John 7:1-19 — “Show yourself to the world”

Sermon delivered at Raysville Friends Meeting

Reading: John 7:1-19

This week’s and last week’s section of scripture, along with the parts in between are somewhat challenging for me. I guess the way I can best describe the challenge is that it is hard for me to understand why Jesus did and said these things in chapters 5-7. Jesus brothers really did have a point — he was not behaving like somebody who wanted to become famous, or a great leader, or anything. He made powerful enemies, then proceeded to chase away his supporters. After doing this, he went into hiding.

Two weeks ago, we read that Jesus was willing to tell a Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah, but now he’s unwilling to attend a religious festival openly. Scripture tells us that the “Jews” were looking for Jesus at the feast, and Chrysostom tells us that it is because they were so eager for his death that they would seek him a at a feast; and we remember that there is truth to this as the crucifixion was as the feast of the Passover. This is where the march to the cross really starts.

Reading this section of scripture, we see several bits of slander directed at Jesus by his opponents: 1. They accused him of being ignorant, asking how an illiterate person could have learning to teach. 2. They accused him of being possessed by a demon. 3. They accused him of being a demon possessed Samaritan. 4. They implied, without saying, that Jesus’ paternity was unknown, and 5. They accused Jesus of deceiving the crowds.

While one group was making accusations, the other group was asking if this could be the messiah, and was ready to make him King. Nicodemus responded to the accusations by pointing out that these questions were not fair, and that nobody should be condemned without a trial. The response to this was to ask if Nicodemus was also from Galilee.

These days, we would say that Jesus’ opponents used ad hominem, which is a logical fallacy where instead of addressing the topic at hand, you attack the person. They tried various versions of this — but, the topic at hand was that Jesus did miracles, and claimed that his power and teaching came from God. A bigger topic at hand is that there were large crowds that believed that Jesus was the Messiah — and they had their own ideas about what the messiah would do.

Jesus did not openly go to the festival, because he knew that his opponents were waiting there for him, seeking to seize him. When he went in secret, they sent some people to arrest him — but those who were to arrest him went back empty handed, saying that nobody spoke the way Jesus speaks.

The truth I see here is that no matter what names those who wanted to discredit Jesus threw at him, nothing undid the miraculous feeding of the 5000, nor the healing of the man who was born blind. There was something that was special about Jesus that would be able to survive him being a Samaritan, even if that were true.

Jesus managed to drive the crowds away in chapter 6, but this was short lived. Who can give sight to the blind? Who can make the lame walk again? Who brings the promise of salvation? Just as Peter said earlier, Jesus gives words of life, where can we go? The crowds left and the crowds came back as Jesus continued to do miracles; and then they go away again. Jesus’ opposition also became more and more desperate to take care of this problem as the crowds saw more and more.

I’ve said before that these few chapters in John where the opposition of Jesus solidifies is one of the most challenging parts for me to know what to do with. Jesus seems moody and frustrated. His banter, at least in the English translations I read is no where near his best — in other cases, he sees every verbal trap coming, and `wins’ verbal battles with the best and brightest of the time. In these chapters, when Jesus speaks, his hearers are confused. His behavior confuses people, and his banter comes off as exasperated. Perhaps John is reminding us of Jesus’ humanity by showing us what a bad day looks like. These answers are an expression of strong emotion — Jesus sees what the Pharisees are trying to do, he sees that the end-goal for them is his death, and he reacts. Jesus’ supporters are hyper focused on making him a symbol of their movement to overthrow Rome. They don’t care about big miracles, they want Jesus to fit an agenda, they want to make him King; so Jesus is tired, exasperated, and reacts according to his emotion. While I’m not comfortable calling this a ‘human moment’, this is a part of scripture where we are quite aware of Jesus’ humanity. Us humans get tired, burned out, frustrated, and cranky. Even the fabled patience of Job wore quite thin — and, perhaps part of Christ’s humanity is that even His patience had a limit.

I don’t know what to do with this passage — ancient commentators focused on the ruthlessness of Christ’s enemies, and how their hatred took no holidays; and this isn’t a widely chosen section of scripture for modern sermons; this is one of the parts of scripture that the lectionary passes over, and for those who pick and choose, we rarely choose those things that make us say; “huh?” If we are indeed looking at a Jesus feeling frustrated, burned out, and at the very end of his patience, then we are reminded that Jesus is indeed compassionate. We are not judged by somebody who was never at the end of His rope — but by somebody who understands exactly what a whole string of bad days with interrupted sleep feels like; and considering that Jesus’ enemies started looking for opportunities to kill him just 2 chapters earlier, that sleep was often interrupted. I don’t know what to do with this passage, but my best guess reminds me that when I am tired, cranky and feel like I’ve run myself ragged — Jesus knows how I feel, He’s been where we have all been and He remembers and has compassion on us.

