Events in the news have triggered my reflections on how I needed to shape today’s reading from John’s Gospel. It is hard to step aside from the stories of terror and political failure of nerve, especially to look at a Bible passage that on the surface seems almost trivial by comparison. The longer I reflected on that text the more it impelled me to anchor myself on Jesus’ profound sense of our divine life and destiny. This opened for me the value of companionship and friendship as the hallmark of an honourable and caring society and the mark of Christian discipleship.
The world circumstances are paralyzing. You wonder what trauma each fresh day will bring. All any of us can do is face the opportunity with our neighbours to live out what we say we believe in. I want to state John’s key words here but leave their explanation till later in the address:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one
The words sound so simple, idyllic and uncomplicated. They seem quite out of sequence with the world of today’s media, where loss and suffering feature so strongly. But touch the centre of those words: ‘my sheep… follow me’. John recalled Jesus having spoken long ago about journeying together. This was the mark of Christian solidarity, but John writing sixty years later saw division and leadership conflict in the Christian community. We get strong hints of this throughout the New Testament books: Paul mentions it in his first letter to the Corinthians, written forty years earlier.
The situation had deteriorated after the great conflict of 70AD when Jerusalem fell to the Roman armies. The relations between Old Testament Jew and Christian Jew broke into open hostility. There was a softening of response in today’s reading but in general John’s text was scathing about ‘the Jews’; he wrote as someone whose family had split over fundamental disagreements; there was no chance of reconciliation.
We need to read this text with some soul-searching: along with other similar comments in John this rejection of ‘the Jew’ became the seed-bed of anti-Semitism. However much we may want to draw the insights of John’s words to our heart we cannot escape the profound hostility that underlay some of John’s recollections. This is a place for us to name our hatreds and search for reconciliation and a mind set on forgiveness
That, of course is easy to say: a family division tears the members apart. We say things that we may live to regret but we need to say them just the same. And then we live with the tangled emotions of fractured relationships. People side against each other and assume the role of spokespersons. This was John’s issue. He saw the tragedy, and indeed was part of it, so he struggled with the various leaders in the Christian communities. And he saw his own leadership threatened. You sense at the end of this Gospel hints of his unresolved struggle with Peter.
Division inside the Christian community was heightened by hostility outside. John wrote at the end of the century with heightened Roman persecution of Christian and minority groups. There was massive government maladministration, inflation, treachery in the imperial army and constant political assassination. With the secret police knocking at the door, and arrest imminent, companionship and trust seemed outmoded values.
A chance experience many years ago during a German language conversation class brought that story into modern life. Our teacher was a Hungarian Jewish academic who had escaped to Australia after the uprising against Soviet occupation in 1956. She introduced herself to us by describing the days before she and her husband escaped Budapest. ‘My husband came home and asked about my day. I said the police had been and had asked me the date of Stalin’s birthday. What did you say? I told them … naming some date. My God, her husband replied, the date is wrong. We’ll be shot.’ Every time we read accounts of justice workers in countries where minorities are oppressed, the story is repeated. The same sort of petty accusations marked John’s world. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies reminds us that we weep for ‘the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart’.
The hopeful side of John’s words is their introduction to a journey into renewed relationships. Here, it is the imbalance of disappointment and discovery, of resentment and recovery that I want you to see. Listen to John’s words as you would to your own or your critics’ or enemies’ words. We are disjointed creatures: we can love and hate, rejoice and despair, hope and deny in consecutive moments. We are a torn humanity always searching for resolution. And here, in today’s reading, we listen to John searching beyond his own darkest energies.
At each part of this service I have tried to prepare you for this theme. Because we read the Bible through literalist-blinkered eyes, conflict like this is not immediately obvious in the way we read the Gospel. I designed this evening’s service around many themes of love from many dark voices, all starkly different. Words of love and the actions of love are shaped by what Janet Morley has called the ‘darkness and obscurity’ where love ‘touches the speechless and reluctant part of me’.
Today’s Gospel reading has its setting in the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah. That places the story in the winter month of December. Sense the darkness and bitter cold. People huddled around Jesus as he walked in the Temple Colonnade questioning him and perplexed at the meaning of his message. The darkness gave an urgency to the conversations and questioning. Stay here a moment longer. Once earlier in Jesus’ ministry John introduced ‘a Jew’ who brought his own question to Jesus ‘by night’. Recall Judas who in the act of betrayal left the Upper Room ‘and it was night’. We are reading another allegory shaped by John’s own inner turmoil.
