My Sheep Listen to Me

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”

Do you ever feel a little sympathy for the Jews in this story? Do you ever want to say to God – tell me plainly, show me plainly? I have to confess, I feel this quite a lot. Sometimes I think it would be so much easier if we could see and hear God like we do other people, if we could understand more clearly. We all want simple answers some of the time.

And Jesus’s response to them seems quite harsh! “I have told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you don’t believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”

This sounds like condemning and exclusive language – you aren’t clever enough to see, you don’t belong. I have my sheep and you aren’t part of my group!

If read this way, Jesus seems unkind, even cruel. So what’s going on?

I wonder if you noticed the number of assumptions I have just made….

- Firstly I assumed simple answers would help us and we would believe them

- Then I assumed that Jesus is the one who decides who belongs. He is the one who chooses to save some people from perishing, and not others.

- Lastly I assumed that people can be split into those who belong and those who don’t.

And all of those assumptions are open to significant challenge!

Many of us are naturally sceptical people and prone to not believing what we are told. Sometimes we need to find things out more gradually. Think about education – we all know that to learn, we need to solve problems ourselves rather than get told the answers – and this is true of most things. It’s also true of people – we don’t get to know someone by finding out a list of facts about them, we get to know them by spending time with them, listening to them, being with them in a variety of situations.

And the same is true of Jesus. Even after the disciples figured out he was the Messiah, it wasn’t like everything was clear. They still had moments of confusion, lack of understanding, and even lack of belief – just look at Peter denying he ever knew Jesus.

Writer and pastor Debie Thomas wonders

“if Jesus resisted the crowd's question that day because it was so pitifully inadequate. What good would it have done if he'd stood up in the temple at their insistence and yelled, "Yes! Yes, in fact, I am the Christ!" Would anything have changed?... I doubt it.” She suggests that…

“Maybe, by refusing to "speak plainly," Jesus was honouring human life for the incredibly complicated thing it is. Jesus came to teach us about truth, about love, and about eternal life. One doesn't 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.”

And this brings me on to my second assumption – that it is Jesus who decides who belongs. However, the fact that Jesus goes on to talk about his sheep as the ones who listen to his voice, indicates that perhaps, it is our decision. Do we want to listen to Jesus? Do we want to belong? Do we trust him enough to believe in him?

What is interesting about this passage, is that it clearly indicates that in order to believe, we need to belong. Belonging comes first, belief follows.

Why? Because belonging is about relationship. Whilst belief may help us grow in that relationship, belief on its own will never be enough…belief is about fact, whereas relationship is about the person, about love. And so Jesus is inviting everyone to belong, to start listening to his voice….and the ones that do, may then begin to believe, as they experience God.

In his sermon entitled, “Message in the Stars,” Frederick Buechner makes the point: “It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle that we are really after. And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.”

Again, we see this exact thing happen with the disciples – they encountered Jesus first, they belonged first! Belief followed.

So what about the perishing part? Well if we think of Jesus as the good shepherd, he is the one who is calling the sheep away from harm. He wants to protect all the sheep.

Jesus is calling all of us into a way of living that brings life, that increases the love in the world. If we refuse to listen to that call, we are far more likely to make decisions that will harm others and ourselves. We may get stuck in behaviour patterns that mean we are less than we should be.

We may perish through our own failings….greed, pride, fear….all can lead to actions which diminish us and harm each of us as a person.

At the start of Christian Aid week, it’s worth thinking about all the ways we contribute to the world being less than it should be. What is our part in growing the rich/poor divide? What is our part in damaging the environment? What is the impact that we have on the world’s poorest communities?

Christian Aid works hard to help those who are suffering in the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world. They help ease the pain caused, in part, by the actions of the rich and powerful. They work to alleviate suffering and poverty, and in doing so, are listening to Jesus voice and responding.

I recently listened to an American rabbi, called Rabbi Nahum, who was talking about the continuous pattern in the Bible of Call and response. God does not dictate and decide exactly what will happen – rather God calls and creation responds, people respond, but sometimes they don’t!

So then onto my last assumption – that people can be split into those who belong and those who don’t.

I’m not sure about you, but my own experience is that there are times in my life when I believe and I belong, and other times when I don’t. There are times when I respond to God’s call and times when I don’t. There are times when I’m not trusting God, not listening to God, and certainly not following God. I move in and out of responding, in and out of believing and belonging. There are times when I spend time listening to Jesus voice, and other times when I’m simply too busy with my own agenda!

But God never stops calling us, and whilst we may wander from the path, we always have the opportunity of rejoining it. After all, life is a journey, not a destination. Life is not about arriving somewhere, it is about journeying together.

It is in the journey, in the gradual discovery, in the constant change, that we live our lives. It is in the journey that we grow in relationship with God and are able to respond to the constant loving call of the Good Shepherd.

We are all God’s sheep whom God loves and wants to bring life to. And when we are willing to belong, to listen, and to respond, that is the point on the journey at which we can help bring light and love to others, just as Christian Aid do.

For ultimately, we are invited, not to remain as sheep, but to join Jesus as good shepherds, to join in God’s work of calling, caring for, and loving creation and all within it.

Clare Heard