John 4:1-42 — Jesus and the Samaritans

Reading:  John 4:1-42

When I was young, I was always reminded of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans in the New Testament. When people of Galilee would travel to Judea, or back, they would go around Samaria. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan? Jesus told this story to a lawyer who asked Jesus the question “who is my neighbor”, and when Jesus finished the story Jesus asked: “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who was robbed on the road?” The lawyer was unwilling to say the word “Samaritan” in a reply that put one in a good light — and thus replied “The one who helped him.”

This is enlightening: It is possible to be a good, God fearing, gentile. Though the Jews hated the Romans, and wanted them to go far away, it was possible for one to become respected by the community –and even accepted as a decent person who can be part of the community. I believe that a 1st century Jew might say of Cesar the same as the prayer in “Fiddler on the roof” “May God bless the Czar, and keep him far far from me.” Now the Samaritan was an embarrassment. The Jew did not wish them to live somewhere else, they’d rather them not live at all.

Now Jesus is traveling through Samaria, and he stops to talk with a Samaritan woman. The disciples noticed this, and did their best to ignore it. Nobody asked what he wanted, nobody asked why he was talking to her — I’m sure none of the disciples wanted to know. It must have been bad enough for them that they were taking this shortcut.

We know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, but do we know who they were? What was it that made the Samaritans so hated? The woman at the well asserted who Samaritans were when she said to Jesus: “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well?” Jacob was renamed Israel after he wrestled with the angel, and his twelve sons were the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Samaritans are named for a place that is familiar to those who know the Old Testament. Samaria is the name of an important city — it served as the last capital of Israel before the kingdom was completely destroyed by the Assyrians. Samaria the chief city within the half-tribe of Ephraim. Samaritans generally consider themselves to be descendants of either Joseph or Levi, just as the people of Judea considered themselves to be descendants of Judah, Benjamin, or Levi.

Fortunately for us, Samaritans still exist. Bible scholars are in debt to the Samaritan people, because they provide an independent witness to the text of the Torah. They also provide their own version of history. This means that we can know not only what was said by their enemies, but also who they claim to be. The Samaritans claim that they have always been culturally separate from Judah, even in the time of the United Kingdom. We see some evidence of this in the accounts of David’s kingdom in that David becomes king of Judah before he becomes king of Israel: even in the united kingdom, Judah is culturally distinct from the other tribes.

This division was complete when Solomon’s son Rehaboam gave a rather foolish speech where he promised to enslave the people. Judah accepted the rule of David’s grandson, but the other tribes did not feel obliged to remain in the kingdom; and Jeroboam started a kingdom with the capital in Shechem. Jeroboam established two centers of worship, one at Dan, the other at Bethel. Judah was deeply angered that temples were built outside of Judah — and, the relationship between the two kingdoms was always uncomfortable.

The Assyrians spent 20 years conquering Israel. Israel was significantly reduced long before it was fully conquered, they lost all their land except Samaria and the surrounding area; only Ephraim remained. When Samaria was finally conquered, the Assyrians exiled, according to their records, 27,290 people. The Assyrians also sent a similar number of people conquered in other places to take the place of these people — one might say that the Assyrians decided the best way to prevent revolt was to remove the ruling class from their people, and replace them with foreigners.

The foreigners moved to Israel assimilated. While Judah was in captivity in Babylon, Samaria built a new temple on Mt. Gerizm where they worshiped God. When the Judeans returned, and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem they met the Samaritans, and the arguments began. Here you have two groups that read the Torah and worship God, but they do not have a shared history, nor do they worship in the same place. Where there are differences, both groups are convinced that their understanding is the more legitimate one. Their fight is not because they are so different — but, because they are cousins fighting over their inheritance.

Near the end of the 2nd century BC, the Jews destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizm — Josephus tells us that the temple was destroyed by Maccabean ruler John Hyrcanus — and that he conquered the Samaritans. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman — less than 150 years ago, Jewish armies destroyed the temple on the mountain where her people worshiped, and they waged war on Samaria. The Samaritans had many grievances against the Judeans.

As they have their conversation, Jesus tells the woman about her personal life — that she has been married 5 times, and is currently living with a man who she has not married. The woman recognizes that Jesus is a prophet; and asks a question relevant to the argument between the Samaritans and the Jews: “Where should you worship God, on the Holy mountain, or in Jerusalem?” Jesus answers in the future, one would worship at neither place, but ‘in spirit and in truth’, and then claims to be the Messiah.

The woman then goes out, and tells everybody. She lets them know about the man who knew her life story and still spoke with her, and called them to listen to Him. Jesus stayed in Samaria for two days to teach those that the woman brought to him — and many believed. Early Christian preacher John Chrysostom spoke of the woman at the well as a person who did the work of an apostle; she went out and pointed people to Jesus. She somehow recognized the Messiah, and showed him to others.

