You are gods (A sermon from John 10:22-39)


Some of the earliest commentators of John’s Gospel called John’s Gospel a “spiritual” Gospel. Of course, all four of our canonical Gospels in our New Testament are spiritual in the sense that that they teach spiritual truth, and also in the sense that they are primarily intended to be read and applied symbolically and metaphorically, rather than literally or historically. Yet, when these early commentators called John’s Gospel a “spiritual” Gospel it was there way of trying to distinguish it from the other three Gospels, that are called today the “Synoptic” Gospels, because they share so much in common. Just a casual reading of the Gospels reveals how different John’s Gospel is. The style, content, and imagery of Jesus’ teaching in John is so very different from the style, content, and imagery of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics. In John, Jesus teaches the way the leaders in John’s faith community taught. Most scholars think that John takes a single image or saying or parable of Jesus, and then develops it into a full blown discourse. John imagines what Jesus would say if he were speaking to John’s spiritual community.

In the passage today Jesus responds to his fellow Jews, some of whom were undecided about him, but others were negative and antagonistic towards him. Earlier in this passage, Jesus delivered his discourse on the Good Shepherd and the sheep, and he draws from that imagery here. He says, “My sheep here my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” The last phrase seems redundant, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Isn’t it obvious that you don’t perish if you have “eternal life?” Maybe not, because eternal life is more than just life that never ends, and the spiritual meaning of “perish” is about anything that diminishes and destroys our humanity. When John uses the phrase, eternal life, and when he places it on the lips of Jesus (which he does numerous times), he is not primarily emphasizing the duration of life. It is forever, but it’s so much more. Eternal life is God’s own life. It’s the kind of life or quality of life that is emphasized. It’s eternal because God is eternal. In John, Jesus embodies God’s life. If I were writing a paraphrase of the New Testament I would call this “God’s own life.” As the good shepherd Jesus gives or shares this life with the sheep.

So, eternal life is life that partakes of the nature and character of God. Eternal life is life that partakes of God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s generosity, God’s compassion, God’s righteousness or justice, God’s integrity, God’s truth, and so forth. The central theme of John’s Gospel, which is introduced in John’s introduction or prologue, is that Jesus fully and completely embodies God’s life. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” Jesus is the revelation of the will of God to all who will receive his word as God’s word to them. In the language of John, Jesus and God are one, because Jesus lives in harmony with God and faithfully carries out God’s will.

When the Jews who are antagonistic toward Jesus, hear him claim to be one with the Father, they take up stones to stone him. They are enraged. Jesus asks them,
“For which of the good works that I have done are you going to stone me?” There response is, “It is not for any good work you have done, rather, it’s for the blasphemy that comes out of your mouth. For you are making yourself equal to God.”

It’s really important that we not read into this claim of oneness with God by Jesus the creeds and confessions of the church that developed much later. Jesus is not claiming to be God. No good Jewish monotheist would ever make such a claim. He is claiming to be in union with God, and because he is in union with God, because he knows God, because he is listening to the Spirit of God, he is able to speak and act with the authority of God as God’s son, as God’s agent and redeemer. They accuse Jesus of blasphemy because in their mind Jesus has no right to claim to be God’s son and to act on God’s behalf. Jesus is uncredentialed. They are offended, because they consider themselves to be the gatekeepers, to be the credentialed spokespersons for God. They see Jesus claiming an authority that he does have. An authority that belongs exclusively to them. Isn’t this how exclusive forms of religion and Christianity work. How many churches get kicked out of denominations and groups because they go against the authority of the gatekeepers. This is how exclusive religion works.

Jesus’ response to these who accuse him of blasphemy in 10:31-39 may be one of the most important passages in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Is it not written in your scriptures where God says, ‘You are gods.’” The passage he references is Psalm 82:6. Psalm 82 begins by saying that God holds council “in the midst of the gods.” Who are the gods the Psalmist is talking about? The people of Israel, the covenant people of God. The problem is that they are not living like gods. The Psalmist says, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” The Psalmist speaking with the voice of God calls them out for their injustice and favoritism, and tells them what they need to do: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The covenant people of God, whom the Psalmist speaking as the voice of God calls “gods,” should be doing the will of God, they should be doing works of righteousness in caring for the most vulnerable and needy. They should be doing works of healing, justice, and liberation.

Next, comes the verse that Jesus quotes in John 10, “I say, you are gods” – this is the verse Jesus quotes to the Jews who accused him of blasphemy. The Psalmist says next, “children of the Most High, all of you.” Hebrew poetry is about parallelism. The second line often explains or expands the first line. The first line is “You are gods.” The second line explains and expands that affirmation, “I say you are gods, that is, you are children of the Most High, all of you.” What Jesus is telling the Jewish leaders is that it is within his right and authority to speak for God and do the works of God, because we are all children of God. They are accusing Jesus of usurping authority he does not have, and Jesus says in response that he is simply using the authority that we all have. They are accusing Jesus of blasphemy because he claims to be God’s son, and Jesus says that we are all gods, we are all children of the Most High. We all have this authority.

