Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter 2022

Reading: John 10:22-30

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is because each year for this Sunday in the three-year cycle of readings we use for our services, known as the Revised Common Lectionary, we have a reading from chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel. In this chapter, Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd and those who believe in him as his sheep.

[We are now in the third year of the cycle, Year C in the lectionary. The sermons for the previous two years, Years A and B, are still available online and the transcripts on my website.]

The passage from chapter 10 for this year’s reading has a different chronological location to the previous two. Jesus is still in Jerusalem, but it is now the Festival of Dedication. Before this, St John has been describing at some length what Jesus said and did at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-10:19).

The Festival of Dedication is the Jewish festival also known as Hanukkah. It is still a major festival in Judaism, and it is the only festival not found in the Torah itself. In the Jewish calendar, which like the Chinese calendar is a lunar-based calendar, Hanukkah takes place on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. This can be any time from late November to late December. This year Hanukkah begins on December 18.

The Feast of Dedication celebrates the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC after it had been defiled by the pagan ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that it was known as the Festival of Lights. The Feast of Dedication has strong connections with the Feast of Tabernacles, on which it was originally modelled (2 Maccabees 10:6). The Feast of Tabernacles is held two to three months earlier. This year, for example, the Feast of Tabernacles begins on October 9. St John reflects the connection between the two festivals, linking them both in this chapter.

Verses 1-21 of chapter 10 take place at the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus is speaking after healing a man born blind, who has been cast out the synagogue because of his faith in Jesus (John 9:34). When Jesus describes the hired hand, who does not care for the sheep (John 10:12-13), he has in mind religious leaders like those who were responsible for the blind man being thrown out of the synagogue (John 9:34). In contrast to those like the Pharisees who do not care for the sheep, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who does care for them. St John closes his description of the Feast of Tabernacles with the reaction of people to what Jesus has said and done. St John writes:

‘Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”’ (John 10:19-21)

St John then links what Jesus goes on to say at the Feast of Dedication with what he has said previously at the Feast of Tabernacles by picking up on what Jesus has to say about himself as the Good Shepherd. It’s now winter, and Jesus is walking in the Portico of Solomon in the Temple. This was a sheltered area of the Temple that provided protection from the wind and winter weather. It was also where the apostles continued to meet after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 5:12).

St John tells us the Jews gathered around Jesus. There is the sense that they are not entirely friendly. These are those who could not make up their mind about him at the Feast of Tabernacles. They ask Jesus to state ‘plainly’ whether he is the Messiah or not. Whether or not they would have believed in him if he had told them ‘plainly’ is another issue altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, he has told them, and they have not believed. To be fair to them, Jesus hasn’t exactly told them ‘plainly’. Jesus replies, however, that the works he has done testify to him and to whom he is. The reason they do not believe, he tells them, is because they do not belong to his sheep. Jesus says:

‘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.’ (John 10:27-28)

Jesus continues to explain that the Father himself guarantees the sheep’s safety. Jesus and the Father are one.

This is how our reading finishes; it is not how the passage finishes! When Jesus says he and the Father are one, it proves too much for them, and they take up stones to stone him. This is how they had reacted previously when Jesus said something similar. St John is again referring back to the Feast of Tabernacles (John 8:59).

This week’s passage is a short one, and given that I have already preached on this chapter in each of the previous two years, you might expect a short sermon. I expected it myself until I started to write it! In fact, this passage again raises a number of issues that are particularly relevant to us today and to how we understand what it means for us to hear Jesus’ voice and follow him.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has said he came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The theme of eternal life is a major one in St John’s Gospel and, as we heard in the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday, St John says his purpose in writing his Gospel was so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing they may have life in his name (John 20:31).

The message of eternal life in Christ, as it is now understood and preached in many of our churches, however, is very different to how St John himself understands and presents it.

