Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9.36-43 & John 10.22-30
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
I wonder what you think about the question above; a question that the Jews ask Jesus in our Gospel reading today: is it an unreasonable request? Or is it a question we have asked ourselves at times too? If God exists, why doesn’t he show himself a bit more clearly? It is a question I often hear my pupils asking when we speak about the possibility of the existence of God. Their argument is fair enough: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why doesn’t he show himself, why does he allow suffering in the world? It is an age-old question, and I don’t think that there is a completely satisfactory answer to it. For me, Jesus’ reply to the Jews this morning may point in the direction in which we may start to look for an answer, but not without difficulty.
Jesus replies: “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe”. In other words, we have been told and we have been shown, but many of us still find it hard to believe. The reason seems to be, according to what we heard in our reading, that only those who belong to Jesus’ flock will be able to hear and to understand. St Augustine summarised this position rather well by saying “do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe in order that you may understand”.
So, for those of us who believe, what we have been told – or tradition – and what we have been shown – evidence from the world around us – are a testament to God’s existence. But for those of us who do not believe, they are not. I guess the problem is becoming clear: what determines in which group you are, and is there any way to move from one group to the other?
Some theologians have argued that it is God’s decision who will be given the gift of faith and who won’t. However, although this sounds like a straightforward answer, for me it doesn’t sit well with the idea of a God who has created each of us out of love. Why would he create some people without the ability to believe? I rather think of us as beings with an innate longing for God, expressed in a variety of different ways.
The binary idea of two groups of people those who believe and those who don’t also doesn’t sit well with my personal experience. There are times when I am certain that God exists, but there are also times when I am less sure. And I can imagine this to be the case even more for those who are tormented by pain and suffering, those who grief after an unexplainable loss, and those who are victims of crime and injustice.
It is a problematic image with which we are presented today. However, as I said, I do think it is the direction in which the answer of God’s presence lies. Each one of us will interpret events according to our beliefs, and our beliefs, in turn, will be shaped by whatever we experience. So, in a way, we cannot really say which one comes first: what we believe or what we see. Ultimately, it comes down to trust: what do we trust and whom do we trust?
The idea of trust is precisely what makes the image of the shepherd and the sheep so appropriate. Sheep will trust their shepherd without knowing very much. A sheep probably doesn’t know who the shepherd is, what his background is, the language he speaks and where he has come from. But yet, instinctively they know that they can trust him, because he is with them. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hardship – whatever that may mean for a flock of sheep – but it does mean that the shepherd will never let them out of sight and will do everything to keep them safe.
That for me is the image of the Christian God. Not someone that will make our lives easy, but someone who is there, always. No matter where we go or what we do, God is there with us. And trusting that, we can indeed see God all around us: in others, in relationships; in nature and in scripture. That is what we have been told and that is what we believe: that God in Christ has given his life for ours, and that is the shepherd who we can continue to follow.