In or out?

Easter 4 – 2016

Good Shepherd Sunday, John 10:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love is not limited but boundless, not exclusive, but absolutely inclusive. Amen.

During the week we watched the documentary I am Malala. The account of this most extraordinary young woman – who despite being shot by the Taliban has no trace of bitterness or hatred and who refuses to live her life in fear – is a most humbling experience. Malala was shot because despite the fact that the Taliban banned education, especially education for girls, she not only continued to go to school, but wrote a diary about her experience for the BBC. Her situation sadly, is far from unique. In Nigeria, Boko Haran (which means “Western education is banned”) routinely kidnaps girls from their schools and homes and forces them into domestic and sexual slavery. Both groups claim that their religion forbids the education of women and insists that women have a particular role in society that – if it is not observed – needs to be imposed by force.

Before we pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves for being a more enlightened society, it is important to remind ourselves that it is only in recent history that girls routinely went to school or that women were allowed to graduate from university. In 1869 women were admitted to Cambridge University but were not allowed to be awarded a degree! Only in 1921 were women allowed to be rewarded for their efforts but only with a Bachelor of Arts. Arguments against the ordination of women made it very clear that there were (are) those who even today believe that the Christian bible insists that women are better placed to be in the home and to be subordinate to men.

It is no wonder that some people are put off religion when some of its adherents assert views that oppress and limits others, or when it uses violence or coercion to enforce behaviours. Often the groups that behave in this way are sects that do not represent the mainstream and the views that they promote are considered by the majority of adherents to be gross distortions of the faith that they claim to affirm. Most Muslims strenuously reject the expressions of the faith that result in terrorism and violence just as most Christians reject practices that limit or oppress others.

There are a number of factors that lead to the misinterpretation of religious texts. The most benign of these include naivety and conservatism – the naivety that leads to a simplistic and fundamental interpretation and the conservatism that results from a pattern of belief that confuses religious belief with the social attitudes and behaviours of a particular time and place[1]. At the other extreme, a desire for personal power that is often accompanied by an inclination to force others to completely submit to their will can result in scriptures being twisted to say what someone wants them to say.

One way to ensure submission to a conservative or abusive practice of faith is to convince followers that only by following a particular interpretation of the bible will they achieve salvation. Leaders of such groups argue that the only way to be saved, to achieve salvation is to belong to their group – which alone has access to the truth. In this way, such groups are able to ensure that those who are vulnerable or naïve, or those who simply want certainty and truth, accept what they are taught to believe and behave how they are told to behave.

How we interpret scripture can be something of a “chicken and egg” situation. If we believe that God is remote and punitive, we will read scripture in a way that is judgmental and exclusive. On the other hand if we accept that God offers unconditional love to any who would accept it, then we will see that love and acceptance on every page.

Today’s gospel reading is one that is in danger of being misinterpreted. At first glance it appears to suggest that there is an ‘in-group’ (those who hear Jesus’ voice) and an ‘out- group’ (those who exclude themselves because they don’t believe). Applied to our context, this text could be taken to mean that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved. A reading such as this ignores both the context into which Jesus speaks and the context in which the evangelist is writing.

The author of John’s gospel is concerned that there are some (in this instance the unbelieving Jews) whose arrogance and complacency mean that they are unable to accept Jesus as the Christ. They are so set in their ways, so sure that they are members of the ‘in-group’ that they are blind to the signs that Jesus does and deaf to Jesus’ teaching. In order to move from their position of comfort they want/need absolute assurance that Jesus really is the Christ. Others, those who do not begin from a position of certainty, have an openness to God and to God’s presence in Jesus. Because of this, they are able to see and to hear and to follow.

Jesus is not being exclusive – just the opposite. What Jesus does is to redefine what it means to belong. Belonging is not a matter of birth, nor is it a matter of clinging on to worn out practices and ideas, nor is it something that depends on adherence to certain views. Belonging demands an openness to Jesus, an ability to see and hear God even if what is seen and heard has no precedence. Belonging demands not so much obedience to the past, but an openness to the future, not pride in our heritage, but humility before God and an understanding that we cannot ever know all that there is to know.

What this means in our, as in any context, is that anyone from any faith and any nation can respond to the voice of God, can recognise the presence of God in their lives and chose to follow. This undercuts any claims to being special, it undermines the assuredness of those who think they have it all sorted, it forces everyone to accept that God will do things in God’s own way in God’s own time. It is not for us to determine who is in and who is out.

Jesus is not frozen in time and history. As the risen Christ, Jesus continues to be a live and vibrant presence in the world. He continues to call and those who are his sheep continue to respond. It is important for us to retain an openness to God and an humility that reminds us that we can never know the mind of God. Only in this way will we be free to hear the voice of Jesus in our age, and to demonstrate that we belong to his sheep.

[1] The requirement that women should cover their heads in church disappeared with barely a whimper, but the idea that those who were divorced could be remarried in church was more hotly contested.

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