Easter 4 - To Whom Shall We Go
|"Voices" by Fe Ilya, on Flickr|
[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
It has been a gloriously sunny last couple of days outside. Spring has finally started to turn warm, and it’s making me think of summery things, like drinking iced coffee outside on the patio at Java John's, taking long after-dinner walks and, of course, stopping for ice cream, watching rec league softball games on warm evenings, and, of course, taking advantage of hot Sunday afternoons to head to the pool.
For now, Sam only knows the pool as a place to splash around with toys in the shallow end and a place to jump off the side of the pool into Daddy's arms, if he's feeling brave. But someday, he will learn about things like swimming end to end, jumping off the diving board, doing somersaults and handstands under the water, and, if he can gather some friends with him, playing that favorite of all pool games: Marco Polo. It’s a game of call and response; one child in the middle with his eyes closed, calling out "Marco!" and swimming blindly toward the voices that reply "Polo!" as he tries to catch and tag his friends.
This is a game that is based upon one of our most basic human instincts: to turn our bodies toward a familiar voice when we hear it speaking. Small babies learn quickly to turn their heads toward their mothers' voices. We lean in to better hear the voices of those we love in conversation. Body language experts tell us that when we are sitting and speaking to someone we are familiar with, we are likely to subconsciously cross our legs toward them. Put quite simply, our bodies and souls want to follow the voices of those whom we love and trust.
This is the sort of relationship that Jesus desires with us: a relationship where we cannot help but turn ourselves toward his voice; a relationship like that of sheep who know the voice of their shepherd. We follow Jesus into the abundant life he offers, and we know where he leads because we hear and recognize his voice calling from ahead of us.
The problem, of course, is that our world is noisy and crowded with voices. And there are plenty of voices out there that try to promise us abundant life...that is neither abundant nor is it life.
We are so tempted to follow the voices of all those in our world who claim to be our saviors: The voices that promise us wealth and security at the expense of others; the voices that that promise us everything our hearts could desire, provided that we play by the right rules, live the right sort of lives, eat the right sort of foods, buy the right sort of possessions, and by luck are born into the right class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation; the voices in our world who tell us that we can have whatever we want because we deserve it. But in the end, these are the false voices that cannot save us when the thieves of tragedy, illness, grief, betrayal, despair, violence, and fear come beating against the side of the sheepfold.
Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus warns, "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name and say, 'I am he' or 'I am the Messiah.' Do not follow them."
By contrast, Jesus describes himself both as the good shepherd as as the gate to the sheepfold. He is, in other words, the one who is committed to keeping his flock safe and secure from all the forces that seek to steal our lives and destroy our souls. The gate keeps us protected in the dark of night, that our bodies and souls might be safe from evil and destruction. The shepherd leads us out in the day to green grass and still waters, that our bodies and souls might be refreshed and restored.
And we know Jesus, this gate and this shepherd, by the sound of his voice. Which begs the crucial question: What does the voice of Jesus sound like? And how can we recognize it among all the other voices that we hear?
The rest of John’s gospel gives us some clues as to what we are listening for.
The very first sentence of John's gospel says, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." From its outset, John's gospel tells us that the voice of Jesus is the voice of God who, "in the beginning," spoke creation into being, saying into the darkness, "let there be light," and there was light. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear light being called from darkness, whenever we hear beauty being called from chaos, whenever we hear creativity being called from despair.
The first miracle that Jesus performs in John's gospel is turning water to wine at the wedding at Cana, and when Mary brings Jesus back to the kitchen when the wine has run out, she tells the servants, "do whatever he tells you," and the servants listen to Jesus' voice, and he turns scarcity into abundance in their presence, revealing that he is the one who brings an abundance of grace and life and light into the world. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words of grace beyond our deserving. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words of joy beyond our grief. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words of surprise blessing beyond our expectation.
Just one chapter prior to today's gospel reading, Jesus meets a man born blind, a man who has no other way of encountering Jesus except for listening to his voice. Jesus spreads mud on his eyes and then tells him to go and wash. The man listens to Jesus, follows his instructions, and his sight is restored. And when this man is thrown out of the community because of his relationship with Jesus, Jesus goes and finds him, like a shepherd gathering his sheep, and says to him, plainly, "the one speaking to you is [the very Son of Man]." We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words of healing and wholeness. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words of love and inclusion. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear words that bring us restoration and clarity of sight.
It will be the voice of Jesus calling, "Lazarus, come out!" that draws the dead man from the tomb. It will be the voice of Jesus saying, "Mary," in the garden, that opens the grieving woman's eyes to recognize her resurrected savior. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever life is being called forth from places of death and darkness. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever we hear our names - our identities - being spoken to with affection, love, and acceptance. We hear the voice of Jesus whenever words of unimaginable hope arise in the midst of our most unbearable grief.
What you may notice is that the voice of Jesus sounds like all of the things that our souls need to live and thrive at the most fundamental level. Because what we most need, in the deepest reaches of our spirits, are things like hope and grace and beauty and healing and strength and forgiveness and joy. This is the stuff of abundant life. And the voice of Jesus always promises us this sort abundant life, no matter what our life circumstance; abundant life in the midst of whatever we are facing, good or bad.
But don’t be fooled. The abundant life Jesus offers isn't an abundance of things, an abundance of power, or an abundance of worldly blessing. It isn’t a promise of life without troubles. It isn't a gift for only those who can afford it. It isn’t just reserved for those who are lucky or privileged or deserving. Abundant life is offered for all whom Jesus loves.
So if a voice promises you your freedom but does not lead you to seek the freedom of others, it is not the voice of Jesus. If a voice guarantees you your wealth and does not lead you toward sacrifice and generosity for the sake of others in need, it is not the voice of Jesus. If a voice promises you health and wholeness but does not lead you toward caring for the physical and emotional needs of others, it is not the voice of Jesus. If a voice protects your interests or assets but does not lead you to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed or vulnerable, it is not the voice of Jesus.
If a voice promises you grace and love and mercy, and leads you into a life of grace and love and mercy - that, my friends, is the voice of Jesus. Because the voice of Jesus always leads us - by example! - toward love of God, love of neighbor, and love of enemy. This is a calling that Jesus himself took on, a calling for which he was willing to sacrifice his own life, that all might know abundant life now and eternal life in the future.
There is no other voice in our world who can offer the life that Jesus offers. As Simon Peter says in John 6, "Lord, to whom [else could] we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
May the voice of Jesus bring you out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light. May his words be sweet to your soul. May the Word-made-flesh lead you in paths of righteousness, grace, and mercy. May the good shepherd call your name and may you always recognize his voice.
Lord, to whom else would we go? For you have the words of eternal and abundant life. And we are blessed in their hearing.