Maya Angelou is credited with the modern-day proverb, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” When we use this saying, we’re usually referring to negative experiences: we keep hoping for someone to be different and they keep proving themselves to be otherwise. Jesus is saying something similar in the temple that day, “I have shown you who I am, but you do not believe.” (Thanks to Chelsey Harmon for the sermon illustration)
Jesus shows us exactly who he is and exactly what he stands for. So why did those gathered around him need to keep asking if he was the Messiah? Were they not able to see it or were they looking for something else?
This passage follows on the heels of Jesus telling us that he is the Good Shepherd. That image is carried forward into this passage when Jesus refers to his sheep. We note that Jesus indicates that those who are questioning him are not part of his flock and this is why they are unable to see that he is the Messiah. They are looking for something different. Jesus has preached a message of peace and equality. He has healed, often in contravention of strict adherence to religious law, and he has shared openly of his and the disciples resources.
Those who are unable to see this seek not a peaceful change to the status quo, but a violent overturning of the oppression experienced by Roman occupation and those rulers and leaders who are complacent and accomplices. What John is describing to us is the competition of different religious views. Remember, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. We who follow him now identify as Christians, but go back 2000 years and that movement hasn’t started. Jesus is the son of God, but he is also a Jewish Rabbi looking to reform aspects of Judaism.
Elisabeth Johnson frames it like this, and I believe this is helpful for us in our modern context. Johnson writes, “…there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.
“By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).” (Elisabeth Johnson)
Psalm 23 speaks to this. Of knowing the shepherd, of acknowledging God as our shepherd. The psalm speaks of God’s promises to us, of how God provides for us and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It is a uniquely wonderful promise that we have in God.
But there is a tension evident in this passage between God’s initiative and human responsibility. God has taken the first step of loving us. The individual is called to respond. As Christians we respond to the invitation of God’s love, with love. However, in the passage from John’s gospel today Jesus has encountered individuals who are unable to respond likewise because they are unable to identify Jesus as God, Jesus as the Messiah.
The message for us is that belonging to God is an active response, not a passive one. We pray for the wisdom to discern the voice of God. The ability to recognize the call of the shepherd when it comes. Chelsey Harmon writes, “Following Jesus, listening to his voice, letting ourselves be known by him—and therefore having experiences that allow us to know Jesus—this is further description of the Easter Resurrection new life calling we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks. The same power that sustains everything, including God’s own self, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power that allows us to recognize the Saviour’s voice, to know intimately our good God, and to follow after him.” (Chelsey Harmon)
The hymn When Voices Are Confusing speaks to the trouble we often have in being able to hear God’s voice. There is much in life that is competing for our attention. We often have an image of desired outcomes in our lives and that includes how God might act in our lives. We all imagine God’s benevolence, love, and mercy in different ways. Sometimes the voices are confusing. It takes work on our part to discern the voice of the shepherd, to separate it from everything else that is seeking our attention. As the hymn concludes, ‘our lives are God’s’. We open ourselves up to God in loving partnership. But can we hear and identify God in our lives?
Perhaps this is at the root of what was being asked of Jesus that day. Those present weren’t able to clearly see or identify Jesus. However, in stead of responding clearly, “Yes I am the Messiah” Jesus choses to be cryptic.
Karoline Lewis, she writes, “This is the only time in John where Jesus is asked directly whether he is the Messiah. Jesus’ response, however, is less than clear. Instead of saying, “I have told you that I am the Messiah,” he responds, “I have told you.” What, Jesus? What have you told us? But then, Jesus goes on and connects his identity back to his sheep. He never calls himself the good shepherd here. Rather, he points to his relationship with the sheep … Jesus doesn’t answer the inquiry with who he is, but for what he desperately longs—to be in relationship with his sheep. And therein lies the goodness.” (Karoline Lewis)
Sometimes we need to quantify and identify things. We have a need to know and in this passage Jesus denies us the knowing. He isn’t clear, he isn’t firm in the response. Except that he expresses a desire for relationship with the people. To share the goodness that was inherent in his life. Now compare that to what we know about the religious authorities of the time. Think of why they were angry at Jesus? Think of the things they didn’t do that Jesus did do. They didn’t engage with people, they aren’t described as seeking relationship. Instead, what we see when we encounter the various groups of the gospel, the Pharisees, the high priests and elders are a group of people that are more interested in creating walls and barriers than they are in having dialogue with the people.
Jesus was so attractive to the people because he broke those barriers down and made himself accessible. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, made himself accessible to the people. To you and me. In doing so he promises a place in the house of the Lord, forever. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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