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The passage this week begins with a loaded question. Now, our Bible may translate it as “How long will you keep us in suspense?”, but a closer translation of the original Greek is: “How long will you take away our life (psyche)?” In modern Greek, this idiom is still used and it means, “How long will you continue to annoy us?”

So Jesus is being ambushed in the middle of a celebration and asked to prove he was the Messiah to people who weren’t going to believe him no matter what he said. After all, he had already healed and taught and showed who he was, but that wasn’t enough for the people who were questioning him. They were looking for an argument.

And Jesus, in response, calls himself a shepherd by telling them that they aren’t his sheep. Now, for us, the Bible is full of images of Jesus as shepherd. We have the 23rd Psalm we heard earlier this morning. We have the stained glass window right here in the church. Today is even known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the liturgical calendar. Jesus as shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for us today.

But the people who were questioning Jesus and all of those who were listening in to his answer, would have had a very different idea of shepherd. Shepherding was a common occupation during the time of Jesus, but it was a lowly and undesirable one. Shepherds were typically those who had no property or obligation to family, those who turned to the itinerant life of herding sheep in the wilderness as a last resort to making a living.

For the rabbi Jesus to call himself the “good shepherd” would have been a slap in the face to the religious elite of the time. This is a claim with a deliberate edge to it. A modern-day equivalent to shepherd might be for Jesus to say, as Nancy Blakely has noted, “I am the good migrant worker.”

That Jesus would compare himself at all to one of society’s best-known outcasts is striking, but becomes even more so when in the same breath he declares “the Father and I are one” . There is something about the life of a shepherd that tells us about who Jesus is. There is something about shepherding that reveals what God is about.

Shepherding is not an easy job. When I was in high school, I was a 4H member. Now, my love at the time was horses and I joined mostly so I’d have another place to show. But I also spent some time learning about the other animals, including sheep.

Sheep are by nature pretty skittish animals, which is why they need so much care. A shepherd has to be with the sheep all of the time to make sure they do not follow one another into danger. When taking on a new flock, a shepherd has to spend hours with the sheep until they know that the shepherd is not a threat. Over and over again the shepherd leads the sheep to places with plenty for them to eat, to water that is calm enough that they can drink.

In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation she had with a friend who grew up on a sheep farm in the Midwest. According to him, sheep are not dumb at all. “It is the cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that ugly rumor, and all because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all the sheep will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led.”

You lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that their shepherd does not go first, showing them that everything is alright. Sheep know their shepherd and their shepherd knows them. A shepherd can walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep & shepherds develop a language of their own.

Being a shepherd requires patience, kindness, and presence, all things that Jesus offers those of us who follows him. He offers comfort and reassurance to all of those who listen to his voice.

Because sheep doesn’t just know a shepherd’s voice. A sheep learns it as the sheep follows the shepherd, learning that the shepherd’s voice means food and shelter and safety. The shepherd can’t just tell the sheep to trust him.

Have you ever argued a sheep into doing what you want it to do? Chances are good the sheep will blink at you and then go do whatever it wants, usually following the rest of the sheep wherever they are going.

The questioners at the beginning of the passage today are not Jesus’ sheep because they do not trust him. They aren’t interested in following his ways. And no amount of argument or proof is going to convince them, so Jesus doesn’t bother.

Instead he uses a metaphor they will understand. The sheep will follow me. Not because I argued with them or because I offered firm proof, but because they already know me. They know I am who I say I am because they follow my teachings. And so it is with all of us.

A large part of belief depends on what we do. We may say all we like that we believe Christ is our Lord in savior, but if we don’t follow Christ’s teachings, how much belief do we really have?

Which is more convincing? Someone who tells you that they think that there are far too many people going hungry in our community or someone who goes around working in food pantries to make sure people have enough to eat. Who really believes something needs to be done about the problem?

Most of us come to belief not through 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 following our shepherd’s call through rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys.

The Jewish authorities wanted proof before they would accept Jesus as the Messiah. We often demand the same: “Prove it, God: Prove to me that you’re really here; prove to me that you’re really taking care of my situation; give me proof, then I’ll believe.”

