John 10: 22-30
April 21, 2013/Fourth Sunday of Easter
From the moment I first heard about the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, the manhunt that ensued Friday for the second suspected bomber, as well as observing the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, I feel as though I have been bombarded by voices. Voices trying to assess a dangerous situation, or discern the motives behind terrorist attacks; voices lifted in grief and anger and warning.
But even during a “normal” week, I’m surrounded by voices. Sitting in the quiet of my office is not necessarily quiet. I can listen to music or talk radio on my IPad, as well as read newspapers from around the world. I’m never far away from social media and the multitude of opinions and ideas that provides. I can listen to a sermon brainwave podcast on my computer and receive calls and text messages on my phone. As I said, I am surrounded by voices.
This is not all bad. I receive a lot of good from many of the voices that I listen to. But if you’re trying to discern that still, small voice, it can become problematic. The symbol for RCA music was a white and black dog sitting in front of an old-fashioned Victrola listening to “his master’s voice.” But discerning the voice of God in the midst of all the other voices that demand our attention is not as easy as the little dog listening to his master’s voice on a recording. I wish it were.
I can blame my inability to hear Jesus’ voice on the external noise inherent in my life, but what was the excuse of the people who confront Jesus in John’s gospel? It was at the festival of Dedication and Jesus was walking in the portico of Solomon. This was the area of the temple where the kings would sit and mete out justice. The Jews come to Jesus and say to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
One commentator writes that there are two ways to look at this question posed by the people who confront Jesus. One is that this is a politically charged question. The people questioning him may have been trying to give him enough rope in a sense. If he answers that he is in fact the messiah, then they can charge him with blasphemy. The second understanding of their question is that these are people who just want to understand who Jesus is. They don’t ask this question to trick or trap Jesus. They ask him because they want to understand, they want to grasp his identity.
In earlier verses it says that the people were divided over Jesus, so scholars suggest it is reasonable to see both of these angles at play. But I think that what is more important is how Jesus responds. “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.”
My sheep hear my voice. The implication is that if these folks really were believers, they would hear his voice. They would have already figured it out. And Jesus makes it clear that his voice is heard most loudly, most clearly in his works. He does works in his Father’s name and those works testify to him. They testify to his identity. His works proclaim beyond any words he might speak that he is in fact the Messiah. The passage then ends with Jesus saying, “The Father and I are one.”
Biblical commentator Gail O’Day writes that the Greek that is translated as “one” in the New Revised Standard Version is not speaking so much about Jesus and God being one person or one essence or one being. Instead it means that the Father and the Son are “united” together. Jesus’ works are united with his Father’s. When you see what Jesus does, you see what God does.
So the people who are truly his sheep hear Jesus’ voice. They recognize Jesus’ voice in his works. They see God in him. They see God in what he does. Because they hear his voice, they are given eternal life. They won’t be snatched out of the Good Shepherd’s hands. They won’t be snatched out of the Father’s hands.
I make that sound very simple, but the truth of the matter is that hearing the voice of Jesus is hard. I think I fall on the side of the people who came to Jesus just wanting to understand him, wanting to comprehend who he was and what that meant for their lives. That’s really all I want as well. I want to understand Jesus. I want to know his identity and I want to know what that means for me, not just in worship, but every day. And that is from the perspective of a believer. I believe. But I also doubt. There are moments when I have recognized Jesus’ voice. But more often than not that voice gets lost in the din of voices around me. There are moments, many of them, when I doubt whether I’ll ever recognize Jesus’ voice again. So I have faith, but doubt is never very far away. Especially in weeks like this past one where violence and death and destruction are at the forefront of our consciousness.
Yet in the midst of the tragedies that have occurred this past week, we have seen people united. People in Boston were certainly united in, first in how they responded to the bombings. It wasn’t just first responders that ran into the fray. Marathon volunteers, by-standers, runners all ran toward the chaos to help, to assist, to care and to comfort.
Our nation has united around them. I can’t think of a bigger rivalry in any sport than there is between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. But at the first Yankees game after the bombings, the team and the fans showed their support for Boston through their actions on the field and off.
We certainly don’t need to look very far from home to see how tragedy unites a people. One of the sights that Phoebe, Zach and I were shown when we came here for my interview was the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. I quickly learned that what came out of that horrible time was a city united – united to rebuild and revitalize Oklahoma City into a better, stronger place to live, work and thrive.
Several years ago when our denomination was close to irrevocably splintering over the issue of gay and lesbian ordination, the General Assembly commissioned a Peace, Unity and Purity task force to deal with this controversial issue. Their task as I understand it was to help us as a denomination stay together and find a way to address this without killing each other. Representatives from every spot on the spectrum were asked to serve on the task force; people who opposed the ordination, people who wanted it and moderates who fell at different places in between. Two of the people who served on that committee – Mark Achtemeier and Scott Anderson – were both members of my former presbytery, John Knox. And after the tas k force had made its report to the General Assembly, members of the Peace, Unity and Purity task force were speaking to presbyteries about the recommendations the committee made and educating us about the process they engaged in.
What I learned from Mark and Scott was that one of the first things the task force agreed to do was begin each meeting together with worship, and that worship had to include communion. The members of the task force realized that the only way they would be able to bridge their differences was if they first acknowledged what they had in common. So nothing else was done, no decisions were made, no steps were taken, until they had broken bread and shared the cup; every time they met. Everytime. It was in the act of communion with one another that they realized that what bound them together was more powerful and more meaningful than what drove them apart. They found their unity with one another when they participated in the meal that strengthened their unity with Christ.
We believe that it is in this meal, at this table, that we recognize the living Christ, the living God, in the breaking of bread. It is at this table that we are nourished and given strength to continue following, to continue on the narrow path of discipleship. It is at this table that we acknowledge that God in Christ is with us. With us. It is at this table, in this meal, that we see Christ in each other. We are one with God in Christ at this table. We are one with each other at this table.
Unity born of tragedy, disaster or out of chaos is powerful, necessary, but not necessarily enduring. Too often once the tragedy ends so does the unity we feel with one another. I think, though, that the unity we share here, in this place, partaking in this meal, around this table runs deeper. At this table we hear Jesus’ voice. At this table we see one another in Christ and Christ in one another. At this table we meet our Good Shepherd. At this table our every need is met. At this table we are one. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”