Friday, April 19, 2013

Some Believe, Some Don`t (Easter 4, April 21 2013)

Homily :  Yr C Easter 4, April 21 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Acts 9:36-43; Ps 23; Rev 7:9-17; Jn 10:22-30

Some Believe, Some Don’t 

Have you ever thought about how the gospels that we read on Sundays came together?  After all, the gospel writers had three years worth of material to choose from.  Not every story about Jesus, not every word he said could be written down in one document.  John, the author of the reading that we just heard this morning, says as much.  He finishes his book with the following words:

`Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.`

One reason that a particular story might have been included in the book is that it responded to a particular concern of the people for whom the book was written.  I suspect that’s true for today’s text.  Jesus is in the Temple, and there some people come up to him and still can’t believe that he’s the Messiah after all that he’s said and done.  I think that this is a story told in response to a very specific question that was being asked in the community of John during the first century AD.  Why is it that some people believe, and some people don`t believe?

John`s community lived in a time of division.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  But they were surrounded by others who didn`t, and this became a source of division and conflict and at times even persecution.  Sometimes this division cut right through families, with some family members believing and others not believing.  And so quite rightly, people were asking `Why is it that some believe and some don’t?`

It’s a question we can well ask in our own time.  We too live in a world where some believe and some don’t.  Why?  Why is it that of two children brought up in the same way in the same family, one will profess faith and one other won’t?  I hear this question most often from parents and grandparents, and sometimes it’s spoken with great concern.  Why is it that our kids don’t go to church anymore?

And so in response, John tells us this story.  Jesus was walking in the temple when the Jews gathered around him and said to him, `if you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.`  And Jesus replies, using the image of the sheep and shepherd which was well known to his listeners,

`I have told you and you do not believe.  You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.`

Now, we can go in two very different directions with this response.  In fact interpreters and theologians have gone in different directions through the centuries on this question.

We can interpret Jesus` response by going in the direction of predestination, the idea that somehow God has in advance predetermined who are going to be the sheep and who are not going to be the sheep, and that is why the sheep, the in-crowd if you like, are enabled to believe and the rest just don’t get it no matter how plain it is.

To be honest, I find this line of thinking to be unhelpful.  And in saying this, I hope I’m not offending any of you who are Calvinists!  But the idea of a God who predetermines things just doesn’t mesh very well for me with the loving God that I see revealed in Jesus, the one who calls people to respond to God’s invitation to be his people.

So I want to go in another direction with you this morning, and I want to do a little more exploration concerning the very nature of belief.  I think that in our modern world we have made some bad assumptions about belief.  And if you want to put the blame on someone, well we might as well go back a few hundred years and put the blame on Rene Descartes.  You remember Descartes?  He`s the one who in a quest for certainty made that famous statement, `I think therefore I am`.  And for four centuries since that famous statement, through the Enlightenment, Scepticism, Rationalism up until today, we have assumed that belief comes first.  That thought precedes action.  That our beliefs shape our behaviour. 

But I`m not so sure that belief comes first.  Modern psychology is now telling us that it is our behaviour that shapes our beliefs, not the other way around!  They`ve done experiments.  When people start recycling, after a while their concern for the environment increases.  When someone puts a political sign on their lawn, their support for that candidate rises dramatically.  Makes sense.  Our behaviour does shape our beliefs.  When you ask me if I believe that my wife loves me, I do.  But I only started to believe it after we had spent some time together, not the first time we met.  More and more we are coming to realize that behaviour shapes belief.

And it’s not just behaviour that shapes belief.  It’s also belonging that shapes belief.  Do you remember this past October when Diana Butler Bass came to speak to us?  One of her key messages was about the three B`s, Believing, Behaving and Belonging.  And she told us that we in churches have for hundreds of years been assuming, along with Descartes and everyone else, that first you believed, then you started behaving in a certain way, and then after that you started to belong to the church community.  But maybe we’ve had it backwards.  Because in my experience what actually happens is that first you belong to the community, to the church.  Then you start to behave in certain ways, new ways, loving one another, following Jesus` teachings, signing up to do coffee on a Sunday morning.  And then you find that your belonging and behaving starts to shape your beliefs.

Now I don’t want you to think I’m making this up, so let’s go back to our Gospel text.  Hear again what Jesus says in response to his questioners` failure to believe:

`You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.`

Did you catch the four key words?

Know (and remember that in Bible-speak, when we use the word know, we’re talking about relationship, in this image, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep.)

Belong.  Follow.  Hear.  Know.   These are the things that lead to belief.

Let`s take the first two, belong and follow.  Aren`t these the two words that pretty much sum up the early Christian community, the one we`ve been reading about in the book of Acts?  The early Christian community was a movement, not a belief system.  The emphasis was on loving one another and following the lead of the Spirit, not on right doctrine.  In fact the first name for Christians recorded in the book of Acts is `the people who belong to the Way.`  In today’s readings, we are told of Tabitha, a model disciple, and we are told that `she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.`  For those early Christians, it was the experience of belonging to the community of those who follow Jesus and living that out on a daily basis that shaped and enabled their beliefs.  Christianity is a way of life that is lived out in community.

Jesus also says in today’s text, `My sheep hear my voice and I know them.`  I understand this as a call to be in relationship.  The sheep and the shepherd have an on-going relationship.  They know each other.  Sheep won’t follow just anyone, but they will follow the one that they know, the one whose voice they recognize and hear.

One of my favourite theologians, Karl Rahner, a leading voice in the church in the 20th century, once said that `unless all Christians become mystics there will be no Christianity.`  I think that what he meant is that unless we enter into a relationship with God and learn to experience God as a real presence in our own lives, Christian faith and belief will be difficult to sustain in an age where we no longer believe things just because somebody else tells us we should.  And because God is a mystery, God is something we’ll never fully comprehend, then entering into relationship with God makes all of us mystics.  Not mystics in the sense of some sort of elite or people gifted with special visions, but mystics in the sense of what Rahner calls everyday mysticism, the growing awareness and experience of God`s Spirit in the ordinary, everyday stuff of our lives.

So, why do some people believe and some not believe?  We believe because we belong to a community of faith that nourishes and shapes us and is a living manifestation of God`s presence in our world.  We believe because we have chosen to follow Jesus, to live out his commandment that we love one another.  We believe because we act as if we have been called by God to be members of God’s family and serve those around us with justice and humility.  We believe because we are everyday mystics.  We pray.  We listen for God`s voice.  We are attentive to the movement of the spirit in our everyday lives.


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