Grace and peace to us from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Reflecting on the third reading from John chapter 10 and Jesus being our good shepherd, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, sanctify us in your Word, your Word is truth. (Amen.)
Dear Christian Friends, we are aware of the power of words, the position of the speaker and the hearer, and the message conveyed about the same thing. We are in a worldwide pandemic. It is affecting the UK in ways that are similar to the rest of the world but also specific to the UK.
To talk about COVID-19 in terms of war, front lines, casualties, even an “invisible mugger” or “a brilliant germ that the antibiotics can’t keep up with” frames the situation as a battle and in a battle one has those not struck down, those wounded and those who have died. In this description, the deaths of NHS workers – to name one group – is part of the war – lamentable (especially if not given the correct ‘armour’ or ‘ammunition’), tragic, but unsurprising in war – especially one we did not expect, where we have been ‘attacked’.
To talk about COVID-19 in terms of disease, infections and public health shapes the message differently and there still are those who are healthy, those who are infected, those who recover, and those who have died. In this description, the deaths of NHS workers – to name one group – is part of workplace deficiencies because we all expect to go to work safely – and there is an expectation of due diligence, risk assessment, proper procedures and equipment because things can be foreseen.
We are used to such use of words. We assess speakers and audiences accordingly. We buy papers and watch TV and listen to podcasts and follow tweets with this very thing in mind. The description is the message – and facts are hopefully in there somewhere – and the words describe the reality seen and the point is that it is the same or very similar reality that is observed and commented on but very different responses can be generated in the listeners, who can behave very differently in response, and who can swear to different versions of truth, of reality. Words are critical for our existence. And that is why trust or faith is critical to this world – and I’m just talking about getting through each day even if you didn’t profess a religion – because we all rely on words.
I hope I’ve made the case that words matter. They shape reality.
But there is something else that impinges on the words, affects the words, and by its very nature creates – and I’m using this word as close to Christian theology as I can possibly go – because in the Bible only God creates – with words – but we are sub-creators with words in our literature in particular which we all know when we get lost in that book – but there is also the performance of words – the voice – and that presents the drama of reality, of the moment in which we live.
The words “I love you” when spoken between people who love each other in that moment generate what? Depending on the relationship – a married couple, a parent to child, a grandchild to grandparent – it could be happiness, arousal or passion, contentment, security.
Let’s go the other way. Who could be speaking if the same three words “I love you” produces in the hearer an involuntary shudder, a shutting down of all feelings, despair? The answer could be – a married couple, a parent, a grandchild.
We know what emotions or reactions we’d like the words “I love you” to produce but the words can elicit, dare I say ‘create’, all sorts of other reactions – the drama is live! – in that moment when said by a particular voice. When said by a faithful and caring person one response might happen. When said by an abuser, someone violent or cruel, another response occurs. The voice matters – and that’s not an advertisement for anything! So does the tone of the voice. The context of the voice. And, of course, it comes down to the identity of the voice. Who is speaking these words that matter so much? How do we react to the words and to the voice? That’s what life and relationships are all about – listening to the words, understanding what is being said, and knowing the voice – so we know how to speak – use our voice – and behave.
Something to ponder is ‘How important is it to see the voice?’. I’ll leave that for you to consider.
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, in our Church Year is often called Good Shepherd Sunday where the readings come from verses in John chapter 10. Today Jesus described himself as the shepherd of his sheep and he enters through the doorway – he’s not a thief climbing over the fence – but walking in as the rightful person and calling his sheep who listen to his voice and then he leads them out – doesn’t say where – but we can assume to good and safe pasture – and they follow him or actually his voice. Nice picture but the audience didn’t understand.
And so Jesus uses a different image for himself and his work – he is the door itself – through which the sheep should go in and out from safety to pasture and back and they do so by listening to him and not interlopers, thieves, charlatans, anyone else who enters by nefarious means. Such people want to fleece and kill the sheep – use them for their own ends – which is the best picture of bad ministry, bad pastoring, and also cultic behaviour of leaders around. Then Jesus gives the goal of what he wants for people, why he is doing what he is doing, why he is speaking – I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10b). And that has got to be one of the best promises and descriptions of what a God could make – ever.
Go walking down any aisle of the supermarket of religions and listen to the gods speaking and their voices. Don’t be afraid. My guess is that you will hear deities talk about humans as toys, playthings, especially the women; you will hear rules and regulations – obedience and rewards, disobedience and punishments; you will encounter accounts of good and evil and calls to do one and not the other; you will hear calls to enlightenment and becoming one with a deep reality be it called Brahman, Nirvana, or The Dreaming; and in all these aisles there will be an implicit or explicit message, ‘Listen to me.’ ‘Follow me’. So many words – often similar – so many voices – yes, the supermarket of religions can be a cacophony!
And it is not untrue that the people of the Old Testament found God speaking to them terrifying and asked Moses to tell them what God was saying but in its context they seemed to be reacting to the power evident on Mount Sinai – though it would not scare them into following God. And that’s a key point about voices – no matter how big and terrible they might be – if someone doesn’t want to listen or refuses to be scared then the power is of little value. And God spoke to Moses and the prophets and his voice did not blast them to smithereens.
So even here the question becomes why do listen to any voice?
Ultimately because we are drawn to the speaker.
Words and voice and actions all align into the speaker and in our human relationships we acknowledge discord and lack of harmony but we persevere just as others persevere with us. In our spiritual relationship we long, I think, not to be fooled, not to preyed upon, not to be used or abused and, time and time again, those who meet Jesus discover someone worth getting to know, worth following. His voice, his words, his action, and his very self all align and, hope against hope, we find someone who is FOR US and not against us.
Our danger is that we pick and choose the Jesus we want to hear. The mystery of this man living and dying and living 2,000 years ago is even greater in that his followers say that we meet him in the library we call the Bible. The mystery is that the Holy Spirit has for these past 2,000 years kept people focusing on Jesus and church history reveals that whenever the church wanders from the complete accounts, emphasises one aspect, follows one line of thought to the exclusion of all others, turns the relationship with God into a codified set of teachings that don’t need the living person, Jesus, to be there – or crowd him out with other voices to follow, then the Holy Spirit brings us back to Jesus and the centre is his cross and empty tomb. Everything ripples out, flows out, from this action and from the person involved – this Jesus – dead on a cross – and alive again because death itself was defeated.
We read all of the library – about 1500 years of literature, telling a story of just over 2,000 years but setting a context – that the world has always known – we are not alone, there is more to life than our physical existence and death. And so we read that there is God who is a mystery, who is love, who speaks and things happen, and who has always acted FOR US and not against us and this becomes laser light brilliant, becomes super mysterious, when God takes off all power and trappings of divinity and becomes human – and dies – and rises again ALL FOR US so that we may live.
This is the voice of someone worth hearing. His love casts out our fears and shames. He fills our deepest longings and he treats us as individuals – not pets, not prey, not toys, not nuisances – but as beloved. And that is why following him is life – an abundant life – that not even death can destroy.
Listen to Jesus. He has lots to say each day but he always starts with … “I love you”.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. [Amen]
- John 10:1 - 10