The late Fred Craddock was a beloved Disciples of Christ minister and a professor of preaching and New Testament for many years. He loved to tell stories in his sermons. And preachers like me love to tell his stories in sermons. One of my favorite stories is the story he tells about a conversation he had in a restaurant. I make a point to be tell this story every year, because there will inevitably be someone here who hasn’t heard it, and I want all of you to remember it. So here is the story for 2019. He and his wife were on a vacation together. They had left their children with grandparents. They were seated at a table in a restaurant in the Smokey Mountains next to a glass wall (a wall of windows) with a scenic view that overlooked the valley below. An elderly gentleman engaged them in conversation and when he found out Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister, he pulled up a seat, and said I have to tell you a story. Little did Fred know at the time that the man who pulled up a seat was a former two time governor of Tennessee, Ben Hooper.

He said, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church. I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. In those days that brought shame. The reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who my father was. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess and I ate my lunch alone. In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. I went just to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would arrive just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would get out of there quick because I was afraid someone would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in church?’”

“One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before I could get out. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. I could see out the corner of my eye his beard and his chin, and knew it was the minister. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and he seemed to stare at me for a while. I knew what he was doing. I knew that he was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. And I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. He said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the backside and said, ‘Now, you go claim your inheritance.’ Then the former governor of Tennessee told Fred, “I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

“You are a child of God.” That’s who you are. That’s who I am. We are children of God. Every single one of us. The first creation story describes this as being created in the image of God. There is work to do to recover that image. But God’s image is God’s gift to all. In the second creation story it is God breathing into the human creature God’s own spirit, God’s own life, and the human creature becomes a living being. The writer of 1 John puts it this way, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” We share God’s life, we share God’s nature. In the words of the Psalmist and in the words of Jesus who quotes the Psalmist, “We are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” Paul, in Acts 17, says we are all God’s offspring and in God we live, move, and have our existence. No one is excluded.

Spiritual teachers call this original goodness, or original participation, or original blessing. It’s the first thing and the most important thing about us. Original goodness comes before original sin, and original sin does not erase our original goodness. Richard Rohr says, “It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, which had been most of our problem up to now. [Which is what exclusive religion does. Exclusive religion says, we have it, and you have to become like us, believe like us, act like us, be part of our group to get it.] It is pure and total gift, given equally to all.” Rohr is so right. We don’t get to decide. We don’t get to judge. We don’t get to say who is in or who is out. And yet today, that is what a lot of Christianity is about. This is the problem with exclusive versions of Christianity. They so easily lead us into Christian exceptionalism and elitism and into feelings and claims of superiority. We become just like the ones who accused Jesus of blasphemy – we want to be able to control who gets in.

We are all God’s children. Evangelism is not inviting a non-child of God to be a child of God. Evangelism is inviting people to claim who they already are. The question is: Will we claim our inheritance? Will we become who we already are? You are already in. You don’t have to do anything to get in. Once you know you are in the question is: What am I going to do about it? Richard Rohr says, “The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything.” The writer of 2 Peter says that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (or God likeness), so that we can fully participate in the divine nature. God has given us everything we need, so that we can daily participate in the very life and will and purpose of God. God has already given us everything we need to mirror, to reflect the beauty and goodness and grace of God. We already have the image of God. We just have to recover it or uncover it from all the crud that is keeping it hidden. Will we claim it? Will we live it? That’s the issue.

When Jesus claimed, “I and my Father are one” he wasn’t making a claim that only applied to him. Clearly, for all of us who go by the title Christian, the life of Jesus functions as a definitive expression of the life of God and a definitive incarnation of the love of God. But that doesn't make Jesus unique. What makes Jesus unique is the degree to which he lived in union with God and the degree to which he expressed and manifested the life of God and the love of God. The same divine life that was in the man, Jesus of Nazareth is in all of us, and we have the same privilege and authority as God's daughters and sons to live in union with God and do the works of God as Jesus did, which, of course, are always works of love. We are already in union with God. The question is: Will we intentionally and consciously cooperate with God and be channels through whom God’s life, which is to say, God’s love can flow? Will we intentionally and purposefully cooperate with God? Will we dance with God, will we do the two step with God, so that we, like Jesus, can do the works of God.

Jesus told his accusers, “If you can’t accept that I am living in union with God on the basis of what I say, then just look at what I do. Look at the works I do.” We are invited to do the same kind of works. The works of God are many and manifold. They are diverse and varied. What they have in common is this: They are all works of love. They are works of healing and liberation. Jesus in cooperation with God’s Spirit went about healing people’s soul sickness as well as their physical sickness by welcoming and accepting them as God’s children. Jesus went about liberating people from their false selves and from all the demonic forces within and without that would oppress and diminish their lives. We are called to do the same kind of works. Such works can take many different shapes and forms, but they are all works of love. They are works of kindness and compassion and justice or righteousness. That’s what we do when we participate in the flow of God’s eternal life. That’s what we do when we allow the eternal life of God to be channeled through us. We become channels of blessing to others, and as the old hymn reminds, that is what we need. Today, in our American culture, where fear and hate is on the rise, where greed and power and selfish ambition occupies center stage, works of love are desperately needed more than ever.

As we share now in the bread and the cup may we in the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup consciously and intentionally open our hearts and minds and wills, our total selves to you, so that your life fills us and flows out to all those in relationship with us.

Comments

  1. I have believed for a long time that we are all God's children. When I began to encounter and befriend people of other faiths, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, I realized that I, as a Christian, did not have access to God exclusively. You have a beautiful way of reminding us of this truth.

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