This is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the middle Sunday of the season. And, on this middle Sunday, we find the Gospel reading asking what sounds like a rather curious question for this time in the church year. Consider where we are in the year as we observe it in our church rituals and emphases.
Advent, which begins our church year, is a time of preparation, of awaiting the birth of the promised one, the Messiah. Then comes Christmas, complete with the exchange of gifts with which we celebrate the coming of the great gift and giver in the birth of the Christ child. Epiphany, which follows, is a short season in which we enjoy this new light that has come into the world. It is a time of an awakening awareness of the enlightened hope that this Son of God brings to Earth with his presence and teaching.
Lent, the penitential season, is the logical result of our contact with this son of God and man. He reminds us of our own nature, the nature of God, and the real relationship that God offers us. Lent is the time when we confront our sinful qualities, accept responsibility for them, and walk the path of repentance.
This brings us to Easter. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ lives again. Easter is the time when we are walking with the risen Lord. In the past two Sundays, the Gospel has reminded us of occasions when the risen Lord appeared to his disciples. On the first Sunday after Easter, we heard the story of the disciples gathered fearfully in a locked room, hiding from the Jews, when Jesus came among them. A week later, he repeated this appearance so that Thomas, who had not been present on the first occasion, could have his doubts erased.
This year, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we heard the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after a night of fruitless fishing. Jesus calls to them from the shore and urges them to put down their nets once again. Though they do not recognize him, they do what he tells them and find their nets full to bursting with fish. At this point, the disciple whom Jesus loved tells the others, "It is the Lord." When they reach shore, Jesus is waiting for them with a fire, and bread and fish for their breakfast.
Today's Gospel brings us back to a day before the Crucifixion, as Jesus is walking in the temple. Again, the Jews gather around him questioning, perhaps taunting him. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
There is good chance that their questions lack sincerity. From our knowledge of the whole story, we assume that they do not believe Jesus is the Messiah. In fact, quite the opposite. They believe him to be nothing less than an heretic and trouble maker. Their hope is that he will confirm this by telling them plainly that he is the Messiah. And with this declaration he will give them permission to prosecute him and rid themselves of his annoying threat to their power and authority.
Once again, however, Jesus refuses to be drawn. Instead, as he often did, he turned the question back to them, saying, "I have told you and you do not believe." How has he told them? His works, he says, testify to who he is. There is plenty of evidence, he assures them. The real issue, he tells them, is their own belief.
This is the question the Gospel brings to us this morning. Of course we do believe, don't we? And isn't this a rather peculiar time to ask the question? Here we are in the midst of the season of joyous belief. Easter is the the celebration of victory over death, the awareness of our lives redeemed forever from the power of sin, fifty days of gratitude for penance paid and absolution guaranteed for all eternity.
It would be easy to sidestep this matter of belief. Instead, we could focus on the promise to believers with which this passage concludes. Believers, whom Jesus describes as his "sheep," hear his voice and follow him. In return, he gives them eternal life and they will never perish. No one may snatch them from his hand.
But the question continues to tug at the back corners of our minds. Do we believe -- and how?
Our Western mind has been formed by the notion that belief is based on evidence. The scientific method depends on the formulation of an hypothesis, which we then test by experimentation. If the data from the experiment confirms the hypothesis, we may be reasonably certain it is true. If the evidence fails to confirm the hypothesis, we must revise it or create a whole new theory. A belief is firmly rooted in observation and evidence collected in support of it.
John's writing, however, says that even this will not be enough. After all, those to whom Jesus speaks have been observing him for some time now. Even he acknolwedges that the testimony of his works is not enough for this group.
If this is so, how does one get to be one of those sheep who knows the Master's voice, a member of the flock that cannot be snatched from his hand? The Gospel suggests that we need to act as though believing is a choice, the product of a free will rather than the prize in a debate. The time comes when evaluating the evidence must end. Eventually all the questions we have to ask become evidence only of our own procrastination. The deep chasm of uncertainty that stands between the known and the possible has no bridge except our own choice to believe.
Throughout these fifty days of Easter, we are moving inevitably to the day of Ascension. It is the memory of these days, when the promises of the Resurrection walk and talk with us in certainty that must sustain us for the rest of the year. These are the days when we stand close to the flame of the Paschal candle so that we may look closely at the world lit by its brilliance. We hold these memories of this world lit by the promise of eternal life as "mind photos" we can recall from memory in the dark days that come.
Today, in the midst of the stories of Christ's appearances, we are called to remember that these miracles, wrought by God's great gift, Jesus Christ, are not ours by evidence, not by hypotheses proven by experiments. They are ours by choice. We believe.
The choice is the most democratic one we may ever have. It is freely offered as a gift to every person who has, or does, or will ever live. It is a choice which allows us to experience inward and spiritual grace. It is also a choice that calls us to lives that produce signs, distinctive behaviors, that will be noticed by those around us. It is a choice that sets us apart from the rest of the world, and yet urges us to invite the rest of the world to join us. It is a choice that calls us to make Easter, and a sense of the presence of Christ, alive not just for fifty days but every day. This is the choice each of us will carry with us as we leave this place today, the choice to live each day spreading the joy and vitality of this love of God to all people for all time.