“I have told you, and you do not believe.” (John 10:25)
What are we to make of Jesus Christ? Well, in today’s gospel reading we are confronted with a perhaps startling reality, the mystery of unbelief. In John’s gospel, this unbelief is characteristic of both the world and the Jews. Indeed, John tipped us off right at the very beginning: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” (1:10-11).
O Contradiction of contradictions! That the world would reject the one from whom the life of the world issues. That the blind would be healed only to pluck their eyeballs out for good rather than be confronted with the glorious beauty of the world around them ablaze with the uncreated light of God! Talk about sawing off the branch upon which one sits.
Now, if you’re like me then you know full well that you’re no perfect peach. See, I’ve been washed clean in the waters of baptism but that doesn’t stop me from wandering through sin’s pigpen and getting manky dirty. I’ve heard the voice of the Good Shepherd but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I can find greener pastures by my own self. The point is this: unbelief is not just doubt or even disobedience; no, unbelief is much more unimaginative than all of that. Unbelief is to look at Jesus, to see his works and to hear his words, to discern in him the very life and love of God for us, to know that he has come to set the world aright, to cleanse us from all sin, to know that God is entirely for us even in judgment—unbelief is to see all of this in Jesus himself and still somehow find the capacity to say “no.” To pick up a popular image for John, unbelief is to have finally been brought out of darkness and into the glorious light only to refuse to live in the light because you’d rather sit in the corner sulking over the darkness which the light extinguished by it’s very presence.
Or, more concretely, unbelief is to do what the Jews did immediately following our gospel reading today. “The Father and I are one,” says Jesus. And immediately, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him,” (10:31). “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
It is surprising to think that this is even possible. That one could reject the light even as it shines so warmly upon them. That one could be confronted with the love of God in Christ and somehow say, “I’d rather not.” In fact, it’s so surprising that one 20th C. theologian called it the “impossible possibility.” In other words, it’s impossible to think that one could be confronted with Jesus, to see in him God’s “yes” to human creatures, and somehow to say “no.” Surely Jesus is so beautiful and life with him so good that it would be impossible to resist him. But no, this impossibility is all too possible. In Jesus Christ God has loved us and willed us to love him in return. And yet, he has willed us to love him, leaving open the possibility that his love would go unreturned.
“I have told you, and you do not believe.” The world has rejected Jesus, and the sign of this is the cross. And yet, even—especially!—when Jesus is explicitly rejected there is hope. Not, there is a reason to hope, or there is an opportunity to hope, or there is a chance for hope, but rather, there in the very act of the rejection of our Lord, hope resides. That is the message of the cross, is it not? That even here, where the whole wide world most brutally and explicitly rejects Jesus Christ, just here is the salvation of the world. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). God is always and everywhere willing that the whole world would embrace Jesus Christ and be saved. Therefore, the world is never without hope, even in it’s rejection of Christ.
The Biblical figure for this is, of course, Israel. The Old Testament is basically a Greatest Hits collection of Israel’s unfaithfulness—and as such it is also a Greatest Hits collection of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. And, as I mentioned earlier, throughout John’s gospel not only “the world” but also “the Jews” characteristically reject their own salvation in Jesus Christ.
We know that the early Christians wrestled in a similar way with the mystery of unbelief in the figure of Israel’s own unbelief. We know this because it is a major theme of the Apostle Paul’s writing, especially in Romans. Israel has rejected their Messiah—does this mean that God has cast them off? Has God, in turn, rejected his people? “By no means!” says Paul (Rom 11:1). In fact, Paul continues, their stumbling is the means by which salvation has gone out to the whole world. Imagine what their acceptance will mean! Life from the dead! (Rom 11:15)
Indeed, Resurrection is just what an unbelieving world most desperately needs. For if the world rejects the Life of the world, what is left but death? And we know death well in our world, don’t we? The suicide crisis in Attawapiskat where in a single day 11 young people tried to kill themselves; the devastation of modern drone warfare; corporations knowingly poisoning civilian water supplies; 100,000 human creatures killed in their mother’s womb every year in Canada; systemic poverty and racism. This is not the fruit of a world that has embraced Jesus Christ.
And yet. And yet!—somebody say, “and yet.” God loves the world. God sent his Son. His Son has spoken and we have his word. And some have heard, and some have believed, and some have been raised from the dead with Christ in baptism, and some have followed, and no one—no one!—can snatch them out of God’s hand.
This is not our own doing, of course, but the doing of the Holy Spirit who reveals to people who Jesus is. Which should give us pause: What areas of our lives is the Holy Spirit at work in, drawing us deeper into Christ that we might know him more fully? How is the Holy Spirit enlivening our reading and hearing of Scripture so that we might meet the risen Jesus in it’s pages?
I began by asking the question, what are we to make of Jesus Christ? Well, as C.S. Lewis put it, “There is no question of what we can make of him; it is entirely a question of what he intends of make of us.” What does God want to make of us? What does God want to do with us as we hear the voice of Jesus in Scripture and follow after him?
There’s more: those who have heard, and those who have believed, and those who are following, are those who have been sent. Lest we be tempted to think that the gospel is all about making us feel better about ourselves. Friends, the gospel is bigger than that! A little later on in John’s gospel Jesus says a prayer for his disciples and what does he do? He sends them out! He sends them out so that they might be a sign of the love of God in the midst of a world gone mad. He sends them out so that they might share in the love of the Father and the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. He sends them out so that the love of God might bind them together in unity. He sends them out—somebody say, “he sends them out!” He sends them out, why? “So that the world may believe.” (17:21) That’s it. That’s why we’ve been called, that’s why we’ve heard, that’s why we follow, that’s why we’ve been sent: so that the world may believe! Which should give us further pause: Where do we see the Holy Spirit moving in the hearts and minds of people we know that are not yet following Jesus Christ? How might the Holy Spirit be calling us to share the hope that we have with them?
Despite the fact that the church is in decline in the West, despite the fact that four parishes had to amalgamate to form this here church, despite all of this I am excited about following Jesus today, and you should be too. There is great joy in following Jesus Christ! Moreover, we have an opportunity to be a part of what I believe could be an historic moment in the life of the Church. Jesus has spoken, we have heard, will we follow? Will we pray? Will we go? For the sake of the world. For the glory of God.
Now, if I believed in coincidence, I might look at the fact that both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have been talking a lot about the re-evangelization of the West lately, I might look at the fact that the 41st General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada this summer has as it’s theme, “You Are My Witnesses,” I might look at the fact that Archbishop Justin is calling upon all Anglican Christians to pray this Pentecost for a new confidence and joy in sharing the life-transforming gospel; if I believed in coincidence I might just look at all of this and shrug my shoulders.
I do not believe in coincidence but one thing I do believe is this: Jesus Christ calls every person to follow him. As Christians it’s our duty and joy to share that invitation. Indeed, how will they hear if we do not open our mouths? In the week leading up to Pentecost we will be more fervent in prayer for the world which God loves, into which he has sent us to proclaim Jesus and to pray “Thy Kingdom Come.”
Let us pray: Blessed Saviour, who didst look with compassion upon the multitudes: Raise up, we beseech thee, faithful men and women to seek and find thy sheep dispersed and lost, that they may be saved for ever; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen