Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7 2017
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
We need a high Christology and a low estimate of ourselves. We need a humble heart.
“What is the use of a book without pictures and conversations?” asks Alice. And what is the use of a sermon without stories and anecdotes?
So let me start where Benjamin Hoff starts, in his foreword to The Tao of Pooh.
“The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise,” says the Tao Te Ching; and one of Hoff’s prime targets is the desiccated academic who writes eruditely about the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism without understanding much of anything.
In conversation with one such, he quotes from Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne’s classic of Western wisdom:
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet…, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.
“That’s not about Taoism,” protests the unbeliever. “Winnie the Pooh is about this dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness. That’s what it’s about.”
“Same thing,” says Benjamin Hoff.
“It’s the same thing” runs like a mantra right through The Tao of Pooh; and it’s also my mantra. With 2 Timothy, we sometimes speak of “rightly dividing the word of truth”, but often what this means is bringing together things that should never be put apart.
The prophet Ezekiel rages against the false shepherds of his day: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
We don’t need to dwell on who precisely were the false shepherds of Ezekiel’s day. We have enough examples in our own day: in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem or the presidential compound in Ramallah, in 10 Downing St, or in the White House – the occasional home of a man who sees the American presidency as a family business opportunity.
In response to the false shepherds of his and our day, Ezekiel makes two promises.
First, that God himself will shepherd God’s people: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice.”
Second, that God will raise up a new king to shepherd them: “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
With Jesus of Nazareth, we realize that these two things are no longer simply future: they are already happening.
And they are in fact the same thing.
Jesus the unexpected Messiah, who rides into this town on a donkey and not a warhorse, who goes to the cross rather than kill his enemies, is God’s only Son. He is Christ and Lord and God.
Halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea is the ancient monastery of Mar Saba. Founded in the fifth century of our common era, today it houses about 20 Greek Orthodox monks. The Scottish writer William Dalrymple stayed there in 1994.
On a balcony overlooking the Kidron Valley, he fell into conversation with Fr Theophanes, the monastery’s guest master.
‘Look at it!’ said Theophanes, waving a hand at the rocky gorge deep below them. “On judgement day that’s where the river of blood is going to flow. It’s going to be full of Freemasons, whores and heretics: Protestants, schismatics, Jews, Catholics …”
“Actually,” said Dalrymple, “I’m a Catholic.”
“Unless you convert to Orthodoxy,” said Theophanes, “you too will follow your pope down that valley, through the scorching fire. We will watch you from this balcony, but of course it will then be too late to save you.”
We all do this, unless we are careful. We say there are two kinds of people.
We divide humankind into an in-group, which naturally includes us, and all those other groups, which so far as we are concerned are out. And then we ascribe this division to God.
John does this, more than any of the other Gospels, which is why I think of the John as both the best of gospels and the worst.
From beginning to end the fourth Gospel is a profound spiritual meditation on who Jesus of Nazareth is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
But it also sharply divides people into two groups: in particular, John’s own group, the community of the beloved disciple, of which we know nothing except what we can glean from the Gospel itself and the three letters associated with it, and those opposed to his group, notably “the Jews”.
Easily we overlook the deep vein of hostility that runs through John’s Gospel, and when this is drawn to our attention we are shocked.
At least, I hope we are.
The ten verses Mary and Callum read for us are the beginning of a much longer reflection on Jesus as the good shepherd that can scarcely fail to move us.
But this whole passage is a reflection on the story that comes before it, where Jesus heals a man who has been blind from birth and tells “the Pharisees” who criticize him that it is really they who are blind.
Go back one more chapter, and we find this striking statement about a group John calls “the Jews who had believed in Jesus” but, it seems, no longer do:
“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him… But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me… Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
We don’t need to go to Yad Vashem to realize that this won’t do.
Running through John’s text is a set of familiar dichotomies: light and darkness, good and evil, life and death, faith and unbelief, love and hate, truth and alternative facts.
Our human temptation is to take the good side of these dichotomies and claim them for ourselves and then take the bad side and project them onto others. The irony, of course, is that when we allow ourselves to do this, we fall into hate speech and find ourselves in darkness.
In truth, the divisions to which John points are not divisions between two kinds of people. They are divisions that run right down the middle of each and every one of us, each and every church and nation, every culture and society.
Israel Shrenzel teaches in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University. On Friday, writing in Haaretz, he quoted the last two verses of Surah Al Fatihah, which opens the Qur’an and serves as the principal prayer text in Islam, recited by the faithful on their prayer mats five times a day: “Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom you have bestowed your grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.”
In the traditional interpretation of these verses, those on whom God has bestowed God’s grace are the Muslims; those whose portion is God’s wrath are the Jews; and those who go astray are us, the Christians.
But the traditional interpretation is not the only interpretation.
In the 19th century, the great Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh rejected this dualistic reading. Those on whom God has bestowed God’s grace, he argued, are all who are just and righteous, whatever their faith may be; those who go astray and whose portion is wrath are all sinners as such, regardless of their faith.
From when we wake up in the morning to when our heads hit the pillow, we are faced every day with a question of parentage.
Who is our father? Are we from the devil, or is our father the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
This is an existential question. It is not about the label we pin on ourselves but about who we are. Whether or not we call ourselves Christian, do we walk in the way of truth and the way of life?
And it is an existential question posed to us not to begin with by ourselves but by a Christ who tells us to love our enemies and to look first to the log in our own eye before fussing over the log in the eye of the other.
We are God’s people. But as with all who are chosen, we are not chosen for division, domination, or privilege.
We are chosen to serve.
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing (CH4 416)
The Lord’s my shepherd (Psalm 23; CH4 16)
You Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd (CH4 355)
Blest be the everlasting God (CH4 424)
Christ has risen while earth slumbers (CH4 430)
Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, many editions
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh (London: Methuen, 1982)
Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel of John: How the ‘Jews’ Became Part of the Plot”, in Paula Fredriksen & Adele Reinhartz, Jesus, Judaism & Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002)
Israel Shrenzel, “What the Koran and the Bible teach us about tolerance”, Haaretz, May 5 2017