“My Sheep Hear My Voice”

a sermon by Chris Holmes, for the 4th Sunday in Easter


n 1899 the mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, spoke of “Jews exercising a ‘terrorism worse than which cannot be imagined,’” of the need for “‘liberating the Christian people from the domination of Jewry.’” And again he called Jews “‘these beasts of prey in human form,’” and so on. (Mind, 80) It will no doubt come as a surprise to some that Hitler himself was an Austrian. Virulent anti-Semitism was in the air he breathed as a young person growing up in the great city of Vienna. Anti-semitism, however, is hardly a new phenomenon. Some would point us to the pages of the NT itself. Most likely, some would point to John’s Gospel. John of all the gospels, certain scholars argue, is the most anti-semitic. A casual reading of our Gospel reading for today (John 10:22-30) suggests such. It is, after all, “the Jews” who gather around Jesus. “‘If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” And it is Jesus who forthrightly says, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Is Jesus himself an anti-Semite? By no means: Jesus was a Jew. What we must learn, then, is that John is “everywhere concerned to expose the tension between Jesus and the Jews because that same tension is repeated in the relation between the Church and the world.” (Hoskyns)

Jesus Christ was a Jew. He was the Messiah of His own people. But his own people, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t believe this. Jesus came to seek and to save his own people, the lost sheep of Israel. In an earlier section of the 10th chapter of this Gospel, Jesus tells the famous parable of the good shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (v. 11) Jesus’ words divide his people. “Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (v. 19-21) The issue is John’s Gospel is starkly posed. Either one rejects Jesus’ claim to authority, that he is one w. his Father (the God of Israel), or one accepts his claim to authority as truth and proceeds to faith and active discipleship.

It is astonishing to me that Jesus never answers his people’s questions on their own terms. Jesus is rather very reserved. “‘If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.” (v. 25-26a) Jesus is reserved because of the impossibility of setting his Messiahship in the context of contemporary Messianic ideas. Indeed, nowhere does Jesus teach openly that he is the Christ, the Messiah. Instead, his whole teaching and action presumes, declares, interprets, and demands that he is the Messiah. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (v. 25)

What all this points to, I believe, is the centrality of hearing. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (v. 27) This is a sermon about hearing. Earlier this week I read Marilynne Robinson’s splendid book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. She is not only an absolutely brilliant Pulitzer prize winning novelist, but also an equally capable essayist. In her heart she holds not only a special place for the neglected but utterly brilliant John Calvin, but also for the 20th century theological giant—Karl Barth—who took up Calvin, advancing his own best insights. In an essay entitled “Facing reality,” Robinson asks, “What if … we believe there is a God who is mysterious and demanding, with whom one is not easily at peace?” It is just this, I think, that the Jews and in turn the world struggles with, when they actually attempt to hear Jesus speak. However, Jesus doesn’t speak by yelling at us. He doesn’t shout from the rooftops that he is the Messiah. What he does do, instead, is raise the dead. The great 11th chapter of John’s Gospel records the dying and raising of Lazarus. Interestingly, neither in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel or anywhere else for that matter does Jesus ever give simple explanations for his behaviour. The Jews (and we too) don’t ever quite forgive Jesus for not speaking on our terms, for refusing to answer our questions.

“My sheep hear my voice.” (v. 27) Many today, however, would say there is no voice to be heard. There is instead only ourselves. We are, after all, people of immanence. We are people of a culture for whom the material world is all there is. Marilynne Robinson says that “a civilization can trivialize itself to death, [and] that we have set our foot in that path.” (155) I think that she is right. We are trivializing ourselves to death because in the end we believe that the heavens are silent, that the God of the Gospel is dead, and that the only voice to be heard is our own.

Again Jesus: “My sheep hear my voice.” In 1934, the year after Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, Karl Barth wrote the Barmen Declaration. His Declaration helped to coalesce church resistance to Hitler’s policies and gave rise to the Confessing Church. The Barmen Declaration rejected the influence in the church of race nationalism together with all other “events, powers, forms and truths” on the grounds that “Jesus Christ, as He is attested to in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we have to hear and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” (109) I often come back to Barth’s words. Why? Because Barth, as is the case w. all the church’s prophets, reminds us who are so often w.out ears that we must pray for ears. We must pray that we can hear the one Word of God in life and in death.