Now this tells me something of the gospel. Jesus went to Samaria knowing who the Samaritans were to His people. This hatred was part of his culture. He willingly entered a city inhabited by hated enemies, and stayed there to share God’s love with them. The message is that God’s love, and God’s plan of salvation is not limited by our prejudices.

Jesus spoke to the woman, knowing that her past was not something we easily accept. I know I have watched attitudes changing in my own lifetime; but even people who reject the idea of traditional marriage are going to ask what is wrong with a person to make her have such a history of failed marriages. Jesus offered her insight on the nature of God, and how this argument about which group possesses the place where God is worshiped is a pretty meaningless argument. Jesus shows a gospel of grace to those who are despised and rejected — and a gospel that tears down those things that divide God’s people. God has a place for those who worship outside of Jerusalem and in places other than Mt. Gerizm.

As I walk with Christ, I must remember that sometimes good news is hard to accept. The offer of salvation to a Samaritan is offensive to Jesus’ Jewish disciples. C.S. Lewis tells us that there is no Christian teaching more offensive than that of forgiveness — because forgiveness offends our sense of fairness. Sometimes people want to look down on somebody, to feel more righteous; forgiveness offends the self-righteous. Grace is given to those who need it, and there is enough good news for everybody; friends and enemies alike. The good news that is hard to swallow is that God’s love is greater than the human capacity for hate and anger — and God tears down walls and makes enemies into good neighbors.

John 20:19-31: My Lord and my God

Reading: John 20:19-31

For the disciples, the Resurrection became real to them when they saw the resurrected Jesus. As you might remember, the first people to see the resurrected Jesus were the women. Every one of the disciples heard about the resurrection second hand before they saw Jesus. Considering this, I think that it is unfair of us to focus on the doubts of Thomas; his reaction to the news that Jesus rose from the dead was not unique. Luke’s gospel tells us that the other 10 disciples considered the Resurrection to be nonsense, and did not believe it when the women told them.

Many of us notice that Jesus scolded Thomas for not believing; and to be fair, he was the last of the 11 to believe, just as he was the last of the 11 to see. Jesus told Thomas to touch his wounds, which is the very thing Thomas said he would need to do in order to believe. We really notice when Jesus tells Thomas that those who believe without seeing are the ones who will be truly blessed — and as much as we think of this as Jesus scolding Thomas, he really is no different than the others, who did not believe the women.

Remember, Peter denied Jesus three times. Peter denied Jesus to the woman who opened the gate, some unspecified person, and a man who said: “Didn’t I see you at the garden when we arrested him?” — John mentions that this guy who thought he saw Peter there was a relative of the guy who got his ear cut off, so when he asked “Didn’t I see you there?” surely he was thinking — “I recognize you, I saw you cut off my cousin’s ear.”

The disciples scattered, only the women and John were left when Jesus was put to death. A week or so before Passover, Thomas may have said to the disciples, “Lets go die with Jesus,” but at this moment, nobody was truly ready to follow Jesus to the cross. As much as we pick on Thomas and Peter, nobody believed, and few followed Jesus to the end.

Personally, I believe that the exchange between Thomas and Jesus is the climax of John’s gospel. I said before that I believed that John decided that the other gospel accounts needed supplemented, because some people where confused about who Jesus was. The specific confusion I believe he was addressing was a belief that spiritual is good, and physical is bad. This belief went on to suggest that if Jesus were good and divine, he could not have a human body; therefore, Jesus wasn’t a man but an apparition; They also believed since he was not physical, he could not be crucified — the nails couldn’t hold Him.

When Jesus tells Thomas, touch my wounds — it is clear that the wounds were made, it was also clear that the Resurrected Jesus was very much physically there. Jesus spent another six weeks with them, ate with them, and taught them. For these six weeks, the reality of Easter was there to see, and to touch. Christ was risen just as he said. John goes out of his way to make sure everybody can see that Jesus really was crucified, and that his Resurrection was substantial.

I know one of the first questions we ask when we hear about ancient argument is what difference does it make? The difference it made is the difference of whether or not Jesus was able to save us. Think about what is implied if we say: “Spiritual good, physical bad.” While it is an open debate how spiritual we are — it is obvious that we are very physical. We have no concept of being without bodies; our sense of identity includes what we are physically.
For Christians the life of Christ is, at the very least, an assurance that our physical life has the potential to be good — and, while this is good for a motivational speech; it is not the core of Christianity. The one teaching that Christianity stands or falls on is that of the Resurrection. One reason that the Resurrection is important to us is that we have a belief that God is in some very real way present in our lives. We don’t simply follow Jesus, but in some way God is with us as we live out our lives. Jesus’ work in the lives of the disciples did not end on Friday — and, it still has not ended.