Picking up on the Easter message that Christ is not dead but has risen and is alive, many churches today preach and believe that the Risen Christ gives life to all unconditionally and that this life begins now and will continue for eternity. In this life, of course, we do not enjoy eternal life in its fulness, and many do not seem to enjoy it at all. Nevertheless, it is argued, this does not mean it is not ours, and, whatever happens in this life, we will all experience eternal life fully after death.

It is not in dispute that in this life most people are not aware of eternal life in Christ. In answering the question of why this is, the responses of those who believe that everyone receives eternal life do not differ substantially but are more a matter of emphasis. Some argue that it is for reasons beyond an individual person’s control. For example, they claim a person may not be able to enjoy the fulness of life God intended because of unjust social and economic structures in society that hold people captive and from which they need to be liberated. Others stress the need for faith if we are to know now the life Christ gives.

The Church’s mission, on this approach, is to invite people to enjoy the life that is unconditionally theirs already in Christ and to work to liberate people from those things that are believed to be preventing them from experiencing wholeness in Christ. It’s a message that many find attractive, but it’s not the Gospel as the Gospel of St John presents it!

Firstly, St John makes plain that eternal life is not primarily about our material and economic circumstances in this life, but first and foremost about a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In his prayer to the Father at the Last Supper, Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

Secondly, Jesus does indeed offer eternal life to all, but he only gives eternal life to those who come to him and who believe in him.

Thirdly, and crucially, when Jesus speaks of how those who believe in him will receive eternal life, he also speaks of how those who don’t believe in him will perish.

We manage to blank out this part of Jesus’ message. We want to believe that Jesus by his resurrection gives eternal life to all. While those who believe in Jesus may be more conscious of it, we assume that even those who don’t believe in him still receive it. This, I would say, is the default position of most Anglicans, but Anglicans are by no means alone in this belief.

If we are going to maintain this position, we need at least to see how different it is to how St John, for one, describes the message of Jesus. For example, St John writes:

‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.’ (John 3:36)

Jesus says explicitly to the Jews who are attacking him:

‘Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’ (John 5:28-29)

In the synagogue at Capernaum after the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)

These are not isolated verses taken out of context but the consistent message of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. It is the message of every part of the New Testament. Life in Christ is dependent on faith in Christ, and the alternative to eternal life is eternal death.

So how did we get to a position where the message that is preached in our churches is so different to what the New Testament says? There are many reasons. A lot of it is simply down to wishful thinking. This is what we want to be believe. It is far more in keeping with the spirit of our age, and we are every bit children of our age.

More seriously, though, we have got into this position because we have made a deliberate decision to link eternal life to what Christ achieved by his resurrection and to ignore the part played by his crucifixion. After all, the resurrection is about life, so surely it is the resurrection that gives life? By focusing on Jesus’ resurrection, it means, we think, that we don’t have to worry about what was happening in his death. Indeed, by centring what we believe on Jesus’ resurrection, nothing, as such, needs to be happening in Jesus’ death beyond someone giving himself for what he believes in.

What, therefore, we think makes Jesus’ death special and different to that of anyone else who has died for what they believed in is that God raised him from the dead, so vindicating what he stood for. Jesus was killed. There is no getting away from that, but what we now concentrate on and proclaim is not so much what he did by dying, as what he has subsequently become and who he now is. Our message is that Jesus is alive and Jesus is Lord. He overcame death and so too shall we.

What is more, as we think we now no longer have to worry about what is going to happen to us personally when we die, we can give all our attention instead to our life in this world and to working to overcome those things in this world that get in the way of us enjoying the life we have.

Our hope for the world, it is frequently said, is that one day Christ will ‘put the world to rights’ and, in the meantime, our task as a church is to announce that this is what God is doing in Christ. We, for our part, have a responsibility to work with God to achieve his goal for the creation.

There is no doubting the attractiveness to many people of this way of looking at things. It gets rid of quite a lot of the embarrassing parts of the New Testament while keeping all the nice bits. It’s ‘Gospel lite’, but so light that it isn’t the Gospel. Again, as I have said, it is what we want to believe. We want to be involved in this world and its politics. This understanding of the work of Christ and the church’s mission gives us just the sort of theological basis we are looking for to justify our involvement.

