Fourth Sunday in Easter 2016

The Gospel: John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 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.” Jesus answered, “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. 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. The Father and I are one.

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“What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.”  That “oneness” with the Father is a truth that Jesus fully grasped.  It is true for us as well.  We too are one with the Father, we just don’t always grasp it.  Yet, I think it is because we have had a glimpse of what it means to be at one with the Father, that brings most of us here today.  And it is our essential longing to be as One with God and with all creation that defines us as human beings and will guide the course of the church of the future.

Last Sunday afternoon I led our youth confirmation class through an instructed Eucharist.  We had church, in the same way that we are having church here today, but I stopped along the way to explain what we are doing and the kids are encouraged to interrupt me and ask questions.  One of our teenagers, Enzo, who was first an acolyte when he was too small to fit into any of our acolyte albs, responded to my encouragement to question me by abruptly asking, “Why do we do this?”.

“Do what?” I responded.

“Any of this.  Why do we do it?”

Since we were making our way through the reading of the scriptures, I took his question to be about why every Sunday we read an Old Testament lesson, a psalm, an epistle and something from one of the four gospels.  And so I explained how holy scripture contains our story, how it transmits the substance of who we are as a people of God – a history of how the people of Israel conceived of God, worshiped and wrestled with God, and how Jesus came into the world and brought a new understanding of the relationship between God and man.”

Enzo seemed fairly satisfied with that answer, and I had a lot ground to cover in the short one-hour class, so I moved on.  But in retrospect, I think that Enzo’s question was far more profound than my answer.  “Why do we do this?  Any of what we do on Sunday morning, why do we do it?”

I know… people show up in churches throughout NW Arkansas for all kinds of reasons.  Because their boss goes to church, because of guilt or obligation or fear of eternal damnation, for the sense of community they find in church, because they want they children to find a moral compass, because they believe in the charitable or social justice work of the church, because they like the music or the preaching, or maybe just because they always have.

But really, I don’t think that any of those are good enough reasons to come to church.  I think that the only good reason to come to church is because we recognize as Jesus did, that “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” Church, if it is true to its origins, is a place where Oneness with the Divine, can be sensed, is palatable, becomes, not just a theological notion, but something that moves through us and defines who we are.  Otherwise, I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.

If you like your theology in black and white, expressed in simple, unambiguous terms, then the Gospel of John, and this gospel reading in particular, may not suit your taste. As a matter of fact, it’s easy to understand how the leaders of the synagogue, after hearing Jesus’ reply to their questions about his true identity, were frustrated enough to start chunking stones at him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus, who is notorious for answering a question with another question, is characteristically cryptic in his reply. “I have told you, and you do not believe.” In fact, Jesus has done nothing of the kind. In the gospel of John, up to this point, the only person to whom Jesus has, in a straightforward fashion, acknowledged that he was the messiah, was the Samaritan woman at the well. After handing Jesus a drink of water from Jacob’s well, she said, “I know that the Messiah is coming.” Jesus replied to her, “I am he.” No one else was present at this intimate encounter, so how were the Jewish leaders to know?

This encounter between Jesus and the Jewish leaders brings up all kinds of doctrinal issues for Christians today: the nature of the Trinity, atonement, the divinity of Jesus, and the issue of election – who are the chosen ones.  For the synagogue leaders, the theological issue of the moment was the rumored “messiahship” of Jesus. But Jesus would have none of it. He refused to be painted into a doctrinal corner.

Anthony DeMello, the story-telling Jesuit priest, illustrates this point with a tale he calls, “The Explorer”.

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

 He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river.

 They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their Town Hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy of the map considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was, how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?

  It is said that Buddha consistently refused to be drawn into talking of God.
 He was obviously familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.

Go light on doctrine and heavy on experience.  Such was Jesus’ counsel to his disciples and critics alike.

A number of years ago one of my spiritual teachers were talking about the difference between religion and spirituality, and how both play a role in the development of the spiritual life.  She said that religion, in particular the transmission of a religion’s spiritual practices – the way in which a particular faith’s tenets are expressed and conveyed, is like the shell of an egg. The shell of the egg contains the yoke and the yolk is the spiritual core, the essence of the religion.  But if we crack the egg and try to hand over the yolk – this spiritual essence – to another person, the yolk – now an uncontained slimy mess – slips through our fingers and lands in a puddle on the ground. We do need a strong spiritual practice – rituals, prayers, stories, hymns and a sound theological understanding of the faith in order to transmit the religion’s spiritual essence.

On the other hand (we Episcopalians almost always have an “on the other hand”), one day I offered this analogy to a retired, and very wise, Roman Catholic priest, whose long experience in the church had left him tired and more than a little  cynical. He nodded in agreement and said, “Yes, that’s right, but the problem is, religion can become all shell and no yolk.”

The synagogue leaders who questioned Jesus were caught up in the religious questions of the day.  They wanted to know if he was the Messiah, the chosen one.  It was a question of particular significance to them during the festival of Dedication, known now as Hanukkah, the celebration of God’s reclaiming of Jerusalem through the heroism of the Maccabees. It was a festival of light and joy, but with insufficient light to allow Jesus’ critics to see and understand that God’s love can be made manifest in new and unexpected ways. Jesus wasn’t the kind of messiah his questioners had in mind. Jesus’ proclamation that “The Father and I are one, “ sent his listeners in a mad dash for stones to hurl in his direction.”  Their religiosity stood in the way of understanding that Jesus’ teachings were a reaffirmation of the divine initiative that had characterized their own faith from it’s very beginnings. We are God’s own, and nothing can snatch us from the hand of God.

I want to take this egg yolk and spirituality analogy one step further.  Some of you know that I used to keep chickens. I bought six chicks from a feed store in Noel a week before Easter one year, careful to select chicks of a wide range of colors and shapes – Araucanas from South America, Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, and a white pair, one small and the other large.  Collectively, they laid 3 or 4 eggs most every day.  Opening the door to their nests was always cause for small pleasure and a little excitement, because I never know what color eggs to expect. The eggs may be brown, pinkish, white, blue or green.  When friends saw the eggs, the question I was usually asked was, “What color is the inside?” Those of us who were raised or raised our children on Dr. Seuss, always wonder about the possibility of “green eggs and ham”. But I can assure you that the yolk , the inside of these brilliantly colored eggs was always the same – just as the spiritual core of the world’s great religions all contain the eternal essence of the Divine.  The beauty of our faith in Christ, allows us to recognize that the love of God extends to all persons, to all creation.  It is a great gift, and a reminder, as I gathered eggs from our hen house that were as colorful as the eggs our children dashed to gather on Easter Sunday, a reminder that every day holds the promise of Easter morning.

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