Christians believe that Jesus came to save us — we have a bit of a problem with this if we are fundamentally beyond hope of salvation. While Christians have argued about some of the details of salvation; there is substantial agreement that we can be saved, that salvation is supposed to somehow include our life on Earth in our physical bodies, and that to quote the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

One thing that Christians have always looked forward to is the promise that we are also on the path to resurrection. Jesus promised his disciples that he went to prepare a place for them; There are hints about this place that is to come, but the best any of us have are guesses. We look forward, because we believe that as long as we follow the way Jesus leads, we will end up in the place where he goes, and that He has made us welcome in this place. Resurrection is the hope of Christianity — and today this hope becomes flesh — flesh that can be examined and touched. Easter is the day that our hope is realized, and we proclaim our faith with Thomas, that Christ is our Lord and our God.

John 12 — two crowds

Reading: John 12

Today is Palm Sunday, it is the time when people hear the story of the crowds that met Jesus when he went into Jerusalem — it is something that we hear every year. For the longest time, thought of this as an example of how fickle crowds are: On Sunday the crowd is calling Jesus the king of Israel, and on Thursday the crowd is calling out to Pilate, “Crucify him.”

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that perhaps there were two crowds. These days we see two crowds all the time — it seems like our last decade up until now has formed crowds behind politicians: There is a crowd who looks to a politician as the messiah, and there is another convinced that the same politician is the Antichrist.

John is different than the other gospels, because John directly talks about Jesus being God. John is also different from the others because it gives us a look at both crowds. In the other gospels, the Pharisees, the Sadducee and the scribes do are more props than part of the story. In the other Gospels, they are in the story to allow Jesus to say something clever.

In John, the Pharisees are characters starting when Nicodemus visits Jesus in chapter 3. In chapter 5, Jesus heals a lame man who stayed at the pool of Bethesda, and Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees for Sabbath breaking. In John’s account, Jesus responds to this confrontation by making a statement about his relationship to the Father. John 5:18 reads: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Right when some of the Pharisees started thinking about their Jesus problem, the other crowd was ready to make this Son of David king right now. Jesus of course had no desire to be that sort of a king — so Jesus went up into a mountain, away from those who had their plans for him.

John makes it clear that not every one of the Pharisees felt this way; John chapter 7 has both ordinary people and even the pharisees talking with each other about who Jesus might be (as in some of the Pharisees believed Jesus was special); but soon, there would no longer be any room for discussion. People discussed Jesus with each other, and they discussed Jesus with Jesus — though for the Pharisees that did not accomplish what they hoped it would — Jesus continued to “testify concerning himself”.

When Jesus heals the blind man in chapter 9 — and the last part of Chapter 9 through most of chapter 10 has more discussion of who Jesus is, and annoyed Pharisees. We can see where this story leads because people are afraid of what might happen. When the blind man was healed, and the parents were asked if this was their son — their answer was “He’s old enough to speak for himself.” John tells us that followers of Jesus were thrown out of the synagogue, so the parents wanted nothing to do with this. John points out that it is quite a miracle to heal the eyes of a person who has been blind from birth.

At this time, Jesus started gaining followers again. For a while Jesus’ followers left; now people started to remember John the Baptist, and how he preached about the one that was coming. John even identified Jesus when at the baptism. As people remembered John’s preaching, and they noticed what Jesus said about himself, and they started to realize that Jesus was exactly what John told them to look for.

Basically, at first, the crowds made the leaders of Judah nervous. Rome was not exactly a friendly occupier; and this Jesus guy was attracting crowds, and many in those crowds wanted him to be the king that drove off the Romans. The chief priest expressed this problem exactly — if this continues, the Romans will take away both the temple and the nation.

About this time, Lazarus dies — and Jesus tell his disciples that he’s going to raise him from the dead. The disciples don’t want to go back to Bethany. They know that the anti-Jesus crowd has some real power there — they know, because the last time there were there people were throwing rocks at them. Thomas says to the disciples: “Lets go die with Jesus.”

Jesus goes and raises Lazarus from the dead — and the Pharisees decide form a committee to see to it that Jesus and Lazarus both die. If the crowds were frightening because Jesus healed a few people and gave out food; if that was enough that they wanted him as king — imagine the response when they see that Jesus has power over death! Death is the only thing that Rome had to threat ed the people of Judah with — Jesus has it within him to disarm the enemy!

Jesus knows what is coming — he is at a meal celebrating Lazarus coming back from the dead, and Mary, Lazarus sister washes his feet with a perfume called nard; this bottle cost roughly a year’s wages. When Judas protested that it could have been put to better use, Jesus points out that this is a burial perfume, and it is for *his* burial. Jesus was quite clear that saying “Lazarus come forth” was his own funeral, though it is safe to say that if Lazarus were not raised from the dead, the perfume would have been used; This happened on Saturday, six days before Passover. On Sunday, Jesus would travel to Jerusalem. Remarkably, Messiah means the anointed — and Jesus was, in his own words, anointed for His own death.

