I shouldn’t think there is anyone in church this morning who is not aware that we are in the run up to a General Election on May 6th. On Friday, some of us will have seen a party political broadcast on behalf of a new party, the English Democrats. One of the things they are setting out to do is to make St. George’s Day, April 23rd a national bank holiday.
St. George is rather a shadowy figure, whom we don’t know much about. All we know is that he was a Roman soldier, who became a Christian and because of that was martyred for his faith in AD 304. Where, you might ask, did the myth of the dragon come in.? It is possible that slaying the dragon was a symbol of overcoming the fear of death, pain and torture and witnessing to new life in Christ. Bishop Stephen Verney, in an article he wrote some years ago, suggested a modern interpretation, which says that none of us have to look too far to find dragons. He suggests that we each have our own personal dragons, our fears and that side of us that we find less desirable and difficult to accept. The part of us that we find difficult to bring into the transforming life of God. We know we are all called “to be Saints”, but we haven’t got there yet. We need to be able to with God’s grace, to face and work with our dragons. Some will perhaps need slaying and others taming and harnessing. All are part of whom we are, our unique selves whom God loves.
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus in Jerusalem at the “Festival of Dedication” . This feast was the most recent one, in Jesus’ time to be added to the Jewish calendar, as it was first celebrated in BC 164. We know it today as the Jewish feast of “Hanukkah”, the Festival of Lights, which is kept in December and comes quite close to Christmas. It celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem from the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, who had defiled the Temple and carried out one of the most dreadful persecutions of the people, trying to wipe out their faith.
Judas Maccabeus and his brothers fought and defeated him. The Temple was cleansed and everything connected with it purified after three years of pollution. It was celebrated with lights in the Temple and in every Jewish home. The seven branch candlestick, the menorah, is the one still used in Jewish homes to celebrate this feast today.
We are told that it was winter and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Colonnade, Solomon’s Portico. It was warmer on that side and so people tended to gather there in the winter. The Jews gathered around Jesus and asked “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ tell us plainly”. Jesus replies: “ I did tell you, but you do not believe me, because you are not my sheep”.
What are the Jews really asking? Doubtless there were some like Nicodemus, who really were sincere in their seeking and there were others who were trying to trap him. Jesus himself has not used or claimed, the title of Messiah when talking publicly. The Jews would of course know from the Scriptures what the signs of the messiah were. Jesus had shown by his deeds; the eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leaping like deer and the mute able to speak. He had shown by his words and the authority with which he spoke that he was the messiah.
Did those who asked the question really want to know the answer? We know that as a group they had already decided that Jesus was not the Messiah. We read in Chapter 9 verse 22 , that they had decided that anyone who said Jesus was the Messiah was to be put out of the synagogue. They had already decided that he was not the Messiah, so even if Jesus said he was, they wouldn’t believe him.
This raises for us a reflection on one of our dragons. Do we really want to hear the answer to our questions, especially if the answer is not the one we have already made up our minds that it should be. When we pray and ask that God would help us to see and do his will are we open to his surprises? It also reminds us of our need to be really open to hearing what other people are saying when they reply to our questions. We might not like, might not agree with them but if we listen to what they are saying it gives us a genuine place to start exploring the way forward together.
When people ask us about our faith how do we reply.? I came across this story about someone who was an Amish Farmer. The Amish are a conservative traditional Christian group who still live and work in close, mainly rural communities, without some of the inventions of modern life. This Amish farmer was asked by an enthusiastic young evangelist whether he had been saved, and whether he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour?
The farmer replied, "Why do you ask me such a thing? I could tell you anything. Here are the names of my banker, my grocer, and my farm hands. Ask them if I've been saved." Meaning ask them if I am a practicing Christian.
If people asked those we deal with, for example in the shops, at the doctors, those we we engage for work or those we employ, if there is enough evidence to convict us of being practicing Christians, what would they say.? The best way we share our Christian faith with others is by the way we live and put it into practice, actions speak louder than words. Reflecting on our lives and our actions can give us a lot of information about what we really believe about our values and what we consider important in out lives.
Jesus talks about the Jews not believing in him because they were not his sheep and goes on to add. “My sheep listen to my voice and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish ; no one can snatch them out of my hand . The difference between those, who are his sheep and those who are not is in the question of relationship. Jesus’ followers are in relationship with him, they know his voice. It is that relationship which enables us to be rooted and secure, not able to be snatched away. No one can take away that relationship. Yes we can choose to move out of our relationship with God. We can give up on God as many people do, but God never gives up on us.
The meaning of the word “know” in the Greek carries with it the understanding of a close personal relationship. Our passage ends with Jesus’ statement that I and the Father are one. Jesus and the Father are in that close personal relationship whilst remaining two separate beings. Jesus is saying that he and the Father are united in the work that they do. We as his followers are called to do his work and to become one with Him.
The word used for “one” is the same as in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It is also used when talking about a husband and wife becoming one flesh. There is a quality of a unique unity and knowledge we share that is not part of our relationship with any other person. That is what we are each called to grow in and develop in our own relationship with God. We need to nurture our friendship and relationship so that it is impossible for us to feel parted.
In some ways it feels like another of those dragons. A letting go of our need to be in control. God calls us to trust in him, to let go of all our desires, wants and needs, to place them in his care. Another way of putting it is to accept our desires, wants and needs, to acknowledge them and let God transform them in a way that will take us beyond our own plans and dreams as we seek to do his will.
Another dragon is the ways we each yearn to be known and accepted for who we truly are, and yet at the same time we fear it. We get to know each other only in little bits and ways and gradually over time. We might feel we know our spouse, our children, our parents, those we live with and to some extent ourselves but we know that even in those relationships the knowing is only partial. God is the only one who fully knows, loves and accepts us. He invites us to face our demons and dragons, to enter into a transforming experience as we journey with each other in following him on our journey through life, to the eternal life he has won for us.
In this and every Eucharist, that promise of victory over death is renewed and we are given a fresh chance to let God in to transform our daily lives and to deepen our relationship with him. And so may other people whom we meet on our journey, come to know our risen and loving Lord through our living out of that relationship in our everyday lives.