“How long will you keep us in suspense?” the religious leaders ask Jesus in today’s gospel (John 10:22-30). I suspect we’ve all had times of suspense in our lives and we’ve all asked that question, whether of Jesus or someone else.
Sometimes we experience suspense as a time of excited waiting and expectation. It’s the suspense of receiving and opening a gift, the suspense of going on a trip, the suspense of a grandchild’s birth. That’s not the kind of suspense we hear about in today’s gospel and it’s not the kind of suspense I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the other kind of suspense: the suspense of waiting for something to happen and the uncertainly about what is next, times when we are doubtful or undecided, circumstances that leave us anxious or apprehensive about what will or will not happen. They are times of ambiguity and not knowing. We feel ungrounded and untethered. Our life is suspended, on hold, in limbo.
When have you experienced that kind of suspense? What parts of your life are in suspense today? Is it about your marriage, your children, another relationship? Maybe the suspense is about a decision or a conversation you are facing. Maybe it’s about making a difficult or painful change. Maybe it’s about your faith, vocation, work, money, health, grief and loss, or your future. What is suspending your life today?
Regardless of how it comes about I think suspense is ultimately a spiritual condition. It’s more about what’s going on within us than what’s going on around us. And yet most of us deal with the circumstances rather than ourselves. We seek an exterior solution for an inner discomfort, and that rarely works. We grasp for facts and reason. We want information, answers, and straight talk.
That’s what the religious leaders want in today’s gospel. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” they say to Jesus. That’s not the first or the last time he will hear “if you are.” It’s throughout the gospels. It begins with his temptations in the wilderness and ends with his crucifixion:
- “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3; Lk. 4:3);
- “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple]” (Mt. 4:6; Lk. 4:9);
- “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk. 9:22);
- “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63);
- “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40);
- “If you are the Messiah, tell us” (Lk 22:67);
- “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (Lk 23:37)!
“If you are” is in all four gospels. It’s in my life too, and maybe it’s in yours. I’ve said and thought those words, haven’t you? Sometimes I still do.
“If you are.” If you are wise and all knowing… If you are powerful… If you are merciful… If you are loving… If you are good… If you are compassionate… If you are generous… If you are forgiving… If you are caring and concerned… If, if, if.
Every “if you are” statement I make says more about me than it does Jesus. It points to what’s going on within me. It’s about my suspense and wanting to be rescued from the discomfort. It’s about who I want and need Jesus to be. It’s about my projections onto and expectations of him. I want Jesus to declare and prove himself to me in ways that fit my image and understanding of who I think he should be. When I am in suspense I’d rather Jesus belong to me than me belong to Jesus. That’s the issue for Jesus in today’s gospel.
“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep,” Jesus says. That’s not the way we often think about believing and belonging. We tend to give priority to believing. We think right beliefs lead to belonging. That’s not, however, what Jesus says. Believing is not the prerequisite to belonging, it’s the consequence of belonging. And that makes all our “if you are” statements moot. Jesus rarely offers us information about himself. Instead he invites us into an experience of himself. He shows himself to us rather than telling us about himself.
What if Jesus had said to the religious authorities in today’s gospel, “Let me clarify this once and for all. I am the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one?” What if he responded to each of our “if you are” statements the way we want? We might have the information, the answer, but then what? Would we be satisfied with that? Would it transform or change our lives or make a difference?
I’m not sure it would. Maybe what’s in our head doesn’t matter as much as where our heart is.
I remember a particular time of intense suspense in my life. I was looking for answers and wanting information to explain and make sense of what was happening. One morning I was at breakfast with my friend John and I told him about my suspense and what I wanted to know.
He said to me, “And what would you do with that information if you had it? What difference would it make? You still have to decide how you will live your life and then go live it.”
That’s what I hear when Jesus says, “My works testify to me.” He’s shown us who he is in changing water into wine; cleansing the temple; feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish; enabling a lame man to stand up, take his mat, and walk; forgiving the woman caught in adultery; giving sight to the man blind from birth; raising Lazarus from the dead. And at Easter he shows us that life comes out of death.
What would it mean for you and me to belong to the works of Jesus? And what would that take? What are those works offering you and me in our suspense today? And what are they asking of us?
I wonder what it would it be like to let go of our “if you are” statements to Jesus and start saying to ourselves, “If I am…”
If I am hearing his voice… If I am known by him… If I am following him… If I am given eternal life… If I am imperishable… If I am “unsnatchable” from his hand…
If I am all these things and more, then how will I live my life today?