Whatever we think of this understanding, however, we need to realize that what we are living through in the Church at the moment is a major reinterpretation of the Church’s message. What we are experiencing is what is known in the scientific world as a paradigm shift. In the Church, we are not simply redecorating to stay up to date; we are making fundamental structural alterations. I personally find the situation we are in both deeply depressing and dangerous. Depressing in that we have so easily and willingly abandoned the Gospel and what the Church has taught and believed since it began, and dangerous because God will not allow it to go unanswered.

What is to be done? We can’t second guess what God will do, and it is foolish to try. Irrespective of what happens, we are called to be faithful and to follow Christ. Jesus says in our Gospel reading:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)

We need especially at the present, I believe, to hear what Jesus says about his death. We think of the Good Shepherd as someone who cares for his sheep by leading and providing for them. In this chapter, Jesus emphasizes how he is the Good Shepherd because he will lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:15-18). This is what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ death is not incidental to what he came to do. He doesn’t lay his life down because he is forced to; he does so ‘of his own accord’ (John 10:18). Jesus, in laying down his life, chooses to do something that he could have avoided.

Jesus’ death is not simply the prelude to his resurrection. His death is at the heart of what he does for his sheep. He does this because our problem is not simply that we are mortal and will die physically, nor even that our lives here and now lack meaning and purpose, although both are true. Our death in the future and the futility of our lives in the present are a consequence of our sin and rebellion against God. Our problem is that we are sinners who are perishing and who will perish eternally unless something is done to save us. That something is Jesus’ death. The resurrection was God acting to show that Jesus’ death has achieved what it was meant to achieve. As he hung on the Cross, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). It is in Jesus’ death on the Cross that his work is completed and his mission fulfilled.

The first words spoken about Jesus in the Gospel are spoken by John the Baptist who says:

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

In chapter 10, Jesus says he is the Gate for the sheep (John 10:7, 9) and whoever enters by him will be saved. Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), who lays down his life for the sheep. He is also the Lamb of God, who, by laying down his life for his people’s sins, makes it possible for them to be saved.

What has been described as the golden verse of the Gospel, and indeed of the Bible, is John 3:16. It is a wonderful verse about how God loved us by the giving of his Son, but, nowadays particularly, it needs to be read in context. St John writes:

‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:15-16)

St John will later explain that the phrase ‘lifted up’ refers to how Jesus will die (John 12:33). It is through Jesus’ death on the Cross that those who believe in him receive eternal life. Some want to argue that Jesus’ death is not only for the sin of all, but that it is also effective for all regardless of whether they believe or not. All, they argue, will be saved because of Jesus’ death. But St John will not allow us this option. In order for there to be no doubt about who it is Jesus’ death is effective for, St John will continue immediately after these verses to explain that those who do not believe are condemned already because of their unbelief (John 3:18).

It is Jesus’ death that gives us life. Again, as Jesus states it plainly:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)

Jesus’ sheep are those who hear his voice, who believe in him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and who respond in faith by following him. The metaphors may at times be mixed but their meaning is clear. It may not be what we want to hear, but we should be in doubt that it is what Jesus says.

Following on from this, then, I would like to emphasize three things said by Jesus in our Gospel reading.

1. ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’

In the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), Jesus describes how a shepherd will leave the 99 sheep to look for the one sheep that is lost. In Jesus’ death, God was actively seeking and saving the lost, and the lost are found when they are brought to the Cross. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice. His voice is calling to them from the Cross and calling them to the Cross. It is as we see Jesus lifted up on the Cross that we see the Gate to life. The Cross rather than being the end is the gateway to a new beginning for all who believe in the One nailed to it.

