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04.21.13 Christian Faith in God, John 10:1-10, 19-30

by on April 22, 2013

Many people wish God would just “speak plainly” to them. The problem is God prefers to do no such thing.

Summary Points

  • God’s use of metaphor and his favorite one in the Bible
  • The nature of Christian faith in God—why it isn’t doctrine
  • Recognizing Christ and becoming like him
  • Questions for discussion and reflection
  • The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table

When “the Jews,” as John calls them, were divided over the nature of Jesus’ identity, they asked him, “When will you stop keeping us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” I see this played out often with people who are themselves “divided” over Jesus’ identity. We want to believe Jesus is more than “just a good man,” but we are also skeptical about what the church claims about him. We wish he would have just spoken plainly about it.

Jesus’ answer to the Jews of John’s gospel? “I have told you.” We look in vain for when Jesus “told” them, or his exact words. Instead, what we find is a rich and extended metaphor about Jesus as a shepherd.

The metaphor of the shepherd runs throughout the Bible. It appears most often in the context of ancient Israel being in exile, that time when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported prominent citizens. In this circumstance, God pronounces a judgement upon the leaders—the shepherds.

He accuses them of not strengthening the weak or healing the sick. They do not bind up the injured or bring back the strayed. They have not sought the lost but have instead fed themselves—in essence they have fed upon the very sheep they were supposed to protect. Therefore God promises that he will shepherd the people himself. God will rescue the sheep from mouths of bad shepherds (see especially Jeremiah 23:1-4, Ezekiel 34:1-16).

One finds fewer more beautiful depictions of this shepherd-God than in Isaiah 40:11, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The most famous reference to God as the shepherd is, of course, Psalm 23.

What we learn from Jesus’ answer to the Jews is that God prefers metaphor over plain talk. Plain talk is what we want, metaphor is what we get. Some people force plain talk from the Bible, but in doing so they betray and commit violence upon the biblical witness. The Bible isn’t plain talk. It is metaphor.

Listen to how one Episcopalian explains it. “The trouble with talking plainly about the things of God is that the things of God are anything but plain. When a person begins speaking with unequivocal certainty about God, this is a sure sign that the person is no longer speaking about God. We can speak with unequivocal certainty about things our minds can grasp, but God is not one of those things. God grasps us; we do not grasp God.” (Gary D. Jones, in the Feasting on the Word commentary)

When Jesus said, “I have told you” what he meant is “I have shown you.” Jesus’ identity is not a title, but an experience. We call him “Messiah,” “Lord,” and “Christ,” but unless we actually experience him as such, we don’t really know him. Christian “belief” is not in a title, but is a lifestyle. In the Newer Testament “Jesus is Lord” is not a statement, but an orientation; the rest of our commitments revolve around this truth. And thus Christianity is not a doctrine, but a way of life.

John’s gospel, when read through, was written to make this point, from the prologue to epilogue. In the first chapter John says the “Word became flesh.” Why? In the penultimate chapter it says the gospel was written so that all could “come to believe” and that they “might have life.” For John that life begins now, in this present life. Jesus comes, in our passage, to give life abundantly, to give eternal life, not after death, but in this life.

This, then, is Christian faith in God. You can believe in God in many ways, but Christian faith in God is believing that is active in this life. It is believing in order to have life, not in the future or in some afterlife, but now. It is why Paul explains baptism as dying and rising with Christ in newness of life (Romans 6).

Sometimes Christian teaching (that is, doctrine) gets in the way of this understanding of Christian faith. We get caught up in the centuries old theological disputes about the nature of Christ, for example, instead of getting to know Christ personally by experience. This is substituting plain talk for metaphor. It’s realizing again the subtle lesson John has included in this reading, that during the Feast of Dedication (what we call Hanukkah), during the “Festival of Lights,” the one John calls the Light of the World is walking around Solomon’s Portico and the people who are there—religiously observant people—don’t recognize him.

Only those who are God’s sheep, who hear and follow, recognize Christ. They recognize God in Christ because Jesus does what God does. This is what he means in the several passages in which he identifies himself with God (here, John 10:30, and again 10:38, 14:10, 17:21). And if you read the rest of John 10 carefully, you’ll see that Jesus invites us all to experience oneness with God by just the same means—doing the things that God does.

The reading from Acts gives us an example. There Peter raises the widow Tabitha from the dead. In her life she was “dedicated to good works and acts of charity.” By raising her to life, Peter in essence preserves her example of faith. What is more, he performs pure religion (according to James 1:27) by caring for a widow, that is, someone who is at risk.

These are the kinds of things God as shepherd does; the things Jesus did. This is how we recognize God in Christ, and so this is how others will recognize God in us—if we do these same kinds of things. This is how the vision of Revelation comes to pass—people from all nations and tribes worshiping God. They are not there because of our doctrine. They are there because they have seen and experienced God in Christ through the activities of the Christian church—that is, if we do as Christ and God and Peter do as shepherd.

So let us resolve anew to listen for voice of our Good Shepherd. Let us enter the gate that is Jesus. Let us become one with God in Christ. And let us do so by doing Christ’s work in our own lives.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Having heard that God prefers metaphor to plain talk, reflect on your life, past and present, and see if you can find the places where God has spoken to you metaphorically. What was said? How will you listen differently from now on?
  • Try to talk about your Christian faith without saying “I believe that” but rather “I follow Christ by . . .” Imagine the effect of sharing your faith this way instead of trying to teach doctrine.
  • Is there someone in your life from another “nation” or “tribe,” that is, someone who isn’t Christian like you are, with whom you can have a conversation like this? Maybe God is calling you to be the bridge for this person into the heavenly vision of Revelation.

Following is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table

We give you thanks, Creator God, for by your Word all things live, move, and have their being. At the beginning of time you envisioned a world full of creatures who praised your name by their very existence—the grandeur of a soaring eagle, the diligence of the earthworm, and the human family living in harmony while caring for your earthly garden. When we went astray, as like sheep we often do, you sent the shepherd Moses to deliver and guide us, and the shepherd David to protect us. Others were not so faithful, but you did not abandon us to the wolves. You promised our redemption by becoming yourself our shepherd.

We thank you that in the fullness of time, Christ’s came to fulfill all your promises. As his birth was announced to shepherds, so he was revealed to be the shepherd of our souls. He left the ninety-nine in order to find the one. We who are gathered here as the ninety-nine are also the very ones he sought and found. Though you have called us together, we still need the comfort of your rod and staff. Find us again where we are lost.

We thank you for your Holy Spirit, for anointing our heads with oil in baptism, and for our cups that overflow at this table which you have prepared for us in the midst of a broken world, in the presence of our enemies. We come to this table, Good Shepherd, because we have heard your voice. We come to this table, to enter the gate that is Christ. We come to this table to be fed by you. We come to this table to pass by still waters, to graze in green pastures, to have our souls restored. Receiving the grace that is ours in the presence of Christ at this table, send us forth to give grace as the presence of Christ in the world, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.


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