Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Following and Believing

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Dear Working Preacher,

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Okay, so first things first on this week’s passage: We’ve got four weeks in a row of readings selected from various portions of John’s Gospel and, quite frankly, they’re not the easiest passages in the world to preach. They’re challenging in part because they are embedded in the larger narrative of John, of which we get only snippets. And they’re challenging because John is, on the whole, far more philosophical, even metaphysical, than the other gospels. As we talked about last week, whereas the other gospels rely primarily on plot and action to move the story forward, John relies instead on dialogue and, even more, discourse.

It’s really, really hard to be an armchair Christian. Only by getting out of our pews and actually living the Christian life do we come to deeper faith and commitment.

So one of the keys each week will be to set these discourses in context for our hearers. In this case, Jesus is walking into the Temple, in the portico of Solomon, to be exact, the place from which the king would render his judgments upon those beseeching his justice. Just now, however, it is Jesus who is seeking a hearing, as he responds once again to questions about his identity.

Or is he? Seeking a hearing, I mean. When asked whether he is the Messiah, Jesus responds that he has already given an answer and the just don’t believe. This is in contrast to those who are sheep of his own fold and so hear and follow his voice.

Which brings us to the other important element regarding context. Today’s interaction between Jesus and his questioners is a continuation of an early conversation. In John 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, occasioning all kinds of discussion and consternation as various Pharisees question the validity, and even appropriateness, of Jesus’ actions. This, in turn, led Jesus to talk about his identity and role in terms of being the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep (contrasted with the hired hands who run away when their sheep are in danger), and the gate by which the sheep go in and out of the fold.

It’s hard to tell how soon afterward Jesus engages in the dialogue reported in today’s reading, but it seems like it occurred not too much later, as Jesus again references the metaphor of sheep and their shepherd. This time he explains that, in a sense, there is little point in more conversation because those who are part of Jesus’ flock will recognize and follow his voice, while those who are not will simply not believe.

All of which raises a question: Is any of this fair? I mean, it almost sounds like all of this is determined ahead of time. Why would John tell the story this way? Scholars have suggested that John is seeking to reassure his community that they are, indeed, part of Jesus’ flock and to explain why others – perhaps including some of their own family members – don’t believe.

While this may seem like an antiquated concern at first, I’d bet that more and more of our people aren’t that different from John’s community. After all, if trends continue, most of the kids attending Sunday school and youth group today will not continue participating in church when they become adults, prompting many parents and grandparents to wonder what they’ve done wrong. More and more of our members will marry people of other faiths or of no particular faith commitment and have to negotiate their participation at church and whether or not they will bring up their children in the faith. And just about all of us have friends or colleagues who follow another religion or perhaps have no particular allegiance to any faith tradition. Given that these are people we know and respect, we may wonder why.

All of which makes Jesus’ statements that “you do not believe because you do not belong to my flock” and “my sheep hear my voice … and they follow me” ring a bit hollow upon first hearing. Which means, I think, that we need to hear what Jesus says again, this time not only in light of the larger narrative but also in terms of what we know about experience and belief.

When I was in college one of my favorite subjects was psychology. Then, as now, I was fascinated by why we behave as we do. One of the most interesting things I learned in my first psychology class was that while I tended to think that belief shapes behavior – that is, our actions follow our convictions – the truth turned out to be the exact opposite: more often than not, our behavior shapes our beliefs. Ask people to put a small political sign in their yard and their support for that candidate rises dramatically. Get folks to start recycling for a month and their commitment to the environment goes well beyond what it was before they began recycling. In short, we tend to justify our actions by shaping our convictions and even identity – often unconsciously – to explain and support those actions. Which means that our popular exclamation – I’ll believe it when I see it – should probably be modified slightly but significantly: I’ll believe it when I do it.

All of this helps me make sense of what Jesus is saying. Yes, those who believe in him are part of his flock and follow him. And, at the same time, those who are following him are more likely to believe in him and identify as part of his flock. We tend to separate out “believing” and “following,” but according both to Jesus and modern psychologists the two actually go together.

Or, to put it another way, it’s really, really hard to be an armchair Christian. Only by getting out of our chairs – or, as the case may be, pews – and actually living the Christian life do we come to deeper faith and commitment.

This week, Working Preacher, I’d invite you to challenge your folks to actually follow Jesus in a tangible, concrete way, promising them that as they do they are more likely to “hear Jesus’ voice” calling to them. So print up a half sheet of paper (some folks I know swear that it helps if the paper is hot pink or electric orange) with all the activities to help out at church and in the community over the next week. Make it easy for folks to check off one or two of these service opportunities. Then, invite folks to place these papers in the offering plate, promising them that someone at the church will call to remind them of their commitment. Then, of course, follow through, helping folks get more involved in the life of the congregation or community.

You can do this for the next few weeks or perhaps make this a regular part of your worship. Folks today tend to be less interested in standing committees and far more keen on actual service opportunities anyway. So you’ll be meeting them where they are and giving them an opportunity to follow Jesus, not just think about following Jesus. Over time, I think you’ll find that as more people live their faith, they will also believe it with greater depth and intensity.

Well, as I said, Working Preacher, this is a challenging passage and you may have other ways of developing it. However you choose to preach it, know that I value greatly your own commitment to living and doing the faith as we respond together to the call of our Good Shepherd.

Blessings in Christ,
David

 

Questions for Easter 4 – John 10:22-30

  1. In this passage Jesus talks about his sheep (his followers) recognizing his voice and following him. Have you ever felt like you’ve heard Jesus’ voice? What was it like? If not, what might you imagine Jesus would call you to do?

  2. There is a promise in this passage that those God has entrusted to Jesus will never be “snatched away.” When things are particularly hard, how might you remember – and remind others – of Jesus’ promise that he will never let us go?

Questions for Easter 5 – John 13:31-35

  1. What do you think it was like for the disciples to hear Jesus say to them that in a little while they would no longer see him and not be able to find him?

  2. What do you think the relationship is between the “glory” Jesus talks about and his command to “love one another”?
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