Jesus responds to questions about his identity with the remarkable claim that he and the Father are one. Those who understand this are his sheep; they hear his voice, follow, and will never be snatched from his hand.
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So 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.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
The 23rd psalm is about as well known as it gets. Some of my most touching visits with folks who had Alzheimer’s or dementia showed me the power of the Holy Spirit and the human brain when those who could not remember their families casually brought forth the words of this psalm.
I heard God’s voice loud and clear.
The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of death or evil, nor its capacity to wreak havoc. But the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance in the face of this real threat– No fear. Not because they are armed and ready. Not because they have protection and walls and defense and surveillance. But rather because “YOU are with me.” It’s the core claim of ours that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God. And yet we are so inclined place our trust only in God at the last moment sometimes, when all our others options, as they always do, run out.
That is also ne of the main themes of the book of Revelation: trusting God completely above anything else – and trusting what God reveals to us, not what we think to be true or heard to be true. Trusting God revealed in the Lamb. The author of Revelation was just telling the readers that he heard about the 144,000 – 1,000 of each of the 12 tribes of Israel. That’s what he heard would be present in heaven with God. That’s what he assumed, based on what he knew about Israel and the tribes.
But then God revealed something to him.
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” This flock may be bigger than we know or hear about, when we actually see it for ourselves.
Then it’s revealed who these worshippers are: they are victims of oppression who have survived not because of their strength, but because of their suffering, and the suffering of Jesus. They are those who have withstood brutal torture and abuse, and have yet remained strong and faithful. Notice that they are here because they have come “through the great ordeal,” not because they managed to get around it. “For this reason they are before the throne of God.” And the result of their victory is that they will never again experience hunger, thirst, and scorching heat. The Lamb will be their Shepherd guiding them to living water, and God will wipe away their tears.
John’s Gospel echoes this trustworthy shepherd imagery when Jesus speaks to the religious Leadership in the temple at the beginning chapter ten – but they don’t understand. As a matter of fact, right before this Gospel reading the scriptures say the leadership was divided. Some thought Jesus was a heretic and wanted to stone him. Others believed Jesus, or at least weren’t ready to kill him, but wanted to hear more.
If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. For those playing at home and following the lectionary – it seems a little strange to be asking for proof just weeks after the resurrection. Why would this pre-Easter text show up in the weeks following the crucifixion and resurrection. But it tells us the truth about how faith works, if we’rehonest enough to admit it. We don’t just figure it out once and for all. We don’t rise out of confusion into clarity – out of doubt into faith, and then get to live the rest of our lives in a bible of perpetual confidence – we have our ups and downs.
It’s what we human beings do. It’s real life. We trust and obey, and then we want to do it for ourselves. Since you were two years old, you’ve thought you know best. So, if you find yourself asking Jesus to “speak plainly” into the circumstances of your life on this fourth Sunday of Easter, then you’re not alone. One day, we have all the proof we need, and the next feels muddled and a bit confused. if faith worked any other way, it would be called certainty.
But the clear word Jesus says – the Father and I are one in verse 30 – do you know what verse 31 says – Then they took up stones again to stone him. The revelations of who God is through Jesus is not always as warm and comforting as the 23rd Psalm. They come to Jesus for clarity, but with stones at the ready. They didn’t really want to be his sheep anyways.
At first glance, Jesus’s reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you don’t consent to belong. In other words, belief doesn’t come first. It can’t come first. Belonging does.
You have to know you belong to that flock, to understand that you are welcome, to assent to following that shepherd and to trusting he’ll provide. Then, maybe, you can start to believe.
I was part of a large church camp family back home where I grew up. Each summer for a week, for many of my formative faith years, I was a part of this community. At the end of each week, each year, we’d have a compline service, night prayer. Candles were lit, music was soft, giving us time to reflect on all that had happened that week. Part of the service was a series of prayers, for us, for the community, for those who were absent from us gathered that year. Our leaders would begin to call us by name in the dark. Each of our names were read aloud, by someone sitting somewhere we could not see. Listen to the shepherd call you name they’d, repeat. Listen to the shepherd call your name. Names were read of people who had died, people who had left the camp family, people who we wished could be with us, people on our hearts – eventually all would start to name someone, hoping they could hear us by the power of the Holy Spirit that the shepherd, was indeed calling their name. It was a powerful experience each year. And help solidify in our adolescent minds that this was a place we belonged. Our names among the names of the saints.
From raising the dead to providing a banquet in the midst of my enemies, to gathering a great multitude from every nation, not just our own. God gives in abundance what we could neither deserve or expect. And the shepherd knows us. All we have do do is listen for the sound of his voice and follow, knowing we belong. May you know that Jesus the good shepherd knows you more intimately than you could imagine, with more grace that you can conceive of and may you hear him call your name.