Fourth Sunday of Easter
It’s no secret that I enjoy a really good mystery story—especially one that is set in the context of the church. Storylines like “who shot the bishop?” or “which nun poisoned mother superior?” are right up my alley. And the best part of a good mystery is the suspense—the suspense of wondering who was the killer, the villain in the story and why did they commit such a crime? In this morning’s Gospel, the Pharisees voice their impatience with suspense. They want answers from Jesus. If you are the Messiah, fess up. Inquiring minds need to know!
Today’s Gospel presents a dramatic confrontation between Jesus and the representatives of the Jewish religion. It takes place in the portico of the temple in Jerusalem at the winter festival of the Dedication which we more commonly refer to as Hanukkah, a feast that celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem and the temple from the Syrian king, Antiochus. This king had desecrated the temple. He built an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs on the temple altar. Hanukkah celebrates the day that Israel regained control of the temple and re-consecrated it to the one true God
“It was winter,” John tells us. We’ve all been through some pretty awful winters—biting cold temps, piles of snow, gloomy raw days. Leafless trees and bare yards showed no sign of life or growth. But John is not simply talking about the weather here. He is describing a season of life, a season of faith, for the Pharisees the struggle of moving from a comfortable to an uncomfortable faith. It’s possible, too, that John uses the scene in winter to indicate that the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth is not far off, that the unfolding of the revelation of Jesus is coming to a close.
Perhaps it is a sense of limited time and the supernatural power they witnessed in Jesus that provoked the Pharisees to press Jesus: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” The uncertainty has lasted long enough. Keep in mind that the Pharisees were vigilant about exposing pretenders and religious fanatics.
Instead of an answer, Jesus offers the works he has performed as evidence of his identity. Yet many who have witnessed them still remain unconvinced. And so Jesus explains why this is so: they are not of his “fold.” He cannot give them proof in the way they require it.
Which brings us to this talk of sheep. Perhaps this image is disturbing because it suggests weakness or the need to be herded together, thus losing our individuality. Perhaps the image of sheep and shepherd still troubles and confuses us by the implication of total dependence on the part of the needy. Or maybe we don’t care to identify with the lambs that stray and who require a strong pastor to lead the flock to greener pastures, the “Father knows best” model of church.
Ultimately, I think John’s Gospel reference has less to do with our being sheep and more to do with belief and believing. Other versions of this text talk more about Jesus as the Good Shepherd but this passage follows the confrontation of the Pharisees with Jesus around the question of belief in Jesus as the Messiah. The real issue is their belief. Believers, whom Jesus describes as his “sheep,” hear his voice and follow him. No one may snatch them from his hand.
But the question continues to tug at the back corners of our minds. Do we believe – and how? Clearly, we all remember so many ways in which our faith is challenged: the plethora of natural disasters, the untimely deaths of loved ones, serious health issues, human trafficking, child abuse, pervasive gun violence, high school kids stabbing one another, terrorists threatening our safety, the horrible massacre of genocide, and the lack of abundance for so many in our world; so many living without equal rights and those living in abject poverty.
All of this can force the chill and darkness of winter to come to our hearts and spirit. Like the audience in Jerusalem’s Temple that day, how Jesus responds to our questions of belief may make us uncomfortable. Indeed, there is much in the Gospels that can make us squirm.
Yet Jesus also assures us that the uncomfortable faith to which he calls us is nothing less than God’s own life, right here, right now. And no matter how we struggle in the wintery times of our belief, we are still and always the “unsnatchable,” beloved people of God. Jesus tells us that plainly. And about that truth, we do not have to be kept in suspense.