Church of the Incarnation
Stop obsessing about your personal salvation
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "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, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
I’ve often heard this passage - particularly because it’s accompanied by readings from Acts and Revelation that seem to be speaking about our ‘final status’ before God or to put it in laymen’s terms - about our salvation - interpreted as: “believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” And certainly the second part of the Gospel might suggest this as well. But I don’t think this is Jesus’s actual emphasis in this particular passage.
What do we hear in John? The Jews want evidence from Jesus that he’s the Messiah. This is important. It would be terrible if they followed an anti-Christ posing as the Messiah instead, pretending his actions are justified by God while he does the opposite of God’s will on earth. Jesus replies to their demand for evidence: you’ve seen how my works have fulfilled the Scriptures that speak of your relationship with God, with how God showed you that he would come to you, in the form of a humble servant, as we see with Abraham and Isaac, Moses, Sarah, Hanna, Ruth, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Job, Josiah, or in the antithesis of Pharoah or the murderous David and Saul. You know who God is and what sort of miracles he will do in raising the dead, providing endless bread of life through his own being, healing the blind and deaf and raising the dead, as with Lazarus and then Tabitha in our reading from Acts.
Yet, Jesus says, you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep. Stop right there. Don’t go to the question of salvation at least not yet. If you start with the question of ‘what are my tactics to get to salvation,’ you might fall into the same trap as these guys I’m talking to in the Gospel, Jesus suggests. Remember these are probably quite faithful Jews who attend Synagogue regularly and who probably try to follow the Laws given to the Jews by God to a T. They’re not agnostics or atheists.
No Jesus is addressing believers. And he says to them: the reason you can’t see my works for what they are is because you haven’t actually followed me. You’ve watched from a critical and cynical distance; you’ve jumped on the bandwagon with your friends or leaders, the bandwagon of judgement and condemnation of me and my followers because my actions challenge your own ways of doing things, your own thoughts, and many of the presuppositions you’ve inherited. You’ve set your mind in such a way that you’ve become comfortable in your own personal belief system, as if you have certainty in everything you think, say and do as being consistent with who God is. Yeah, you remember Aaron and the Israelites and their golden calf in the desert … oh no, you’d never be like them, of course you’re always in the right. Sorry folks. Here’s my challenge to you: you’ve never bothered to get out of your comfort zone, to check your own biases, to be open to thinking through whether the way you think and act which, I’ve challenged since my birth, is actually consistent with your Scriptures. You don’t believe for good reason: how could you even evaluate the evidence that I’m the Messiah if you don’t open your presumptive self up to be challenged as you follow me?
Those whom Jesus is challenging here aren’t just the Jews who confront him though. He is challenging all of us who get stuck in our own presumptions that God is going to show up in the ways we can predict and control. He is challenging not simply those who are atheistic or agnostic or who don’t believe in the resurrected Christ (although he is certainly challenging them to not judge from a distance but to try immersing themselves in the community of his followers before evaluating the evidence of Jesus’s life displayed throughout the Scriptures), he is challenging you and I - those who, like the Jews, proclaim we follow God - to stop presuming that we’ve figured out exactly who God is which justifies us in doing whatever we think is good or right or just.
Jesus says, my sheep hear my voice. Jesus’s voice is constant and active, challenging how we think and act in every situation, in every relationship. And they follow me, he says: “they seek not their own satisfaction or comfort, they’re willing to set that aside and evaluate, maybe even to give up things they have thought or done, in order to follow me,” as we heard Jesus say to Peter last week: feed my sheep and you’ll be taken where you do not wish to go; Abraham sacrifice your son, Moses and Jeremiah and Paul, I don’t really care if you feel you’re not well spoken or weak, or have a thorn in your side. I know these challenges exist for you and that’s precisely what I’m going to work through to call other people to me. I need you to persevere in following me; I need you to not get too comfortable in your own inclinations; and not to succumb to your own fears, anxieties, desires, and defense mechanisms that blind you to how I’m working through you and others. Those in the white robes in God’s revelation to the Church we read from the book of Revelation aren’t some special foreordained group of those who are saved. Rather they are those who persevere in letting go of their own inclinations enough to follow Jesus so that they can do as they’ve been commanded: to allow God to work through their frail and finite actions and words proclaimed during that time of following, to draw others to him. Belief that Jesus is who he says he is isn’t going to earn you salvation. You’re saved by grace. Belief isn’t about being preordained to salvation. And belief isn’t something that you achieve first so that you can justify your following God to yourself or others. That’s backwards. Belief is what happens when you let go of your self-righteous judgement and cynicism enough to persevere to the end of your life in following Jesus, being a means through whom both you and others might see this great God of ours. AMEN.