The message of Jesus in the scriptures seems to suggest something else: “Follow me, visit the sick and hungry, relieve the oppressed, receive little children, welcome the outcast. Do these things in my name, and then you will believe.”

Creeds and theology matter. They help shape and influence and guide us. But simply sharing a creed with someone won’t help them believe themselves. That takes an invitation to join in the walk, to accompany the sheep as they follow the shepherd. That’s when people start to believe, when they see the way the sheep live. The early church grew dramatically, not through doctrines or creeds, but because people experienced the living lord. Sermons and creeds help people to know more and to grow and deepen their faith.

But talking about the scripture isn’t enough to know the voice of our shepherd. We must follow where he calls. Our Shepherd calls us even today.

The voice of God, the voice of Jesus, calls out to us across the ages, across time and space, through the words of scripture, through communion, through one another’s ministries of comfort, support, and grace. The voice of Jesus calls out to the lost, the lonely, the forsaken, the hopeless, and the burdened. Age after age, hour by hour, every day of the year, that precious voice keeps calling to everyone.

To hear the voice of the Shepherd is to do God’s will. It is to love our neighbor, and to forgive even when we have been badly hurt. It is to keep before us the incredible vision of God’s persistent love for a bunch of sometimes cranky people. It is to move forward without proof into this world and do our best to share love with those we meet.
Our Shepherd calls. What will you do?

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I’LL FOLLOW JESUS: NOW WHAT?

John 21: 1-19

When Rick Warren wrote his best selling book The Purpose Driven Life in 2002, he subtitled it, “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Indeed. How many people have looked at their life as they know it and said: is this all there is? Or have said, “There must be more to life than this!”  When Warren’s book came out, a man in our church, the late Stan Trusty, asked me, “Jeff, what are your goals in life?” I told him, to honor God by being the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” “You’re doing those already,” he said. “Perhaps you need some new goals!” Nope. That will be enough. Sometimes our purpose in life not overly complicated. Jesus once put it this way:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” And when he spoke those words, I believe he meant, “Unconditional love,” or what Dr. Greg Baer has called “Real Love.” In his book by the same name, he tells this story:

Once there was a rich and beautiful kingdom …but the prince of that kingdom was very unhappy. He had warts all over his face, and everywhere he went, people teased him and laughed at him. So he mostly stayed in his room, alone and miserable. Upon the death of his father, the prince became king and issued a decree that no one—on pain of death—would ever laugh at his warts again. But still he stayed in his room, ashamed and alone. On the rare occasion that he did go out, he put a cloth bag over his head, which covered his warts, but also made it difficult for him to see.

Finally after many years, the king heard about a Wise Man living on top of a nearby mountain. Hoping the Wise Man could help him, the king climbed the mountain and found the old man sitting under a tree. “Taking the bag off of his head, the kind said to the old man “I’ve come for your help.” The Wise Man looked intently at the king for several long moments and finally said, “You have warts on your face.” The king was enraged…. “No I don’t!” Ashamed and angry, he put the bag back over his head. “Yes you do” the Wise Man insisted gently…. Angry and frustrated, the king ran from the Wise Man, falling repeatedly because he couldn’t see very well with the bag on his head. Finally the king fell down a steep slope and into a lake, where he began to drown. The Wise Man jumped in, pulled the king to shore, and took the bag from his head so he could breathe. …”You’re laughing at me,” the king said. “Not at all, the Wise Man replied, smiling. [The king, with his eyes down, said] “The boys in the village laughed at me, and my father was ashamed of me.” [The Wise Man said] “I’m not one of the boys in the village, and I’m not your father. That must have been hard for you.” “Yes it was” the king admitted, with tears in his eyes.  The Wise Man repeated, “But as you can see, I’m not laughing at you, and I’m not ashamed of you.” “I really do have a lot of warts,” the King said quietly. “I know,” said the Wise Man. [But seeing your warts reminds of my early years when I minded that I had warts.” “You DO have warts,” the king noticed for the first time. “Why don’t you wear a bag over your head?” “I used to,” the Wise Man said, “but it made it hard to see and I took it off.” “Didn’t people laugh at you?” asked the king. “Oh sure, some did. And I hated it just as you do. But gradually I found people who didn’t laugh, and that made me very happy. [And I really felt loved.] [Pp. 41-43]

