Fourth Sunday in Easter
Year C, RCL
May 12, 2019
North Fork Ministries
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."
If you like your theology in black and white, expressed in simple, unambiguous terms, then the Gospel of John, and this gospel reading in particular, may not suite your taste. As a matter of fact, it’s easy to understand how the leaders of the synagogue, after hearing Jesus’ reply to their questions about his true identity, were frustrated enough to start chunking stones at him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” the leaders asked.
Jesus, who is notorious for answering a question with another question, is characteristically cryptic is his reply to them. “I have told you, and you do not believe.” In fact, Jesus has done nothing of the kind. In the gospel of John, up to this point, the only person to whom Jesus has, in a straightforward fashion, acknowledged that he was the messiah, was the Samaritan woman at the well. After handing Jesus a drink of water from Jacob’s well, she said, “I know that the Messiah is coming.” Jesus replied to her, “I am he.” No one else was present at this intimate encounter, so how were the Jewish leaders to know?
This encounter between Jesus and the Jewish leaders brings up all kinds of doctrinal issues for Christians today: the nature of the Trinity, atonement, the divinity of Jesus, and the issue of election. For the synagogue leaders, the theological issue of the moment was the rumored “messiahship” of Jesus….. Was Jesus the long awaited Messiah? But Jesus would have none of it. He refused to be painted into a doctrinal corner.
Anthony DeMello, the story=telling Jesuit priest, illustrates this point with a tale he calls, “The Explorer”.
The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids? He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their Town Hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was, how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls? It is said that Buddha stubbornly refused to be drawn into talking of God. He was obviously familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.
Go light on doctrine and heavy on experience. Such was Jesus’ counsel to his disciples and critics alike.
A number of years ago one of my spiritual teachers were talking about the difference between religion and spirituality, and how both play a role in the development of the spiritual life. She said that religion, in particular the transmission of a religion’s spiritual practices - the way in which a particular faith’s tenets are expressed and conveyed, is like the shell of an egg. The shell of the egg contains the yoke and the yoke is the spiritual core, the essence of the religion. But if we crack the egg and try to hand over the yoke, this spiritual essence, to another person, the yoke, now an uncontained slimy mess, slips through our fingers and lands in a puddle on the ground. We do need a strong spiritual practice – rituals, prayers, stories, hymns and a sound theological understanding of the faith in order to transmit the religion’s spiritual essence.
But one day I offered this analogy to a retired, and very wise, Roman Catholic priest, whose long experience in the church had left him tired and rather cynical. He nodded in agreement and said, “Yes, that’s right, but the problem is, religion can become all shell and no yoke.”
The synagogue leaders who questioned Jesus were caught up in the religious questions of the day. They wanted to know if he was the Messiah, the chosen one. It was a question of particular significance to them during the festival of Dedication, known now as Hanukkah, the celebration of God’s reclaiming of Jerusalem through the heroism of the Maccabees. It was a festival of light and joy, but with insufficient light to allow Jesus’ critics to see and understand that God’s love can be made manifest in new and unexpected ways. Jesus wasn’t the kind of messiah his questioners had in mind. Jesus’ proclamation that “The Father and I are one, “sent his listeners in a mad dash for stones to hurl in his direction.” Their religiosity stood in the way of understanding that Jesus’ teachings were a reaffirmation of the divine initiative that had characterized their own faith from it’s very beginnings. We are God’s own, and nothing can snatch us from the hand of God.
I want to take this egg yoke and spirituality analogy one step further. Most of you probably don’t know that I used to keep chickens. I built a hen house and bought six chicks from a feed store one week before Easter, careful to select chicks of a wide range of colors and shapes. I had Araucanas from South America, Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, and a white pair, one small and the other large. Collectively, they laid 3 or 4 eggs most every day. Opening the door to their nests continued to be cause for small pleasure and a little excitement, because I never knew what color eggs to expect. The eggs may be brown, pinkish, white, blue or green. When friends saw the eggs, the question I was usually asked was, “What color is the inside?” Those of us who were raised or raised our children on Dr. Seuss, may still wonder about the possibility of “green eggs and ham”. But I can assure you that the yoke, the inside of these brilliantly colored eggs is always the same - just as the spiritual core of the world’s great religions all contain the eternal essence of the Divine. The beauty of our faith in Christ, allows us to recognize that the love of God extends to all persons, to all creation. It is a great gift, and a reminder, as I gathered eggs from the henhouse that were as colorful as the eggs our children dashed to gather on Easter Sunday, that every day holds the promise of Easter morning.