Show and Tell
When I read John 10 this week, I was struck by the request from the Pharisees toward Jesus: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It is said of our world today that there is seismic cultural shift going on. Globalization has led us to be more aware of our neighbors around the world, and also more aware of the threats to our freedom and peace at home. This week’s events in Boston are certainly an example. Freedom gives birth to freedom and so more and more people in this country and around the world are seeking representation and equality, which sometimes feels threatening to groups that have long been on top of the world’s social pyramid. Highly mobile families have new economic opportunities but also become less connected to the family network of support – a reality with consequences for every generation. Advances in medicine and technology are leading to uncharted ethical waters that must be navigated. We are living on the edge of history; the world is changing and our lives are caught up in the midst of it.
We see a debate playing out around us, in politics and in the church, about how to respond and adapt to all of these changes. Is the old world better? Should we cling to it and try to revive it? Or are these changes the way of the future? Should we lean in to them and shape our national and religious life around them? Is there only one answer? In the church the stakes seem especially high when the answer to these questions is framed not only as a matter of opinion, but as a matter of faithfulness to God. While it is ungracious and prideful to presume that there is only one faithful response to cultural shifts, we must allow our identity in Christ to shape us as we respond.
As a leader in a religious community, I have sometimes been put on the spot to define or defend my views on particular hot-button issues. “Tell us plainly,” the question comes, “what do you think about gun control, or homosexuality, or abortion, or entitlements?” Sometimes these are heartfelt questions from one who genuinely wants to understand how my religious beliefs inform my social and political life. Too often, they are loaded questions – a litmus test where I will either pass or fail depending on the views of the person asking the question.
In this context, what struck me about John 10, was not only the request for a plain answer, but also Jesus’ response: “I have told you, and you do not believe.” The funny thing about this response from Jesus was that, in fact, he had not told the Jews, at least not plainly. Only once so far in John’s gospel has Jesus identified himself as the Messiah, the Christ. In that incident, Jesus was not even speaking to the Jews, but to a Samaritan woman at a well in a Samaritan city (John 4:25-26). Even when directly confronted in today’s reading, Jesus still does not answer the question. Instead he points back to all of the good works he has performed and invites the crowd to answer the question themselves. Look at the water I have turned to wine, the little boy and lame man whom I healed, the 5,000 hungry that I fed, the woman whose sins I forgave, the blind man to whom I gave sight. Look at these deeds and tell me whether I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior.
The truth is, Jesus could have answered these Jews plainly. He could have said, “Yes, I am the Messiah that you have been waiting for.” But lack of plain speech was not the barrier keeping these people from embracing Jesus’ ministry. Even if he had told them plainly, they would not have believed and the certainly would not have understood. For some of them, it was a litmus test and they would have arrested Jesus on the spot for such a claim. Even those who asked earnestly were still short sighted and misguided in their understanding of messiah-ship. They were looking for a political conquer, not a suffering servant. Jesus declines to answer their question plainly, not because he does not know the answer but because he knows that no answer he gives will be accepted or rightly understood.
In times of cultural change, words sometimes fail us. Meanings shifts. We chuckle today remembering how President Clinton called into question the meaning of the word “is” during his impeachment, but our language is constantly being challenged. Words become loaded with levels of meaning beyond what you find in the dictionary. “Liberal” no longer means “marked by generosity”(1). “Evangelical” no longer refers to a person “in agreement with the Christian gospel”(2). In Jesus’ day, “Messiah” was just such a word. Part of the trouble is that we are not so quick to agree on new meanings. And part of the trouble is that we are prone, like that former President, to manipulate words to suit our own best interests. All of this disagreement and manipulation has made it difficult to speak plainly about the significant issues and changes of our day.
Now that I have rediscovered John 10:22-25, I will answer those questions the same way Jesus answered questions in the culture war of his day and time — I will point to the testimony of my life and invite others to make their own judgments about my views. Look at my personal life and my public ministry. Look at the friends I keep and the hospitality I try to show. Consider the way I use my time and my money. Look at my passion for justice among the least and my efforts to understand the challenges facing the poor in our community. Look at these things, and you will have the answer to your questions. No amount of verbiage, however plain and clear, will mean as much as the testimony of a life lived with grace and integrity.
Our identity in Christ is of primary importance not because of how it helps us answer the dominant questions of our day, but because of how it motivates us to live in relation to our neighbors who are also struggling to understand a changing world. If we wish to help more people get to know the Savior of the world, we will not do it by our shrewd answers to difficult questions. In our modern culture war, we use our words not to advance our understanding of one another or of Christ, but to further entrench our own viewpoints, justify our judgments, and solidify the sides. If I, or any of you, wish to change hearts and reshape the landscape, we must do it not with words but by the sacred, slow work of love.
In the instance before us today, Jesus eschews plain speech in favor of the more complex work of healing, feeding, and forgiving. The disciple Tabitha in Acts is likewise remembered not for her wise teaching but for her good works and acts of charity. Tabitha not only sewed clothing for the poor, but also shaped a community of widows and restored meaning to their lives. Although Peter brought Tabitha back to life once, she eventually died again. The tunics and other clothing that she sewed have been forever lost to time and the earth. But we celebrate Tabitha today because the power of Christ was made known through her first of all by her deeds of love and only secondly by the miracle of her resurrection by Peter.
In the church, we need to spend less time debating the issues of our day and more time loving the people these debates impact most directly. Love means we will listen to those with whom we disagree, not to manipulate but to understand. Love means making room for people who do not easily fit into our homes and churches as they look today. This might include poor people, disabled people, single people, the very young, the very old, and yes, gay and lesbian people. Love means protecting those who are poor. It means providing hope and support for women who do not want to be mothers. It means caring for the alien and foreigner in our midst. Love can be as simple as sewing a tunic or as life-changing as committing oneself to a group of women who have nowhere else to turn.
There may still be room for debate and dialogue, but we must never let our words get in front of our love. I have a favorite hymn that serves as a guide and reminder to me in my life and ministry. It was sung at my ordination, and I sing it often to myself.
Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
And have not love, my words are vain;
As sounding brass, and hopeless gain.
However the earth may shift and change, however we might be called to answer heated and difficult questions, let us always speak first of all with our love. Or in the words of the hymn,
Let inward love guide every deed;
By this we worship and are freed.(3)
(3) Hal Hopson. Though I May Speak (C)1972.