The Gospel for today ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ contains one of those tense dramatic encounters. The Jews confront Jesus: ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ And Jesus, with what i must have to them been an almost infuriating calmness replies: ‘I have told you, and you have not believed My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.’
This morning, I want to speak about ‘Knowing Jesus Christ.’ ‘Tell us plainly. I have. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ – and I start from the point of how little we know of Him. Now, I do not mean by this how ill instructed we are about who He was, what He did: what I mean is, how little it is possible to know about Jesus Christ. We do not know the exact year in which he was born, nor the exact year in which he died. We do not know how tall He was, nor the color of His hair, nor what He looked like. We do not know whether He was married or not, though, on balance, He probably was not. But the important thing is that the records we have about Him say nothing of this side of His life.
The one book which speaks of Him, and has any reliability about it, is, from this angle, not helpful. The greater part of the book is a collection of letters. And though the name of Jesus appears on every page, the only concrete events of His life which are referred to are the events around His death and what His followers believed to have happened after it. And the Gospels, which at first sight seem to give a picture of His life, on closer inspection are found to be manuals of instruction, using sayings and miracles of Jesus to teach what Christianity is all about, and the only time they become biographical is in describing the events of the final week of Jesus Christ’s life.
To my mind, the astounding thing is that we know so little of Jesus Christ, and yet, over two thousand years, and even now today, He exerts such power and such attraction – why?
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Well, it is all tied up with what happened after His death. He was executed on a Friday, but on the Sunday morning something happened – something happened to the despondent followers of Jesus. Some said it was hallucinations, some said self-deception. St. Paul described it in terms of personal encounter: the writers of the Gospels try to explain it by their story of an empty tomb. The undeniable fact is that something happened, and as a result of that something, the followers of Jesus claimed to have experienced Jesus more alive now than when they had experienced Him before His execution, and the effect of this was that life was changed. This is what lies behind the growth of the Christian Church – that you can meet Jesus Christ now. This is what lies behind the writing of the New Testament – to try to explain this for subsequent generations, so that others might experience this too. Take, for instance, St. Matthew’s Gospel: that Gospel has a text, a text stated at the start and repeated at the end. The text is this: ‘His name shall be Emmanuel (which means God with us)’, and that text is repeated at the end – the words of the ascending Jesus – ‘Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age’. And everything in between is there, to show us not just how God was with us in the life of Jesus Christ, but how He is with us now. And the same can be said for the rest of the New Testament. It is trying to show us how we can experience Jesus, experience God now. This does not happen in any stereotyped way, it is far too big for that – and so, the New Testament gives pictures, models of meeting with Jesus and the effect and power that it has.
I . It says it is like new creation. This life, for all its wonders, its beauties, is still a life which is running down, a life of disintegration, death. But meet Jesus, come to grips with what He means, what He stands for – allow this to take hold of you and there is new creation, new life, life pulsating, vital, which cannot be destroyed, which does not end.
2. It says it is all like acquittal in a law court. There we stand in the dock, guilty of all our failures and shortcomings. But meet Jesus, come to grips with what He means, what He stands for, and we realize that before God we are acquitted – the load of guilt can be lifted – divine forgiveness becomes something real, so real, in fact, that it spills over into relationships with other people – we start forgiving them, which is the clearest evidence of being forgiven by God.
3. It says it is a bit like the slave market. There we are, up for sale – fettered, no freedom, bound by fears, guilt, inadequacies, the like – and along comes Jesus, the Redeemer, and what He is, what He stands for – once grasped – frees us, and for the first time we become real people.
4. It says it is like learning in a school-room, at the feet of Jesus the Teacher, who, with consummate skill, shows us that love and compassion and forgiveness are of the very warp and woof of life in this world, and that we have been so blind in not seeing this before.
And the pictures and the models go on to help us see what it is to meet Jesus and come to grips with Him and all He stands for.
The attraction of Jesus Christ
Whilst I was a parish priest, I remember one Lent Group, and the perennial question came up. how can we win back to the Church the many, and particularly the young, who have drifted away? I do not know the answer to this question. But, one thing I am convinced about – nothing will happen: in fact, things will get worse, until we – you and I – the Christians, are profoundly moved and attracted by Jesus Christ, what He stands for and how this affects us, others, society, life Being so taken up with Jesus is something that is contagious. It is this that has caused every advance of Christianity over two thousand years – it was behind the early Church, behind the Franciscan Revival of the 13 1h century- behind the Evangelical Revival of the 181h century; behind the Catholic Revival of the I 91h century – and it will be behind any future revival. Though, as with those past revivals, it will be Jesus relevant for the particular society and age. But, if we are really moved and attracted by Jesus Christ, this will be catching.
’Tell us plainly – I have – My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.’ I end with a question. Are we prepared to know Him, with the commitment to following Him, which that will entail?