Fourth Sunday of Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
In the Northern Great Lakes Synod news included in this month’s Living Lutheran, Timothy Vocke, a former student of our lay school (which, by the way, is open to every one of you and has a new semester starting this Fall!) tells the story of his journey through faith.
Like many people, he grew up going to Sunday school and didn’t like it. Went to Confirmation and hated it. Went to church and hated it. Attended a Lutheran church in college that denied him Communion, so didn’t like Lutherans very much. Married a Roman Catholic, but didn’t care about church much. Eventually ended up attending a Lutheran church again and stuck around, but as he describes it, “I wanted to do something, but I had no idea what, or how, or where to start, so I did nothing but attend and pay my ‘dues’.”
It was only after he had two heart attacks and all of the complications and recovery that go with them that he changed his outlook toward his work in the church. Realizing he was on “borrowed time”, he decided it was time to “get to work”. He joined a “Reading the Bible in 90 Days” class, joined his congregation council, and attended a synod assembly as a voting member. And he enrolled in our synod’s aforementioned lay school (which again is open to every last one of you).
“I attended the Lay School for Mission,” he says, “which was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I always walked out of the building with more questions than I walked in with.”
Even though he always had more questions than answers, Tim felt compelled to keep diving into his faith. He graduated lay school and asked our bishop what else he could do. Now he sits on our synod’s Candidacy Committee, which determines whether seminarians are fit and ready to be pastors. He is a licensed lay preacher working at a three-point parish in the U.P. And this semester, he returned to teach Christian Ethics at our lay school—all without “all of the answers”.
Despite what a great many people think, the Christian faith is not about answers. The Bible is not an encyclopedia written with a handy index to provide us with the solutions to all of our problems or our questions. And we have lots of questions.
Those who confront Jesus in our story this morning are thinking the same way. “Tell us plainly!” they say, agitated with Jesus for his constant stories and metaphors, of which the image of the sheep is one. “Just tell us what we need to know, and we’ll do it!” they claim. Just give us a simple answer.
Jesus’s response is rather brusque as he brushes them off. He’s already done signs and wonders in front of them (this is the twentieth chapter of John, after all). They’ve heard him preach. They’ve heard him teach. He’s given them everything they need to trust his word that he’s the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. But instead of living into that calling, instead of wrestling with the difficulty of his teaching, they want a nice, simple, clean sound byte they can use. They want to “do nothing but attend and pay their dues”, so to speak, bypassing the necessary struggle that is the Christian calling.
Or they could be trying to bait Jesus into saying something they can use against him, to arrest him, and get rid of them. I’m not sure which is actually worse. Either way though, they’re looking for something easy and clean.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case?
But there is no simple answer. There is no simple way to think about, to conceptualize this faith, this trust, this way of Jesus Christ. There’s no simple and easy way to understand our place in this strange plan of God’s to redeem all of creation from a fallen nature to a restored nature.
Even the beloved Psalm 23 and Jesus’s story of the shepherd have their problems. Psalm 23 speaks wonderfully of a shepherd who makes sheep lie down in green pastures, who leads them beside waters, restores their souls, leads them on right paths, who sets a feast before them and anoints them as chosen sheep. But has anyone tried to shepherd sheep, or any other animal? There’s a reason we have dogs like border collies who are bred to herd—sheep need an awful lot of attention and maintenance. They’re stubborn and don’t know what’s good for them. If we’re supposed to be these sheep, it paints a wonderful picture of God but a lousy picture of us.
Or there’s the nature of the chosen sheep in Jesus’s story. Jesus effectively tells his questioners that they will never trust in what he has to say because they don’t belong to his in-group, the sheep of his fold. They don’t belong to his sheep. Those that do belong to Jesus will hear his voice and follow him. Those that don’t, it seems, never will.
This presents a serious dilemma. Are Jesus’s questioners, then, forever fated to be outside the fold? They will never hear the Shepherd’s voice, so how can they be brought into it? Did God choose some sheep to be in the fold and then others not to be in the fold?
Now you’re getting into the realm of analyzing God’s omniscience and omnipotence, God’s all-knowing and all-powerful characteristics. You’re also treading in the deep waters of predestination, a topic I covered when I taught my Lutheran Confessions class at our lay school. Does God determine beforehand which human beings are going to be saved and which ones are going to be damned, and then give faith to some and not to others?
Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the giants of the Reformation, came up with different answers to that question. Luther never quite came up with a satisfactory answer. And Calvin, though he came up with a very detailed and logical answer, did not come up with a satisfactory one in my view. Calvin said that yes, God indeed chose some human beings to be saved and God chose other human beings to be damned, an idea I find revolting. Luther basically said sure, God chooses some people to be saved, but everything else, we just don’t know.
Now that may not be the whole point of the story, but these are questions that come up. There is no shortage of questions, either.
Why does God let bad things happen to good people?
Does God use natural disasters to punish people?
If Baptism is necessary for salvation, what happens to people who aren’t baptized?
How do I know if God really forgives me?
My friend committed suicide—is he going to hell?
What does the resurrection look like?
I think I’m gay… does God still love me even if my parents don’t?
Why didn’t God heal my mother of the cancer that took her life?
I’m sure we could add to this list many other questions that Christians struggle with—fight with. For thousands of years, Christians have searched for the answers to the questions that keep them up at night.
I wish I could stand here and give you all the answers. If the question has to do with if God loves or cares about something, then I’m confident in saying that the answer is yes. But I don’t have all the answers. I don’t. Neither does the Bible. It doesn’t.
We may have to wrestle with some of these questions for our entire lives. We don’t gather here together on Sunday morning, or Wednesday morning and afternoon, or Thursday evening, or any other day of the week to get simple answers to our questions. Simple answers aren’t good enough.
Instead, he come here for the reassurance and the promise that in our struggles, in our daily grind, in our every day of our lives, God is present. We may not understand are nature as called sheep, but God shepherds us all the same. We may want Jesus to give us simple, plain answers (which he won’t do), but no matter how Jesus speaks to us he is speaking to us.
The story of the Christian faith and the Christian life isn’t academic. It’s not about answers. It’s relational. It’s about struggling together, learning together, traveling together, eating together, crying together, laughing together, questioning together, wondering what the heck God is up to together. We are Christians together with each other and together with God.
So I apologize that today, you probably won’t walk away with many answers, if any. I hope however that you walk away with each other to wrestle with your questions, to be willing to tackle your questions head on, and to recognize that you don’t walk your journey alone. We’re all in this–together.