Those who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead spread the word — by the time Jesus got to Jerusalem, his name was on many lips and as he was riding his donkey, on the way to Jerusalem he was greeted by a crowd of people with palm branches yelling “Hosanna, blessed be the king of Israel.”

Think about this; Jerusalem is the place where people go for Passover because the temple is there. Jerusalem was also the capital of the Roman Provence of Judea: The Praetorian was in Jerusalem — Pilate lived in Jerusalem! People are gathering and yelling praise to the King of Israel right in the very city that the Roman governor lives in.

When the committee decided that Jesus had to die — this had not happened, this was basically their worst fears coming true in front of their eyes. Thing is, the crowds were looking for a king, if it were not Jesus, it would be someone else — the crowds were itching for a fight, because they knew they could beat Pilot, but, the leaders were fully aware that even if they could beat Pilate and crown a king they would never be able to beat Caesar. In a very literal way, the Pharisees decided that Jesus had to die as a scapegoat — he had to die for the rebellious attitudes of the people.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, there were two crowds — both of them very powerful. One crowd was the crowd that was seeking a king who would beat the Romans. Many of Jesus’ disciples were in this crowd. When Jesus preached, he said things that drove this crowd away — but, they saw the miracles he did and they came back; This crowd was large, in Jerusalem, and ready to move. This crowd was dangerous. The crowd that did not want revolution now continued their plan. This was a crowd that was in panic — and a crowd that was ready to use any means possible to both prevent the coming insurrection and appease the Romans.

Today we remember how Jesus was welcomed when he entered Jerusalem — “Hosanna, Blessed be the king of Israel.” On Thursday, the crowd that feared these words reaching the Roman leaders, and attracting Roman soldiers would give Jesus to the Romans; and the crime is the very words of the first crowd: Above the cross is written the accusation: “King of the Jews.”

John 1:40-51: Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel

Reading: John 1:40-51

Last week, I told you that John starts and ends with a statement of who Jesus is. Jesus is the best revelation of God, greater than any book — because Jesus is God, in the flesh. This is something we all know as Christians, and John made it pretty clear right at the start of his book. It is fair to say, John wants us to think about this and see this.

Thing is, one thing all the Gospels have in common is that they spend most of the time showing how the disciples got it wrong. It is almost like we are supposed to laugh at Peter and the others, seeing how they can spend so much time with Jesus, and still not get what is right in front of them. We are told the lesson they have to learn, and we watch them continuing not to learn it.

When we read the insights that these early disciples had, before they ever had a chance to really learn from Jesus, it is tempting to read into them, and see what we already learned from the prologue of John. The thing is that we have that special knowledge, but the people Jesus calls as disciples do not have it yet. The hard thing for us is not to read too much into these statements. We see words like “messiah” and “Son of God”, and we expect a full Christian theology to already be developed.

The problem with this is that it ruins the progression of the story. John the Baptist can get who and what Jesus is, because he is a prophet, and this is the end of his story; but the disciples need time to learn. The greatest confession we find in John is yet to come; and if we assume that the first confession from the disciples fully understands who Jesus is, than there is nothing to learn. We start with a confession that is right, but leaves room for confusion; we must have room for confusion, otherwise the stories of Jesus teaching and the disciples not getting it makes no sense.

Now, today we saw several confessions that spoke to the Identity of Jesus: First we have Andrew telling Simon, we we later know as Peter: “We have found the Messiah.” Second, Philip tells Nathaniel: “We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Third, we have the confession of Nathaniel, who asked if anything good could come of Nazareth: “You are the son of God, you are the King of Israel.”

As I said — when we read this with Christian eyes, we fill in all the details; but, we have to remember that Peter and the others still have a long time before they get it. It is important for us to look at these confessions, and see what those who spoke them might have meant.

The first confession: “We have found the messiah” seems very important. For Christians, the Messiah is a very special title, it is something that we only apply to Jesus. When we think of what messiah must mean, we very apply the qualities of Jesus.

What we forget is that the word Messiah simply means “the anointed.” The Old Testament has several Messiahs, and being the messiah is no guarantee that a person will stay on God’s good side. If you recall, Samuel anointed Saul to be king of Israel. Even after Saul tried to kill David, David refused to raise a hand against God’s anointed. As you might imagine, the word in the Hebrew scriptures is Messiah — Saul was a messiah. Samuel also anointed David. As you know, David was not a perfect king. He failed justice and righteousness is some spectacular ways, but he was still messiah.

