To begin: earlier in this chapter, Jesus says he is the good shepherd who has come to give us life and give it more abundantly. (John 10:10-11)
In his culture, that meant he was the leader who truly followed God, and who led people in life giving, and life enhancing paths. We hear that in Psalm 23.
And if we want to hear what happens when we don't follow the good shepherd, read Ezekiel 34:
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: … because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand…
That's the judgement by God of the rich and the powerful, and those who support their injustice, in the hope of gaining their own advantage. But Jesus… is the Good Shepherd who leads us away from judgement into green pastures.
Now when we come to a text, it's worth asking, "Is this just cultural— it always is cultural— is this just cultural, or does this story or text reflect something of the deep reality of the universe? Sometimes texts which seem alien, or naïve, or even harsh, reflect a reality about life that we are foolish to ignore.
In this text today, is reflected a truth that the churches share with many other people: a sense that the universe and what is behind it is for us, or is on our side. Despite all the danger and horrors of life, there is something providential about it. That's reflected in the words about the sheep, "they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."
We can make those words into a whistling in the dark denial of the horrors of life, but they reflect that fact that despite everything, this world and this reality is a place where we flourish. Jesus says, "The father and I are one." The life giving choices of my way are aligned with the very nature of the life we are given.
At the bottom of all of this is the insight—and let's be honest, it's hope, too— the insight that nothing perishes. It's what we sometimes call the Doctrine of Universal Salvation— and it always fascinates me that some parts of the church are so opposed to it!
With this though, there is another basic truth about life as a human being, which we need to remember. Last week's gospel reading in John 21, has these lines of poetry:
18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger,
you used to fasten your own belt
and to go wherever you wished.
But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will fasten a belt around you
and take you where you do not wish to go.’
Now, traditionally, this has often been seen as a prophecy of Peter's death by crucifixion. But spiritually / psychologically it reflects a reality. If we commit to a way of living— indeed, if we commit to Jesus way of living— that commitment will fasten our hands and lead us to places "where we do not wish to go."
So in that reading of the text, Jesus takes us where we do not wish to go. In my sermon last week I said about that poetry
Here, Jesus is telling us that if we want freedom from being pulled around by the world, then we have to accept being bound and led by Christ. He will bind us and lead us to places where we do not wish to go. Yet this very binding might also prove to be the binding up of our wounds...
Those who dive deeply into life will see the truth here. To be free, we have to embrace something— commit to it. And to be true to it, we must let it guide us and bind us.
What we join, what we become part of— who we follow— is the critical life choice. Not to follow, to do our own thing— which sounds very modern— is most often to be adrift in the unenlightened dark, thinking we we are being profound, and an individual, whilst those with clearer vision see us effortlessly pushed and pulled by forces invisible to us.
And that all brings us to the question of what happens when we kick back against the universe… when we deny reality… when we live in ways that are not life giving.
In our text we've had Jesus fascinating a group of people John calls the Judeans. The church still translates it as "the Jews" and still too often commits the sin of anti-Semitism. But Jesus and John and Martha and Peter were all Jews, and…. all people of God, just like we are. But some of God's people are Judeans, people so committed to their inherited way of life that they won't accept the life giving insights of Jesus and the other wise teachers of life. In the day, when John was writing, the Judeans were probably the hard men and power players who were pushing the Christians out of the synagogues, but we can still be Judeans today. Read the newssheet for more details. (Below)
These people, who in John are fascinated by Jesus— they can't stay away from him— are judged. Jesus is in the Temple, the place of God, at the Feast of the Rededication of the Temple, and of Jewish people to their faith. He is in the part of the old Temple where you worshipped if you were offended by the corruption of the temple by Herod the Great— he hadn't touched the old part of the Temple that included the Portico of Solomon.
And the Portico of Solomon was also called the Portico of Judgement, because it's there, in the tradition, where the Kings made pronouncements of judgement. And it's winter… there is a chill about this story.
And here's where it gets really interesting. Apparently, the Greek is hard to translate— there's no word for word correspondence to the English happening here— and apparently the idea that the phrase means how long will you keep us in suspense, doesn't really line up with other usages of the words at the time. Now this is coming to us from Raymond Brown, the great interpreter of John… and he's conservative, right? This is not a way-out trendy translation.
The literal meaning of the words is, "How long until you take away our lives?" (Brown The Gospel According to John Vol 1 pp402 My thanks to John Petty, who pointed this out to me.)
Which is not an idea we like! Jesus takes away our lives— !??
But it reflects reality. God always takes away our life. We die.
The only question is whether we will be led in life giving paths by our commitment to Jesus, and the great truths of being human, or whether we go our own way and lose even the life we have.
This is real. We have words for people we sense have chosen this other path: we use words like
and if we have any humanity and compassion, we grieve for them, and we shudder… because we know we too could live a life where the richness is been taken away by the choices we have made.
So the Judeans are those people who, at some spiritual and psychological level, can see Jesus is offering life. It attracts them, they gather around him, but they won't pay the cost… and it means they will lose more than they ever realised. They have to kill him, because his very being is a judgement of their way of being… and they can't stand it.
Now we know, we hope, that nothing can snatch us away from God. Nothing of life will perish. But if we will not live in life giving ways, we will not know that. We will even lose that understanding. You could even say that our sense of being "at home" in the universe will be taken away from us — it's how life works. And that means our life will be controlled by the fear of death.
It's not so much that God will judge us and reject us, but that we will choose to live in the shadow of death, rejecting the one who would lead us into green pastures.
Follow the good shepherd.
The Text of the Church Newsletter
John’s gospel identifies our responses to Jesus. Peter aims high and falls hard. Nicodemus comes in the dark, but eventually sees and perseveres. Thomas doubts. Martha understands: “You are the Christ,” she cries in the face of death. There are Pharisees who are particular about law and piety, and are offended by Jesus. And Judeans, those who reject him.
People come in the dark. People see. Some people choose not to see, and threaten those who do see. In his anger and distress over those who refuse to see, John seems almost to pull apart from his own people with that constant phrase which we thoughtlessly translate as “the Jews.” Some see an incipient anti-Semitism within this gospel, and to its shame, the church has taken this on whole heartedly throughout history; it is our great sin.
Jesus and John were Jews, as were Peter and Nicodemus, the various Marys, Martha, Thomas and Joseph of Arimathea. They were all people of God. In John the key question is what God’s people see, and how they respond, when the meet Jesus. We, too, are people of God. We are Peter, Thomas, Martha and Mary. And, according to John, some of us may be Pharisees and Judeans. The Judeans are those who are blind to what should be obvious, and who utterly reject Jesus. They “took up stones again to stone him.” (John 10:31)
We are who we scapegoat. The scapegoat carries what we cannot bear in ourselves. Every piece of Jew blaming we read into the Gospel of John, and every prejudice we find in ourselves toward Jewish people today, questions how much we have heard the Gospel, and how much it has touched us. Who are we? Peter, Martha, Joseph, or Judean? The Judeans are fascinated by Jesus, and they circle around him again this week. But proximity to Jesus seems to say very little about understanding and trusting him. In this great gospel about seeing or remaining blind, one thing is clear: to think that because we call ourselves Christian we cannot be a Pharisee or a Judean is a great and terrible blindness.
So, who are we? Who do we trust? These are the questions of John.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!