May 3, 2020 To whom do you listen?
Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 2:19-25 and John 10:1-10
Our world at the moment is plagued by two diseases. The obvious one is Covid19. The other one is noise. Our world is a dangerously noisy place. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called noise pollution a “modern plague.” There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population. It is estimated that 340 million residents of Western Europe, annually and collectively, loose a million years of healthy life because of noise. Negative effects of too much noise includes sleep loss, heart disease, and stress. Did you know that the word “noise” comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain?
Now it is true that during the last few weeks because of the shelter-in-place situation, our world has become a somewhat quieter place. There are fewer cars on the roads, fewer people outside, restaurants and bars are closed, and people don’t gather in big groups.
What has increased is online noise: There has been an uptick in conspiracy theories. Was coronavirus created in a lab in Wuhan? Is Coronavirus linked to the new super-fast wireless technology 5G? Some radio hosts and tele-evangelists peddle in so-called cures for Covid19. Yellow journalism adds to the confusion. Yellow journalism uses eye catching headlines, sensationalism or exaggerations of news events for increased sales. It is similar, but not exactly the same as fake news. The situation is of course complicated when true news is labeled as fake news. So even though covid19 has brought some silence, there is still a lot of confusing and dangerous noise out there. There are many voices out there and it is not always clear what is true and what is not. And to add to all this is what is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
In the midst of all the noise and the many voices, a few important questions come to mind: How do we hear God’s voice? In the midst of all the noise, all the confusion, the half-truths and full lies, how do we know what God’s will is for our lives and for our situation? How do we know it is God’s voice and not our own bias? How do we know that our response is a faithful one? How do we filter out the noise to actually hear the Divine Word?
Perhaps today’s readings may offer some guidelines on how we hear God’s voice, discern God’s will, and not mistake other voices for God’s voice. Now, I want to warn us: We may not like the guidance. We may want to rationalize to make the guidance a bit more palatable. We may want to minimize the guidelines by labeling them as political or ideological instead of seeing that they are in fact theological.
Jesus in John’s Gospel, uses a metaphor of a shepherd. He says he is a Good Shepherd. As the Good Shepherd he calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. The sheep know his voice and they follow him. They will not follow a stranger, for they do not know the voice of a stranger. Now if this sounds a bit confusing, know that Jesus’ Disciples did not quite get it either. John says: “they did not understand what he was saying to them”.
When we read these few verses of the Gospel of John, we have to remember that these few verses are part of the entire book of John. To do justice to these verses we need to read the whole book. We need to know what the purpose of the book is. Why did John write his Gospel? We find the purpose in Chapter 20:31: “These are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
We also need to know who Jesus is. John says this of Jesus right the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John says that Jesus and God are One. He in fact says it again in Chapter 10:30: “The Father and I are one’” There is no doubt that his opponents understood exactly what he meant, for they saw this as blasphemous! They wanted to stone him.
John is thus saying that when you seek the will of God, when you want to hear the voice of God, you need to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. You need to hear what Jesus is teaching in his words and in his actions. Hearing and following the voice of the Good Shepherd is hearing and following the voice of God!
When do we follow the voice of the Good Shepherd? What does God require of us? Allow me to share a few examples of what God wants as a faithful response:
1st Example: John’s Gospel invites people to believe in the Son of God. Christian theology invites people to faithfully respond to God who loves the world so much that God sent the Son into the world to save the world. God wants us to believe the Gospel message of salvation in Christ. God wants us to embrace who Jesus is and what he did for us! God wants us to believe in God, the Creator, the Redeemer and Sustainer of the universe.
2nd Example: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, amidst the noise at the time, talked to a person that loud voices said good people should ignore and avoid. In Chapter 4 Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman. Now for us today there is nothing strange about a man talking to a woman. But at the time it was highly unusual for Jewish men to talk to Samaritans in general, and to Samaritan women in particular. Men simply would not do that! It was so unusual that his own disciples were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Jews did not consider Samaritans as their equals. They were the untouchables of the time! Contact with them would defile you! However, Jesus did not avoid the untouchables. He was not distracted by the biases of others when it came to human beings. For him human beings mattered regardless of their sex, origin, accent, race, religious differences or economic status. In this example we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice and if we want to do God’s will we need to follow his voice that all human beings are precious and they all matter!
3rd example: Stoning back then was a noisy and bloody affair (John 8). A woman caught in the very act of adultery was about to get stoned – for it was the custom at the time. A custom is when everyone accepts it as such. Before the men started with their act of punishing her, they asked Jesus about his view. Most likely to hear his approval! His answer: “Let the one without sin be the first to cast a stone.” The outcome? They did not kill her. Jesus does not condemn her. The Good Shepherd shows forgiveness and if we want to do God’s will we need to follow his voice by forgiving others.
4th Example: The custom at the time was that students would serve their teachers. On the night he was betrayed, the Teacher, washed his Disciples’ feet instead of them washing his feet. It was so unusual that Peter refused. But Jesus responded by saying: “I set you and example that you also should do as I have done to you.” The Good Shepherd shows that humble service is what matters in God’s Kingdom and if we want to do God’s will we need to follow his voice!
5th Example: When people are threatened, when they are attacked or injured they respond in kind. They counter-punch, they retaliate. It is a normal, natural human response. The only problem with such a natural response is that it leaves a world where everyone is constantly attacking and retaliating! It makes the world a violent jungle. When Jesus was crucified, mocked and tortured, he did not curse the perpetrators, or retaliate, he prayed for them. He breaks the vicious circle of an eye for an eye when he prays: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” 1 Peter 2:23 says it this way: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse, when he suffered, he did not threaten.” The Good Shepherd prays for others, even his enemies. He breaks the circle of violence and if we want to do God’s will we need to follow his example and listen to his voice.
6th Example: How did the early Christians understand their response to do God’s will? The book, the Acts of the Apostles, gives us a disturbing example: “They had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods an distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
The result of them sharing what they had, breaking and eating bread with glad and generous hearts was that “The Lord added to their number!”
Now over the years these verses in the Book of Acts have been interpreted, reinterpreted, redacted and commented on to minimalize the challenge they pose: yes…but the context was different, yes…. but they expected the return of Jesus within their time so they did not plan for the future, or yes…..but it did not last anyway. What we cannot deny as true in this account, is that people who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, are not so attached to their possessions and goods, that they are unmoved by the need of others! People who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd are not cold when they see the hardship of others!
It is clear to anyone who pay attention that our society entered this pandemic as a hugely inequitable one. The pandemic is increasing the inequality. Poor people and minorities are suffering and dying disproportionately. People who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd cannot turn a blind eye to this disturbing reality. Those early Christians shared what they have because they cared for one another! 1 Peter 2: 24 states: “He bore our sins so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” Those who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd and who want to do God’s will, care enough about others to address the inequalities of our world!
The Good Shepherd ends this paragraph by saying that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Abundant life in John’s Gospel is not defined by how much I accumulate or how much things I have. It is not even defined by how healthy I am. Abundant life refers to life in its abounding fullness, joy, purpose and service. It is life in its highest degree. It first of all is a gift from God. But it is also a process of seeking to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. It is to seek and do God’s will!
There is a lot of noise in our world and it is not easy to hear and discern the truth. Author Steve Maraboli once said: “It has been noted that actions speak louder than words. Truth is, I have found that during many situations in life, words are just noise… and actions are the only things that speak.” Amen.