Thus far the story has reminded us of numerous occasions where the crowd was receptive but unsure – and that not least because Jesus had seemed so cautious. Why didn’t he say outright what he seemed to imply. Was he really telling the inner circle that he is God: should we listen any further? Is he a prophet? Is he a man awakened by God’s Spirit: leader, teacher, inspirer? Is he a mirage-man, a godlike figure disguised as a man? These were the questions that divided John’s and other early Christian communities: they were the hostile divisions that overtook 1st century Christianity. Jesus’ responses seemed to be overly cautious.
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
Still Jesus offered no answer: still he avoided a direct response. And that should add caution to our need to dogmatise. The shepherd image he offered here was not pastoral but kingly. If they have ears to hear, this shepherd claimed to follow in the steps of David, King and shepherd and in the steps of the prophets, also known as shepherds of Israel. Would they listen to Jesus as they listened to the ancients, and so listen to one who spoke words from God?
That is to say a great deal about Jesus, but no more than this is implied. Unblinker the literal eye: let the text, not the slippery interpretations, ground you in the conversation that we are exploring. This is a hard place to find ourselves. In the face of the world’s wisdom and the world’s hostility does this man still have words that can bring healing, and embrace us as his companions? Jesus spoke about love: how does that translate into the broken relationships we experience? Who is this – God or man, or prophet, teacher, illuminator? Why should any of his words count?
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
There is no easy answer to this question in the words that follow it. A formula might have helped, at least in the way that our dogmas have divided and then settled us into separate camps. But all Jesus offered here was:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
Only when I sense these words against the many relationships I experience do I begin to grasp their meaning. Love and trust go hand in hand, and from both grow companionship. We hold onto the only thing that we can see and value – what the other person does. At a very hard place in our married life, people’s criticism of our values and style of ministry took a severe toll on our health. Margaret, my wife, reminded me then of Jesus’ injunction, ‘Don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do’.
Every part of us cries out ‘show us’, ‘tell us plainly’ but the only response we get from Jesus is if you can’t believe me for who I am, believe me for what I do: ‘The works I do in my Father’s name they testify about me’. This is the essence of being Christian or christlike; we discover out of own limitation and loss that we can rise to generosity of spirit and neighbourliness. Through this whole evening I have called this simply ‘companionship’.
That insight gives an edge to the final claim of the text. When Jesus added, ‘I and the Father are one’, he was speaking about an intimacy of inner life and love expressed. You may want to impress on these words the conclusions of a later church council about Jesus being of one substance with the Father, but that concept had not formed in John’s thinking. It was a centuries’ distant dogma shaped by very different social and political challenges.
Say the sentence to yourself, ‘I and the Father are one’; say it without the intrusion of interpretation. With no pretence or sense of unworthiness say to yourself, ‘I and the Father, the spirit of creation, the life and heart-beat of the universe, are one’. As you say those words let them be the mark of your maturity. ‘I and the Father are one’ is the basis of belonging with everyone you meet in every circumstance. It is the link of your breath with the breath of the universe.
But later interpretations and dogmas get in the road, don’t they? So, listen to the verses that follow and in your quiet moments apply the words to yourself:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
Prophets and teachers from ancient times have been called ‘god’? The Bible may often word personalise the word ‘god’, but in its essence ‘god’ is not a noun but a verb. That is the whole point of the revelation to Moses described in Exodus chapter 3; that is why God has no name – even though we persistently offer one through our limitations. God is active being and becoming. If you need to, find a word for this that suits your yearning, but recognise that it too is limited by your own inner awareness. As we turn away from the darkness of self to face our origin and true identity, we become like the object of our soul-search: ‘You and the Father are one’.
John also would need to own these words as Jew fought Jew and the church divided. Gentiles were already a growing part of the Christian movement; the confession ‘I and the Father are one’ would be the basis of a new community marked by a depth of passion that could cross the boundaries of difference. We become companions in a new way; we see each other with fresh eyes; we grow beyond our prejudices and indifference; we are re-born into the divine image:
If I am to find my final end and first beginning,
Then I must ground myself in God, and God in me
And become what He is: I must be a light in the light,
I must be a word in the Word, a God in God.
Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) German mystic and poet, quoted from Roland Pietsch, ‘The Spiritual Vision: Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme and Angelus Silesius’, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 13, Nos. 3 & 4 (Summer-Autumn, 1979). © World Wisdom, Inc. www.studiesincomparativereligion.com
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Easter Sunday, John’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 22-30.