Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sunday 12 May
Acts 9: 36-43
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30
The voice of the beloved ©Sue Wilton
Who are you? What should you be doing with your life?
Have you ever followed these questions and found yourself with no answers? Or maybe just when you think you know, suddenly realise you are no closer and all the old uncertainties remain?
I suspect those demanding answers of Jesus that day in the temple may have been having a similar experience.
“Who are you? Give us a clear answer for once! Are you the Messiah?”
Of course, while this is a question about identity, the context of this encounter reveals these questions to be loaded with political and revolutionary overtones. They are standing in the portico of Solomon, at the festival of Dedication. Also known as Hanukkah, this festival commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the second temple after a successful guerrilla-style campaign of the Maccabee family which freed Jerusalem from the grip of the Seleucid occupation. So the text reminds us of this historical memory, just as Jesus stands in the entrance to the temple at a time of Jewish oppression under yet another occupying force; this time the Romans. The questioners, suspicious of Jesus, want to know who he thinks he is….is he about to reveal himself as the liberator of Israel from under the yoke of occupation? Or is he some kind of troublemaker, creating unrest and uttering blasphemies? We humans like things to be clear cut. Black or white. Good or bad. We spend our time judging and categorising, beginning with ourselves. In Jesus day the religious leaders seek a clear answer; is he a prophet or a revolutionary, a wise teacher or possessed by demons? It is this kind of judgmental seeing that finally brings Jesus the Good Shepherd to become the sacrificial slaughter as the Lamb of God. He came offering forgiveness, peace and an invitation into the very life of God saying, “I and the Father are one”. The cries were strident as the authorities labelled him blasphemer and nailed him to a cross. Jesus was the one brought to trial, but the real judgement was of our own judgmentalism. The crucifixion is a final and brutal invitation to find a new way of being human; one motivated by love.
Throughout his ministry Jesus refused to fit the categories of his questioners, pointing instead to his identity not in terms of titles or future revolutionary plans, but in terms of relationship. You will recognise my voice, Jesus is saying, if you are in this flow of life with me. Those who recognise Jesus do so because, in a moment of grace, they see themselves as also a child of God, and they see their own likeness in Jesus, the Son of God.
Those of us who have grown up in the Church have learnt to talk from childhood about Jesus in inherited language which unavoidably becomes mixed with moral concepts, cultural ideologies and the expectations of others. The challenge then becomes to hear Jesus’ voice for ourselves and then, as we recognise our identity as the beloved, begin to speak with our own voice, the gentle, unique response of our soul. For this gentle voice to be released, we must experience ourselves as loved and be able to accept ourselves as lovable, just as we are. This place in our soul is where God lives and where we discover that our true self and the Christ-self are the same. As St John of the Cross once said, “Why does not my sacred church tell you, God sees only Himself.”
Until we begin to speak from this place of holiness and compassion, we are prone to rely on the dogma of religion rather than the power of love, and we will never escape the old patterns – we may just find a fresh religious gloss to sanctify our judgement of one another. As the author, Philip Yancey sadly once said, “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.” Of course today, social media enables everyone to have a global platform for judgement, whether they are priest, politician or footballer. How difficult it can be to hear the voice of love and freedom affirming human worth and dignity amongst so many loud and pious voices that would debase or dehumanise those who are in some way different, and how quick we are to leap to a moral authority that is not ours to claim.
Our vocation is to hear the voice of Christ calling us to follow the way of love, setting out on a unique relational journey of transformation. But ultimately the call is not simply to receive, but to participate in God’s creative work as we craft our own life, our own destiny. At this point we may begin to see that, “Who am I and what could I become?” are always emergent questions; the future is eternally open and God lures us into ever widening horizons of love.
Of course there is a tension here when we try to discern how to hear and follow the voice of Christ. At various crossroads in our lives we may wonder; do I surrender all my desires and allow God to determine the course of action, or do I bring all my internal resources, my intelligence, my experience to this problem and do my utmost to plan my life course?
To this Thomas Merton says;
There is no reason to believe that surrender and autonomy are mutually exclusive movements in spiritual development. A loving and hidden God invites us to wholeness through the entire story of our lives and is no less present to autonomy than to surrender.1
This is a picture of an active life of faith where our whole self in all its complexity and giftedness is brought to the ongoing project of labouring with God to co-create the truth of our identity.
Who am I? This is a question that cannot be answered outside of relationship to God and others- it is no solo mission. It is a paradox, but we can only know and become ourselves through our communion with the Holy One, with the holy within others and creation.
Jesus knew this, and described himself not by labels or titles but in rich relational metaphors in John’s Gospel: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the vine, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd. Such metaphors speak in the imagery of the fundamental connectedness of life given and shared.
I think we can learn from Jesus here as we seek to find our own authentic voice and language. When we experience the touch of the Spirit, an encounter of grace, what is it like for us? Is it a cool breeze, water on parched land, or maybe like the laughter of lovers? The idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is only scratching the surface…such language does not go deep enough. We have even at times made this “personal relationship” a matter for judgement- are they a true believer or not? Such human concerns seem nonsensical when we realise the deep and joyful work of this relationship is nothing less than the rebirthing of God in our lives and the ongoing revelation of God in the world. The voice of the beloved lures us to be co creators of our own identity, and in this way, one person at a time, grows the life and power of God’s kingdom on earth.
God is both within and ahead of us, inviting us on to live into ever more beautiful expressions of divine love; a love that does not judge or label others but sets them free to be themselves. It is only this kind of love that has the power to challenge the fear and violence that divides us from one another. We are to be midwives to the new life God is bringing forth in us and through us as gift to the world. Jesus, the good shepherd, calls us all by name and the world needs us to respond with our own unique and beloved voice.
1 Thomas Merton, as quoted in Patrick J McDonald L.S.W, Bedrock Elements of Spiritual Growth