A sermon preached on April 17th, 2016 based upon John 10:22 – 30.
There is nothing that quite so clearly distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom than our capacity for language. All that we have achieved as a species is based upon our mastery of words. The Garden of Eden gives expression to this capacity when it portrays Adam naming all the animals. If you saw that classic movie “The Miracle Worker” you remember that extraordinary moment when a young blind and deaf Helen Keller suddenly grasped the correlation between the abstraction that is a word with something within the realm of experience, the sensation of that cool fluid substance flowing through her hands and the word “water.”
It is one of the basic tasks of parents is to pass on this mastery of words. But there is a downside to words that we often overlook. Imagine a toddler stumbling through her backyard with her mother. She encounters a tall thing rising up out of the ground and in wonder stares at it, reaching out to touch it. Her mother says, “‘tree”; that’s a tree.” The child stumbles on to further explore the backyard, and encounters another tall thing rising up out of the ground, again with a sense of wonder. Again, the mother says, “tree; that’s another tree,” and the word sticks. The mother has given her daughter a certain mastery over the world, and yet in doing so has made the experience of her world a bit less direct. Every tree from now on that she encounters are lumped together by the word “tree,” and yet every tree is unique.
This is personal for me because at the age of sixty I’ve recently been encountering trees in a way I can’t remember having done in all my years of language filtered consciousness. I’ve been taking daily walks through the woods, and have fallen in love with trees, finding myself fascinated with their beauty, the unique stories they convey of their movement upwards towards the sun. This new found sense of delight with trees is connected to the fact that during my walks in the woods my brain becomes quieter, lessening the racing train of words though which I perpetually filter my experience.
Again, words are extraordinary tools through which we accomplish all that we accomplish, but If we aren’t careful, words become boxes into which we force reality to fit, thereby distancing ourselves from reality itself. We see this in our interactions with other human beings. It is through the exchange of words that we communicate and build connections with one another. And yet words can also be used to distance ourselves from one another when we use fit one another into categories. “Oh, she is a conservative; he’s a liberal. He’s kind; she’s judgmental.”
Words are particularly inadequate when we attempt to speak of what we call, for lack of better words, the life of faith. When we speak of “God” we assume we agree, whether we believers or not in regard to what it means, which of course is absurd. The deepest traditions of the Bible understand that the dangers and limits of words to speak of the divine reality. For the first time in his life the shepherd Moses encounters directly this deepest of realities when he turns aside to investigate a bush that is burning but is not consumed. A relationship with the great mystery opens up, and Moses is called to a mission: to liberate the people from which he came from their oppression at the hands of Pharaoh. At a certain point, Moses asks the great mystery, “when I speak to people about you, what shall I tell them your name is?” God answers identifies God’s self with the enigmatic “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” This is a God who refuses to fit into any box we humans might try to fit the great mystery into.
The Apostle Paul describes being lifted up to what he calls the “third heaven” and says he experiencing things that are beyond words to tell. Thomas Acquinas, the medieval master of words who wrote volumes of systematic theology had a direct experience of the mystery of “God” and afterwards referred to all the many words he had written as just “so much straw,” refusing to write another word.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly references this story of Moses’ encounter with this mysterious God by beginning several metaphors with the words “I am.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” The mystery of God cannot be spoken of directly, and so we are compelled to use metaphors, to say God is like something in human experience we have some understanding of, which is not the same as saying God “is” something. God is not actually bread or light or a shepherd but God has qualities that are suggested by these words. The Jesus of the other three Gospels similarly recognizes the limitations of words when he teaches about the mystery that he calls “the Kingdom of God” through parables. Even the word “Father” by which Jesus continually refers to God is a metaphor, and a problematic one at that, because people
But people continually lose sight of the inadequacy of words to express divine realities, and that is the case when the religious authorities confront Jesus as he is walking through the Temple. (The Temple itself was sort of a word writ large; an attempt to contain the presence of divine mystery into a building built by human hands.) They religious authorities say, “How long will you keep us in suspense: tell us, are you, or are you not the messiah.” Jesus has been speaking openly about himself with various metaphors, but they want to know whether he claims to inhabit the category they presume to understand that they call by the word “messiah.”
