Easter 4 C: The Electing Word

John 10:22-30

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t usually start this letter, or my sermons, by calling to mind theological controversies, but I will make an exception in this case. Why? Because there is something deeply dissatisfying with this exchange between Jesus and his questioners.

Just a quick contextual note to remind us where we are in John’s distinct narrative. After healing the man born blind in chapter 9, Jesus goes on to interpret that sign (John’s intentional naming of what we often call a miracle) across the first two-thirds of chapter 10 in what is often referred to as the “good shepherd discourse.” In these verses, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, the One sent to lay down his life for the sheep to protect them from the robbers and bandits and grant them abundant life. In the passage, Jesus again engages in a debate with those around him, this time with the portico of Solomon – the place from which the kings of Israel would render judgment – as a backdrop. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between conversations, but given the continuity of the shepherd imagery, I would guess that it’s not too much later and that the folks with whom he’s in conversation are his usual interlocutors.

The conversation initially seems straight forward enough, even promising, as those questioning Jesus ask plainly and simply, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus, however, doesn’t seem to see it that way. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to believe their sincerity at all: “I have told you, 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 here, quite frankly, is where I grow frustrated, as it seems like this whole thing is something of a set up. What does Jesus mean that they don’t believe because they aren’t his sheep? That makes it sound like it’s not up to them. Like they couldn’t believe if they wanted to. Like those who do believe are just lucky – they’re Jesus’ sheep. And those who don’t aren’t.

Do you see what I mean? There’s something terribly uncomfortable about this whole matter of who believes and who doesn’t believe – and why – across the Fourth Gospel. And, of course, it’s not just John’s Gospel that is vexing, as this has been a persistent question across the ages in the Christian tradition. What is the nature of belief? How much of our belief is dependent on God’s agency, and how much is up to us? If we have no say in our belief – we’re either sheep or we’re not – then what responsibility can we bear for that belief? And if it’s all up to us, all a matter of the will, then given how many poor choices we make, how can we ever be assured we’ve made a satisfactory choice when it comes to faith?

Numerous theologians have grappled with these questions, and most of their answers have been placed in one of two camps. One the one side, often represented by John Calvin, are those who stress the supremacy of God’s action above all. This position is often described with the term predestination because it holds that God in God’s infinite wisdom and justice determines from before the foundations of time who will believe and who will not and therefore the eternal destiny of all. The other side, represented by figures like Pelagius and Jacob Arminius, tend to make more room for the human will, attributing grace to God but inviting human responsibility for belief and, ultimately, salvation. This, then, is the theological debate that came to mind when reading John’s Gospel this week.

Truth be told, however, I’ve never found these debates all that helpful. For no matter how thoroughly I follow them, I can’t ultimately resolve the tension in the questions named above. And maybe that’s revealing. Maybe, that is, the point of theology isn’t to resolve the tensions inherent in the life of faith, but rather to help us ask better questions.

Look, I know that’s not all that satisfying. But here’s the thing: the generation of Christians coming of age isn’t particularly interested in the pre-packaged answers theologians of the past offer them. They are seeking an actual relationship with God, they want a genuine encounter with the divine, they hope for an experience of grace. So perhaps this week, Dear Partner, we can invite folks to name their questions about faith, their curiosity about God, their wonderment over various dimensions of their life in this world, and instead of using the theology we learned in seminary to provide answers simply remind our people that when they ask these questions they are actually doing theology and are in very good company. Theology, in other words, is no more or less than the activity of seeking to know, experience, and understand God rather than passively receiving the wisdom of another era, and it’s our job to invite our people to be theologians.

All of which makes me think that perhaps after wrestling with my questions about the nature of faith, I can then set them aside for a moment and live with the tension they create in order to hear the words of promise Jesus offers, the promise that is at the heart of this passage and, indeed, the whole Gospel: “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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

This word, Dear Partner – that God will not abandon us, that Jesus will hold on to us through all things, that God will never, ever let us go – needs to be spoken and heard this Sunday. To the child afraid for her safety at home, to the spouse victimized by domestic violence, to the college student who wonders whether there will be any jobs after graduation, to the person fearful of being stopped by police because of his skin color, to the police officer who never knows what will happen when he arrives on the scene, to the mid career person afraid of losing her career, to the retiree with no idea of what to do absent a career, to the one mired in grief at the lost of a beloved spouse, to the person shattered by the disintegration of a relationship…. There are so many times, Dear Partner, when life conspires to make us feel unsafe and unworthy and it is our job to proclaim in the face of these harsh realities the even greater reality of God’s undying, unconditional, and unyielding love. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

One last appeal to theology, not to relieve the tension of our lives of faith but to name it and help us to name it and, indeed, live into that tension. Martin Luther is often counted among those who favor predestination. Given his debate over the relative bondage or freedom of the will, I can understand the predilection. But I nevertheless think that is a misreading of Luther. For Luther was, above all things, a realist, and he felt that the job of the theologian was to call a thing what it is, to deal with the reality in front of you, the reality of sin and the reality of grace. And so also, I suspect, frustrated by metaphysical questions and answers about “ultimate things” that could make us miss the actual activity of God right in front of us, Luther advocated neither predestination nor free will but rather talked about God’s election. The difference, for Luther, was that election was not concerned with things God may or may not have done eons ago, but rather named a present-tense reality: God’s immediate and ongoing decision to choose us, to love us, to save us. And whenever preachers proclaim God’s promises, Luther believed, God once again arrives on the scene to elect people to abundant life.

So preach God’s electing word this week, Dear Partner. Tell your people that no matter how crazy or difficulty or stressful or scary their lives are, nevertheless God chooses them, loves them, accompanies them, and will hold onto them through all of life and even through death into the new life God offers them and all of us. It’s an awesome task to proclaim such a word, Dear Partner, and I am so grateful you are willing to do it. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,