Yr B ~ Easter 7 ~ John 10:22-30
Before we get into this we need a clear picture of where this scene takes place. In the centre of the Temple in Jerusalem, the tall part is the Holy of Holies where only the chief priest was allowed to go and only once a year. There’s also an inner court where only Jews were allowed.
The entire Temple grounds are much larger and contain outer courts where Gentiles can go. Jesus is in the outer part of the Temple at a place called Solomon’s Portico, or Porch. It’s not a little porch like at the front of your house – it’s a colonnade, which means it’s a long wall of a building with a covered area held up by a series of columns. The royal porticos were all around the perimeter of the Temple grounds.
Solomon’s Porch, where today’s reading takes place, was in the long wall closest to the entrance to the inner courts. So it’s still in public space where Gentiles were allowed, but it’s right on the very edge of their official inner sanctums. That’s no accident.
Interestingly, Jesus isn’t just standing there, he’s walking. The way the Greek reads though is curious. It could mean he’s simply putting one foot in front of the other, but it could also mean that he was doing “the walk” as in “the walk of faith” as in following the Way. That’s important because if it’s the more metaphorical walk then it amplifies that he’s doing that walk right in the midst of the Jewish Temple.
So he’s living and teaching a reformed way to be faithful right in the heart of the place where the classic way to be faithful was celebrated.
Are you perhaps living a “reformed” or new understanding of spirituality right in the midst of a more classic form? I hope so! That’s very Jesus-y!
Solomon’s Porch was a place where people gathered to teach their spiritual insights into the Jewish faith and for others to gather around and learn, but also to argue! Oh how they loved to contend with one another. Offering interpretations of scripture was something taken very seriously by Jews. In fact, right alongside their book of Scriptures they have volume upon volume of things they call Midrash. In Jewish spirituality scripture is meant to be pondered and questioned and reflected on. It’s never meant to be just presented and accepted. The idea is to debate and argue and in the exchange the deeper truths are revealed.
That’s exactly why we call our Monday morning scripture discussion group “The Porch!”
That’s how Jesus learned and then taught. And that’s how his disciples continued his teaching – by going to Solomon’s Porch and offering their interpretations. There are two scenes in Acts 3 and Acts 5 that show the disciples doing just that. But today we’re dealing with Jesus’ own story of holding court on the Porch.
So there Jesus is in John 10 walking in the Porch. Verse 24 begins: So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?”
Ok, first off – that’s a misleading translation of the text. The word for “gathered around” is the same word for encircled or besieged. They weren’t just moseying up and chatting like they’re in the coffee line after church. They are besieging Jesus – swarming him – probably jabbing fingers at him and yelling with wild eyes. It’s not a calm and serene scene – it’s practically a mob. They’re in his face because apparently they aren’t liking his interpretations.
I may get a questioning glance at the door if someone doesn’t like my interpretations but I’ve never been “gathered around” like Jesus was. I guess I’ll have to try harder!
So as they’re besieging him they say “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Here’s another sentence that’s incredibly tricky to translate. Listen to v.24 from a few different translations:
How long will you keep us in suspense?
How long will you test our patience?
How long will you make us wonder about you?
Super literally it says “until what time the soul/life breath/identity of us will you raise/lift/take away?”
Which means you could translate that question as How long will you take our breath away?
Or if we were writing it today they might say, “Come on Jesus, you’re killing us here. If you’re the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
First the end: tell us plainly.
Ever find yourself thinking that at church? “Just tell us plainly. Why make it so complicated with all this Greek translation and this metaphoric-hermeneutic-interpretive-exegetical-lens-mumbo-jumbo? Just tell us plainly!”
Well, I’d love to, and I try to, but there’s nothing plain about it.
And anyone who tells you they have the plain, simple, true meaning of these scriptures is selling you something.
It ain’t possible. That’s not what they’re about.
And yet in another way they absolutely are plain and simple. The secret is to know something other people don’t seem to know – but you can’t find it in a book. The key that unlocks the plain meaning of faith isn’t a thing it’s a relationship. The key is to know Jesus’ voice – to be able to discern Jesus’ voice amid the noise.
Verses 25-26: Jesus answered, “I have told you (as plainly as I can), and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
And then verse 27 brings it home: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Just tell us plainly! – I have told you, but you don’t know the sound of my voice.
Just explain what it all means! – Those with ears to hear will hear.
Now let’s go back to the swarming crowd who don’t know Jesus’ voice and are frothing at the mouth over this question: Are you the Messiah?!
It’s a gotcha question. Jesus cannot win this no matter what.
If he says “Yes” they prosecute him for being a blasphemer, and if he says “No” the crowd probably all turn away from him and his movement fails. But Jesus is way too smart to fall for that old trick. So he smacks them upside the head with a rhetorical “I’ve already told you but you’re too thick to get it.” (I’m sure he said it more eloquently than that.)
But beyond being a gotcha question inside the Temple, generally speaking “Are you the Messiah?” was their biggest question. The Jewish scriptures promised a Messiah who would come and restore the monarchy and free the people. We interpret Jesus as a different kind of Messiah – one who showed us the kingdom of God and frees us from our selfish, shallow selves – but the Jews were desperate for a political Messiah who would drive out the Romans and make life good again. In practical terms Jesus was clearly not their Messiah – but for those with ears to hear, for those who know his voice, for those who are his followers, he is absolutely the Christ (which is just Greek for Messiah – which in English really means ‘the anointed one’).
