This is an edited version of a sermon preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.
IN 1984 a network called Sea of Faith was launched in the Church of England. It started in response to a book and then a TV series by a Cambridge academic clergyman called Don Cupitt. The followers of Don Cupitt in the Sea of Faith network wanted to move Christianity away from its traditional belief in miraculous events, such as the Virgin Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection, and indeed the various miracles the New Testament records the Lord Jesus as having done in real history. They thought that if Christianity got rid of its miraculous elements it would become more popular with late 20th century people in the Western world.
I remember watching a TV programme about the Sea of Faith network in the mid-1980s around the time that I was beginning to think about a possible vocation to ordained ministry. One interview was with a lady who belonged to a Church of England parish church. Its vicar was a member of the Sea of Faith network and was pushing its anti-miraculous agenda. She described how one Sunday in her church the congregation got up as usual to say the Creed and she felt that she couldn’t go on belonging to a church where the essentials of the Christian faith, the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of our Lord, were being trashed from the pulpit with impunity. She said something like: ‘When we were saying the Creed I felt I just couldn’t go on with this vicar denying the things it says about Jesus Christ, so I decided to leave and I’ve now joined a Baptist church where the Christian faith is being upheld and proclaimed.’
‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me’ – the words of our Lord Jesus (John 10v27 -NIV).
That woman was one of the Lord Jesus’s sheep, so by definition she listened to his voice and followed him. She didn’t just talk the talk: she did something. Her loyalty was to her Lord Jesus as the Bible describes him, so she expressed that loyalty with her feet. She chose to leave a church that was not listening to her Lord Jesus’s voice and went to one that was.
These words in John chapter 10 come in the course of an argument between Jesus and his fellow Jews at the Feast of Dedication. This was not one of the festivals commanded in the Law of Moses. It was a winter festival that commemorated the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 165 BC after it had been defiled with a pagan image, put in there by the tyrannical Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes. A Jewish resistance leader called Judas Maccabaeus managed to kick Antiochus’s forces out of Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple that he had profaned. The annual Feast of Dedication commemorated that purification of the Temple for the true God.
During this festival Jesus was walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, a porch on the east side of the Temple. A crowd gathered around him and they challenged him to come out with a clear claim that he was the Christ, the Messiah, the divine rescuing King of Old Testament promise and expectation. It would appear that the crowd’s intention was hostile – they wanted him to claim to be the Messiah so that they could deny his claim and accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus answered (v25&26): ‘I did tell you (that I am indeed the Christ), but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.’
By definition, Jesus’s sheep believe that he is the Messiah, the Christ, who proved that he is the Christ through his miracles, through those unique deeds of divine power that he had performed as the divine Son of the one true God, turning water into wine, feeding thousands of people with a boy’s packed lunch, walking on the water, healing the terminally sick and incurably paralysed. If you don’t believe that Jesus is the divine Messiah, shown to be that through his miraculous deeds, then you are by definition not one of Jesus’s sheep. Jesus’s opponents in this hostile crowd did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah because they were not Jesus’s sheep.
But, v27, those people who are Jesus’s sheep, the people to whom he has given the saving knowledge of himself as the divine Messiah, listen to his voice; he knows them, and they follow him.
And note that they don’t just listen. They don’t just turn up to church and to Bible studies, and spout the Bible. Yes, they do listen to the Lord Jesus’s voice through the Bible, they take the Bible very seriously and because they take it seriously they act on it. They do what it says. They don’t just talk the talk: they walk the walk. To use Jesus’s metaphor for obedient discipleship in John chapter 15, they bear visible fruit for Jesus.
Jesus’s sheep are people who listen to his voice and follow him. Both are vital in discerning who Jesus’s sheep are. Someone can spout the Bible till the cows come home, but if they are not following the Lord Jesus Christ in obedient, fruitful discipleship, walking the walk in their behaviour, they are not one of his sheep. Friends, let us not be deceived either about ourselves or about people who claim to be Jesus’s sheep but aren’t because they’re all mouth. They’re not following. They’re not bearing the visible fruit of love and good deeds.
May God give us grace to live out our identity as Jesus’s sheep by listening to his voice and following him in daily discipleship and obedience.