Easter 4 at Marsworth – 17 April 2016
Gospel John 10
Alleluia, alleluia. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ Alleluia.
Further conflict over Jesus’ claims
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter,23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.24 The Jews who were there gathered round him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
25 Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.’
31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’
33 ‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’
34 Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are ‘gods’”? 35 If he called them “gods”, to whom the word of God came – and Scripture cannot be set aside – 36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, “I am God’s Son”? 37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.’39 Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.
40 Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptising in the early days. There he stayed, 41 and many people came to him. They said, ‘Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.’ 42 And in that place many believed in Jesus.
There are parts of London I know very well. There are other parts I don’t know at all. There are some places I just pass through, on the way to somewhere else, but other than knowing which way to turn in order to reach my destination, I don’t really have much idea about what is there.
You could say my knowledge of London is like a patchwork quilt. I know some of the pieces quite well, and the way from some to others, but the bigger picture eludes me. Sometimes, when I am lost, I suddenly walk into an area I know. I was lost, but then I am found.
Preaching from the lectionary gives us all a patchwork knowledge of Scripture. We know the gospels pretty well. Many preachers tend to help us understand one or other of the Bible readings set for the day. More often than not, it’s the gospel reading they choose to expound. Even then, we know the gospels in chunks, and fail to see the bigger picture. These chunks are what theologians unappetisingly call ‘gobbets’.
Today’s reading from John 10 is hard to understand on its own. When preaching from the gospels, I normally try and set the reading in context, by referring to what came before and what follows after it, but even that doesn’t help much. So in preparing what I could say to you this morning, I had to read chapters 7 to 11. It was interesting to do so, because parts of what I read were unfamiliar to me: it was almost like reading some verses anew, never having seen them before. Other parts I could almost recite by heart. But by reading the whole passage suddenly the pieces of patchwork felt like a quilt.
Chapter 7 starts with Jesus in Galilee. That was his home, where he was known, where he felt safer and more comfortable. It’s the feast of Booths. His advisers told him to move to Judea. They said if he wanted to make an impression, to get his words heard, to become even more famous, he would have to take his message to Jerusalem. Only in the capital would he be taken seriously, for nothing of any importance comes out of Galilee. Only in Jerusalem might be he recognised as Messiah.
At first, Jesus declines and his advisors and disciples go to Jerusalem anyway. The big feast of Dedication is about to be celebrated, and Jerusalem will be thronged with people, so Jesus travels alone and arrives later than his followers.
Jesus’ fame and notoriety had gone before him. The crowds were looking for him. They have heard all about the miracles and mighty words, the uplifting preaching, and his claims to be…his claims to be what? Messiah? Prophet? Magician?
This is what chapters 7 to 11 are all about. Throughout John’s gospel, responses to his claims and messages vary considerably. But that’s the big picture — Jesus’ identity and intentions.
As it’s the festival of Booths, Jesus spends most of his time teaching. Some of the pieces of the quilt are familiar to us. They include:
· I am the living water
· The woman caught in adultery
· I am the light of the world
· I am from above— the Son of Man
· If you believe in me, and do what I say, you are my disciples
· The man born blind receives his sight
· The blind men and the Pharisees
· The blind man who encounters Jesus
· I am the good shepherd
But — our reading today is all about rejection. Jesus is rejected — his life is in danger — he is said to be a blasphemer who deserves to die — at best, he is accused of demon possession.
Jesus then leaves Jerusalem, and crosses the river Jordan to where John the Baptist used to baptise in the early days. He started preaching and teaching there, and some believed in him as the long awaited Messiah.
Here we come upon the bigger picture: there is a tension, throughout John’s gospel (and very probably throughout the entire Bible) between the claims Jesus makes for himself, exactly what those claims are and what they signify, and our human response to them. The people at the festival in Jerusalem showed their frustration by asking:
‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
Jesus was equally frustrated. He answers them:
25 … ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe.
This particular preacher cannot resolve this tension, nor can anyone argue anyone else into faith with persuasive and convincing words. I could tell you the story of the tightrope walker and his wheelbarrow — it illustrates rather nicely the move from belief into faith — but we haven’t time this morning — ask me afterwards if you want me to tell you the joke.
I can, however, repeat the words of one theologian who summed up the position of the preacher rather succinctly when she said:
“…the preacher can declare the promise that creates and sustains faith -- the promise of the Good Shepherd to give us eternal life, the promise that no one will be able to snatch us out of his hand (10:28).
The preacher can also help hearers discern the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the other voices that clamour for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognise how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, ‘Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.’ It says, ‘You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.’ Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ “ 
 Elisabeth Johnson — Professor Lutheran Institute of Theology