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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2019

Tell us plainly what we need to know!

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 12th May 2019 at 11:15 AM

The people asked: ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you.’

For those entering the great ordeal of public examinations, to break up the anxious hours spent in solitary study, diligent teachers, (good shepherds) might offer their flock the respite of a revision seminar – a chance to offer some extra guidance; to focus efforts as the day of reckoning draws near.

‘Here are some possible exam questions’ – the teacher might say – ‘it might be a good idea to prepare these essay plans, or a few bullet points of the really salient facts in these particular topics’.  ‘However’ – the teacher might be sensible to add – ‘they could also ask you about this, and this… and this.’

‘No!’  Comes the agonised cry from the students.  ‘Tell us plainly what we need to know!’

‘I have told you’ - the teacher might reply, confident that the syllabus has, in fact, been quite adequately covered over the last two years or so.

It feels harsh, but there’s only so much spoon-feeding that can be done.  Eventually we have to take some responsibility for our own learning – and that responsibility, I say somewhat ruefully, never ceases.

The people at the Dedication Festival in Jerusalem who came to Jesus asking him to make it plain whether or not he was the Messiah, they wanted him to make it simple for them – to tell them the answers, to give them the necessary proofs, to spell it out nice and clearly.

‘I have told you’, Jesus informs them.  There had, after all, been a generous two year curriculum leading up to this point.

Just before this incident, Jesus has described himself as the Good Shepherd and the Gate for the sheep, in two of St John’s signature ‘I am’ sayings.

Prior to this we had ‘I am the light of the world’, illustrated by the giving of sight to the man born blind.

And before this was the especially controversial ‘I am the bread of life’ in chapter 6, after which many disciples deserted him, finding this just too hard to swallow.

OK, some of what he said may have been a bit mystical and allusive, but Jesus has not stopped talking about his identity from the moment John the Baptist declared him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; and from the moment Andrew told his brother Peter ‘we have found the Messiah.’

I have told you.

As far as John is concerned, you just don’t need an endless stream of signs and wonders – Jesus isn’t a performing monkey - the miracles or signs that he records, the ‘I am’ sayings, the overall shape of his living, dying and rising: these should tell you all you need to know about who Jesus is.

My sheep hear my voice – says Jesus – they listen, they pay attention, they chew carefully over what they have been told.

That’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t have sympathy with us, with our longing for things to be simple; to be given the answers.

In the vision of heaven, St John the Divine sees people of every tribe and people and race, worshipping Christ in the form of a Lamb – the Lamb who, in a wonderful inversion, is their shepherd.  The Lamb who shares in the vulnerability of his flock and, fulfilling the desire of the psalmist, guides them beside the waters of eternal life where their souls will be eternally refreshed.

The Lamb is our Good Shepherd; the Light of the world; the Bread of life.

I have told you.

Of course what Jesus had not told them by chapter 10 of John’s narrative is the bit we particularly celebrate in these fifty days of Easter.

Very shortly after this incident in the Temple, news comes to Jesus that his friend, Lazarus, is ill.  When Lazarus eventually dies, Jesus tells Martha – ‘your brother will rise again.’  And, to confirm his authority to make such a bold statement, he tells her; ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

When Peter went to Joppa, to raise Tabitha from death, as we heard in the reading from Acts today, it was the power of Jesus, the resurrection and the life, working in Peter, that restored this most charitable of women to life.  This is, in effect, a retelling of something already told in the raising of Lazarus.

I have told you – said Jesus – and you do not believe.

Like reluctant students facing an examination (for whom, all sympathy, by the way), we wish God would make it easier for us – to tell us plainly, to give us the answers, to perform the kind of miracles among us that we think would make believing in Him somehow simpler – as if all the ambiguities and complexities of living and dying would somehow be resolved if we could only have our own private bit of Divine revelation.

What we struggle to accept – those of us who do believe as much as those who don’t – is that what we have been told in the Gospel is all that we need. 

This is the complete curriculum, but like any decent curriculum it is not hermetically-sealed.  It hints at ideas and concepts that we can spend a lifetime exploring and discovering, some of which we will wrestle with again and again, until our dying day.  

This is why the Christian calendar goes around and around, bringing us back to the key topics year after year – the incarnation, the passion, the death and resurrection, the work of the Spirit in the Church, the mystery and glory of the Trinity.  And indeed all these topics are compressed into the mysteries that we celebrate at this altar, day by day in the Eucharist (I am the bread of life).  We will never get to the bottom of them, we will never know all that there is to know, but we can grow in understanding if we are willing to work at it, to take responsibility for our learning, rather than waiting for God to make it easier for us.

We have been told all that we will ever need, and the lives of the saints retell it from age to age.  This week we mark the passing of Jean Vanier, a saint who has retold us the importance of community, amplified through the lives of people with disabilities.  So we give thanks to God for Jean Vanier, and pray that we may hear what is being retold of the Gospel through the L’Arche communities.

I have told you, said Jesus – and, in case this sounds a bit harsh, a bit unhelpful, we are talking about the Lamb, the Teacher who has been examined as much as any of his students; the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.  Our teacher is patient, persistent and compassionate because he is the Lamb who has been tested as we are, and has endured all that we can ever endure.

And for those who are going through any great ordeal, anxious for what may await them in coming days and weeks, and indeed for any of us who just face the normal, daily struggle with faith and understanding; may we have confidence in what we have been told in the Gospel – that it is all we will ever need, that we aren’t expected to know everything there is to know.  May we patiently listen as we are told and retold, through the practices of the Church, through the witness of the saints; and be prepared to revise the material, dare I say it, endlessly, while the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, our Teacher and companion, guides us to the living waters of all truth and understanding, to the refreshment to our souls.

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