May 12, 2019
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah tell us plainly.” In a way it seems like an odd question to be asked in the Gospel of John. No gospel is more clear on explicitly declaring the identity of Jesus than the Gospel of John. It’s in John that we get all the famous “I am” statements of Jesus. “I am he,” Jesus says to the woman at the well when she asks him if he is the messiah. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He’s all these things, John wants us to know, because “he and the father are one,” as Jesus declares at the end of our passage. To know the son is to know the father. To love the one is to love the other, and what Jesus shares with the father – the loving unity between them – he shares with us. This is the dominant thrust of John’s message; it is said over and over again, so to hear some people ask Jesus to be clear about his identity in the gospel of John can feel a little odd.
On the other hand, aren’t we kind of glad they ask him? “Are you really who you say you are? Are you really at work? Do you really have the capacity to transform my circumstances? Are you really present? Are you going to act?” Who among us hasn’t asked those questions?
Debie Thomas writes, “Most of the time, faith isn’t a clean ascent from confusion to clarity, doubt to trust. It’s a perpetual turning. A circle we trace from knowing to unknowing, from unbelief to belief. From “Christ is Risen,” to “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” I used to consider this sort of circling a sin or a weakness, but I don’t anymore. It’s what we human beings do. It’s real life. 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. If something in you feels suspended, taut, impatient for Jesus to rise again one more time into the particulars of your comings and goings, your nights and days — then welcome to the way of authentic faith. This is how it works.”[i]
In response to the question Jesus says, “I have told you, and yet you don’t believe. I have shown you, and yet you don’t believe.” And then comes the crux of the passage. “You don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep.”
It reminds me of a friend of mine who confessed once, “You know, I’ve tried to believe in God. I’ve tried to have faith that God is real and present, but I just can’t.” She seemed okay with that too, like she had realized that she was just the kind of person who wasn’t supposed to have God in her life. It was one of those moments where too many thoughts went through my head to respond quickly. Partly, since we were at a party, I wondered if she sincerely wanted to have a dialogue about this, or if she was just trying to tell me to please accept her as she is, which of course I was already perfectly willing to do, but I’m not sure she knew that. In any case, we didn’t extend the conversation. But, I’ve always wondered what her attempts at faith were like. I imagine that she attempted to muster up in her brain a certain conviction that God is real. Maybe she tried to pray and overcome the sense that these were silent words spoken only to herself. Maybe she took a walk in the woods thinking she would find God in nature. I’m pretty sure that whatever attempts she made at faith were private attempts. Partly, I suspect that to be the case because I know her, but partly I suspect it because that’s likely the way most people go about it.
I’m not sure whose fault that is. Maybe it’s because we are individualistic, freedom-focused Americans. Or, maybe it is because dominant Christian voices have suggested that that’s the way to do it. “Believe, and you’ll be saved,” they say. “Just say the magic prayer, ‘Jesus, I accept you as my personal savior and I invite you into my heart,’ and you’ll be part of his flock.” I could see my friend saying those words and finding that nothing much happened and thereafter abandoning the whole faith endeavor.
By the way, I hope that by now it is obvious that we do something a bit different than the Jesus prayer each and every week. We do the prayer of thanksgiving where instead of saying, “Jesus, I accept you,” we say instead, “Jesus, please accept us. Accept all that we are. Accept all that we have, and make us more and more your people.”
This kind of gets us to the point that I think our gospel passage is making today. “You do not believe because you do not belong,” Jesus says. This is not about whether or not your are welcome to belong. Rather, it is about the way in which belief works. Belief springs from belonging. It springs from participation. It springs from actual engagement in a community of people for whom God is a living reality.
Do you want to believe? Then, first belong! Do you want to believe? Then join hands with people who are doing God’s work, and then maybe you’ll find God working through you. Join your mind with those who have learned to listen for God’s Word and maybe you’ll better hear God speaking to you. Join your heart with those who have learned to love the way God loves, and maybe you’ll discover a divine love growing in you. Join your life with those who have learned to rely on God’s Good News and who week after week give themselves back to God, and maybe you’ll discover that you have the faith to find God too.
The wonderful Frederick Buechner writes, “It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle that we are really after. And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.”[ii]
We get it when we belong, when we consent to belong to God’s living, loving, believing fold. So my friends, belong!
[ii] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2201. Quoted from a sermon, “Message in the Stars.”