Jesus laid down his life for us, and it is his death that is the key to our life, and we can’t have life without it. Unless we not only believe in that death, but share in it, dying with him and feeding on him, we cannot experience his risen life. St Paul writes that those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death (Romans 6:3). As a consequence, St Paul tells the Roman believers:

‘So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 6:11)

We are, then, to model our lives on his death not simply by looking to it as an example of sacrificial living and love, but by entering into it, experiencing forgiveness through it, and putting to death all that belongs to our former way of life. Jesus said:

‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23)

We are to take up our cross daily, denying ourselves as we follow him.

All this talk of death and sacrifice wasn’t quite what we thought Jesus meant when he said he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. We thought he meant that he wanted to give us all the things in life that we wanted and that would make us happy. This is why our prayers are so centred on ourselves and our life in this world. It is why we pray for what matters to us and what we care about rather than that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done.

The image of the Good Shepherd leading his sheep is one we like because we like to be looked after and for our wants and needs to be supplied without us having to worry about them. But a good shepherd leads his sheep where he wants them to go not where they want to go, and what they want may not be what they need.

Receiving eternal life and being alive to God in Christ means a radical reorientation of our lives and values; it involves a loss of our freedom and independence. We are no longer free to go where we please or to do what we want. His sheep hear his voice and follow where he leads even if it means danger, hardship, and sacrifice. They trust that, even though he leads them through the valley of the shadow of death, he will not fail them or lose them.

It is perhaps not surprising that many reject this sort of faith and prefer the modern reinvention of it, which stresses enjoying life here in this world. We want a shepherd who will give us what we want now and who will make life easier for us in the present. What need to worry about life after death in the world to come? We believe are already guaranteed eternal life when we die.

When following Christ turns out to be demanding and difficult, as we are already sure of life after death, then, we reason, why let following Christ interfere with our lives here and now. If the Good Shepherd won’t give us what we want, then we can go looking for it ourselves secure in the knowledge that he will always have us back if we go astray. The problem is that once we turn away there is no guarantee we will ever find the way back.

When Jesus speaks of his death people often turn away. They always have. They did when Jesus spoke of it in the synagogue at Capernaum. St John tells us that many of his disciples said:

‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6:60)

As a result, many turned back and stopped following him. Jesus asks the Twelve if they too will go away, Peter replies:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, and he has the words of eternal life. No-one can snatch them away from him, no matter how difficult his teaching or how hard following him may be.

2. ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’

When the Pharisees see Jesus eating with many tax-collectors and sinners, they are highly critical of him. Jesus says to them:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9:12-13)

The words Jesus tells them to go away and learn the meaning of are from Hosea (Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees could not have done as Jesus said, for in chapter 12 of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the words again, observing that the Pharisees show by their words and actions that they don’t know what they mean (Matthew 12:7).

Jesus is clear that he came to seek and to save those who are lost. In this, Jesus is reflecting the character of God, his Father, who is himself a God of mercy. It is all too easy, however, as we see the mercy of God in forgiving sinners being demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus, to presume on God’s mercy and to take it for granted, as if there was something inevitable and automatic about it.

The mercy of God is extended by God, who has never desired the death of a sinner, to all sinners. God is the God who himself goes the extra mile to seek those who are lost and to offer them the chance to find salvation in Christ. As St Paul puts it, God shows his love for us in that it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

We must, though, be careful to remember that while mercy and forgiveness are offered freely and generously by God to lost sinners, they are, nevertheless, still lost sinners who need saving, and, unless they are saved, they will be lost forever. God does not the desire the death of a sinner, but the sinner needs to turn from their wickedness if they are to live (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, but they are not saved until they repent. It is, in other words, to those who hear Jesus’ voice and have faith in him that Jesus gives eternal life, and it is those to whom eternal life is given who will not perish.

What is more we must also remember that the mercy and forgiveness that is freely offered comes at great cost. We all too often don’t take that cost seriously because we are not convinced that there was that great a cost. After all, Jesus was not the first person to be killed unjustly or to die for what they believed in, and he won’t be the last. In any case, he is alive now and that, we think, is what matters.

