The scripture reading for this sermon may be found here.
We value plain speaking, and for good reason. Clear communication helps reduce misunderstandings and get ideas across. We may disagree with what is said, but we know what we disagree with and we know where the other person stands. Pastors value it because, despite what a large number of our parishioners seem to think, we did not take mind-reading courses in seminary.
So maybe we have a little bit of sympathy at first with the religious leaders who come to Jesus with a simple request to tell them plainly that he is (or is not) the Messiah. And had we seen this group in an earlier chapter, we might understand their problem, but the truth is that they are asking Jesus a question that he has already answered. According to John, he says to them, "I have told you, and you do not believe." That's the verbal part of his answer. John doesn't say what the non-verbal part of the answer is, but I see it as a kind of "Wish I had a V-8" gesture on Jesus's part where he smacks his forehead with his hand and shakes his head.
Now, possibly these questioners are sincere. They may think that Jesus has given them some good indicators about who he is. But he hasn't closed the deal with the straight talk statement they can rally around: "I, Jesus of Nazareth, am the Messiah." So they're sincere. Stupid, but sincere. Jesus has spoken of his connection with God and he has done amazing things. If he's not the Messiah, he'll do till the Messiah gets here.
Of course, these folks may have no sincerity at all. They want to pin Jesus down to saying he is or he isn't the Messiah so they can use it against him. Everyone knows what the Messiah is supposed to do: Restore the kingdom of Israel like in the glory days of David and Solomon. Well, this guy says he's the Messiah, his opponents say, but when I woke up this morning, Jerusalem was still full of Romans and I didn't see any "For Sale" signs in front of Pilate's palace.
Jesus does give them a plain answer, even though it's not the one they ask for. "Tell us whether you're the Messiah or not." "I already did," he says. What he's done and what he's taught tell them everything they need to know to understand whether or not he's the Messiah. They don't lack information. They lack intention.
The people who accept Jesus as Messiah at this point work with many of the same understandings as the people who reject him. They also believed that the Messiah's main work was the restoration of the political kingdom of Israel. But somehow they got past that. Perhaps their picture of the Messiah was off? Maybe Jesus had a better understanding and over time, they'd see where they'd made a wrong turn? Either way, they followed Jesus because they had decided he was the one to follow, no matter what questions the evidence or their own preconceptions might lead them to have.
And this, I believe, is where we are. Jesus has told us, just like he'd told the people who followed him, what we need to know in order to accept him as our Messiah, our savior. We're even a little ahead, because we've seen both Good Friday and Easter Sunday while they'd seen neither. If we wish for some kind of irrefutable sign, we're asking for something he really can't give us, because he's shown us all the signs we need.
The religious leaders' question turned on them. Instead of getting the answer they wanted, they got a question back: "I've already told you. Why don't you believe?"
Do we believe, or do we hold back and claim we want more evidence? I think sometimes I hold back more than I'd like. Following Jesus demands changes in our lives and sometimes I don't want to make those changes, so I'll ask for proof and use its absence to justify my disobedience. If I believe, then I probably need to step out and follow what Jesus asks of me, trusting that doing so is following God's plan and what I ought to be doing.
Jesus tells his questioners that since they don't "belong to his sheep," or they aren't his followers, they don't believe. And sometimes Christians have used that idea to suggest that Jesus already picked his team and everybody else is out of luck. I choose to see that a little differently.
If I believe, then I am becoming his follower, maybe even in spite of myself and my doubts. Not because of anything I've done or any value I bring. But because no matter when I start believing, he is and always has been my Messiah.