thoughts. First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple.
The priests there were not descendants of Aaron, but were appointed by Rome, and therefore under the Roman thumb. The present King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David, or even Jewish. If you are Jewish and respect the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity.
But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was – oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into North and South from which it never recovered. Jesus is in Solomon’ portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.
Are You Messiah?
So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people (which is what John always means when he says “the Jews” – not everybody, but rather, the leadership) challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (= “the Christ”).
Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels. The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.
In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.
So, they ask Jesus,
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity. But instead, he answers:
“I have told you, and you do not believe.”
Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them. Jesus says,
“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
Good Sheep, Bad Sheep
Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol is well known. It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous. The prophets too used the symbol. The people are the sheep, and the kings and leadership are the shepherds.
Throughout most of Israel’s history they were horrible at their job as shepherds, unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job. Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for.
So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders. Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves. But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep. Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not. Jesus says,
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says,
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“Eternal life,” in John’s gospel, simply means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere,
“The Father and I are one.”
The Non-violent community
If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd to say the least. But if you read it as John’s community reflecting on their life experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ is among them spiritually, it makes great sense.
This is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life. This is a community that practices non-violence. So they tell the story of Jesus in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful re-dedication of the temple. Violence is not justified even by its success, as if might made right.
Anyway, it was all for nothing. By the time John wrote, they had had another violent revolution in which hundreds of thousands perished by the sword, and in the end, their temple had again been totally desecrated and destroyed.
In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence? Why are people still so in love with the sword? Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far flung cause? You still hear it today.
People calling for carpet bombing and killing families right along with the terrorists. How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance? Our applause at “successful” drone strikes, even when collateral casualties are included?
It is hard to explain. Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.
But maybe we are in a new day. Just this week we learned that a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “Just War” theory. Arguing that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone wanted to fight. They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.
One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”
Ego and Violence
Where does this urge to violence come from? From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?
Clearly it is something we have within us. It is natural, instinctive, and it appeals to our sense of entitlement. Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.
And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward
non-sequitur from Jesus,
“The father and I are one.”
John’s community was a mystical community. They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father. There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God. (John 17:20-23)
It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this. It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.
And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves. We must fight back in kind.
Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source. It is our ego. Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.
We all have a sense of our identity – which we must have to be alive and healthy. We get this identity from our family, our religion, our nation, our gender, our sexual orientation, the groups, and clubs and political parties that we join, and from our economic status.
As Rohr says, “Your False Self is what changes, passes, and dies when you die. Only your True Self lives forever.” (From Immortal Diamond, p. 29. Kindle Edition.)
It is our false self that gets threatened, that gets defensive, that becomes offended, that gets angry, and in the end, is willing to be violent.
Your true self is who you are in God. We are all, as the creation story says, icons of God – icon is the word image; we are made in God’s image.
God is the source of our being. We live and move in God. As a beautiful metaphor we could say that we are children of God the Father. Jesus liked that metaphor. Or we could say we are sheep in God’s fold, with God as our shepherd. Or as Paul says, we are “in Christ.” Or we could simply say we are one with God. As Jesus said,
“The Father and I are one.”
John’s community was a mystical community that understood this union. Today many are re-discovering the ancient contemplative practices that are indispensable in awakening us to our true identity in God. Meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindfulness practices, yoga, are the tools we need. Each of them silences the ego voice of anger, resentment, vengeance and ultimately, violence.
We need these contemplative practices now more than ever. If nothing else, the current political climate should convince us of this. But more personally, we are all probably convinced by our own internal conditions.
Who wants to get to the end of life a bitter, angry, resentful person? Do we not all long to be people of inner peace, of calm contentment, and equanimity?
Contemplative practices, especially meditation, produces a fruit of compassion in us. We become more and more aware of our unity with each other, and find new sources of sympathy and understanding for each other. We become more kind and generous, more forgiving, in fact, loving.
We become, most of all aware of the sacredness of life – all of it. We become aware of the present moment – the only moment we ever get to live in. And most profoundly, we become aware of our true selves, our true identity; that we do belong, that we are beloved and forgiven; that we are children of a loving Father; that we are one with God.
This gives us the courage to be; to really be; to be alive to our lives. It gives us the courage to trust that we are upheld in an ultimate sense. To know that there is a Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep who listen to his voice, and follow his path.