Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
It was the feast of dedication and it was winter. The Fathers tell us that the temple was dedicated three times twice in the fall and once in the winter. The first two are Solomon and Ezra’s dedication. The third took place in the time between the two testaments when Judas Maccabeus dedicated the temple. Today we know this festival as Hanukah which will be taking place in about a month.
Winter tells us not only which feast of dedication, but also the proximity to the Passion of Christ. He would be crucified the following spring. For us, the fathers take the wintertime as our time in this wicked world. We must take the time to celebrate our spiritual temple in this life by always renewing ourselves, and always rising upwards to Christ. Today as we celebrate dedicating the church let us remember to dedicate our lives as well.
In the statement, “It was winter.” St. Augustin sees a lead into the question that the Jews are asking. He compares the cold weather to the spiritual coldness of the Jews. He says,
They had become icy cold to the sweetness of loving him, and they burned with the desire of doing him an injury. They were far away, while there beside him.1
Our proximity to Christ does not guarantee our warmth towards him. The Jews had been there observing and listening to his teaching for much of his ministry and they remained cool towards him.
The fathers see two reasons why the Jews asked him this question – “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”. The first is because Jesus preferred to demonstrate that He was the Christ by His actions rather than by his words. So, there is a possibility of ignorance in some of the Jews in asking this.
The second is from hatred and spite. This is taken from the fact that Christ was always at the feasts and said nothing in secret. They lead into their marks with subtleness or flatter, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” They are speaking as if they are eager to know the truth, but they are merely looking for something to grasp a hold of which they might be able to hold against Him.
There were probably Jews in both of these groups. Notice, however, how Jesus answered them. His answer was full of grace and love. This fit both those who were asking from ignorance and those who were asking from spite. He did not bring up all the things that had been said against him in the past. As St. John Chrysostom tells us,
He did not reply, “What enquire ye of me? Often have ye called me demoniac, madman, and Samaritan, and have deemed me enemy of God, and a deceiver, and yes said but now, Thou bearest witness of thyself, thy witness is not true; how is it then that ye seek and to learn from Me, whose witness ye reject?” But he said nothing of the kind, although He knew the intention with which they made the inquiry was evil.2
What an example for us to follow! Our Lord and Saviour who knows the thoughts and desires of every heart, responds in love to spite. How much more for us ought we to respond in love and grace to those around us who seem to be acting toward us in spite. He did not hold those things that had been previously said against him by them.
In another place we know that he responded to a question by saying why are you tempting me, you hypocrites? But here, he said nothing like that “teaching us not always to rebuke those who plot against us, but to bear many things with meekness and gentleness.” Even in His response he was encouraging them towards himself with the words “not my sheep”. He is offering to them what could be theirs if they became his sheep.
Whether we choose to follow Christ or not is not a statement on the validity of Christ being a shepherd but rather a revealing whether we are sheep. Those who follow are sheep, but if we aren’t, Christ remains a shepherd to those who are.
If we are a sheep, we will hear the voice of the Shepherd. What is the voice of the Shepherd? It is that repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name throughout all nations. The voice of the Shepherd is a calling to repentance and forgiveness. If we accept this message, we are one of his precious sheep.
What is the distinguishing factor of Christ’s sheep? Isn’t it their willingness to hear? His sheep hear. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us that included in the word to hear is obedience. He also says,
The mark of Christ’s sheep is their willingness to hear and obey, just as disobedience is the mark of those who are not his.3
Let us, therefore, purpose this morning to be those who hear and obey the words and instructions of our Saviour. St. Cyril also says,
By a certain God-given grace, believers follow in the footsteps of Christ. No longer subject to the shadows of the law, they obey the commands of Christ and guided by his words rise through grace to his own dignity, for they are called “the children of God.”4
We can obey, we can live the words of Christ through the grace that has been given to us. It is through His power that we can become the children of God. He promises His sheep, that is us, eternal life. We are to understand this in a twofold way. First, we understand that we have eternal life with Christ freed from death and corruption. Eternal life is not merely endless days and life after the resurrection, for all men good and bad will have life after the resurrection. Rather it is a passing or a living of those days in endless bliss.
Second, we understand eternal life as the blessing of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ plants his life into us as we partake of the body and blood of our Saviour. Just as it says elsewhere, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”
We are safe in His hands, and no one can take us from him. However, the Fathers warn us that while no one can take us from His hands from without, we can fall from his hands if we are negligent. We also remember St. Paul’s warning,
No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
Our passage now shifts from a focus on who the sheep of Christ are to Who He is. In this passage we learn things both about the deity and the humanity of Christ. He is the Son of the Father, which means that He received His divine nature eternally from the Father and not after His physical birth as Arius and others have claimed. Forever the Son, He has always had His nature, which is why we affirm in the creed.
Begotten of the Father before all worlds
He states that He and the Father are one. They are not one flesh or even one spirit, but something infinitely greater. They are one God.
There is a heresy that has existed from the early days of the Church that the Father is the same person as the Son and the Son as the Father, just manifesting in different ways. I have personally encountered this a few times throughout my life, you may have as well. The Fathers see this passage as a rebuttal of such a belief.
Their argument is that basically such a belief arises from not understanding grammar, but they are far gentler than that in explaining it. Christ states that He and the Father are one. First, we have the two persons the Father and the Son. Second, we have the plural form of the verb to be – are. Novatian tells us we could take this view if Christ had said, “I, the Father am one.” However, by saying, I and the Father are one, he severs or distinguishes the person of the Father from the person of the Son. They are two persons, but one God. The Son could have no existence at all unless He and the Father were and are two. In the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria,
Rather, we believe that the Father and the Son are two unique persons, and we regard the two together in one identical essence, knowing that they possess one might, so that this divine essence is seen without variation in both.
While heretics of succeeding generations have not understood Christ’s statement of unity with the Father, the Jews of the time did. They understood that to claim God as His Father, Jesus was claiming deity. However, despite this the fathers tell us that they crucified Christ in ignorance. Why? While they understood the implications of such a statement, they didn’t understand that Christ was who He said He was. They only perceived His human nature and not His divine nature. As far as their understanding went, they were correct. For a man to claim deity, it is blasphemy.
Finally, we recognise the deity of Christ because of the nature of His works. The miracles and the healings that Jesus did in His body were because He had the divine nature, yet at the same time He was fully man. His works prove His deity, but we are left with the mystery of His incarnation.
Let us then purpose to renew ourselves each day in Christ always turning our thoughts upwards to Him. We must not think that just because we have received a lot of godly teaching that we are close to Christ. We must still take the time to seek Him each and every day.
Second, we must always respond in love and grace to the questions that are asked of us, no matter the attitude of those asking the questions.
Third, we have all heard the voice of Christ and have become His sheep through repentance and received His forgiveness. We must continue listening to the Shepherd in all things. Remaining in Him through our willingness to hear, we cannot be snatched from His hands but we can fall if we are negligent. Let us seek to follow Him closely.
Fourth, let us affirm that Christ is both God and Man. Let us affirm that Jesus is the Son of the Father begotten before all worlds. Let us affirm that they are separate persons of the Trinity.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
~ Fr. Matthew
1 Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 356
2 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 14, Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Hebrews, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 222
3 Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 356