So ‘are you the Messiah?’ was their biggest question. What’s yours?
What’s your biggest spiritual or theological question?
Is it the kind of thing you could bring up at a dinner party? Why not?
What if your question leads you to a challenging insight?
When your opinion differs from others or from orthodoxy what do you do?
Is it hard when that happens?
Can you remember a time when you didn’t feel that you were even “allowed” to question?
Did a church culture, or a minister, or a teacher ever tell you that you were not to question?
If so, they were wrong!
If you remember not being allowed to question can you recall what changed that made questioning possible?
Maybe it was a more positive church culture, or a better minister, or a sharp teacher!
And now that you’re allowed and encouraged to ask questions, where would you ask them? Who would you ask?
You could certainly ask me. I’d love that.
On a ministry questionnaire that asked what I thought my primary roles were the first thing I wrote was theologian.
You pay me to be your resident theologian.
I’m the one who’s had the privilege to go and study and come back and share what I’ve learned and what I continue to discover.
The Jews with their Midrash, Jesus with his teaching on Solomon’s Porch, the disciples standing up in marketplaces sharing the story and answering questions, and countless millions of Christians who have gone before us have all been questioners.
You can’t swallow this faith stuff whole.
You’ve gotta chew, and chew, and chew, and like a fantastic, thick, juicy steak you’re gonna encounter a few gristly bits that no matter how hard you chew you’re gonna have to spit out. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s expected! It’s required. You’re allowed and encouraged to disagree with interpretations and theologies (except mine, of course).
Our growing comes in the chewing – in the questioning, in the doubting – but you don’t stay in doubt, and you don’t spit it all out just because you caught a gristly bit – you keep chewing until you come to a resolution, and in the process you are fed and nourished.
And once you’ve done your questioning, once you’ve done some reading, and listened to some sermons, and wrestled and wrestled with scripture and your own experience, and you’ve prayed about it, and you’ve come to a place where you feel really good about what you think about a spiritual idea or issue – what do you do then?
What do you do with this newfound, life-giving, maybe life-changing piece of knowledge or discovery that has captivated you and nourished you?
Do you keep it to yourself? After all, you did all the work to get it, shouldn’t you just keep it?
No, we are meant to share our spiritual questions and our spiritual insights. I hear you can even make that into a full time job! But it isn’t just ministers who are supposed to share their insights – so too are you!
The big question is how. They say in polite company you should never talk about religion or politics. The reason is because there are no objective, definitive, right or wrong answers so in order to talk about those subjects you actually have to form an opinion for yourself and take ownership of it – and that frightens us because it becomes personal.
Well gee, imagine that, religion has to be personal!
So is this the only place we can talk religion? Hardly. And if you think you’re safe from conflict or disagreement in talking religion here because we’re all from the same church you’re living in dreamland!
A couple of Sundays ago we had a learning session after church called Stump the Chump where we had exactly this kind of questioning go on. I had planned to use the best question that was asked as the topic for today’s message. We had a question about how the loaves and fishes worked, a question about why I debated cutting a certain verse from a hymn, a question about Constantine and the early church, and a great question asking about how far a person can question things and still belong!
And while all those questions were great what occurred to me afterward was that the more interesting thing to talk about today wasn’t actually asking questions but answering them. It’s one thing to come up with an opinion – hopefully an informed opinion – but it’s another thing to know how to share it. When you go chasing chariots and engage people in spiritual conversations in what manner will you speak?
So my big message today is about how to talk theologically – how to offer an opinion/interpretation without demanding agreement – standing in a tradition but not being handcuffed by it – the art of questioning while still respecting – how to stick-handle with integrity.
And I’m going to share with you my secret weapon. A weapon so powerful that it can save me from just about any theological pickle I might wade into. Are you ready?
“For me!” That’s it – for me.
You still have to have something intelligent to say, but the art of saying “For me…” when you begin to share a theological opinion is critical.
“For me…” softens the dialogue without blunting the point.
“For me…” says to my listener that I’m not demanding that they necessarily accept this point of view but that “for me” it is persuasive.
Here’s why this is important. Chances are the people in the seats near you don’t work with you or hang out at the same social events that you do. The people you work with and socialize with haven’t had the benefit of hanging around this place like you have so you may be the only voice in their ear offering anything remotely spiritual AND religious.
For too long Christians have wandered into social or work situations and began with the wrong two words. We’ve historically said, “For you… I have a message of truth that thou shalt accept or perish in eternal fire!”
Instead, we should be leading with “For me…”
“For me…this whole spirituality thing really comes to life and fills me up when I gather with other people like me.”
“For me…the bible is a fascinating and life-giving book, but for me it has to be more than literal.”
“For me…prayer isn’t just talking to an invisible friend, it’s trying to live in Harmony with Something More than what I see.”
Because you are Jesus on Solomon’s Porch when someone learns you’re a church-goer in this day and age.
You’re an instant authority.
And when they gather round (and hopefully don’t besiege you) you need to be ready to engage them in dialogue – not about what you do or don’t know, but about who you know.
You know his voice. You have ears to hear.
So when the topic comes up, take a deep breath, trust, clear your throat, listen for Jesus’ voice within you, and launch the secret weapon: “For me…it`s all love, love, love!”