One thing that David and Saul had in common is that both were men of war. Both David and Saul fought the Philistines. Both David and Saul enjoyed a lot of success, and were praised and remembered. When people think of a Messiah, most likely this is what they think of. When people said of Jesus, we have found the Messiah, most likely they are getting it wrong and expecting Jesus to take up the sword and run the Romans out of Judea. We know better, and what the disciples testified is true; but not in the way they thought.

The next confession is “we have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” It is hard to to say what passages Phillip might be talking about — its something too vague to be useful. When Christians talk about which passages in the Old Testament are messianic prophecy, the conversation ranges from none of them to as many as absolutely possible. The only thing this tells me is that the people of Judah under Roman rule were seeking some sort of a deliver — perhaps a second Judah Maccabees to drive away those who occupied the land.

Nathaniel’s confession was: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Now this looks like a rather huge confession, this is something that makes it appear that Nathaniel saw everything, simply because Jesus saw him when Philip spoke to him under the tree. Jesus saw Nathaniel when Nathaniel asks if anything good could come of Nazareth — which, would be an embarrassing time to be noticed.

Son of God is a phrase that is used in a metaphoric way in the Old Testament. According to the Catholic encyclopedia, this phrase was used to speak of angels, of godly people, and of rulers who were placed in power by God’s hand; much like the phrase ‘son of strength’ might be used to describe a warrior, and ‘son of wickedness’ to describe a wicked person. Both the construction, and the phrase itself were Old Testament metaphors, implying little more than a true sense of divine call. Nathaniel at this point said a whole lot more than I might have seen — but no more than “I believe you have a destiny”.

Nathaniel was told that he was going to meet the Messiah. The two Messiah’s that are the best known were kings of Israel, both of whom successfully fought enemies of Israel, and increased the influence. Most likely, what this meant to Nathaniel is that he was willing to hope against hope that God finally rose up a deliverer against the Romans — and that this man was anointed to restore the Kingdom of Israel.

I know, this is my guess at what is going on, but I feel pretty safe making this guess because it fits the pattern I read in the gospels a whole lot better than Jesus’ disciples figuring out who Jesus is upon first meeting him. The stories I see about the disciples have them looking at Jesus after the resurrection — and asking: “Ok, are we going to attack the Romans now?”

It is fun that we know the story. John just told us what was going on. It’s fun, because Nathaniel’s confession is very right, even though he did not know what it meant. Even though he most likely meant: “God has destined you to rise up and drive the Romans from Judea”; that is, he used Son of God as a metaphor, and meant “King of Israel” literally — us Christians reverse that. We Son of God as the literal truth, and “King of Israel” as the metaphor; for we know that Jesus taught that His kingdom isn’t a Kingdom of this world.

The Witness of John’s Gospel: John 1:1-18; John 21:25

Reading  John 1:1-18; John 21:25

In Sunday School, we discussed the witness of John the Baptist. I appreciate this lesson, John is full of the testimonies and witness of those who knew Jesus. Understanding these testimonies is an important part of understanding the message that is in the gospel — however I think it is important to get a broader overview of what the gospel writer is trying to do. As we will be spending 3 months in John, I think it is important to talk about the message John is trying to get across.

As you know, there are four gospels. You might have observed that Matthew, Mark and Luke have a lot in common with one another. Mark is the shortest of the three. I could summarize Mark by calling it the “Acts of Jesus”. Mark tells us where Jesus went, and what he did when he went there. Luke and Matthew either quote or summarize large parts of Mark, and the narrative of what Jesus did is broken up by the things that Jesus taught. Most Bible scholars believe that the writers of Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark, and a book of Jesus sayings, currently known as Q. These scholars also speak of M and L, when talking about sources that the gospel writers did not have in common.

Mark offers a running narrative that is full of action; one of the most common words in Mark is “Immediately”. Jesus was always going somewhere, and doing something. Mark is by far the shortest gospel. It takes about an hour and half to read Mark out loud. Story tellers have memorized the whole gospel of Mark, and have used it to tell the story of Jesus in a single setting — and when I have listened to a story teller reciting Mark, he had my full attention.  I think it is likely Mark was intended to be heard exactly this way.

Luke and Matthew contain most of Mark between them — neither one contains all of Mark, and both leave out different parts of Mark. Luke and Matthew also contain various sayings of Jesus; again, there is a significant overlap, but whatever Q is, neither felt it necessary to simply copy it, just as they did not simply copy Mark. The general assumption, as I said, is that both gospel writers were using Mark, a collection of Jesus saying — and, each had some other sources which they used to write their introduction. Because of the similarity of these three gospels, people can compare and contrast them — and speculate on why the two writers chose to include what they chose to include. People who are especially prone to speculation can attempt to re-create the collection of sayings that was used to write Luke and Matthew — and, such attempts at reconstruction have been published.

