By Wes Howard-Brook & Sue Ferguson Johnson
As we continue through the season of Uprising, the lectionary pulls a passage from John’s gospel totally out of context (John 10.22-30). It finds Jesus in the temple during the festival of Chanukah, the celebration of the military victory of a guerrilla band of Judeans over their Seleucid (Greek) oppressor, some two centuries before Jesus. It is the only mention of Chanukah in the Bible (the books which describe the battles leading to the feast are in 1-2 Maccabees, which are among the Apocrypha and not part of Hebrew Scripture). It comes after a long series of confrontations and challenges in and around the feast of Sukkoth, aka “Tabernacles” or “Booths,” that fills John 7.1-10.21. Chanukah carried no scriptural mandate requiring all male Israelites to journey to Jerusalem, as did the three torah-temple feasts of Pesach (Passover), Sukkoth and Shavuoth (Pentecost), as found in Deuteronomy 16. Thus, we can imagine that those still in Jerusalem during the rainy, winter season would be the “true” Jerusalemites, those most eager to hear a word about a coming “messiah” who would vanquish the Romans with military power and divine authority.
Jesus’ response pulls together two Johannine themes: his role as “good shepherd” and the gift of “eternal life” (zōē aiōnion). How do these notions come together in answer to the Judeans’ question, “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly?” (10.24)?
Let’s start with Jesus’ offer of “eternal life.” While many Christians may hear this as the promised hope of a heavenly afterlife, it is clear both from John’s gospel and Hebrew Scriptures that the idea is very much rooted in the here-and-now. The Greek literally means “life of the age,” which is shorthand for the “age to come,” i.e., the messianic era when true shalom would be experienced by all. In the Septuagint, it is found only in two places. One is in the Psalms of Solomon and the other in the book of Daniel. Both anticipate a future in which the righteous rise from the dead into zōē aiōnion:
The destruction of the sinner is forever, And he shall not be remembered, when the righteous is visited. This is the portion of sinners forever. But they that fear the Lord shall rise to life eternal, And their life (shall be) in the light of the Lord, and shall come to an end no more. (Ps.Sol. 3.11-12)
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt (Gk, aischunēn). (Dan 12.1-2)
The main difference is that the Psalm anticipates the rising to eternal life only for the righteous, while Daniel anticipates a twin “rising,” to either eternal life or “eternal contempt” or “eternal shame.” But in both cases, the expectation is for an earthly revivification of the dead at which people would experience God’s glorious reign of justice and peace for all creation.
But for many—then and now—the time of peace would occur through divinely authorized violence. Jesus, here and throughout the gospels, struggles to disabuse his disciples and the crowds of this notion. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes clear the conditions under which people would experience “eternal life.” Let’s listen to a couple of Jesus’ statements:
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (5.24)
This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day. …Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; (6.40, 51)
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (17.3)
First, note how Jesus speaks of “eternal life” as something available in the present. Second, it comes not from violence, but from listening and knowing. The call to “hear” and “believe” Jesus’ word as the vehicle into eternal life echoes into our current passage, where Jesus reminds his audience of what he had said a few months earlier in Jerusalem: “…the sheep follow [the good shepherd] because they know his voice” (10.4; 10.27). Last week, we saw ironically how Peter, not having truly “heard” Jesus’ call to agape-love, had not been asked to “follow” Jesus throughout the entire gospel until the very end (21.22). but for anyone who does hear and trust Jesus’ words, eternal life is available here and now. It is not a promise of an afterlife, but of the fullness of this life, as God has intended all along (cf. 10.10).
It is the current availability of life as God intends that in turn offers true security. In the face of our anxious attempts to secure our personal futures through financial planning and our national future through massive military might, Jesus offers the path to true security, that cannot be “snatched away” (10.29). It is the celebration of this security that we hear in the scene from Revelation in this week’s texts:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7.9-10)
When the seer, John of Patmos, is asked by one of the “elders” around the throne who the celebrants are, he is told that they are the ones who have made it through the “great struggle” (tēs thlipsis tēs megalēs). The word thlipsis means literally, “pressure,” which is to say pressed to conform to the way of empire. Those who sing joyous hymns to God are they who have resisted this pressure, and are guided by “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” (7.17).
As the glorious radiance of the Easter celebration fades into memory, we are all faced with the daily pressure to conform to the way of empire. It is only by listening together for the Voice of the Shepherd, following him together and worshiping him together, day in and day out, that we can negotiate the path around the landmines and imperial IEDs that threaten to blow up our lives of discipleship. Like those around the throne in John’s vision, we need each other in order to “keep the faith,” that is, our shared trust in the Risen Messiah who offers security grounded not in weapons, but in God’s own agapē. Then we can join in the apocalyptic choir as it sings:
“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7.12)