Perhaps Marilynne Robinson’s greatest strength is her ability to help us understand how our common sense came to be “common.” She is especially adept at helping us appreciate the great masters of suspicion, that is Karl Marx, F. Nietsche, and Sigmund Freud. Freud has always held a unique place in my heart, precisely because his book The Future of an Illusion offers the most devastating modern critique of religion (Christian faith) ever penned. In another lesser known book of his, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud says of religion, “Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner—which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by sparing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more.” (57) In other words, religion is delusional, and completely external to the real world. And you know what, looked at purely horizontally, he is right. Hear we are this am, this the 4th Sunday of Easter, to hear Jesus speak to us through his Word, Holy Scripture. This is delusional. Are we really actually to believe that this Jew who so clearly stoked the fury of his own people and who stokes the Gentile world’s fury too, speaks, and speaks through Scripture no less? Are we really to believe that he is the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the life? Are we really to believe he is one with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Are we really to believe in his authority? Does he really give eternal life? And if so, is life really something worth having forever?

These are not rhetorical questions. Jesus divides his own people, and his divides the church. As you all know, a great many church people in Barth’s day acquiesced to the fanatical racism of the day. Some claimed Scriptural warrant for it. The Jews, the Jews, the ones who killed Jesus have brought this upon themselves—some said. What we must remember is that the works that Jesus does are a scandal to his own people and to us too, Gentiles that we are.

The Gospel of John must be handled with care for it reflects very uniquely the beliefs of the early Christian community in its conflict with the synagogue authorities. But anti-Semitic it is not. Bonhoeffer wrote, “An expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew.” While we are of course living in a very different historical situation, I think it is fair to say that the church in North America today, just as in Bonhoeffer and Barth’s day, is pretty good at not listening and therefore casting out Jesus. For example, it amazes me how the discipline of Bible reading and meditation, is often cast aside as being quaint, sometimes even self-indulgent. The activist impulse of our culture says: do something; or at least click a button for yet another facebook petition.

This is my last Sunday to preach at saint benedict’s table for what will be some time, I am sure. My hope and prayer for saint benedict’s is that it take seriously John 18:37 “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” My hope is that saint benedict’s be a place where the written—to say nothing of the incarnate—Word of God, in all of its diversity, in all of its singular beauty and complexity, in all of its idiosyncrasies and in all of its sheer offensiveness to dominant modes of thought, be that to which we all yield.

Marilynne Robinson, in an essay called “Psalm Eight,” tells us why she goes to church. “The essence of it, certainly, is the Bible, toward which I do not feel in any degree proprietary, with which after long and sometimes assiduous attention I am not familiar. I believe the entire hypertrophic bookishness of my life arose directly out of my exposure, among modest Protestant solemnities of music and flowers, to the language of Scripture. Therefore, I know many other books very well and I flatter myself that I understand them—even books by people like Augustine and Calvin. But I do not understand the Bible. I study theology as one would watch a solar eclipse in a shadow. In church, the devout old custom persists of merely repeating verses, one or another luminous fragment, a hymn before and a hymn afterward. By grace of my abiding ignorance, it is always new to me. I am never not instructed.”

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  saint benedict’s table, be a parish where the language of Scripture is always new to you. Be a place where children, men, and women come, and are never not instructed in Scripture. Please don’t ever think that there isn’t a strange new world within the Bible. And God deliver you and me from ever thinking we fully understand the Bible. The hearing of Scripture is the essence of faith. That sheep follow is, precisely their act of hearing. Indeed, it has only recently really occurred to me—thick headed as I am—that following means that there is someone ahead of oneself. The risen and ascended Jesus is indeed ahead of you. He is speaking to you through Scripture, and by grace you can follow. You are not deluded, for you are given to Jesus by the Father who is your security.

In place of a conclusion, I end with the reading from Rev 7:9-12. This is the exalted Christology that is at the heart of John’s gospel and the apocalypse that bears his name. “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!; and all the angels stood around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”

And Amen.

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