Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2022
John 10:22-30 Commentary
This passage follows very closely Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd” speech. People were already suspicious of Jesus and how he described himself, thinking he had a demon or was out of his mind. There were some, though, who thought there might be more to Jesus than madness or possession (verse 20). Some scholars see a connection between the note that “it was winter” and the spiritual climate that Jesus faced in Jerusalem: a cold reception. More likely, the note about the season is connected to the location of this conversation: Solomon’s portico was an area with a thick wall that protected people from the elements. (Same goes for the setting of Festival of Dedication, better known to us as Hannukah—no need to make too much symbolic connection.)
All the same, these kinds of questions about Jesus were clearly hanging in the air. Our English translations don’t quite capture the tone of the question posed by those who are gathered around Jesus, as many commentators note how the Greek points to an annoyed posture more than an excited one: “Just put us out of our misery, settle this here and now, and just say what we want to hear, give it to us…”
Jesus answers by telling them he has already told them, in word and deed. How exasperated those gathered probably felt by his response! But that’s the point, and the challenge, isn’t it? We already know from the larger biblical narrative that what these folks meant by “Messiah” is markedly different than how God is the Messiah, so of course Jesus’ way doesn’t make sense to them—it hasn’t “stuck” because it hasn’t matched their expectations.
But then Jesus adds this layer to why it hasn’t stuck. In verse 26 he says, “you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” This can be a difficult passage to understand, let alone accept: that there are some who do not belong to the God who says everything belongs to him, that the world is his footstool, that nothing is outside of his mighty arm’s reach. How can both be true?
There seem to be a number of ways that we (and the created world) might belong to God. We all belong in the sense that we are all creatures who have been made by the Creator. But Jesus’ words here point to a different kind of belonging, a belonging that has re-oriented one’s life, one’s view of the world and the way things should (and can be). It is a belonging founded upon, flowing through, and dependent upon Jesus the Christ as the good shepherd.
Notice how belonging to the good shepherd Jesus is central: “My sheep (i.e., those who belong to me) hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” And notice that the sheep do not belong simply because they exist; their belonging is an active belonging: hearing, following, being known (i.e., having experiences of Jesus), and being given eternal life.
It seems to me that Jesus is saying that those who have heard his voice and believed, who are able to see him at work in the world and in their lives, who are following him and his way of being in the world, they are people who have founded and are staking their lives on him.
But lest we think that this conversation in the portico is setting up a distinction between those who are in and those who are out, those who belong cosmically and those who belong intimately, Jesus’ comforting words of eternal belonging ring like a harbinger of frustration, difficulty, and challenge. It’s like Jesus’ promise that we are eternally safe is a reminder that there will be struggles of not only doubt and despair, but wandering sheep who stop listening when their shepherd calls for them.
As an active type of belonging, there are times when even the sheep need to be re-oriented. Like the Psalmists who ask God, “Why… How long… Rescue me… Fight for us… Please forgive…” our exasperated or confounded or belligerent and stubborn selves need to be turned around and set upright again, as God would have us be. (If you want to explore this further, I recommend Walter Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms, where he presents the Psalms as a spirituality of orienting, disorienting, and reorienting.)
Jesus says that what the Father has given him will not be snatched away from him, that this bond is greater than anything else that exists. The bond is the Trinity itself: “I and the Father are one.” Nothing is more powerful because it is the bond that is the essence of the Godhead. It is from this self-existing power of the Trinity that all of life, temporal and eternal, flows. It is in this Trinitarian self-existence that every thing created, lives and moves and has its being.
In other words, it is cosmically all-encompassing, yet divinely intimate: sheep who hear their shepherd’s voice. Sheep who are known and loved by their good shepherd. Sheep who trust that, come what may, they are never alone but are safely ensconced in God’s hand.
I am reminded of this wood print I picked up a number of years ago at a show by Scott Erickson. It picks up on the other metaphor Jesus uses to describe his sheep: in God’s hands. Hands in the shape of a heart hold a rowboat in wavy water. I bought the print because it captures for me the security of being in God’s hands and that nothing is able to snatch me away from there. But the two other parts of the print also image what Jesus describes in our passage today. First, there is still (and will be) trouble and challenge, belief and listening do not always come easy: the boat is in the midst of somewhat troubled waters. Second, the rowboat has paddles: in God’s hands is still an active belonging (i.e., there are some things for me to do).
Following Jesus, listening to his voice, letting ourselves be known by him—and therefore having experiences that allow us to know Jesus—this is further description of the Easter Resurrection new life calling we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks. The same power that sustains everything, including God’s own self, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power that allows us to recognize the Saviour’s voice, to know intimately our good God, and to follow after him. Amen.
Most of the verbs in this pericope are in the present tense—including the section where Jesus is speaking about his relationship with his sheep (you and me). It is a great comfort to read this description as the ongoing activity of God for us. Yet, as a covenantal relationship, there are things for us to continue to do as well: to listen to and for Jesus’ voice, to experience Jesus knowing us, to follow Jesus. In fact, it is these activities, I believe, that will help us to know the truth of what we receive from him (and therefore how we know that Jesus is also the Christ, our Messiah). Hearing his voice is to know we belong for eternity, mutual experience and knowing Jesus grows our assurance of our safety under the shelter of his wings, and because we are following Jesus into eternity, we can be confident that where he is, body and soul in heaven, we will be as well.
Maya Angelou is credited with the modern-day proverb, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” When we use this saying, we’re usually referring to negative experiences: we keep hoping for someone to be different and they keep proving themselves to be ______. Jesus is saying something similar to the Jews in the temple, “I have shown you who I am, but you do not believe.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!