John is different. There is very little in common between John and the other gospels. John does not follow Mark’s narrative, and the sayings and teachings of Jesus that are found in John are not found in Matthew and Luke. John is independent of the other three; John is in some ways the most important gospel because it has a completely different focus. The other three gospels focus on what Jesus did and taught — John’s gospel focuses on who Jesus is. Traditionally one of the names given to the author of John is John the Theologian; and this is because John directly taught about the deity of Christ, and what is implied by it. John starts out by telling us that Jesus is both God, and revelation — and it ends by telling us that Jesus is a better revelation of who God is than any book — and, all the books in the world couldn’t contain what Jesus was.

One might say that John complements the other gospels. The theological teaching in the Gospel of John is one of the most important beliefs of traditional Christianity. John teaches us that if we know Jesus, we know God; that knowing Jesus is the best way that we have of knowing God — better than all the books in the world. If we approach the other gospels with the lesson we learn from John’s gospel, we get to see what God would say and do; because we also read John.

The first major implication this has is one for everybody who loves books, and has the tendency to approach God through books. As great as the Bible is, it is not the chief revelation of God — Jesus is. While I, being very much a book person, noticed that Jesus is the Word of God, according to scripture. Oddly enough, it was a Muslim friend who convinced me to think about what this means — my friend was talking about how wonderful the Koran was, and actually used some of the same language that John uses to tell what the role of Jesus was. I started to realize that we believe that the Word became flesh, and lived among us — scripture, for Christians, points us to Jesus and tells us that if we know the Son, we will know the Father.

The second major implication is one that exposes flaws that develop in our theology. Everybody imagines what God must be like — and, the God of our imagination is not always like what Christ revealed to us. If we know God by knowing Jesus, then if we think God is one thing, and Jesus is something else, there is a flaw in our understanding of the God. Last week, I told you that at one time, I imagined a God that was easily offended and angered. My first view of sin was those things that anger God — therefore, Jesus must be there to save us from God’s anger. But, the idea that Jesus saves us from God makes no sense if John is right: It isn’t God’s anger problem its our sin problem. Jesus came to save us from ourselves.

There is a third implication that is very important for those of us who read John — that Jesus is still knowable. If Jesus is the light that gives Light to all people, than there is something about this revelation that is not limited to the time Jesus spent with his disciples. I have an Evangelical background — this background will always be part of the way I approach my faith. I grew up with language talking about how important it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Like other Evangelical children, I learned how important it was to ask Christ into my heart.

While this is confusing in many ways (small children have a problem understanding metaphor) — it is an expression of a belief that Jesus is knowable, and that the individual should know Jesus beyond simply knowing Jesus through reputation. This is something that I am convinced is right — we should know Jesus,  we need to have a relationship with Jesus. All the written words in the world are no substitute for knowing Jesus.

One of my favorite implications is that God isn’t distant and uncaring. When I imagine the God that created the universe, without considering Jesus — I imagine a God that is too big to notice me. The universe seems to run as it runs — miracles are rare. The idea that God can even have compassion, or that God would notice us would not occur to me, if it were left to my imagination. Jesus is the very definition of compassion! When Jesus lived on Earth, he experienced the same thing we experience. Sometimes He was hungry, sometimes He was tired, and He died a torturous death under an oppressive government. Compassion literally means to suffer with — and scripture told us that is what Jesus did; Jesus suffered all those things that humans suffer.
John is a remarkable Gospel; John tells us how we can know who God is, and what God’s character is like. Often, people start their views of what God might be by imagining God. We start with a philosopher’s God, and try to guess God’s nature by the things we observe in the universe. The great western Theologian Thomas Aquinus started there, and he wrote a convincing argument: but, my Theology teacher Chris Kettler pointed out the problem with Aquinus is that when we try to prove God, and then figure out what the God we just proved must be, this God  only exists in our imagination. The God Aquinus proves in the first part of Suma Theologica is very different than the God that Jesus showed us. Aquinus starts with the philosophers God, then he is forced to try and reconcile the philosophers God with the God we know through Jesus. It is impossible to know God unless God lets us see what God is like — God has to come to us, or we cannot know God. Speculating on what the creator must be like is just speculation; but because God became flesh and dwelt among us, we can know God. Jesus is God’s revelation to us — because Jesus came here, we know God. This is the good news John taught us; that because we know Jesus, we know God.

Psalm 22 and Mark 15

Reading:  Psalm 22 and Mark 15:16-41

Psalm 22 should be familiar to everybody — or at least the first verse. When I was at Barclay, one of my teachers told our class that he believed that Jesus didn’t stop at “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”, but instead prayed the whole of Psalm 22. Certainly, Psalm 22 is a very fitting prayer for Jesus to pray on the cross — it is so fitting that it is traditional to read this Psalm the Thursday before Easter; It is so fitting that if we read from a Christian pre-modern sermon or commentary, it will be called a prophecy of what Jesus was to suffer.

