On the 2½ acres I had at Bannockburn was installed a domestic water recycling unit. In effect, it was a small sewerage treatment plant that can turn black water into drinking water, which was to be used for irrigation. When the unit was installed, it was installed too deep in the ground, so I had to construct a retaining wall box, to protect it from being buried and flooding when it rained.
Our plumber, who was then servicing our recycling unit, was a little slow in learning that I was a priest. When he saw the construction I had made, with steps going down into the ‘hole’ he said, “And a priest built that! Pretty good job.” I have now come to respond to this kind of comment with, “Well, my boss was a carpenter.” But, that’s another story.
I have to confess; I am pretty amazed with myself at what I have achieved and learnt when I take the risk and have a go. I am not trained in carpentry, apart from a term at high school in the woodwork shop. However, although he is not trained as a carpenter either, I have learnt most of what I can do from watching my dad. I think I have already told you of my amazing ability to fix storm water drains and replace tap washers – with apologies to the plumbers amongst us. I have learnt through hanging around and watching those who know.
“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” These words of Jesus come in answer to a question from a group of Jews who gather around Jesus while he was walking in the temple. “How long will you keep us in suspense?”
There are two ways that we can consider the motivation of these Jews in their questioning of Jesus. The first is that they are hostile, that they have surrounded Jesus in the temple to force an answer out of him in order to incriminate him. This is understandable, because there seems to be, in their question, an implication that it is Jesus who is holding back on the revealing of his identity to the Jews; certainly from their perspective.
But this is not the sense of it at all. These Jews are not holding their breath for an answer; Jesus is holding their breath, the breath of their life, in his hands based on the response they will make to him, one way or another. Will they believe in him or not. They are actually acknowledging that their spirit, their being, their life, can be influenced by others, especially Jesus. They are, therefore, acknowledging that Jesus is a crux point in their lives. These Jews are, I think, are not hostile, but inquisitive and questioning because they want an answer that they can faithfully, true to themselves, respond to.
But they need more information, “If you are the Messiah [Christ], tell us plainly,” they ask.
The word translated here does not simply mean “in words that we can plainly understand”. To speak plainly is to speak publicly and openly about who he is, not just in secret; to his disciples, perhaps. There is no doubt that these Jews, if they haven’t heard Jesus themselves, have heard about what others have heard and been involved in discussions concerning Jesus. But their request is understandable, Jesus has only claimed to be the Christ, in John, to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:26) and (less definitely) to the man born blind (Jn 9:37).
Jesus knows that there is a general preconception about the Messiah. Jesus does not want to admit directly to his being the Christ because he knows that his understanding of the Messiah is different to theirs and will create confusion. He cannot answer directly. Jesus, therefore, responds, “I have told you,” even so, their problem is, “you did no believe.” The problem is that they have not understood it and they want personal and direct confession from Jesus. They do not believe, says Jesus, “Because they do not belong to my sheep.”
This initially creates a problem for us who do believe, because we would naturally think that it is in believing in Jesus that we find our sense of belonging in Jesus and amongst those who believe, that is, the church. However, those who do belong to him, listen to Jesus and follow him, and are able to identify him for who he is.
The problem for these Jews is twofold: they do not belonging to Jesus sheep and that belief, faith, is a gift from God. Becoming one of Jesus’ sheep is both a gift that God gives and a decision to receive that gift. That these Jews do not belong to Jesus sheep is also a challenge to them that they also do not belonging to God. If they were simply inquisitive and questioning, it is surprising that they didn’t turn hostile at Jesus’ challenge. Despite being Jews, he has effectively declared them unbelievers – for if they did know the Father, they would also know him.
I remember someone saying sometime, “If you want to know what it is like to be an ant, become an ant.” The North American Indians put it another way, “You don’t know someone until you have walked in their moccasins.” If these Jews want to know who Jesus is they need to hang out with those who are hanging out with Jesus.
This is a massive invitation for us and the work of mission we do of enabling others to find a relationship with God, we call evangelism. I don’t know about you, but those I talk to want to come to some conclusion about who Jesus is, whether Jesus is real, whether God is real, before they will become active in the life of the church or make a commitment to the things of faith, even to God himself. But they are attempting to do that on their own.
It is important for us, who already say we believe Jesus is the Messiah, to hang around with others so we can grow in our knowledge and love of God. For those who are not yet able to make that confession of belief, they need to hang around with Jesus’ sheep so they can experience Jesus for who he is for themselves.
Worship services are not the best place for this to happen, although that is potentially a part of the process. More effective is the context of our house groups, where people can find and feel a real sense of belonging that can enable them to begin to explore the identity of Jesus and what Jesus has done for them.
For us who belong and believe, we need to be always looking for those who we can invite into the flock and nurture a sense of belonging. This means that we should always be mindful that there will continuously be people amongst us who are at different stages of the faith journey and different level of belonging. We should expect that we will always have amongst us people who are only beginning to develop a sense of belonging, but are not yet able to say they believe. Only in that sense of belonging will they be able to come to faith through watching us and participating with us in our practice of our faith.