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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable to you o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
So this is the scene in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon, an old and revered part of the Temple, it’s winter, it’s the Feast of the Dedication, better known to us as Hanukkah, and as usual, he’s drawing a crowd. People are gathering around him. And they’ve come with a question. Perhaps they’ve heard of his enigmatic parables, or witnessed one of his miracles, or maybe they just want to trap him into saying something they consider blasphemous. Whatever the motive, the question they pose is a zinger: How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. What a question! I mean, maybe your first response is like mine. Duh, have you not been around for all the other stuff that’s happened? We believe it and we’re this many thousands of years out! Come on! And it’s lucky I’m not Jesus, because I would just be rolling my eyes at that question.
And this Gospel reading’s placement in our lectionary re-enforces this reaction from me, because doesn’t it feel odd to ask for clarity so soon after Easter? Didn’t we just celebrate the plainest, clearest, most irrefutable proof of Jesus’ Messiah-ship possible? How can we still be in suspense after the Resurrection?
But, maybe, just maybe, this question, and its timing in our lectionary, is spot-on. It tells us the truth about how faith works, if we’re honest enough to admit it. Most of the time, faith isn’t a clean movement from confusion to clarity, from fear to trust. It’s a perpetual turning, a constant returning, a circle we trace from unbelief to belief. From Christ is risen to if you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
And it’s easy to consider this a sort of waffling, a weakness, but it isn’t. It’s real life, it’s what we human beings do. And it is totally normal to find ourselves on the Fifth Sunday of Easter asking Jesus to speak plainly into the circumstances of our lives. This is the way to authentic faith, the taut impatient feeling of needing Jesus to rise once more into the particulars of our days and nights, our comings and goings. This is how it works.
This question that Jesus confronts in the temple hits a nerve, and exposes all kinds of pain and yearning. Because these last few weeks, I have felt as if God was keeping me in suspense, and holding me in his silence.
I can’t count the number of times recently I’ve started a prayer with the words of the people who approached Jesus on that long-ago winter day: if you are…
If you are good. If you are powerful. If you are loving. If you are real. If you are sure.
If you are the Messiah, then start telling me it’s going to work out exactly the way I want it to. Stop making me walk the long desert road, stop making me learn lessons I don’t want. Give me a sign, show me clearly, speak plainly. Take all this fear swirling around me and give me clarity. No, not just clarity. Give me fact, give me evidence. Give me concrete, set in stone actions.
And how does Jesus respond? Well, unfortunately not plainly. And not, at first glance, kindly. I have told you, and you do not believe. You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. Ouch.
I’ll admit it, I have been wrestling with the harshness of that sentence. You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. What a stark pronouncement from Jesus! And I suppose the easy way out of all this is for us to say, well, that doesn’t apply to us. After all, we’re all here in church. We know our Bible, we love the liturgy, we say our prayers. Surely we both believe and belong.
Except when I don’t. See, the nagging problem with Jesus’ statement is that it does apply to my spiritual experience. Not just rarely, but often. When I ask Jesus to stop keeping me in suspense, when I insist that he speak plainly, give me the signs, what I’m really saying is: I can’t trust you. My fear is bigger than my faith right now, and I cannot hear your voice. You’re supposed to be my Good Shepherd, and I just can’t follow you right now. I can’t belong, I don’t feel like I belong.
Belonging is a strange thing. A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. And when we feel those needs are not met, we don’t function as we are meant to. We break, we fall apart, we numb ourselves, we ache, we hurt others. We stop listening to our shepherd. We lose our way.
I had wrestled with the passage because I heard Jesus saying you do not belong to my sheep coldly, but I don’t think that’s how he said it at all. I think it was soft and sad, you do not belong to my sheep. Not because I do not love you, but because you cannot love yourself. You have decided you do not belong to me. And so, you will not listen.
You have decided that belonging is predicated on your worthiness, that believing requires all the answers now. To belong to me is to walk to footsteps of the shepherd, living in the company of your fellow sheep, listening for the voice of the teacher whose classroom is the rocky hills, the dry wilderness, the hidden pastures, the shadowed valleys. If you won’t follow me into those layered places of tranquility and treachery, trust and fear, you have chosen to stay trapped.
And I wonder how the crowd felt about that answer, because what else could Jesus say? Yes, in fact, I am the Christ! Would anything have changed? Would his parables, his countercultural teachings, his miracles suddenly make sense so that his listeners could tuck them neatly under their arms and carry them home?
Living as we do on this side of the Resurrection, we know that even the greatest miracle was not enough to stop Jesus’ followers from asking questions. And we, their heirs, are no different. We want certainty with no risk. Truth without trust. A Messiah that will provide and not provoke. I have spent a long time trying to outsmart vulnerability by demanding things be black and white, good and bad, and that inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limits the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, trust, joy, and belonging.
There is no objective proof strong enough to quell all our fears, but my brothers and sisters, I don’t think, at the end of the day, that’s what we really want. The miracle we’re after, is the experience of God’s presence. And that, in accepting our belonging, in leaning into that vulnerability, is the miracle we all get.
Rev. Hana Scorrar