"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sunday Sermon: John 10. 22-30 - “My sheep hear my voice."

John 10.22-30
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.”
How should we approach this passage? As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee or a Roman?
I have to try to imagine my way into the stories because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel accounts and their lack of background detail. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained.
Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
So, this morning’s text: the occasion was the festival of the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem commemorating when Greek invaders had been vanquished and the temple had been cleansed of the blasphemy – the statue of Zeus. As a consequence those around Jesus were thinking about freedom: freedom from the invader; freedom to live without fear; freedom from foreign domination and freedom from political musclemen and their taxes.
The air at the time of our narrative for today was thus filled with thoughts of victory, freedom, and the return of Jewish leadership, but while the temple was now fully dedicated to God, the land had been lost again, this time to the Romans, with their brutal, heathen practices which again came all too close to this holy place, this magnificent temple of God.
So this is the basic context for my imaginary walking through of the story. I am in awe of the architecture and the history of this place and all the religious and historical symbolism that is associated with it. I am conscious of the occupying army and the problem of the daily compromises we have to make as we try not to cross the fine line between Roman Imperial theology and the faith of our upbringing. And the sense of something about to happen is palpable as my people yearn for religious and political self-determination: a theme that resonates here today as we watch the on-going outworkings of the Arab Spring. Am I unaware in all of this of the role this Rabbi from Nazareth might play in the unfolding events? Well, I’m here and I’m listening closely to the exchange between Jesus and the crowd, possibly looking over my shoulder: this is the home of religious orthodoxy after all, with its religious leaders and its guards – and its informers and, I can’t help but note that this is the point where Jesus appears to berate his listeners: he tells them they don’t understand what he's saying because they’re in the wrong team.
Jesus tells his listeners “You do not belong to my sheep.” I think we can assume, given the setting of the temple, that he was surrounded by the pious and faithful and we might be in danger of buying into the standard stereotype of the Pharisee as some sort of self-satisfied, self-promoting religious thought-police.
No - they were the good guys in Jewish society: yes they upheld exacting standards and yes they were literalists as far as the Law of Moses was concerned and yes, they were on the look-out for heresy, but there were those among them for whom Jesus’ message resonated. Jesus had sympathisers in this group, men who were theological thinkers so we mustn’t assume that Jesus’ encounters with the Orthodox were always encounters of conflict. Sometimes there were genuine seekers of the truth and sometimes there was a meeting of minds.
Nevertheless, we read that things turned nasty.
“And they took up stones again to stone him.” the issue being blasphemy and the fact that Jesus had said “The Father and I are one”, which provokes a fresh but failed attempt to arrest Jesus. Why failed? Because there were people in that crowd who were open to hearing and considering a new perspective. Let’s not assume that every time we hear of conflict it is as simple as Jesus verses all the rest.
Is it too fanciful to assume that some of these people had been following Jesus since he arrived in Jerusalem? Is it reasonable to assume that some present in the Temple with Jesus here had already been present when Jesus had made some other pretty startling claims?  We’ve already heard Jesus proclaim to the crowds “I am the bread of life: he who comes to Me shall not hunger”, “I am the light of the world: he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.”, “I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved” and “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” So we can easily see the question posed by the crowd at the start of today’s Gospel segment, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” as part of that on-going dialogue.
So what then? Why does any of this matter? Why has the Lectionary designated this passage as worthy of our analysis this morning? Just a point to consider: when we read the Gospel stories we would do well to consider who Jesus’ target audience was and then to consider whether today we might be the implied audience. Can we hear in Jesus’ words to this group, his words to us?
I think it’s right that we try; otherwise this story will remain on that level: merely a story; an interesting piece of religious history which therefore doesn’t have the power to touch us or challenge us.
Well, I’d like to pursue the theme of discipleship and link that to today’s theme of the identity of Jesus. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me” says Jesus, or to put it another way, “Come on folks, you’ve seen me and what I do for long enough surely to know that what I do is from God”, followed in pretty short order by, “The Father and I are one.” As disciples, how do we present Jesus by our works and by our words?
Why are we here this morning? Well, at the heart of our presence here is surely some affirmation that we, unlike Jesus’ listeners in the Gospel extract, are in the right team. “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”, he tells the crowd. Well, the “them” and the “they” he refers to here includes us. Like the crowd, we’ve been following Jesus for some time. We are the sheep of this shepherd and our presence here this morning is evidence of that.
What about tomorrow morning when we aren’t here? What’s the evidence of belonging to Jesus then?
That’s a bit challenging isn’t it?
We do not live in a time of persecution. Our discipleship does not need to be hidden. Indeed, I think Jesus provides us with a model of discipleship in this passage. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me” says Jesus and “The Father and I are one.” It’s as if he’s saying “Look, I’ve shown you and now I’ve told you.”
“The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” The works that we do in the Father’s name testify to him. “The Father and I are one” becomes “The Father and Jesus are one.” To put it another way: what we do and what we say reveals our discipleship. That seems to be the pattern Jesus gives us here.
