Sunday morning musings

This past week began on a lovely spring day with evil exploding in Boston.  In our shock we scrambled to ask questions:  Who set off the bombs at the finish line?  Why, why did they do it? When will they be caught?  Who are the victims?  We wanted answers; we had to know.  On our behalf reporters surrounded the spokespersons who were sources of information.

It was a winter day at a different event, Hanukkah to be exact, and Jesus was surrounded by religious leaders in Jerusalem.  In this case it was not an anxious crowd asking questions.  This group encircling Jesus was not far from taking justice into their own hands.  In fact, Jesus was their suspect, although they could not sufficiently prove anything yet to the Roman authorities who could do something about it.  Some of the group had been saying Jesus had a demon.  Others had been offended when Jesus had suggested the religious leaders were blind.  A few had picked up stones to throw at him when he said their father was a devil (not Abraham) and a liar and murderer from the beginning because that’s what they were doing.  They had been grossed out when he said he was the bread of life.  They had been outraged when he broke their version of religious law by healing a sick, lame man on the Sabbath.

So now on that winter day they surrounded him on the temple portico and asked:  “How long will you keep us in suspense: if you are the Messiah, tell us plainly?”

This was NOT a friendly question. The question implied a threat; it could have been a trap…like a bomb.  For most of those religious leaders, they sensed an evil in their midst, and they were targeting Jesus.  The problem was that they themselves were the problem.  They were not really listening to Jesus’ teachings, but listening to their own agendas, protecting their own turf, setting themselves up as the all-knowing sources of information, filled inside and out with judgment, engrossed in plotting,  and therein lay the evil.

In so doing,  they missed hearing Jesus’ invitation to them—even though it was plain as day that winter morning as they walked the temple porch.  Here was the royal Shepherd of God’s people standing on the remnant stones of what wise King Solomon had built, looking at them and saying:  “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.”  (John 10:27-28)  Any one of them could have started listening, really listening to him at that moment and started following.  It was his open invitation.  Instead they picked up rocks to stone him; somehow he managed to escape.

I have been reading a book, a 500 page book!  My brother had given it to my father for his November birthday, so when I was down there a few weeks ago, I picked it up and started reading it.  Written by Eric Metaxas, it is called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  You may know a bit about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a German Lutheran theologian and pastor during the rise of the Nazis and their National Socialist Party in the 1930’s.  At that crucial time, one of the problems with much of the German Church and its religious leaders was that the whole focus of a pastor’s education was on critical knowledge and analysis of scripture texts as historical documents.  They knew about Jesus. They knew about what Jesus said, or what was said that he said, but from a distance. They studied scriptures with their own agendas.  Bonhoeffer noticed that there was little of reading scripture devotionally, no real listening to Jesus teachings with hearts and minds, no understanding that God speaks to God’s people through scriptures (Hebrew and Christian), no sense of following Jesus in a living relationship.  In that vacuum, it was easy for much of the German Church to be swept up in the rise of Nazi Nationalism, into the rhetoric of blaming Jews for their problems, into excising the scriptures they didn’t like (especially the Hebrew parts), into giving oaths of allegiance to a demented dictator promising to restore impressive national power.  They listened and followed something else besides a savior Jesus who spoke about humility, forgiveness, caring for the poor, protecting the weak and loving the neighbor.

Bonhoeffer and others recognized what was happening in the Church, and raised objections.  Only God in Christ could be absolute Lord, no human fuhrer, they said.  The Confessing church movement was formed.  Bonhoeffer worked hard at teaching underground seminarians in his care and any others who would listen how to hear scripture, pray, meditate and to trust it as the very message of the Lord,  the words of a Shepherd to his flock.

“My sheep recognize my voice,” said Jesus.  “I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

It was hard for the Confessing church to follow Jesus.  As the decade progressed, as evil, murder and genocide grew, as the main German church sided with Nazis out of fear or brainwashing, the Confessing church experienced a  time of persecution.  But ironically, it was also a time of renewal. Faith became stronger for those pastors and Confessing Church members who often found themselves imprisoned by Nazis on trumped up charges.  Some were even martyred.  And Bonhoeffer?  He was hanged shortly before the war ended….but that is another story for another time.

Here is the point for now.  Whatever the century, wherever the location in the world, at the core of the Church is not knowledge about God or Jesus based on one’s own agenda or preconceived notions or academic ideas (although study and intellectual discourse is important).  At the core of the Church is the kind of listening that friends or lovers have for one another.  It is open and deep, accepting and honoring.  At the heart of the Church is the kind of listening that needy sheep have for the voice of the shepherd.  If a sheep can’t trust the shepherd’s direction and follow the shepherd closely, it will get lost going its own way.

“My sheep recognize my voice,” Jesus says.   “I know them,” he says.  And then Jesus gave two promises to those who are listening.  He gives the sheep eternal life (10:28) which, by the way, is less about what happens when you physically die, but is totally about a  life lived out right now in abundance—full of love and service and forgiveness.  (Not exactly the culture’s idea of abundance, however.)  And yes, we are promised this life continues on into and after our deaths.  We will always be living and following Jesus.

The second promise Jesus makes is that no one can snatch a sheep out of the Lord’s hand. (10:28)  No hangman in a concentration camp, no hell creating dictator, no misguided religious leader, no marathon bomber—no one can snatch us out of the Lord’s hand.  They may kill us, but no one can make our lives or our work in following the Lord null, void and worthless.

That is a word that our world needs to hear this week.  And you and I need to hear it when we find ourselves afraid.  In this time of testing, hardship and challenge for the Church, we listen together to what the Shepherd has to say and trustingly hope to recognize his voice—not because we are particularly good at hearing, but simply because our Shepherd, who knows us well , is particularly good and gracious about communicating invitations for us to follow in his way.