Fr. Andrew Armond – The Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“How long will you keep us in suspense?”
It is a good spiritual practice, I believe, to place the words of the different characters of Scripture in our own mouths from time to time. Maybe this should especially be our practice when we encounter those who resist Jesus and his message in the Gospels. At the very least, we should avoid easy judgment about “those people,” the ones who press and prod Jesus, the ones who never seem to give him the benefit of the doubt or a moment’s rest.
While we want to follow Jesus and most closely identify with his words in the Scriptures, it also does us well to realize all the ways in which we often have more in common with the questioners of Jesus than we do with the Lord himself.
After all, who among us has not asked Jesus: “How long will you keep us in suspense? Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah.”
Lord, give me a sign! Give me clarity! Help me to see what I’m missing! Are you really who you say you are? Don’t keep me in suspense any longer! Give me the answer, and give it to me now!
We often equate spiritual wholeness and well-being with knowledge. But Scripture also gives us many indications that knowledge is ultimately an inadequate path to the fullness of the Christian life, to that most vibrant, joyful, and deep spiritual way that Jesus calls “abundant life.”
As most of you know, I’ve been a teacher for most of my adult life.
One of the things that students want most, and that teachers give least, is answers.
Simply giving a student the answer to a question, or a problem, right away, without requiring any critical thinking or evaluation on the student’s part, generally means that there is no real teaching going on, no adequate understanding of whatever it is that the student is trying to learn and the teacher is trying to teach.
The best teachers encourage and empower students to learn how to teach themselves.
One of the things I realized when I graduated with a music degree after studying piano for 15 years by that point is that I finally had the ability to learn a piece of music by myself. I finally knew how to teach myself.
I also encountered these lessons when I taught poetry. There is no “key” that unlocks the “meaning” of a poem. All I could do was teach students how to read, what to look for, how to make observations. But answers? No, I didn’t have any of those. And if I did, they were my own answers, unique to my own life experiences, my own memories, my own sense of the intellect and movement and beauty of the poem.
Likewise, if you have ever tried to “teach” someone to drive a car, or ride a bike, or play a piece of music, you have experienced the same thing. None of those things can really be “taught” beyond recommendations for the proper technique and operation. Ultimately, if the student is to “learn,” they must do it for themselves. They must discover what it feels like to get their balance for the first exhilarating time on a bicycle, or the art of braking or accelerating through a yellow light, depending on when it turns yellow and what’s the safest way to proceed. They must discover how their hands move across the keyboard most efficiently or how their breath can be controlled to balance volume and tone in the song.
Jesus’s conversation partners simply want an answer, as all of us do from time to time. Tell us plainly. What is the meaning of all this? But the way of Jesus, while it can be taught, and while it should be taught, also must be experienced by each of us, in our own quite personal ways, through our own individual histories, our circumstances, our memories, our bodies; each one of us must encounter Jesus to know him.
Jesus is both a good teacher and a good shepherd. He reminds his students that he has taught openly about the Kingdom of God many times. If they had been paying attention and looking in the right places, they would have an answer. It’s just not the answer they want, because the answer is found not in a solution to a problem; the answer is not found in an equation; the answer is not found even in Jesus covering all the right spaces of the Messiah Bingo. The answer is a person. The answer is Jesus. Jesus is the answer to the question, standing right in front of them.
The Indian Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello included a meditation entitled “The Explorer” in one of his books. It describes an explorer who had gained extensive experience of the Amazon river and its tributaries over several years and then eventually returned to his own people, who were eager to know about his journeys.
De Mello writes: “But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids? The Explorer said, ‘Go and find out for yourselves.’”
“Then the Explorer drew them a map of the river so that they could indeed go and find out for themselves. But instead of doing so, they pounced upon the map. They framed it in their Town Hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was, how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?”
Everything we do as Christians is in service of the all-surpassing experience of knowing the living Christ. Nothing can make us “expert” Christians except living the Christian life, in all of its ups and downs, twists and turns, its unexpected joys and sorrows, all of which bring us closer to the heart of God, closer to the living Christ.
Study is good! And knowledge is good! But Jesus was careful in the Gospel of John to remind his conversation partners that they could not mistake the map itself for the path of exploration and discovery, the risky adventure of faith.
To know Jesus is to meet him where he has promised to be; in the fellowship of faith; in study and conversation about the Holy Scriptures; and above all, in the liturgy itself, in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. What we find here is not an answer to end all questions, but a Shepherding Savior who leads us to green pastures, to still waters, who calms and quiets our restless souls.
To know Jesus is to hear the voice of Jesus say, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Come unto me and rest; lay down, O weary one, lay down your head upon my breast.”
Or as another hymn says,
O soul are you weary and troubled
No light in the darkness you see
There’s light for a look at the Savior
And life more abundant and free
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
There is no prescription for the encounter with Jesus, only a promise: if we seek, we will find. No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.