Lessons – Acts 13:15-39; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9-17; St. John 10:22-30
Newsweek had an article on religion that used a term I had never before seen. It was “neurotheology” (God and the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality (Newsweek: May 7, 2001, p50-58). It is a scientific approach to understanding the affects of religious practices on the brain. These scientists believe that they have determined which parts of the brain are affected when people pray and meditate. They are the parts that orients us and gives us our distinctions between self and our surroundings. And they go quiet when we are in deep prayer. They suggest that is why folks have the spiritual experience of being one with God and with one other.
Now a skeptic could look at this research and conclude that religious experience therefore just a result of electrical stimulation or lack thereof in the temporal lobe. But a believer could look at the same research and conclude it may explain the mechanics of a religious experience but not the cause. When Saul was on the road to Damascus he may have had his frontal lobe misfire but it was because he was blinded by the Risen Jesus.
One of the things I very much liked about the article is that it underscored the benefits of what we do as a church. They spoke of feeling “transported by intense prayer, uplifting ritual (and) sacred music”. They went on to say that “even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy…ritual and liturgy bring…a ‘softening of the boundaries of self’ and the sense of oneness and spiritual unity. Slow chanting, …liturgical melodies, and whispered ritualistic prayer all seem to work their magic in the same way….” While the use of the word “magic” is a very poor choice, it does seem that the authors of this article would have an appreciation for the ancient style of worship that we follow. It has not lasted all of these centuries for no reason.
The article ends with the $64,000 question. Is it our brain wiring that creates the idea of God, or is it God who created our brain wiring? There was a follow up article that addressed the $64,00 question. That author said that while we may be able to credit brain activity for a particular feeling of oneness with God, it does not begin to explain how a person can see Christ in an AIDS victim or truly come to love one’s enemies. I would add that countless Christians have been faithful all of their lives and prayed and believed through some very difficult life circumstances and have NEVER had a feeling of mystic union with God. So how does nerotheology explain their faithfulness?
I find these kinds of discussions interesting but when we boil it all down, for the skeptic there is never enough proof to believe and for the true believer they don’t need proof in order to believe. We can see these two perspectives in today’s Gospel. The religious leaders, who were skeptics, came to Jesus and said, “Stop holding us in suspense, are you or are you not the Messiah?” Jesus said in essence, “I have told you and I have shown you…” What did He mean by that? In chapter 8 Jesus announced “before Abraham was, I AM.”They certainly knew what He meant by that because they picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy. In chapter 9 He healed a man who had been blind since birth and as the blind man declared, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind.”So Jesus certainly had told them and showed them that He is the Messiah but that still wasn’t enough proof for them.
Jesus then tells the skeptics what their problem is, and it is not a lack of evidence. Jesus said, “you do not believe because you are not a part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” It’s just that simple. Why do we believe? It is because as we just said from the Psalms,“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100:2). When the Good Shepherd calls, we follow.
Several things can be derived from Jesus saying that they do not believe because they are not of His flock. First, and this is paraphrase of the argument that St. Anselm put forth, we do not undertand in order to believe, we believe in order to understand. Why is that? Because as St. Paul tells us the natural mind cannot comprehend spiritual things. That is why those leaders could see Jesus perform miracles and still be confused about who He was. And that is why yet one more proof was not going to convince them. As Jesus told Nicodemus, you must first be born again. Then you begin to understand that ways of God.
This truth has evangelistic ramifications. I do believe that there is a place for C.S. Lewis types who present evidence so compellingly that it leads non believers to a verdict, but that is very different than trying to argue someone into the Kingdom of God. And sadly much of what is taught as evangelsim is just that…and it doesn’t work. Not many folks decide to follow Christ because they just lost an argument. The Bible says that before we are born again we are dead in our transgressions. It doesn’t make sense to argue with a dead man. Therefore the best form of evangelism therefore is your life. For you to become living epistles. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
A second implication of believing in order to understand is that it places us in a posture of humility. There is a strong vein of pride running through the man who demands of God that he be given more proof before he believes. Sheep don’t get to make such demands of the Shepherd. They either follow His voice or they get lost on their own.
Conversely it takes humlity to declare trust in God and to recognize that I am but a sheep. Some might criticize this approach and claim that it is taking a leap into the dark. That is patently false. It is not taking a leap into the dark, it is taking a leap into the arms of the One who loved us and delivered Himself up for us. So we trust Him, we hear His voice and we follow.