Jesus said to Simon, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Here is what the English translation does not reveal. There are at least three kinds of love in Greek: One is Eros, which is passionate, romantic love. A second kind of love is agape, which we could call Christian love, or “unconditional love.” The third type of love is Philios, which is based on a good friendship, like brotherly love, from which we get the name “Philadelphia.” What you may not realize is the great shift in the conversation that, to English speaking ears and eyes, sound and look the same. Doesn’t it sound like Jesus is just asking Simon the same question 3 times? What teenager doesn’t get on a parent’s last nerve by being asked to do something 3 times? What employee will last long if he or she has to be told more than twice to carry out a task? So many people hear this passage and wonder why Jesus asks, and asks, and asks. Traditionally people have assumed that Jesus asked three times to undo Peter’s denial of Jesus three times. Perhaps so. That makes sense, doesn’t it? There is nowhere else in Jesus’ recorded words when he repeats a question three times to the same person.  Jesus is purposeful about his life and is efficient with us instructions to everyone: to his disciples, to a centurion, to Pharisees, to others, and to us. What purpose might Jesus have had to ask the question this way? Join me with a bit of Greek detective work.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, the formal language on which the less formal Aramaic (spoken) language was based.  Pulling out my Greek New Testament and setting aside my English translations, I’ve discovered that Jesus asked his question actually two different ways. Interesting! But Simon Peter never changes his answer. I will insert the Greek translated word for “love” in each case.” Listen to this:

“Simon son of John, do you love me unconditionally” [agape.]? To which Simon answers him, “Yes, Lord, you know we are best friends, like brothers “ [philios.] “That’s not actually what Jesus asked, so Jesus asks again, for clarity: “Simon, son of John, do you love me unconditionally [agape]?” And Simon answered him again, “Yes Lord, you know we are best friends, like brothers” [philios]. Now here is where Jesus shifts his question, perhaps because Simon will not directly answer the question Jesus asked twice. So Jesus actually asks a different question the third time. He couldn’t talk Simon into agape, so it sounds like he settles for philios. Listen—“Simon son of John, are we best friends, like brothers?” This question Simon could answer exactly, because it was his answer before; it’s just not the answer Jesus hoped to hear. This time alone, Simon could match the answer with Jesus’ question. “Yes Lord, you know that we are best friends, like brothers.” Wow. Jesus was seeing where Peter would come down on his answer. He was hoping for unconditional love, but Simon never budged from saying “I love you like a brother.”

What if Jesus asked you: “Do you unconditionally love me?” Some over the ages have answered in lukewarm ways. “Not really,” one says. “Yes” one says, but says it because everyone around her was saying it in a Confirmation line-up. Conversely a young man answers, “I guess so.” Would Jesus feel affirmed by that?  And how many people over the years said “Yes” to that question with their lips, but “No” with their life?” Jesus is looking for people who will say, “I do and will love you forever. Let me show you how much.” Jesus looks for people to say, “I’m all in. You can count on me.” That’s that kind of answer that can make for a lifetime friendship, or even a lifetime marriage, rather than responding with shuffling feet or equivocated answers. The kind of love that stands by another person, no matter what; that’s the kind that Jesus is planting and producing. Where did he get such a notion? Nowhere else but the God who is unconditional love: the Almighty. The one who looks at our hairline, or our hair color, or our complexion, or our height, or our weight, and says “You are my beloved child;” not “You’re my child but I wish you’d do the following things differently with your looks or your choices.” That’s not gold standard love. Like the king who was hurt by his friend’s teasing and his father being ashamed of him, God’s sees us differently; through the eyes of love. Jesus hoped for disciples who would have loved him unconditionally and never would have left him. Instead he got a group of fickle friends. Today again he’s looking for followers who see others through loving eyes: seeing people the way God sees them.  Ideally, Jesus hopes that we will love him and one another like that. But he still has some followers who cannot declare, “Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you, how I love you.” Instead many can only say: “What a Friend I have in Jesus.”