So, what we do: there’s no list here as if there were some simplistic formulae: we’re mature adults and most of us are mature in the faith, so beyond the principle of being a role model what are we talking about?
Some years ago, when I was at vicar school – not a million miles from here as it happens, I was privileged to meet Desmond Tutu. One of the things he said to us as he looked around the room was “God has chosen you for who you are. Do not let others change you.” And at that point he made eye contact with me. Now that was a general injunction but it hit me very personally and really made me stop and think. God has chosen me for who I am and that’s as true for all of us here as much it was for all of us sat in that room at Mirfield. We have a God given personality – and we can talk about the Gifts of the Spirit as part of that general conversation – but the point is you are who you are and God has called that person to discipleship.
Who are your religious role models? Who are the Christians out there who inspire us and who we would love to emulate in our own discipleship?
I love Desmond Tutu. I love him for his enthusiasm and his love of life. I love him for his humanity and his compassion for the underdog. I love him for his bravery. Could I have some of that please Lord?
I love Giles Fraser. I love him for his prophetic voice, for his approachability and his everyday blokishness and I love him because he’s a bit gobby. Gobby in the name of the Lord. Could I have some of that please Lord?
And I love American Bishop John Shelby Spong. I love him because he’s a thorn in the side of the established church. I love him because he’s a theological thinker and I love him because in a very real way he is the conscience of American Christianity.
What a dinner party: Desmond Tutu, Giles Fraser, John Shelby Spong    and Joanna Lumley obviously.
What do these Christians have in common? They are men of God, compassionate, well informed, outspoken and without an ounce of piety between them. That’s the model of discipleship I aspire to, but there is more than one model. Of all the passages of scripture that the Holy Spirit might have laid on my heart, the one that stays with me is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” from Philippians. Put that together with your own personality type and the things you admire from your Christian role models and you have your model of discipleship. What did Jesus say? “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me” and as the implied audience of this discussion between Jesus and the crowd, we turned that into “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to him.” Active discipleship: it’s the life we lead.
So let’s turn to the second part of Jesus’ template for discipleship: the things we say. “The Father and Jesus are one” is pretty much the foundation for our conversations about God. And again, we can wriggle uncomfortably here can’t we. Does anyone here find it easy to talk to others about your faith? If you do, you’re really blessed because it’s something the rest of us struggle with. I suppose for those of us who are “professionally” religious that comes with the territory.
“Sir, are you religious?” Well it’s all about perceptions isn’t it? I don’t tend to think I am, but the question isn’t asking me for my philosophy on pietism. It demands a clear answer.
“Sir, are you a vicar?” “Do you go to church?” I wish I had a fiver for every time, but I have a public profile of being a person of faith. How does that work for you? How do you deal with such approaches? My wife Rachel often finds herself in that Monday morning conversation: you know, the work recap on what you did at the weekend and I remember her saying once: “Well, I found myself making cotton wool sheep for children’s church.” This was followed by some anecdote about four year olds and the perils of unsupervised glue. But it led into a conversation which has subsequently led into others. I have a colleague who is a Muslim and he said to me once, “Christianity, Islam – it’s all the same.”
That’s a conversation which has gone on, on and off, for months.
What those two examples have got in common is that we found common ground and actually now that I think about it we both responded to someone else’s approach, much as we found Jesus responding in the Gospel extract, and that’s why, earlier, I suggested we needed to be careful about the voice tone we ascribed to Jesus in this passage. Confrontational or conciliatory? A judgemental statement or part of an on-going dialogue? Judgemental attitudes close down conversations: conciliatory attitudes keep them open. Confrontational wins us no friends. Conciliatory does, but by conciliatory, I don’t mean compromising. Listening respectfully and entering into discussion is always good but defending the basis of our beliefs remains an essential part of that.
I suppose the other observation I would make is a cautionary one: what is it that we view as an essential part of our faith? How much of what we perceive to be Christian is actually essential to the defence of Christianity. How easily are we sidetracked into more cultural or political issues such as abortion and gay rights? So perhaps my specific challenge to all of us this morning is to spend some time in thought, prayer and discussion with friends about what the essence of our faith is: what needs to be on that list and what doesn’t? I think being clear about that will increase our confidence as we seek to talk to others of our faith.
Of course, this is about mission, the Missio Dei – the Mission of God. I remember sitting through a lecture series on mission. As someone who has participated in various parish or diocesan missions – often having strong reservations which I found hard to rationalise, I was brought up short and challenged by one model of mission. We were asked to consider to what extent mission is a human initiative or a divine initiative? And the answer was, it’s a divine initiative so rather than wasting hours in committees and discussion groups about mission perhaps we should seek instead to discern where God is already at work … and join in. I think that’s a pretty good approach for our own witness and evangelism: let the Holy Spirit take the initiate and lead us to where we can respond to the needs of others where we might be able to say, “The Father and Jesus are one.” In the meantime, may “The works we do in our father’s name testify to him.”


  1. your writing is so exceptionally crisp and engaging, i find myself stopped dead in my tracks by a biblical story i thought i knew well but now i'm not so sure.

  2. Thank you so much. How kind. I'm glad it was helpful.