Easter 4C sermon 2016
Good Shepherd Sunday
When I was thirteen years old and about to get confirmed, I called a special meeting with my pastor. “I don’t know if I can do it,” I said. “I don’t know if I can commit to believing that Jesus is God’s Son for the rest of my life. There’s so much I don’t know yet.”
And to his credit, my pastor didn’t freak out and threaten me with excommunication. He just said, “Well, that’s something that you have to keep wrestling with.”
So I did. It didn’t always go smoothly. In the end, I did decide to get confirmed, figuring that I could just about commit in good faith, and hope that God did the hard work of helping me make good if that really was what God wanted. But I never got any of those straight-up, make-or-break answers that I went looking for. And somehow, I didn’t end up leaving the church either.
For me, faith has not been something that lights the path ahead of me. Faith has been the thing that lets me edge forward into the darkness.
Here are the Judeans in today’s gospel, asking questions a lot like the ones I’ve been asking. “Don’t keep us in suspense,” they tell Jesus. “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?”
And the answer Jesus gave them is basically the one I got from my pastor as a confirmand. “That’s something you’re going to have to figure out.” Jesus had been with them for a while, showing them all these signs that pointed back to the amazing impossible revelation that he wasn’t just the Messiah, but was actually God’s own Son.
“But cut it out,” the Jews say. “Just tell us for real: is you or ain’t you?”
I want to spend this sermon taking a closer look at Jesus’ answer. That closer look involves talking about belief and whether or not our wills are free and some other stuff that edges into some of the most fundamental questions of theology. And then, because that’s pretty heavy stuff, I want to tell you a story about sheep. Sound OK?
So let’s start by looking at the first part of Jesus’ answer to the Jews’ question: “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.”
There’s an important question raised by that response. Is it: because the Jews don’t believe, they don’t belong to Jesus’ flock? OR, is it: because they don’t belong to Jesus’ flock, they don’t believe?
That’s a small but important distinction. In the first scenario, belief is a decision, one that’s totally ours to make. If you don’t believe in God, that is simply your fault, because you have free will, and can choose to change your belief if you really want to.
In the other scenario, belief is God’s gift, and it’s totally out of our hands. According to that explanation, people who don’t believe in Jesus can’t believe because God hasn’t chosen to let them be part of Jesus’ flock. Because they’re not part of the flock, they simply can’t believe. It would be like asking a bird to breathe underwater. But the corollary of this belief is: if you are part of God’s flock, then you can’t help but believe. The fancy theological term for that is “predestination.”
Now, the good news is that if you’re troubled by these questions, you probably don’t need to worry, because the very fact that you’re asking these questions means that you have faith.
But if you’re like me, then you have friends and loved one who don’t believe in God. Or who do believe in God, but under a different name. Or who believe in Jesus, but really don’t act like it. And you want a better explanation than either of these scenarios offers. Because it doesn’t seem fair that God just doesn’t choose some people, and gives others a free pass no matter what. And it seems equally unfair that we, humanity, a race notorious for bad-decision making, should be given the entire onus of making the correct choice to believe in God.
And this is the thing about some of the questions that get churned up by theology. No matter how well we understand the arguments on either side, these questions don’t seem to ever really get resolved. In fact, when we start thinking too much about them, I believe we find ourselves even more anxious and fearful about the future than gospel-believing people have any business being.
I rather think that Martin Luther found the same thing. Scholars argue even today about whether Luther himself believed in free will or predestination, and if predestination, what kind—because oh yes, there are kinds—but here’s the part I find interesting:
As Luther grows older, he stopped talking about predestination or free will, and started talking about God’s election instead.
“The difference, for Luther, was that election was not concerned with things God may or may not have done eons ago, but rather named a present-tense reality: God’s immediate and ongoing decision to choose us, to love us, to save us.”[David Lose, “God’s Electing Word,” In the Meantime blog, April 12th 2016].
Luther chose to let go of the things that were impossible to know, and cling to the thing of which he was sure: God’s grace.
This is the gift that Jesus offers his listeners in the midst of the gospel today, in the second half of his answer to the questioning, questing Judeans: “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.”
No one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand. No one can snatch you out of Jesus’ hand. These words from the gospel, this is the voice of Christ, your Shepherd, and you are hearing it. You are his. And no one can take you away from him.
I know that this morning I’ve given you an awful lot of theology. But here’s the thing: “theology” is just a Latin way of saying “God-talk,” and that’s something that each of us is doing, every day. It doesn’t matter whether you know the scholarly lingo: I think it’s impossible to live this life without asking some of the deepest, most fundamental questions of theology: We stand looking at the night sky and wonder how the universe began. We listen to the news and wonder how God works in the world. We hear that our best friend has been diagnosed with cancer and can’t understand how God could let that happen.
We look at a newborn baby’s toes and wonder about the power that could create something so fragile and complicated and marvelous.
We are all theologians, figuring out together how to talk about God. And that wondering leads us into questions with no easy answers, wondering that often frustrates us, because we’d so much rather have the make-or-break kind of clarity that would at least let us make a decision. Often, instead, we’re just left dwelling in the tension between imperfect explanations, clinging to a word of grace.
But now, because I promised, here’s a story about sheep. There was a time when I voraciously read the stories of James Herriot, and English country veterinarian, and it is from his stories that I know the following about sheep:
Lambs are usually born in the earliest part of spring, when the weather is still unpredictable and often cruel. They’re often born as twins, triplets aren’t unusual, and quadruplets aren’t unheard of. As a country vet, Mr. Herriot had many stories of lying bare-chested on a freezing March hillside with his arm up a sheep, trying to untangle a mass of legs inside some very distressed sheep.
And at the end of it all, there would be a little wooly form lying on the cold grass. And the mother sheep would bleat with a distinctive kind of chuckle that you only ever heard her make at such a time, and the newborn lamb would find its wobbly way to its feet, and with unerring instinct, find its knock-kneed way to its mother’s utter. And no matter how cold he was, how unpleasant or complicated a birth it had been, Mr. Herriot would always watch that moment with unabated wonder. How could they know what to do? Every time?
As God’s sheep, sometimes our necessary questions push us into a place as uncomfortable as a March hillside in Yorkshire. I hope you can dwell in that tension, because although it’s uncomfortable, it’s also sacred. And I hope you can cling to this: wherever we are, we will always know Jesus’ voice. God doesn’t let us out of God’s hand. Absolutely not. No matter what questions you’re asking. No matter how hard you’re struggling. Never ever.
So have no fear, little flock.