Let me close with this story: A man I know exudes what I’m trying to describe, which is seeing someone else through the eyes of unconditional love. He has been married to his wife for 65 years. He has lived through times when she has not even recognized him. You see, she had some brain events that made her mind and speech not work too well. She has bruises on her arms from falls or blood thinners. Her hair is not fixed like it used to be. She generally stares straight ahead and speaks through clenched teeth. Yet when I come to visit them, he treats her like his bride!  He calls her “Sweetie” and “Honey,” tells her how beautiful she looks today, and stays by her side day and night in a small apartment, sacrificing his own activities because she cannot remember on her own not to get up without assistance. As she sits in her wheelchair or lies in her bed, he looks at her and says: “We sure are lucky to have each other, aren’t we Dear?” And she mumbles, “Yes.” In order to keep her safe, and make her feel very, very loved, he is beside her all the time, showering her with unconditional love.

Peter’s answer, therefore, is not really the gold standard of unconditional love. What could Jesus have hoped to hear?

As he looks at you, or he looks at me, he asks: “Do you love me?”

And what he hopes to hear is “Yes Lord. I love you! Let me show you how much!” Then we will be together with our Lord, side by side, word for word, for the rest of our earthly lives and beyond.

It could be … beautiful.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                             April 10, 2016

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WHAT DON’T YOU BELIEVE?

John 20: 19-31

Years ago, Paul E. Little was the Director of Evangelism at the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.  He wrote many books and tracts, including “Know What and Why You Believe.” In one of his books, he said this:

I’ve met more than a few college students who could honestly say, “I believe everything about Christ,” but [then they] add: “It doesn’t mean a thing to me. My faith is like Pepsi that’s lost its fiz.”… Have we forgotten, [Little says] that becoming and being a Christian involves more than something to believe it? There is also someone to receive and to go on receiving, living with, and responding to…. Being a Christian requires continual commitment of one’s self to the living Lord.

Today, one week after we celebrated Easter—the resurrection of Jesus—the gnawing doubt that it might not have happened can be dispelled today.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with virtually no reference to one another’s works, record that the tomb was empty. The facts vary because different people reported what they each heard or saw. There is even the report in Matthew 27 that the Pharisees insisted that the tomb be guarded, believing that someone might steal Jesus’ body and proclaim that he had risen from the dead. So Pilate ordered it. Guards were posted. They learned, and we now know: there was no body snatching. It is also reported by Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter] then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 others.”  So, that Jesus arose from the dead need not be doubted. Even Jesus tried to put any doubts to rest. We heard today the familiar passage about Thomas, who through history was called “doubting Thomas,” because of this passage alone. But who could blame him? What an extraordinary thing happened as the disciples returned, probably to the Upper Room, feeling defeated and in grief. Who would think that Jesus himself would appear to them? As I said last week, they might have thought they were seeing the ghost of Jesus. But they weren’t. Jesus made sure to demonstrate to Thomas, and to John who would eventually compile his gospel, and to the others that he was real. He let them watch as Thomas touched him physically, putting his hands in the wounded hands of Jesus, and in his side. Then Thomas believed. But John hoped that recording such an action would help dispel the doubts of others too. After all, none of us has put our hand in his side. And so he wrote his gospel. Then at the end of our passage today John recorded Jesus’ blessing on people like you, and me. He said we are especially blessed if we believe without seeing first hand. It takes a leap of faith; one Jesus encourages us to take. John concludes chapter 20 with these words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30]

The late Dr. Georgia Harkness was a Methodist minister who earned a Bachelor’s Degree, two Master’s Degrees, and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Most of her work she did in the 1950s and 1960s when it was more rare for a woman to have three degrees. Yet with them she taught, dedicating her life to helping people understand, and finally embrace, the Christian faith. In her book, What Christians Believe, she writes: “The death of Jesus on the cross is a plain historical fact.  About the resurrection there is more uncertainty about what happened.  The Gospel accounts all agree that it did happen, and the church came into existence in the faith that it had happened. In the assurance of the living presence of their Lord, a disheartened little band of disciples became flaming witnesses for Christ. [Abingdon Press, 1965, p. 47.]

