“Christianity: Not a Spectator Sport”
May 8, 2022
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 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.”
Here in the northern lake country of Wisconsin, the quick turn away from a persistent winter to instant summer has me thinking about the reading season ahead. My voracious reader friends are already beginning on their summer reading lists.
Books that I enjoy reading have an element of intrigue, suspense and surprise. The novels I like least are the ones where the ending feels unfinished. Those plot conclusions make me want to throw the book at the wall, which I refuse to do because I read on a mobile device.
My penchant for a particular type of summer reading relates to the heart of this week’s lesson from John. It presents a question for the ages posed to Jesus: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
The context for this scene is a late December day in Jerusalem. Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon, an old and revered part of the Temple, and as usual, he is drawing a crowd. The people gathered around him are devout Jews who have come to town to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication (better known to us as Hanukkah).
They have heard the talk on the street about Jesus. Some have listened to his enigmatic sermons, or saw one of his mind-boggling miracles. In short, they are familiar with the teacher from Nazareth; they understand that he is complex and elusive. Hence the question: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
I can identify with the people who questioned Jesus during his time on earth. Granted, their motives were mixed. Some were baiting him in hopes of creating a scandal. Others wanted Jesus to lead a revolution against Rome, or establish a rival religion, or wave his magic wand in the air and rain miracles from the sky. Some were simply eager debaters, hankering for a hot argument with a famous rabbi.
And yet. Something about their question still haunts many people. Perhaps you know what it is like to feel as if God is keeping you in suspense — taking you on roundabout paths, keeping silent, and making the spiritual journey complicated. Maybe you have started a prayer with the words of those people in the temple. “If you are.” If you are good. If you are powerful. If you are merciful. If you are loving. If, if , if.
If you are the Messiah, then stop talking in riddles. Speak plainly. Behave predictably. Make our tiresome disbelief impossible. Take this world of swirling, dubious gray, and turn it black and white, once and for all.
To this question Jesus does not respond plainly. No surprise. At least not at first glance, anyway. Jesus: I have told you, and you do not believe,” he says with discernible impatience in his voice. And then the icy clincher: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
I’ll admit it: The harshness of those words troubles me. “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” What can such a stark, cut-and-dry pronouncement mean?
An easy dodge would be to insist that the sentence doesn’t apply to us. After all, we have been believers for a long time. We have been loyal to the church — or at least we once were. We know the basics of the faith. I say my prayers. Surely, I both believe and belong.
Except when we don’t. The nagging trouble with Jesus’s indictment is that it does apply to our spiritual experience. Not rarely, but often enough. Those doubts and questions about God’s goodness, power, and even existence are never that far away. It is impossible to know what the motivations of those people in the temple were on that long-ago December day, but I know my own. When I ask Jesus to stop keeping me in suspense, when I insist that he speak plainly, there is a dimension that says: “I don’t trust you. I trust neither your willingness to speak to me, nor my ability to hear your voice. You are supposed to be my Good Shepherd. I am supposed to know, trust, and love your voice, but sometimes that is really difficult.” So what now?”
At first glance, Jesus’s reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you do not consent to belong. In other words, belief does not come first. It cannot come first. Belonging does.
According to this text, whatever belief I arrive at in this life will come not from a creed or a cleverly worded sermon, but from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and listening in real time for the voice of the one whose classroom is on hillsides, in valleys and sometimes on stormy seas. If I resist following him in those layered places of life — places of both tranquility and treachery — that belonging will always be elusive.
I wonder if Jesus resisted the crowd’s question that day because it was so pitifully inadequate. What good would it have done if he had stood up in the temple at their insistence and yelled, “Yes! Yes, in fact, I am the Messiah!” Would anything have changed? Suddenly, would his parables, his countercultural teachings, and his strange miracles have coalesced into an easy common sense? I doubt it. Jesus was a storytelling rabbi — far more interested in formation than in formula.
Maybe, by refusing to “speak plainly,” Jesus was honoring human life for the incredibly complicated thing it is. After all, one does not “speak plainly” about the greatest mysteries of the universe. Jesus came to teach us about truth, about love, and about eternal life. One does not simply profess belief in such weighty and mysterious things — one lives into them, questions into them, believes into them, grows into them. One wrestles — and even in the wrestling, belongs.
Living as we do on this side of the Resurrection, we know that even the greatest miracle in human history was not enough to stop Jesus’s followers from asking pointed questions. Even the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb struggled to believe. As their heirs, why should we be superior? We are a wondering and wandering species, prone to stumbling all over ourselves. We are sheep, and our only hope is in the goodness of our ever-loving Shepherd.
I suspect that Jesus’s answer was not what the people in the temple that day wanted to hear. They wanted to believe from the outside. They wanted a version of proof that would not require them to step into the smelly sheep pen and muck around with the other sheep. They wanted certainty without risk. Truth without trust. A Messiah who would provide, but not provoke. That kind of “plain telling,” Jesus said, is not available. The only knowing happens within and among the fold. The belief Jesus is interested in has little to do with our intellects. To “believe” in the Gospel sense means to trust, to lean, to depend, to throw my lot in with. It is an orientation of the heart and the gut. A willingness to stake everything I’ve got on the person, the character, the life, the death, and the resurrection of God’s Son. It is not abstract. It is learned and grown through relationship.
Sheep know their shepherd because they are his; they walk, graze, feed and sleep in his shadow, beneath his rod and staff, within constant earshot of his voice. They believe because they have come to his care, his authority, his leadership, and his guidance. There is no belonging from the outside. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Belong, Jesus says. Consent to belong. Belief will follow.
Image credits: EsperanzaArts, Globalworship.Tumblr, Goodsalt.com