Last week, Ruth gave us a great sermon which dealt with Jesus re-instating Peter after his denial of Jesus during his questioning by the high priest. During Peter’s reinstatement, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, and when Peter assured him that he did, Jesus first told him to first feed his lambs, then to take care of his sheep, and lastly to feed his sheep. It rather puzzled me when the reading today goes back to John 10, but you’ll have noticed that sheep featured largely in Jesus’ words to the Jews, but the focus is on Jesus’ identity through what he says and does, and his relationship with his Father, and what it means for us.
Let’s take a closer look at the passage. To begin, it begins at the Feast of the Dedication when the Jews commemorated the rededication of the temple when Jerusalem was freed from its Syrian oppressor years in 165 BCE. The temple had been desecrated during this time, and was cleansed and rededicated, its commemoration known as Hanukkah, when many candles are lit in celebration. The Gospel writer notes it was winter, a time of physical cold, but it reflected the attitude of the Jews to the Jesus too.
So even though Jesus has spoken to the Jewish priests many times already, they still hassle him asking “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus then tells them he did tell them, but they didn’t believe. In ch 5 we read of Jesus being persecuted by the Jewish leaders because Jesus healed an invalid – they were greatly concerned that this had happened on the Sabbath, but also that Jesus had referred to God as his Father, and talked of how he could only do this healing work because he was reflecting the healing work of his Father. He goes on to spell out the relationship he has with the Father, and says in ch 10 v 39, “”You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” This is a pretty good summary of what he says again in today’s passage.
There are two ways they can know Jesus is the Messiah; first, by seeing the miraculous things he has done in the Father’s name, healings being the very common occurrences when Jesus is present, and second, hearing of the relationship, the faith, he has with and in his father. We still talk of Christian life now as being shown by good works and by faith, or relationship with God, that James talks about in his letter – In Ch 2 we read, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Faith and deeds identify the true Christian, following in the footsteps of the way Christ lived his life by doing good works guided and empowered by God, and demonstrating a living relationship and intimacy with God. Although the Jews have seen the miracles Jesus has done, and heard his teaching, they still don’t believe he is the Messiah. It’s almost as if they have stuck their fingers in their ears, they simply don’t want to know he is the Messiah, because he doesn’t fit their model of Messiah. He has come as servant king, not military king, and he calls out the way that they preach good things but fail to live them out. (What a challenge that is to any preacher or teacher!)
But Jesus tries to make it plainer to the Jews by comparing everyone he speaks to or teaches as sheep, but says of the Jews that they are not his sheep. I wonder how they felt about that – were they pleased because they simply didn’t believe he was the Messiah, or were they secretly envious because they could see the positive effect he had in the lives of his followers. The Jews believed they were the chosen ones who would be of the flock that followed the Messiah. But here is Jesus, the one they disapprove of, saying only his sheep listen to his voice, and are known by him. Only some of the sheep listen to, belong to Jesus. To belong means they have made a choice to follow him, whatever part of his teaching or his life made them want to follow him, to be known as people who belonged to his group of followers. If the Jews have metaphorically stuck their fingers in their ears, they simply can’t hear.
Jesus says that he knows his sheep, and they follow him. Being known by someone implies a caring, loving intimacy. I love the verse in 1 Cor 13, where I understand it to mean that when we meet the Lord face to face, this will happen: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” “As I am fully known” – notice the present tense, that being known by God is right here, this morning in Amington.
Then Jesus does that thing he often does, he ramps up the conversation, he takes it to a whole different level, by saying “I give them (my sheep) eternal life and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” These sheep who follow Jesus, not the Jews, will have eternal life, and no-one, no, not even the Jews, will be able to touch them. To add insult to injury, he talks of God as his Father once again, and says the Father has given these people to Jesus and says again that no-one can take them from the hand of the Father. The Father has known since before creation who will be his sheep. This harks back to verses in Ps 139 where the Psalmist talks of us being made: “For you created me in my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb;…Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” These words are written by a believer, and I think have special poignancy for us Christians, although this is part of the Jewish Bible too. God knows the ones he has saved to be his sheep, who he saves and how he saves them, is a judgement and insight I’m happy to leave to God, our God of the universe and all time.
Then the final straw for the Jews, the final ramping up comes as Jesus says plainly, blatantly, “I and the Father are one.” That would simply be red rag to the Jews, inciting them to angry reaction, and that is indeed what happens, for the passage goes on after the portion read to us to talk about how the Jews wanted to stone Jesus.
Well, what does that mean for us today? First of all, I wonder if we would reply to Jesus, “You know I love you Lord” as Peter did. Then, how are we doing in terms of helping people around us, feeding the lambs, caring from the sheep, feeding the sheep, but enabled like the sheep in today’s passage by hearing the voice of God, following Jesus, being aware of his protection? Our Church strapline is after all, Following Jesus Together.
I found a picture which may help, when it comes to being held secure in the hand of God, not being snatched away.
This is a wood print by a man called Scott Erickson, a contemporary multi talented American artist who spent some time at the Saddleback Church – from where many of our children’s video Bible stories come.
First, it shows God’s hands in a heart shape to demonstrate his love. There isn’t anyone in the boat so we can imagine our own selves there, protected by God, held by him so no person or circumstance can snatch us away from him.
But we all know the Christian walk and relationship with God is not always an easy one, and the stirred up waters in the hands show that. But we’re still held, protected and known in the boat. Then there are the oars in the boat because belonging, following God is an active thing, we are given tools, oars, to help us use our God-given gifts to help navigate the waters, following the promptings he gives us. We can choose to show his place in our lives by our faith, relationship with God, we have, and the deeds we do.
Lord, may we love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, and hear you more clearly, day by day. Amen.