The New Testament writers don’t see it that way and nor should we. The death of Jesus was a death unlike any other, and we won’t appreciate the love and mercy of God until we appreciate how much it cost for God to give his Son for us, so that we would not perish but have eternal life.

We are currently having to operate the government’s Vaccine Pass scheme at Christ Church. This means that we have to scan a person’s vaccination record before they enter the Church. Only those who meet the vaccine requirements set by the government are allowed in. What if, however, a ‘faith pass’ was in operation and you could only enter the church if you had faith? Would you get in? Only those who have faith in Jesus will receive eternal life. It’s that simple and that serious. The good news is that those who have faith in Jesus are given eternal life by him freely and they will never perish.

3. ‘I and the Father are One’

Jesus could be provocative, and he didn’t go in for easy compromise. Indeed, at times, he seemed instead to go out of his way to upset the religious leaders. They didn’t like him healing on the sabbath, but that didn’t stop him doing so. Not unreasonably, they asked why he couldn’t just heal on the other 6 days of the week (Luke 13:14). Did it really need to be on a sabbath? After all, what difference would one more day make to someone blind from birth?

The healing during the Feast of Tabernacles of the man born blind (John 9:1-38) proved to be especially controversial not only because it took place on the sabbath, but because the man born blind had the temerity to defend Jesus for doing so. It may seem obvious to us that he would do so given that Jesus gave him sight for the first time in his life, but the paralytic who had been healed by Jesus at a previous festival also on the sabbath (John 5:1-18) went out of his way not to annoy the religious leaders and even seems to have sided with them against Jesus.

What appears to have upset people the most at the Feast of Tabernacles, however, was not simply that Jesus had healed on the sabbath, but that when arguing with them he had said:

‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ (John 8:58)

This use of the divine name and the claim to divinity it implies was too much for them, and they picked up stones to stone him (John 8:59). It happens again at the Feast of Dedication when Jesus says ‘plainly’ that he and the Father are one! These were claims that crossed a line. The Jews had very clear rules about blasphemy, and they thought Jesus had broken them.

Scholars and theologians today debate whether that was in fact the case and argue about whether Jesus could have said what he did without it being blasphemous. They, however, weren’t there, and those who were there were convinced it was. Whatever the precise nuances of what Jesus was claiming for himself, it is clear that he was claiming a unique position for himself in relation to God.

I have argued that, in the church today, we have reinterpreted the message of the Gospel to focus on the resurrection and the belief that it gives eternal life for all, whether they know it or not, believe it or not, and even whether they want it or not! We have alongside this also reinterpreted the life of Jesus.

We now emphasize the humanity of Jesus and either ignore his divinity or reject it altogether. We stress instead how Jesus was human just like us. What was special about him was not that he was in any way divine, but that he lived a good life and by his life and teaching demonstrated what being fully human could look like. We see him as showing by his life the sort of life to which we should all aspire and which it is possible for us to achieve. In this he was special, but not unique. He had this in common with other religious teachers who also show us what humans can be like if they follow the right teaching. What matters most, or so it is said, is the teaching not the teacher.

Jesus’ sheep, however, don’t follow teaching; they follow Jesus. Jesus said that all who came before him were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them (John 10:8). Now Jesus has come, he is the Gate for the Sheep to go through and whoever enters through him will be saved. Jesus not only reveals God, he is God; he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). He and the Father are one.

This used to be Church’s faith and what everyone believed, regardless of what other arguments they may have had. Now it is seen as intolerant, exclusive, and reactionary. It is rejected as outdated by church leaders who seek a more open, welcoming, and inclusive faith, but in seeking it they are leading people astray.

Jesus is not just another teacher, one guide among many. He is not simply a good man who shows us how to be good and how to realize our potential as humans. He is the One who alone reveals the Father to those who hear his voice and believe in him. Jesus said:

‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.’ (John 14:6-7)

As Jesus says in our reading, he and the Father are One.

We come to Jesus because we know there is nowhere else for us to go. He has the words of eternal life. Today, may we hear his voice and follow him, wherever he may lead.

Amen.

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