Jesus refuses to engage them in any such argument. He references the signs that he has done that point to God, but in their presumption to have the right to pass judgment on Jesus’ identity, they have failed to perceive the signs. And then Jesus says, “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”
At first glance I was put off by these words of Jesus. On the one hand they sound condescending: You do not believe because God has not made you a part of my flock, so I’m not going to bother with you. It smacks of Calvin’s predestination, the notion that before the beginning of time God had already decided who would be saved and who would be lost. John Wesley adamantly opposed this notion; God wants all people to be saved.
And the word translated “believe”, used dozens of times in John’s Gospel presents problems as well. I can say I believe that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and the earth revolves around the sun; I have enough evidence to allay all my doubts. If believing in Jesus is akin to these kinds of beliefs — that is, that belief is a matter of giving intellectual assent to certain doctrinal propositions about the nature of God, and Jesus, we have a problem. It creates an atmosphere like unto that in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Don’t acknowledge doubts about what you’re seeing, or you will be judged to be among those who are unfit for their station in life, or fit for the kingdom of God.
But believing in Jesus is an altogether different thing. It is better understood as trust, as when Jesus said the night before he died to his frightened disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
So there is another way to understand Jesus’ words to the religious authorities that “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” Belonging comes first, then belief/trust grows. To use the metaphor that Jesus uses, that of shepherd and sheep, when a new sheep is introduced to a herd of sheep, it doesn’t immediately recognize the sound of the shepherd’s voice. The sheep learns it over time, watching and listening as the other sheep follow his voice.
There is a model for coming to belief/trust that is established in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” — and intriguing metaphor for sure. John’s disciples follow after Jesus. He asks them, “What are you looking for?” They ask, “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.”
They go hang with Jesus for a time and as they do, belief/trust in Jesus begins to grow. They go to their friend Nathaniel and say, “We think we have found the messiah; it’s Jesus of Nazareth.” Nat is up from about his doubts. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” They don’t argue with words, they just repeat what Jesus said to them: “Come and see.” Come and experience him for yourself. Which he does, and sure enough, belief/trust awakens within him.
So we begin with belonging to a community that is committed to keeping the focus on this mysterious man named Jesus who can’t be fit into boxes. In the same manner in which Thomas at the end of John’s Gospel remains fully a part of the community even as he refuses to believe what the others tell him about having seen the risen Christ, so we also want to create an atmosphere where it is safe to express doubts and questions. If we are talking about the most important commitment of our life, then it makes sense that there will doubts and questions all through the journey.
When the great preacher of a century back, Phillip Brooks was asked why he believed in Jesus, he paused and then to the surprise of the questioner, who thought he would give some impressive theological argument, he said simply, “I am a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.” We come to faith by seeing it lived out with integrity in others with whom we are in relationship.
The last thing Jesus says is, “The Father and I are one.” If this is seen as a statement of doctrines we need to believe, such as Jesus is the only begotten son of God, that Jesus is fully God even as he is fully human, etc. etc. etc., then this is off putting to say the least. It’s like the story of the guy who has a car accident and he may be dying so they call a priest to deliver last rites. The priest begins by saying, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?” The guy rolls his eyes and says, “Here I am dying and this guy is asking me riddles!”
But perhaps we can simply hear in these words the basic assertion of our faith which is we want to know the nature of the mystery that brought this universe into being, and gave us life, then the best place to look is at this man Jesus. (Again, Father and Son are metaphors; God is not literally a father. Problems arise when people think that this is indeed, literally a father, such as, the belief that arises from this that men are somehow closer to God since God is a male. Also, what if your own father was abusive or neglectful? The metaphor shows its limits.) And Jesus isn’t somebody you can look at once and size up once and for all. There is a quality of mystery about him that we live in relationship to our whole life through as pilgrims seeking to grow in this basic trust that God is love, and God loves all of us, and more than anything God wants us to love one another.
And sometimes the best way to experience the presence of this mysterious unnamable God is to, as the psalm says, “Be still.” Let the endless rush of words inside our heads begin to slow down, and perhaps in the stillness an awareness of a presence beyond all the words will arise, whose nature is love.