We believe that the living Lord Jesus is with us even today, as gather in his name for the Lord’s Supper. Do you believe that? Is that a struggle? Jesus himself said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20] So we are not alone! Christian beliefs vary widely regarding Holy Communion. Some believe that the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ; others believe that Jesus is mysteriously in the Bread; and still others believe he is not here at all, we are just remembering what he did. We believe that Jesus is spiritually present with us because of what he said in Matthew 18:20. See? You are in good company if you are not sure about those kinds of things! But if you hold on to and believe that Jesus lives, and that Jesus loves you, that is perhaps the best of all.  It was the famous German theologian Karl Barth who, when asked if he could boil down all of his work into what he believed, said: “Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

Hymns give us some of the greatest assurance of what we might believe, with words like: “The day of resurrection, Earth tell it out abroad!

The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God! From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky, our Christ has brought it over with hymns of victory.” Or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now! A royal diadem adorns the mighty Victor’s brow!”

Or Michael W. Smith’s contemporary prayer to Jesus:

Above all powers, above all kings;

Above all nature and all created things;

Above all wisdom, and all the ways of man

You were here before the world began

Above all kingdoms, above all thrones

Above all wonders the world has ever known

Above all wealth and treasures of the earth

There’s no way to measure what you’re worth-

Crucified, laid behind a stone

You lived to die rejected and alone

Like a rose trampled on the ground

You took the fall and thought of me, above all.

Several years ago we heard about the book and the movie

“Heaven is for Real.” It gave a powerful testimony. This year other faith films have appeared that may indeed be thought provoking to you; films like “God’s Not Dead 2.” There are people in every generation giving witness to what they have experienced for others to consider the truth of the resurrection—that Jesus rose from the dead; and the person of the resurrection—that Jesus is alive and still wants you to follow him.

On Palm Sunday I mentioned Catherine Marshall’s book Light in My Darkness. As she was coming out of the dark night of her soul, she believed God let her see a glimpse of Heaven out of an act of grace. She described it like this.

In her morning prayers with Jesus she said:

Lord Jesus, how radiant and glorious is that light of Yours! Yesterday afternoon you gave me a glimpse of your Kingdom that I cannot reflect on even now without tears of gratitude. [She goes on to say]

I was seated in a chair in the living room alone, thinking about all that I had been learning these past few months. I did not fall asleep, so this was not a dream.  Nor was it an ethereal, other-worldly “vision.” It seemed real, as real as the fabric of the chair, or the Florida sunlight pouring through the windows, or the trilling of a mockingbird in a ficus tree outside. Suddenly I felt the living presence of Jesus. What joy to have this again in my life!

“We’re going on a journey,” You told me.

Soon we were in what seemed to be a large and impressive throne room. Crowds of people lined the walls on all sides. As we walked the length of the room approaching the One whom I knew to be God the Father, I spotted in the crowd those I love who had gone on before: my father; Peter Marshall; my grandson Peter Christopher—now not a baby, but a curly-haired five year old. Crawling delightedly about his feet was a bright-eyed one-year-old I recognized as Amy Catherine [my baby granddaughter who had not lived but a few days.] Then I looked down at myself. To my horror I was dressed in rags—torn, unwashed filthy. How could I bear to stand before the Father, the Lord God omnipotent, clothed so vilely? When we stopped before the Throne, I could not even look up. I had never felt so unworthy.

In the same instant, Lord Jesus, You spread wide the voluminous robe You were wearing, completely covering me with it. “Now” you told me, “My Father does not see you at all! Only Me. Not your sins, but My righteousness. I cover for you.”

May the righteous robe of Christ cover your sins; may your repentance and the waters of your baptism continually wash your sins away.  And then may He, the risen Lord, present you faultless before the throne of grace, just as if you had not sinned. That’s what a relationship with Jesus can do for you.  What do you say?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 3, 2016