John 10:22-30 (NRSV)
Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews
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.”
Every time I sit down to write one of these reflections, it goes one of two ways. It is either a joy that takes me completely outside of my every day, or it is torture. When it feels like torture, when I have nothing wise (which is most of the time), I stitch together thoughts that I have, and thoughts that others have had, and pray that God will make it more than the sum of its parts for at least one other person.
This week I have been reading interviews with Jean Vanier, who passed away this week, and some quotes from Rachel Held Evans, who also tragically passed away this week. When I look at their lives and read this text from John 10, I am left with questions about who and what I am, and who or what I could be. I’d prefer not to be writing this and come back to it at a time when my attention span is more than 30 seconds, and I feel a little bit more sheep-ish. But this passage from John 10, offers both immense comfort and an intense challenge at these moments.
Jesus’ questioners demand he tell them plainly if he is the Messiah.
Tell us plainly. Is that often our prayer? Tell us everything is going to work out, tell us that there is a logic behind the events we are experiencing. Tell us that this will not last or tell us that it will. Tell us plainly if we are on the right path, tell us plainly if we are not.
It would be nice if everything was a little less through the glass darkly, a little clearer. Those who ask Jesus this question, want him to answer plainly, so they have the evidence they need to punish him.
“How long will you keep us in suspense?”
Jesus’ answer seems on one level to be simple, but in the act of being alive, we learn it is really an invitation into a mystery; simple words represent complex realities often fraught with difficulty. It is a call to a revolutionary movement, but in an utterly different way than what those who questioned him expected. His words seem to at once hold a real challenge, and to hold deep comfort, the same paradox I am faced with when I read the words of Vanier and Held Evans, who gave themselves to the idea of a revolution of the heart, and saw the fruit of that surrender.
The comfort is who we are.
The challenge is what we ought to do.
We are God’s. We are held together by a common shepherd, belonging to him, and in that relationship belonging to each other too. Belonging is the root of all positive human experience, the pain of unbelonging wroughts the same damage on the human body as physical pain. Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, which demonstrated a new way for people with differing physical and intellectual abilities to live in community. He dedicated his life to ensuring that people knew what it was to truly, truly belong somewhere and with someone. He said “when you admire people, you put them on pedestals, when you love people, you want to be together.”
Held Evans’ work created spaces of belonging for people who have long felt excluded from church life. She wrote that “justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another” and “the great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and believe that is enough.” We live and move and have our being in the spaces created by the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Jesus reminds us here that he and the Father are one. Nothing can snatch us from his hands. We are known. We are loved. We are held.
Vanier stressed continuously that the simple, small things were the only things. Jesus here says that his sheep believe, they listen, and they follow. Vanier demonstrated this way of life, advocating for focusing on simple acts of love and obedience; allowing God to turn them into things of higher significance.
Jesus is in the temple to commemorate the Festival of Dedication, now celebrated as Hanukkah. Following the Maccabean rebellion, the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated to God. They found sacred oil just enough to burn for one night, but the oil did not run out. It continued to burn for eight nights. It is the character of God to make little acts of worship into something greater. Vanier and Evans’ lives became so much more than their simple, faithful acts, and their simple words, in following, in listening, in believing. They continue into life eternal.
May we be intensely comforted and immensely challenged.
May we be a little more sheep-ish.
Emily is currently working part-time as a youth worker in Kilkenny, having just completed her Masters in Community and Youth Work. She is passionate about tag rugby, proper conversations, dancing, poetry, public transport as a lifestyle choice and seeing people and ideas come together.