Sermon peached on the 4th Sundy of Easter, 2007, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, with the text John 10:22-30
Tell us plainly.
Was it an unreasonable request? I, for one, do not think so. It was a very human request, wasn’t it? Who among us does not appreciate plain-spoken people, at least most of the time. And even though we Episcopalians pride ourselves on practicing a fairly muddy and messy version of Christianity, I still hear a lot of us saying a lot of the time, to God and to the Church, “tell us plainly.”
One of things with which we have to grapple if we are going to be followers of Jesus is that he was often not a very plain-spoken person. He delighted in answering people’s questions with a somewhat open-ended story and with some other non-answer to the question. Reading the gospels you get the impression that people were always walking away from him muttering to themselves, “What was he talking about?”
This was as true of his disciples as everyone else, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it is true for us. A few chapters after our reading this morning from John’s Gospel, Jesus will be trying to prepare his disciples for his departure.
And you know the way to the place where I am going, he says to them.
It is Thomas, perhaps the most plain-spoken of the disciples, who says, Master, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?
Jesus was frequently an exasperating guy. He still is, to any of us who would like a little more direction than we seem to get from God, or a little more clarity about God’s existence, or goodness, or even our own.
Even this whole notion of our gifts, that the Stewardship Committee is asking us to contemplate this morning, can be a foggy trip down an uncertain pathway. What are your gifts? Some of them may be clear, others may not be. How many of you want to answer that question with, “I’m not really sure?”
So, yes, Jesus, tell us plainly. Who are you? Who are we?
Tell us plainly. There’s nothing really wrong with the request, and I think it is perfectly fine for us to keep making it. But we may need to pay a little attention to just what kind of answer we are expecting.
I think those who were making this request of Jesus in the Gospel this morning had in mind a fairly utilitarian answer. Are you the Messiah or not, was really a way of asking, what are you going to do (for us)? And what should we do in response to what you are going to do?
And this may be just why Jesus makes the people around him, including us, so crazy sometimes. He doesn’t always seem very concerned with “doing.” This is particularly true in John’s Gospel.
He frequently answers a utilitarian question with a relational answer, a “doing” question with a “being” answer.
A perfect example of this is his response to this question this morning. Are you the Messiah or not, tell us plainly.
I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me;
It’s a masterful non-answer because he teases them with the word “works” as if they should have already figured out the utilitarian answer to their utilitarian question, but it’s not the important bit at all. He goes on
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.
It’s all about relationship: belonging and knowing and being, or, in another important word in John’s Gospel, abiding. He’s turned their question inside out. I know, he is saying, that you want to know what I am going to do, given your expectations of the Messiah. In fact, you’re so busy expecting that you can’t see that I’m already doing it, only what I’m doing is being, and those who can be with me can see that.
And then he goes on actually to speak very plainly, but, again, not the kind of plainly they wanted.
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.
The Father and I are one. Again, it is all about relationship. They want to know what this man thinks God wants him to do, and he’s saying, God and I just are together. “The Father and I are one.” You will never understand what I am doing, if you cannot grasp my being.
And there’s the rub.
In Jesus’ way of doing life, what we do flows from who we are, not the other way around. And we live in a world (and Jesus did too) that wants to work exactly the opposite. Who we are depends on what we do. Being flows from doing in our world. What is the first thing we tend to ask someone when we meet them?
This really is a fundamental part of the good news, the gospel. Who we are is fundamental, of first importance, and is not determined by what we have done, are doing, or will do. Why else do we say at baptism that “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever”? What we are saying is, who you are in the eyes of God and of this community of faith will never depend on what you have done. It will always simply, but deeply, be. You are a child of God.
Being a child of God is not our reward in heaven after having lived a good life. It is simply who we are, a given, and any goodness we do flows out of that in gratitude.
This also has everything to do with this whole conversation about gifts and ministry and stewardship. This conversation can be a trap for us, because naming our gifts and how we exercise them can easily become all about our “doing.” And, like in Jesus’ conversation this morning, it is about our doing but in an entirely different way than we expect. We cannot know our gifts, and exercise them properly if we do not first know who we are.
I truly believe this is the biggest stumbling block most of us have in this conversation about our gifts. There are two stumbling blocks, really. The first is that, in the Church, we often use an adjective with the word gifts, “spiritual gifts.” “What are your spiritual gifts?” we ask. As if there were “unspiritual gifts”! There are not some gifts that are spiritual and some gifts that are not, just like there is not part of you that God created and part of you that God did not create. It’s all creation, and it’s all gift. You may have the gift of compassion or you may have the gift of carpentry, it’s all the same, no gift is greater or lesser and certainly more spiritual or not.
The second stumbling block has to do with needing to know who we are before we can talk about what we do. People who are not clear about God’s love for them are usually also unclear about what gifts God has given them for ministry. It’s partly the “worthiness” thing. Someone asks you what your gifts for ministry are and you immediately go to that, “Oh, I am not worthy, I am just a lowly worm trying to be good enough so that on judgment day God won’t be too mad at me and I’ll get into heaven.”
Well, as they say in my world, “Get over yourself, Mary!” God made you and, as they say, God don’t make junk, and God loves you even though he can see right straight through you. Of course you are unworthy; we all are. But God has made us worthy just because he wanted to, and because of that to call yourself unworthy for more than five seconds, to get stuck in your unworthiness, is blasphemy. It is also, ironically, the height of arrogance. Who do you think you are that God cannot love you and give you gifts?
Who you are is God’s child, period. Get a hold of that truth, the most important truth in your life, and your gifts will flow from that. That’s as plain as I can speak.