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It's Not Supposed to be Simple

A sermon on John 10:22-30

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Eilis Garvey on Unsplash]

Quick poll: how many of you have ever used the phrase, “I just want to be clear”?

Ok. What about, “Keep it simple.”

Most of us, right?

It is pretty widely assumed that clarity is a good thing. And there are plenty of good reasons that people want simple, easy-to-understand statements:

For one thing, we want to actually understand and be understood.

Add in too many modifying clauses, or caveats, and you are going to start losing people… not out of any malice, but because complex arguments are hard to follow and people get confused, or they just latch on to the parts they understand, and therefore get a skewed notion of what you are trying to say.

Another reason we want simple, quick-to-grasp communication is because human beings are wired to make snap decisions on the information that is immediately apparent.

In his book Blink¸ social scientist Malcolm Gladwell describes the way that this capacity has been vital to human development. The phenomenon of “thin slicing” – in which our subconscious mind makes rapid decisions based on patterns of experience – empowers effective leaders and helps us to survive and succeed in dangerous or competitive environments.

But it only works if we can quickly cull-out the key information. That’s why we want that information to be clearly accessible.

There are more morally questionable reasons to prefer simplicity as well – it is less likely to make us uncomfortable.

An argument that seems simple and obvious is gratifying to our own self-righteousness.

And a strawman version of an opponent’s position makes it easy to dismiss them out of hand.

A black and white version of reality makes us feel safe because it does not require us to question anything that we think we know.

For one or all of these reasons, we might feel some sympathy with the people in today’s gospel who are asking Jesus to “just tell us plainly” what his teaching is all about.

It seems like such a reasonable request. And even more so when we look at their request in the Greek:

They are asking him to speak with parrhesia (παῤῥησία)[1], which means to speak boldly, openly, with no ambiguity.

They are essentially begging him to not keep anything hidden, to be confident enough in what he is saying to say it without prevarication.

I imagine that ALL of us have, at one time or another, wished that the biblical accounts of Jesus’s teachings would just make things clear! (I know I have.)

But there is an irony in this story if we turn the conversation around and ask whether the people making this request are being open, and clear, and keeping nothing hidden about their own motives.

We know from the larger context of the story that Jesus’s presence and teaching in the temple has been causing division among his hearers, with passionate reactions on both sides – some wanting to hail him as Messiah, and others wanting to cast him out, or even kill him, as a blasphemer.[2]

It is that division and disruption that is the presenting problem to the people who surround Jesus with their demand for “clarity…

Which means that the demand itself is disingenuous, because Jesus being “clear” will do nothing to solve the problem that is actually bothering them – people will still line up on either side.

The questioners are just uncomfortable with the tension and looking for someone to blame.

We can even see this in the very language they use in their slanted accusation of Jesus.

The NRSV translates it as “how long will you keep us in suspense,” but the original language is a lot more loaded than that.

It takes a little work to understand because the precise phrase used appears nowhere else in the New Testament (so – I’m afraid I can’t just “speak plainly”), but bear with me… it’s worth the effort.

The phrase is: aírō hēmōn psychḗ (αἴρω ἡμῶν ψυχή).[3]

Psychḗ might be a familiar term because we use a version of it in modern English (psyche) to convey pretty much the same meaning as the ancient usage: it’s a word to communicate the deep self… our soul, mind, heart, or even the breath of life that makes us human.

Hēmōn, is also pretty easy. It can mean us or our.

Airo can mean either lift-up/elevate, or else carry-away.

When we put these words together, they are literally asking Jesus: “how long will you carry-off our minds and souls?”

No wonder the translators took some liberties… it’s a disorienting question because it is trying to express a profound experience of disorientation.

Jesus’s questioners are expressing the soul-deep level of anxiety he is causing in their community by teaching in ways that don’t let them stay comfortably inside the neat boxes they have for understanding the world.

And they want him to stop. In essence they are saying to him:

“Jesus you are rocking our world, and not in a good way. We don’t want your big questions and challenges. We don’t want you to reorient the way we experience God. We want you to stay small and containable. We want a simple sound bite claim that we can either assent to or reject without having to change.”

Jesus, as is his pattern, responds to this deeper challenge more than he does to the surface words.

He begins by pointing out that he is not the one who is being ambiguous and disingenuous.

“I have told you,” he responds. He has been clear from the beginning, both in his words and in his actions.

He has plainly claimed a unique and special relationship with God.

That is why they are upset… because he is making claims that make them uncomfortable… that “carry-away their souls.”

Then Jesus pushes to the heart of the problem: it’s not that he is being unclear, it’s that the people are not willing to let down their guard and trust him.

When Jesus tells the people, “You do not believe,” he’s not just talking about an intellectual agreement with what Jesus is teaching.

He’s saying they don’t believe in him. They don’t trust that he is someone they can follow down unexpected or unknown paths, the way that sheep are willing to follow their shepherd.

They want to be able to argue with him on a level of rationality, and he’s saying that his mission is all about relationship.

So, what does all of this mean for us… especially for those of us who really would like Jesus to be simple and clear about what he is calling us to do and to be?

Well, the bad news is that this story does not offer us “simple” at least not in the sense of an easily-digestible teaching that will leave us comfortably unchanged.

But I think that’s also good news. I think this story invites us to turn the challenges of this interaction around on ourselves…

to ask ourselves whether we are willing to trust Jesus enough to get uncomfortable,

to lean into ambiguity,

to let Jesus lead us beyond our accustomed ways of thinking and functioning to actually change us at the level of our souls.

At our Synod Assembly this weekend our Bishop, Tracy Bartholomew, shared a reflection on the image of a tapestry, which was drawn from the Message translation of Colossians 2:2, the theme verse for the gathering.

She talked about how the church is God’s tapestry, woven together in love – a beautiful work of diverse colors and patterns that work together to create something far more than the sum of our parts.

She also reminded us that a tapestry has two sides.

The side that is meant for display is beautiful. The colors each appear in their clearly defined place in order to create a picture of intentionality and design.

Then there’s the other side… the side with the tangles and criss-crossing threads that, frankly, look like a mess. In order for each part of the pattern to emerge in the right place on the presentation side, the other side has to sacrifice order and beauty.

The point of this metaphor is that the mess is an essential part of the beauty. This is true for the work of the church, and it is true for the life of faith as well.

Jesus does not promise us comfortable simplicity because that’s not what creates the beauty of the life of faith.

Instead, he calls us to trust him enough to get “carried away” from all the things we think we know, and all the ideas we think we can control.

And if we can do that. If we can truly follow him instead of demanding that he stop disrupting our ordered lives, we will find the far better security of being held in God’s hands, hands that weave us into a beauty we could never have imagined. Thanks be to God


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