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Earlier this week I flew home from Toronto after a study leave spent in a monastery in Niagara Falls. After I had boarded the plane and found my seat I noticed a family of four settling into the seats in front of me: a mother, father, baby and a little boy who was about 18 months old. As we prepared for take-off, the little boy was full of questions. “What’s this Dada? What’s this?” “What’s that Dada? What’s that?” and then as the plane started to taxy down the runway, over and over again he would ask “In sky Mama? In sky? In sky Mama? In sky?” Patiently his mother replied over and over again. “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet” until I finally heard her explaining that he would know when we were lifting off into the sky because the plane would start to go very fast and it would make a big noise.” That didn’t completely stop him from asking the question but I loved how this simple exchange illustrated that we all need the voice of experience and wisdom to guide us in life, especially when we are heading into unknown territory or doing something for the very first time.
If you are like me, today is a day when you are recalling some of those experienced voices in your own life, especially the voices of women who have guided you and helped to shape and form you into who you are today. Maybe the voice that you are recalling is the voice of your mother, your grandmother or a favorite aunt. Maybe it’s the voice of a teacher who saw you for who you were perhaps even before you could see yourself. I’m trusting that we all have someone in mind today who mothered us in a way that makes us want to honour them, whether that is an actual mother or someone else of significance in our lives. These are the voices that echo across time, even when the people we are remembering are no longer living because what they bring us is something of eternity, teachings and experiences that stay with us.
We all need people to guide us on our way.
That’s what’s going on in today’s scripture reading. People are looking for a leader, a messiah, someone who will guide and save them and they want to know if Jesus is that person. They want Jesus to tell them plainly if he is. (Interesting on Mothers’ Day to note that in medieval times Jesus was actually portrayed in writings and images as a mother by mystics like Hildegarde of Bingen and Julian of Norwich)
In our current context they are like the people of Ukraine hoping that Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be the one to lead the country back to peace. In our own country, they are like the members of the conservative party right now who are looking to find a leader who will steer them to an electoral victory. We all need people to guide us on our way especially when what lies before us is uncertain, when we have never gone where we are being asked to go.
Jesus doesn’t plainly answer the question about his leadership but he does give clues about where following his voice will lead people, namely to safety and into eternity. The sheep of his flock who recognize his voice will never be snatched away and they will be given eternal life.
Many years ago I wrote a sermon entitled “The Heaven I’m not Dying to Get Into” in order to address a common misconception about the meaning of eternal life especially as it is referred to in the Gospel of John. Popular culture and indeed many Christian traditions would have us believe that professing our faith in Jesus is essentially about earning our way into heaven or eternal life. If we behave in a morally upright way and go to church, at the end of our lives, we will pass through the pearly gates and be welcomed into heaven. If we don’t we won’t.
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong famously talked about this when he recalled the death of his father when he himself was just 12 years old. Growing up in a very strict church that held to the belief that the Christian life was about attending church regularly and turning away from such vices as smoking, drinking, gambling and swearing, Spong feared for his father’s mortal soul when he died. He knew his father didn’t meet any of the criteria for heaven. It made no sense to him that people tried to comfort him by assuring him his father was in a better place because if the teachings of the church were true, his father didn’t have a hope in hell of being in a better place.
So Spong set out to explore what was really meant when Jesus in particular and the scriptures in general talked about eternal life. What he discovered was that the eternity that Jesus spoke of was not something that we are ushered into at the end of our lives, it’s something we are meant to live in the here and now. Whatever happens to us after we die is what I call the icing on the cake but the greek phrase “everlasting life” that we read in our bible is actually a translation of a Hebrew phrase that means “the life of the age to come.” According to John’s gospel that age is already here.
But what does that mean? I think it means that what we see in the life of Jesus, the way he lived his life and in the resurrection accounts about what happened after he died, indicate to us that good will ultimately triumph over evil, that nothing that we do in this life in unforgiveable, that peace and justice and wholeness for all is attainable this side of the grave. It’s all accessible when we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, to live our lives as he lived his life.
One of the curious details in this morning’s scripture reading is that the seekers who call Jesus out find him walking in the temple as if to say that the life that Jesus is pointing towards, salvation for us and our world is not something found in a building or in a tradition or in a book, it’s something we see and experience through action.
In other words, belonging to Jesus’ fold isn’t about what we believe it’s about how we behave. And some would say that the more we are able to behave like Jesus in concrete and tangible ways, loving our neighbours and our enemies, giving of ourselves for the sake of justice and wholeness in our world, the more likely we are to hear Jesus voice calling to us from across the ages, giving us not just life but abundant and eternal life.
Think about it for a moment. Those voices you are recalling today, the voices that still speak to you across the ages, the voice of your mother, grandmother, teacher or friend that have guided you in ways that have sustained you, and led you more fully into the fullness of life, why did you listen to them, why do you still listen to them? What did they teach you about life that has had a lasting impact on you?
Sometimes we listen to voices because we are told we’re supposed to. We do what our mothers or caregivers tell us to do because they are our mothers. It’s the “because I said so” way of listening. But the voices that really resonate with us are those whose voices match the way they live their lives. They lead by example and we listen because we recognize their wisdom and we trust them.
That’s the message Jesus was trying to convey to those who wanted to know plainly if he was the Messiah that day in the portico of Solomon. Don’t follow me because someone tells you I am the Messiah, follow me because I lead you into life. Because my work is God’s work and God’s work is about all of us having fullness of life, here and now. It’s the same work of mothers and grandmothers, stepmothers and aunties, teachers and friends who go before us and whose voices remind us that love is stronger than hate, hope more powerful than despair and life able to triumph over death.
In these days when we are all doing something for the very first time, living through an ongoing pandemic and a fracturing of the world as we have known it, we are wondering who will save us, who will deliver us? The answer is the voice of love made known to us in the Good Shepherd, made known to us in those who continue to whisper words of wisdom in our ears, made manifest in each one of us called to follow in a path of peace, hope and abundant life. We are the ones to lead the way.