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The Great Ordeal and the Shepherd’s Community

April 11, 2016

John 10:22-30               Psalm 23               Revelation 7:9-17time-poor


Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)

You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.


Did you catch that? You do not believe because you do not belong. People believe because they belong to the community. A highly strange claim to modern ears. We pride ourselves in believing for ourselves independently of others. Jesus knows that we are not really rational people in this sense. Not only are we influence by those around us from birth but we must trust others for most of the things we believe. Not everything… just most things… the background assumptions we take for granted. We just have to. Whether we like it or not, we think in community. We might say, certain kinds of communities make certain beliefs plausible.


Jesus says, the community (that makes believing possible) is one that hears the voice of Jesus and follows and receives eternal life. What does that mean ‘receives eternal life’? I know I have said this before, but at risk of harping on about something… Jesus is not talking about going to heaven here. For him ‘eternal life’ is literally the life of the age to come, which starts here and now. Those who receive eternal life are those who are given to participate in the life of the age to come. That’s the community in which we can believe. Jesus’ sheep are those given to participate in the life of God. The point is this: Before people will believe they need a community that hears and follows. Notice not simply a community that believes (recites the creed or whatever)… but one that lives (the Jesus life).


Let’s turn now to the other two readings for the day. Firstly from the book of Revelation. John offers some dramatic images to encourage communities living under the pressure of the Roman empire. He looks into the heavenly realms as it were, into the future, and he sees a vision of a community gathered ‘who have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb’. These are the white robes of witnesses/martyrs who too have shared in their own way in the sufferings of Jesus. They have, he says, been through the ‘great ordeal’ (older translations called it the great tribulation). I wonder what that means?


Does your life feel like a ‘great ordeal’ sometimes. In the 23rd Psalm the sheep go ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ – a great ordeal.


So in the 23rd Psalm, we have this great contrast between this deathly valley, this great ordeal (that the shepherd takes us through) and the life that the Shepherd provides. There is the ‘shadow of death’ and there are those amazing images of peace – lying ‘down in green pastures’, being lead ‘beside still waters’, and ‘in right paths’.


There’s a word that comes to mind as I am preparing for the shift to Wellington. The word is ‘mortgage’. It basically means ‘death pledge’ (mort gage from the French) pledge overshadowed by death, a contract that holds us in death’s grip. It began with young French noblemen whose fathers didn’t give them enough money took out loans on the basis that they could repay with their inheritance on the death of their father. In the end ordinary French folk took out loans which dominated their lives in the ‘hope of owning a house’… In the end French peasants died hoping. What’s changed?


Modern world: we get the money (at a cost) and pledge our home as guarantee. Asset poverty is exchanged for time poverty. We get the house, but we have no time. Would you rather be asset rich or time rich? Interesting question! The elite 1% might have both, but for most of us its one or the other. In a world dominated by money, we don’t often think about it. So we even say things like ‘time is money’. But time-poverty is life-poverty. If you don’t have time to do what matters (rather than what earns money) what do you have?


So much for lying down in green pastures. So much for living beside still waters. We pledge our life/time for the asset (money, house). What we lose is often the freedom to live. Mortgages demand families with double incomes and long hours. Mortgages create treadmills of time-poverty. Parents struggle to find time for children, let along spending time with the ones Jesus spent time with, the last, the least and the lost.


As I shift to a half-time job in Wellington I ask myself questions like: How important is a home? Are you prepared to exchange your time for it?


What is a home? Does it have to be my own home, or could I share with others? These questions get to the heart of our western values… Privacy… control of our environment … separation from others, insurance for old age.


Who has time for Neighbour’s Day? Who has time to spend time at the table with their neighbours let alone their enemies (thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies), the ones Jesus calls us to love, the ones who look out from their gated houses at our gated houses and worry about whether we are making too much noise or blocking their view.


The great ordeal’ and the life of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd ‘makes us lie down in green pasture’… slows us down, stops us, gives us rest, gives us time to enjoy the basics of life, meaningful existence) security of the age to come…. a voice we know and can follow… goodness and mercy, abundance and feasting and celebration, a table to share.


I think this contrast captures the struggle of the Christian life in the 21st century NZ. It’s a struggle that is structured into the system we live in – it just goes with capitalism. The life of the good shepherd clashes with life in the shadow of death on the treadmill of mortgage.


For those of us who are retired or who grew up in an earlier time, it might sound like a little over the top to use the language of the book of Revelation and call it ‘a great ordeal’ (v 14). Past generations have had their own kinds of ordeals.


If it is a ‘great ordeal’ its not a great ordeal because we groan at the trouble we need to go through till we own our own house and live in the final paradise called retirement… No, for the book of Revelation, its an ordeal because of a very different hope from ‘retirement with their own home’. This is the great ordeal faced by the community that listens to the voice of the shepherd above the noise of the traffic and the advertising and together seeks to find a different life… according to the way of Jesus. It’s an ordeal in that context.


John talks of those who ‘wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb’. Cleanness in the grime of the 21st century calls for a community effort, a community venture in eternal life. Making the space to be, and to follow, together.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)

You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.


Jesus sheep get this new life (eternal life) from him but they get it together and they practice it together and they learn to believe together, together they go through the valley of the shadow of death and together they become the witnesses John describes in the book of revelation.







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