This however begs another question. What then does it mean then to hear the Shepherd’s voice? In ancient times, and perhaps even today, it was the custom of shepherds to gather their flocks at night and put them in the same pen or sheepfold. The next morning, each shepherd would call his sheep with his unique call and only his sheep would follow. Why? Because they knew his voice and only his voice. That is why the shepherds did not have to worry about corralling them together and getting them mixed up.
Some of you can point to a day and hour that you first heard His voice and began to follow Him. Some of you have been following Him all of your lives and don’t remember a time when you were not a sheep of His fold. Some of you moved towards Him so slowly and imperceptibly that you are not sure exactly whenHe became your Shepherd. But in the end what really matters is that He is your Shepherd TODAY and that you are following Him.
This in turn begs another question. HOW do we hear His voice. It has been my experience that He speaks to us in a variety of ways. The most universal way that the Good Shepherd speaks to His flock is through Holy Scripture. He guides us through the biblical interpretations and teaching of the Church. But it is also true that He uses Scripture to speak to us as individual sheep.
When I was much younger I was in a very dark place and my mother came to me and said that a friend of hers had a Bible verse for me. I don’t recall if I rolled my eyes but I do remember having some very cynical thoughts about some little old lady giving me her favorite passage. I very reluctantly took it but when I read it I knew that it was a specific word of the Lord to me. It was a promise that gave me hope and it was like an anchor to my soul that held me until the dark days were over.
The Good Shepherd through His Word tunes our ears to hear His voice. And He also tunes our ears to detect the voices of false shepherds. That is why it is so important an important for us to be regularly and faithfully reading Holy Scripture.
The Good Shepherd also speaks to us through community. We do not have a hard rule in the Vestry that decisions can only be made in unanimity but we understand that if we are not all hearing the same voice then it is time to stop and reconsider. One season we had a gentleman in leadership who seemed to vote “No” way way more than any of the others. At first I was upset with him for dragging his feet but after awhileI learned that while the rest of us had heard correctly WHAT we were to do, the Lord used him to let us know WHEN to do it. When he finally got around to voting “Yes” the timing was right.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that every matter must be confirmed out of the mouth of two or three witnesses because it is too easy to be self deceived. I can rationalize just about anything and call it God speaking to me if I want bad enough, so I need my brothers and sisters to tell me if I truly heard from God or if the incredible dream that I had was simply the result of a pepperoni pizza.
The Good Shepherd also uses circumstances to speak to us. We have to use extreme caution here because it is also easy to misinterpret circumstances and be deceived by them. But the longer you walk with the Lord the more you will find you ear tuned to Him speaking to you in this way.
As Christians we should be much more comfortable with the idea of providence than with the idea of coincidence. That is especially true when you see a number of “coincidences” fall in line with one another.
The Church that I served in Chattanooga was a beautiful and very wealthy parish. We had three full time priests, and I was an assistant, so the job was pretty easy on me because I didn’t bear much responsibility. I was in high cotton. Nevertheless I found myself growing frustrated with my position because I didn’t feel that I was having much of an impact. Then something happened that got the Rector’s wife mad at me and let me tell you when the Rector’s wife ain’t happy with you, buddy you are skating on some pretty thin ice. Then I preached a pretty strong sermon that offended an influential liberal member, who sent a copy of it to our very liberal Bishop, who unbeknowced to me, told his Canon to figure out a way to get rid of me. As all of this was brewing I got a call from the Bishop of this middle diocese wanting to know if I would come to Middle Tennessee to plant a church. Those circumstances were telling me to run, not to walk, but to run. God does speak to us through circumstances but I would caution that as often as you are able use Scripture and community to help you to be sure that you are interpreting them correctly.
I find the imagery of Jesus being my Shepherd and me being a sheep extreemly comforting. I don’t have to carry the burden of figuring out everything about my life or worrying that I will not be provided for in the future or fearing any and all enemies. I’m just a sheep. Those weighty matters are the Shepherd’s problem. So if you are a part of His flock, relax and trust Him. He knows where the green pastures and still waters are and He also knows how to lead you there. He is the Good Shepherd and He loves you.
If you are not yet a sheep of His fold, don’t wait until you have all the answers because you never will. And don’t wait for more proof because there will never be enough proof to convince you. Humble himself and trust Him. Someone wrote, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic union of the Holy Trinity, I just needed to trust the One who came up with the red wood trees.” Once you belong to the Good Shepherd you will discover that have all that you need and be able to say with Kind David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”Amen