“Robust, Resilient Sheep”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 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.”
25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?”
33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled— 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. (NRSV)
Last Sunday, in Luke 4, we heard Jesus claim his messianic voice. His hearers were delighted—until Jesus suggested that God doesn’t discriminate between Gentiles and Jews. Infuriated, Jesus’ friends and neighbors chased him toward a cliff, planning to heave him onto the rocks below.
Today, in John 10, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem hear words of grace from Jesus, they want to execute him on the spot. And this time it’s not because Jesus tweaks their religious pride or racial prejudice, but because he dares to claim that he and God are one—one essence, one voice. Instead of throwing Jesus onto the rocks, the Jewish leaders threaten to throw the rocks onto Jesus.
The conversation that leads to the confrontation arises from a direct question: Tell us plainly, say the Jewish leaders, are you the Messiah? Apparently hopeful, but reluctant to take anything on faith, they demand answers and assurances before committing themselves.
Last week I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, When God Is Silent. In that same volume, Taylor says this: “Only an idol always answers.”1 Taylor’s words are so true as to make certain people want to stone her. Yet even Jesus experienced the silence of God. According to gospel accounts, God spoke directly to Jesus at his baptism and his transfiguration. And after the Transfiguration, we never again hear God speak directly.
The Transfiguration mirrors Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai where God spoke the ten commandments, and the people heard thunder, saw smoke, and then trembled in fear. Afterward, the Hebrews told Moses, Look, from now on YOU speak to us. If God speaks again, we’ll die! (Exodus 20:19)
When Israel came down from Mt. Sinai, their relationship with Yahweh matured into their faith in and their faithfulness to God’s presence through the Law and the prophets. Later still, God’s persistent silence inspired words of lament, cries for God to speak once again. Perhaps most well-known is the cry from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…I cry…but you do not answer.” (Psalm 22:1-2)
In Matthew and Mark, as Jesus dies—as he who is one with God dies—he wails his delirious prayer into the deep silence of God. And he does so in the accusatory words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Well before his death, though, Jesus answers the Jewish leaders by saying, “My sheep hear my voice.” They trust me. And they follow me. That’s all Jesus says when asked to declare for certain that he is God’s Messiah: My sheep hear me and know me.
There’s a pejorative term being cast about these days. ”Sheeple” is used to show the disdain of one group toward another. It’s used to reproach those with whom one disagrees for not thinking for themselves. In today’s highly-polarized climate, to throw the “sheeple” stone is to dismiss others as expendable livestock.
It’s pretty horrible how we so easily and confidently belittle, condemn, and even persecute each other, isn’t it? Even among like-minded peer groups, if one doesn’t fully engage a prevailing attitude, one can be made to feel unfaithful to what the group deems right and true. I think that today’s culture of relentless suspicion and tribal vengeance is making many of us anxious, depressed, and even hopeless.
It seems to me that a major problem in all of this is that, regardless of which side of the spectrum one identifies with, more and more, we’re feeling forced to choose between absolutes. Whether on the right or the left, we can find ourselves being expected to commit ourselves to specific assumptions and ideologies that put us in constant competition rather than in hopeful cooperation. That allows and even encourages us to be just mean.
The word “sheeple” can be aimed from either side of any aisle, because what matters is not the particular -ism we hold, but the fact that we hold it with such unrestrained certainty that we deny that all of us are limited and imperfect human beings in need of God’s grace and guidance.
For the record: I am not claiming some high ground. Living in the same frenzied world as everyone else, I struggle every day to maintain a posture that is honest and, as Paul says, patient, kind, and humble.
It seems to me that Jesus was up against similar challenges in his relationship with the Jewish authorities. First century Israel was enduring yet another occupation by a foreign power that ruled by intimidation and military threat, by making occupied peoples feel sheepishly dependent on them, beholden to them, and by demanding absolute loyalty from them. So, when the Jewish leaders ask Jesus for his messianic ID, they want assurances that he has a plan to overthrow Rome. After all, that was the anticipated job description of the Messiah. Instead, they hear Jesus claim a shepherding union with God. His response requires the Jewish leaders to ask themselves important questions. It asks them to think carefully about Jesus’ human interactions. His claim of intimate communion with God puts all people of faith in a place of critical reflection and contemplation. And it’s an uncomfortable place because it has immediate implications on how we live our own lives.
Jesus calls the Jewish leaders, and us, to understand that whenever we hear voices of compassion, justice, and generosity, whenever we hear voices that challenge the world’s ways of idolatrous violence and greed, we are, in truth, hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd—God’s incarnate and universal Christ. To follow the Good Shepherd is not to be sheepish. It’s not to be manipulated. It’s to trust God’s voice and to respond with our own commitment to lives of shepherding love.
Mahatma Gandhi is often credited with saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Apparently, however, what he actually said was deeper, and more challenging and empowering. He said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [sic] changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”2
When John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he’s the Messiah, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5, Luke 7:22)
Again, Jesus doesn’t answer Yes or No. He challenges his questioners to pay attention, to interpret what they have “seen and heard,” then to “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
If we are truly the body of Christ, all other loyalties are rendered secondary, because what we do and how we do it, and what we say and how we say it become the “seen and heard” things of which Jesus speaks.
None of us are perfect disciples. Still, we ask: How often do our actions and words reflect the world’s selfish idolatries? And how often do they reflect the grace-filled, life-honoring, world-transforming actions and words of God’s eternal Christ?
1Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent. Cowley Publications, Cambridge/Boston, 1998. p. 80.