It is very easy to see Jesus praying: “All who see me mock me, they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; Commit your cause to the Lord, let Him deliver — Let him rescue the one in whom he delights” (Psalm 22:7-8). If you recall, Jesus was dressed in a robe — a crown of thorns was put on his head, and he was blindfolded, beat, and people called to him saying “Prophecy, tell who hit you.” When Jesus was put on the cross, people mocked him, calling for him to come down from the cross, to save himself if he could save anybody at all. He was even mocked by others who were crucified at the same time, according to Mark’s gospel.

Those who see this as prophecy see that Jesus, on the cross, was “Poured out like water” and that his bones would be “out of joint”. One of the things that we remember Jesus saying on the cross was “I thirst”, so it is not a huge surprise that the description would be: “my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, my tongue sticks to my jaws.” (Psalm 22:14-15). In fact, many translations of Psalm 22:16 read: “My hands and feet are pierced.” — and the version that we are reading has a footnote saying that the translation is not certain.

When we read Psalm 22, and the various accounts of the crucifixion, it likely stands out that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes, and cast lots — and we notice that this is described both in Mark 15:24 as well as Psalm 22:18. It is not surprising that Christians have long felt this is a prophecy of Jesus: The gospel account invites that reading, by making it a point to include these parallels. This connection was noticed by the gospel writers — one might say that the New Testament understanding is that Psalm 22 is about Jesus.

Tradition tells us that this is a Psalm of David, and that David wrote this reflecting on all those times in his life when he was hunted by an enemy, and hiding. David had this experience both when he was hunted by Saul, and later when his own son tried to take over the kingdom, and started a civil war against him. This Psalm then is a Psalm of utter despair; the Psalmist only sees enemies, and realizes that he has no strength to fight them. If it is David, then it is a Psalm about being very close to losing everything.

There is another theory that this Psalm was a Psalm written after the fall of Jerusalem, during the time of exile. One of the specific events suggested as inspiration for this song is the story that is told in Esther: that there was a plot by Haman to wipe out the people — and, they were delivered through the courage of Esther, who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. God may seem absent when there is a plan to kill everybody, but as verse 28 and following tells us: “Dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations… Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance.”

As a Christian, I’ve always been of the tradition that reads Psalm 22 and sees Jesus. I know that this is not how the people who selected it as one of the Psalms read it; but, this is an important interpretation in my own tradition. I think my favorite theory is that this Psalm tells the story of Purim. I know that I have nothing better to go on than the tradition that David wrote this Psalm — but, I have a lot of trouble finding what event in David’s life matches the Psalm. I can see why there are alternative theories. One might say, that it is hard to say that David wrote this about himself.

I had a theology teacher, Chris Kettler, who believes that one way that Jesus saves us is by doing those things that we cannot do. He taught us that Substitiutionary atonement is not just about Jesus taking our punishment — but it is also about Jesus standing in our place when we are too weak to stand. He specifically spoke of how sometimes our faith does not seem as strong as it needs to be, but Christ always remains faithful for us: There are times when Jesus believes for us because we cannot believe. There are times Christ prays for us when we do not know the words to pray.

“My God My God, why have your forsaken me” is one prayer that I do not know how to pray! Sometimes we believe things when we are young that later proves to be untrue. One of the things that I believed is that crying out distressed to God shows a failure of faith. I also, somehow, believed that prayer is always supposed to be reverent and polite. The way I learned to pray was not like prayer in scripture — the way I learned to pray was somewhat sanctimonious. It is not a surprise, because my first thoughts came from public prayer; and public prayer is a bit sanctimonious.

Basically, in my childish mind, God was like some crazy emperor; full of power, easily angered, and with a very poor self esteem. I never thought about it — but this picture of God was a picture of a petty God. If prayer must always be sanctimonious, it means that we are walking on eggshells; which is something you only need to do when approaching somebody with a fragile ego. I have come to realize that this picture of God is far more blasphemous than anything I might say in anger: God is not so petty than we need to walk on eggshells — God’s ego is not so fragile that any of us can shatter it.

I read scripture — I find that the examples of prayer include Jesus crying out in distress, saying: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me.” I see pretty much every person who is remembered for his or her faith paying at some point in utter distress; praying things that I didn’t know we were allowed to pray.

I still can’t think of Psalm 22 as a model prayer! I don’t know if I could manage any prayer in a time that I was so distressed that I would ask God why God has forsaken me — but it was still a very important part of my faith development: Jesus prayed the prayer that I could not pray — and taught me that the appropriate prayer is the prayer that honestly expresses my feelings. I am allowed to pray when I am angry, or sad, or distressed — I don’t need to wait until I can say what is sanctimonious — God will listen to the prayers of my heart; even when my heart is not ready to pray. Strangely enough, because Jesus prayed: “My God my God why have you forsaken me”, God feels a lot less distant.