‘the sheep .. will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ John 10.5
Sheep are not silly!
Jesus was not a stranger to anyone. Jesus associated with one and all, the rich and the poor, the devout and the sinners, the movers and shakers as well as the hoi polloi. This is the essence of the incarnation and it is the essence of the good news. Jesus took great pains to visit one and all, to become someone somewhat more than a stranger. And the voice of Jesus is the voice of one who first and foremost wishes not to be a stranger to anyone. Jesus was not one to make grandiose claims for himself or extravagant demands on others. First and foremost he sought to walk alongside another as he walked alongside Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus.
And of course we are called to follow Jesus, and this means that we too are called not to be a stranger to anyone. We too do not make grandiose claims for ourselves or for the church we claim to be members of, nor do we make extravagant demands on others either. We too are called to walk alongside others, sharing the journey with them, the frustrations as well as the achievements.
People will not listen to
the voice of strangers and
rightfully so. If we spend
our time making grandiose claims about who Jesus is, or extravagant
others, we remain strangers to others. Others
will not follow us if we remain strangers to
others - indeed they should not follow, for in doing so we place
among the company of the thieves that Jesus talks about.
These thieves come only to steal, kill and destroy. Thieves steal a person’s dignity, thieves kill individuality, thieves destroy community.
We can see this happening in the life and death of Jesus. The morally pure, orthodox and devout counted themselves as above the rest of humanity, they made themselves strangers to others who did not think like them, believe like them, worship like them and live up to their expectations. And along comes Jesus and proclaims precisely the opposite way to relate to others. Instead of being a stranger to others, he associated with others. Such behavior was an affront to the devout and the orthodox. To suggest that this was what God was like was for them the ultimate blasphemy. I am reminded of the passage in the psalms: 'What are we mortals, that you should be mindful of us: mere human beings that you should care for us' (Ps 8.4) yet the psalmist immediately goes on to say ‘You have made us little less than divine: and crowned us with glory and honour’. This word extends to all who are mortal, not just to the religious and the devout.
Jesus comes that we might have life and have it abundantly, and this implies that life in all its fullness comes as we cease to be strangers to those around us. Life in all its fullness comes as we enter fully into the society of which we are a part.
But as I say, time and again, there is little point in you and I doing this, when the church proclaims herself different from others – that membership of the church implies we are to be strangers to those around us. This is essentially divisive. In doing so the ‘church’ destroys community - where God would have the community built up.
So baptism isn’t into a holy huddle, but our birth into the world and all who are in it. We are not born again into a holy huddle but into a life where there are no strangers other than those we haven’t had an opportunity to meet already. I note that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus flits to and fro, not especially caring that not all are cured in the place he had left. (Mark 1.38)
I have made the comment before that I would invite someone whose friendship I valued to a church if I knew that that church would accept my valued friend without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation. This is just another way of saying that the most important thing is for we in the church to be friends. Conversely I wouldn’t want to invite anyone whose friendship I valued when they were not going to be accepted without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.
But the reality is that often the church wants to be other worldly, and wants others to become other-worldly too. The church wants to take a person’s dignity, the church often kills individuality, the church often destroys community.
The internet tells me that Mark Twain added to the proverb of Apuleius (124 - 170 AD): 'Familiarity breeds contempt' with the words: 'and children'. My suspicions are that contempt is something that results from someone pretending to someone greater than they are. So Australians are well used to cutting down 'tall poppies' with alacrity. But someone who actually tries to care for the other is acclaimed. From my Australian background I would immediately think of Fred Hollows, the renown ophthalmologist, who, I was delighted to learn was born in Dunedin New Zealand! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hollows. He may have had some unconventional ideas but he was never a 'tall poppy' to be cut down.
Again we too are not to be strangers. The missionary command is 'Go on your way. .. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. (We are not to have just fleeting acquaintances). Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' (Luke 10.3-9) For the kingdom is precisely the community not being an assortment of strangers, but a community of people who know and respect each other. The kingdom and eternal life are not personal achievements, but a vision for all people. And finally, if we want people to listen to our voice, the voice of someone familiar to them, then we will need to learn the language of others. To expect others to learn the language of the church is to expect them to listen to the voice of a stranger. No, we are to learn the languages of others, and if we read carefully the account of the first Pentecost which we are to celebrate in about a months time, this is precisely what the Holy Spirit enables the first apostles to do: to proclaim the mighty acts of God in the languages of the hearers and the most mighty act of God is to want not to be a stranger to anyone.