There is an old story, which you may well have heard, about a man hiking along the edge of sheer cliff at dusk. He trips over a rock and slides off the trail. In desperation he reaches out and grabs a root which stops his fall. Hanging in the air, he looks down into the darkness but can’t really see what is below him. When he cries out for help there’s no response. He’s terrified, but suddenly a voice sounds in the darkness, “This is God. Relax, it’s going to be okay, just do what I tell you.” The man can’t believe his good fortune; he’s overjoyed and replies, “Yes, Lord whatever you say.” “Alright,” says God, “now first of all let go of the root.” There’s a long silence and then the man says, “Is there anybody else up there?”
I love that little story because it illustrates the difference between believing in God and trusting God—and that, I think, is at the heart of this morning’s gospel lesson. The Jews (and by that we mean certain leaders rather than a whole community) come to Jesus with a challenge, “How long will you keep us in suspense, are you or are you not the Messiah? Give us a straight answer.” At first hearing that sounds like a reasonable request. But Jesus sees that the issue is not ignorance but trust. It’s not that they lack information; it’s that they are not willing to act on what they already know. “I have told,” he says, “and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” In essence Jesus says, “You have ample evidence of who I am; you have seen some pretty amazing signs. You just don’t want to accept it, because it scares and outrages you. Your problem is not belief, in the sense of lacking information; it’s that you are not willing to trust me.” Like the man on the edge of the cliff they want an answer that doesn’t involve risk and bold action.
That, says Jesus, you will not get, because the only way to determine if I am who I seem to be is to trust me and head out on the journey. Then he adds these cryptic words, “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”Why do some people not believe; sometimes despite a fervent desire to do so? John Calvin took these words from John to mean that some people are predestined from all eternity to simply be outside the flock of Christ; they do not believe because they are not part of the chosen. It may not seem fair, but it is an attempt to explain the mystery of why some come to faith and others do not.
But there is an alternative way to hear these words. Perhaps Jesus is saying that the only way to know who he is is to join the community of faith, so that his presence is as familiar us as the shepherd’s voice to his sheep. The life of faith makes sense only when we enter into it. Jesuit writer Anthony DeMello tells a story to illustrate this fact….
An explorer from a small village in Europe took a long trek into the distant and exotic Amazon jungle, going places few outsides the natives had ever gone. When he returns home he tries to describe what he had seen: the wild waterfalls, the bright birds, the massive green canopy of trees which harbored an abundance of snakes, insects, and animals. Despite his best efforts his audience can not begin to imagine all that he has seen. So he tells them that they must undertake the journey to the Amazon themselves. He provides them a detailed map, marking the significant landmarks and also the hazards. But instead of taking the journey, the villagers focus on the map. They copy it. They frame it. They memorize it and marvel at the craft of its construction. They organize discussions of how the map was constructed. Ultimately, they decide they are experts on the Amazon because they’ve learned the map by heart. But nobody ever leaves the village.
That, suggests DeMello, is how we often are in our life of faith. We are armchair explorers who know the journeys of others by heart. We even debate the truth of various maps, but we never get around to actually setting out down the river, experiencing both the joy and the danger of challenging our comfort zone. That is what Jesus is telling his challengers, unless you are willing to go on the journey, nothing I tell you will make any difference because you are not part of the community which goes where I lead.
Anyone who really pays attention to what Jesus asks of his disciples knows that the journey is not an easy one. The way of Jesus is hard to follow and his own fate tells us how the world generally regards those who value God above any other loyalty, who try to be gentle in the face of harsh words, who seek to be generous when many are justly fearful of losing their livelihood. So let us not gloss over the challenge which today’s text puts before us. But let us also hear the promise of Jesus’ words.
“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.”If we feel besieged in our day, trying to follow in the way of Jesus, imagine what it must have been like for those early believers. Most scholars believe the gospel John was written at a time when Christians were becoming distinct from the Jewish community out which the church sprang. Gentiles regarded them with suspicion and their former community saw they as beyond the covenant of Israel. They must have felt very alone and vulnerable indeed.
Into that uncertainty comes this promise from Jesus: “I know you. I love you. I value you. Just as a shepherd guards his flock from predators, so I will allow nothing to snatch you out of my care.” That is a promise upon which generations have staked their lives.
“You belong to me.” In our most important relationships those words have all sorts of potential for misunderstanding and abuse, but they also words which we long to hear. Life brings all manner of pain and anxiety, yet somehow we can endure when we know that we matter to at least one other person. When we know that we are appreciated by another, when we sense that another is deeply invested in us, come what may, we find courage and consolation.
“No one can snatch them out of my hand.” Whether the challenge is finding courage to speak for the right in the public sphere or simply maintaining some sense of self-worth when a significant person tells us we are a failure, there is power in knowing that we are loved with a love that will not let us go.
To return to the explorer metaphor, when mountain expeditions make a particularly dangerous ascent I am told that they rope themselves together. There is a certain danger in doing that; a single mistake can doom the whole party. But each person knows they are not on their own; the whole group succeeds together or not at all. They share each other’s strength and bolster each other in weakness.
Jesus calls us to a journey as hazardous as a mountain ascent, but he makes us a promise: I am creating a community to strengthen you and I will never, ever bail on you. Our challenge is to become that community and to trust that promise—to go beyond reading the map to embarking on the journey.