Sunday, April 17, 2016

If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Patience, as you all know is a virtue. And Jesus, therefore, being the perfect man and the exemplar of all virtues clearly had patience in abundance. But we can almost hear the exasperation in his voice in our Gospel reading today as he responds to those who ask whether he is the Messiah or not. How long will you keep us in suspense?' they say. 'If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ And Jesus answers them: 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.'

The works of which he speaks are, of course, the miraculous signs that he has performed. So far in St John's Gospel he has transformed water into wine, fed many thousands with a few pieces of bread and fish, walked on water, and made the blind to see. And we know from the other Gospels that there were many other great miracles not recounted by St John: the calming of the storm, lepers cleansed, those who were lame being able to walk, those who were mute were able to speak, the deaf to hear, and many others healed of varying diseases. Even the dead were raised to life. So it is understandable if our Lord seems to have had enough of them when it comes to this topic. What more did they want? Were the miracles, combined with his words, not enough for them? How much plainer did he need to be? And in the face of their wilful obstinacy, what more would it take for them to believe?

The human ability to ignore what is right in front of us is wondrous indeed. And it is no less today than then; for we know that there are many who continue to refuse to believe in Jesus in spite of all the testimony, in spite of the powerful evidence that exists that he is, as he said, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. You will still find today, for example, those who deny that Jesus ever existed. Thankfully, there are very few of those as it is not a proposition that any respectable or responsible historian will give the slightest credit to. However there remain many who will try to assert that not only was he not God, he never claimed to be. Such a view is not sustainable, even from a very surface reading of the Gospels. In our Gospel reading today, which is quite a short passage, there are three examples of what can be termed claims of divinity.

The first is when he refers to those who believe in him and follow him as being his sheep. 'My sheep' he calls them, not once but twice. And in a biblical context when people are referred to metaphorically as sheep, the metaphorical shepherd is either the king or God. So to claim people as being his sheep is either a royal or divine claim. Now given that his questioners are asking him if he is the Messiah one might suppose this claim is somewhat ambiguous; perhaps he is doing no more than claiming to be a king. But I think in the context of the remainder of the passage it must be seen as a divine claim.

For Jesus goes on immediately after to to say that those who believe and follow him will never perish but he will give them eternal life. Now it is not in the power of a king to grant eternal life to anyone, not even himself. There is no person living who followed any human king who has been granted immortality as a result. No; there is only one person who can promise eternal life and that is God himself. But Jesus does make such a promise. And his language is quite unambiguous; he is not saying that he will do so as some kind of intermediary, that God has given to him the power to grant eternal life to those who will follow him. No, he says simply and directly 'I will give them eternal life.'

And if that were not enough, Jesus goes on to conclude his answer to them by saying 'The Father and I are One.' Now, just to be clear, the Father Jesus is speaking of here is God. And he is saying that he and God are one, unified, the same. And if any may try to argue that this can not be taken as divine claim, then it should be noted that the Jews of his time had no doubt that it was. It was one of the charges against him at his trial that claims such as this were blasphemous because he was making himself equal with God.

So there can be no serious argument that Jesus did not claim or considered himself to be divine. As to whether that claim was true, we need only look to the evidence of both the miracles, which he said proved who he said he was, and his Resurrection. And for those for whom that is not sufficient proof, I can only think of our Lord's own words: 'there are none so blind as those who will not see.'

But going back to my opening words, that patience is a virtue, I think there is something else very important for us to take away from this passage. Despite the wilful refusal of so many to believe in him, our Lord never gave up on them. This incident takes place relatively early in Christ's ministry. He was to carry on trying to bring his good news to such as these for quite a long time to come; and he did not cease until his death upon the Cross. And so therefore must we continue to try to bring the message of the Gospel to all, even those who do not want to hear it, as long as there is breath in our bodies. St Peter called Jesus' teaching 'the words of eternal life.' Christ came into the world that all might have life, and have it in abundance; how then can we who call ourselves his followers not share those words of eternal life with all, especially those who do not wish to hear? They are the ones who most need it. And so we must be patient with them, even as Christ was patient with those who would not believe in his day, working for their salvation and our own until the end of our days. Amen. 

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