John’s Gospel: A Compelling Case

April 9, 2014

Candler School of Theology – Episcopal Studies Eucharist Service

Lent V – Wednesday 

Daniel 3:14-20, 24-30; John 8:31-42


Today is my first day back from vacation… and it’s great to be back here with familiar faces at Candler after of day of working through a week’s worth of e-mails!

photo 1I spent most of last week in the quiet of a small cottage at St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, TN. On Wednesday morning I ventured onto campus, just a few miles up the road, to take in 9 holes of golf and then attend the sung-Eucharist service at the seminary. And for those who might judge me for putting a bit of golf in my contemplative retreat, rest assured, God’s name was invoked more consistently in that short period of time than any other while I was on the mountain.

???????????????????????????????After a few days of quiet reflection, I returned home on Saturday, just long enough to unpack and re-pack before Alice and I headed east on Sunday, to another altar of sorts – the immaculate fairways of the Augusta National golf course, host of The Masters.

My sister, Nancy, was able to get tickets to Monday’s practice round and Alice and I were invited to join in the fun! Though Monday ended up being a wash-out for the golfers and fans, the flower guild is still to be commended for their amazing work!

And, the good news is that since it was rained out, we get to try it all again next year! It helps that my sister lives in Augusta – she’s an Assistant US Attorney there.

Nancy has always been the type of person who comes to the aid of others, so when she told me years ago that she was going to law school I figured she’d be a defense attorney, not a prosecutor. But I realize now that prosecutors come to the aid of others, too.

Getting guns and drugs off the streets are worthwhile endeavors. And even more, the work Nancy commits most of her energy to is in prosecuting those who perpetrate crimes against children – primarily child pornography and exploitation of minors. It’s disturbing work, as you could imagine.

And lest you think these perpetrators are “the unclean and unseen,” in her experience, she has found people from all walks of life, even those who are active church-goers, married, and model citizens by all accounts. And when they are caught, a case has to be made and presented to the court so that the matter can be decided.

That’s what lawyers do – they look at the facts, piece together the key elements of the case, and present them in a way that gives the judge and jury an understanding of this person or situation so that a particular action is taken in response to that truth.

In many ways, John’s gospel is a lot like a court case. The writer put together events and images that provide the hearers with evidence of who Jesus was and what his purpose on earth was all about. John doesn’t hide this fact. The writer’s depiction of Jesus is very explicit, just as a skilled lawyer’s would be.

The first 18 verses of The Gospel of John serve as the opening statement – providing an overview of what will be proven – that the true light has come into the world, Jesus Christ, and through him comes grace and truth. John concludes his opening statement asserting that “No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (JN 1:18)

The case is then presented, first by dealing with this other guy, John the Baptist, who everyone thinks is THE GUY. Just like on crime shows, John’s saying, “It’s not ME… It’s HIM!” He tells his own disciples… “Don’t follow me, follow THAT GUY – He’s the Lamb of God!”

The gospel writer then spends the next several chapters presenting seven signs as proof of who Jesus is, and after each one he asserts that some came to believe, though there are others who did not. And between each sign, each piece of evidence, we have Jesus asserting who he is – “I am the living water”; “I am the light of the world”, “the Father and I are one”, and so on – while the Pharisees and Jews refute these claims.

It’s Law and Order: The Jesus Edition (dun-dun)

John concludes his case at the end of the gospel, saying “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (JN 20:30)

So, we have this amazing courtroom drama playing out in the Fourth Gospel, and what does the Lectionary do? It carves out one little piece of the whole argument and says: This is all you get today.

While, I like the idea of the Lectionary, when using it there is a built-in assumption that the congregation knows the whole story and will be able to recognize how this one selected piece fits into the overall picture. Unfortunately, more times than not, that isn’t the case.

And so, here we sit with today’s gospel text. It’s one of these discourses between Jesus and the Jews and begins, “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'”

It then has the Jews claiming their place as descendants of Abraham, which Jesus challenges, saying that they are not following Jewish law, since they want to kill Jesus. This banter can be interesting to pick-apart, especially for this crowd, but for now, let’s stick with the point that Jesus is making in the opening phrase.

Talking to the Jews who were professing belief, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

So, while professing belief is a good first step, John’s gospel makes clear that it’s not enough by itself. One must continue “in my word” in order to know the truth, and then in knowing this truth, one is transformed to a new way of living and being in the world. Free of the life that was enslaved by sin, that is, a life out-of-relationship with God.

This passage echoes a theme in this gospel. Jesus says that those who recognize him for who he truly is will hear the words he speaks and know they are from God. Similarly, the sheep will hear their shepherd’s voice and recognize it and follow him.

The sheep don’t direct their own path – the shepherd does. Similarly, in order to ensure we stay on the path that God has for us we must continue in the word, continue listening to the voice, and continually discern where we are to go and what God would have us do.

Even Jesus did this. At the end of today’s passage, Jesus says “I did not come on my own, but [God] sent me.” (Jn 8:41b)

And John’s gospel makes explicit that Jesus’ purpose is to be glorified through his death on the cross; the salvific act of being lifted up is referred to again and again. Jesus has a clear understanding of his purpose and he lived a life that fulfilled that purpose.

photo 4To emphasize this, Jesus says a prayer a bit later in the gospel that seems similar to the “Gethsemane” prayer found in the synoptic gospels, but in John, it’s quite different. It says: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (Jn 12:27-28)

This is what Jesus was SENT to do. He knew it and did it! And it was done as the ultimate act of love. Love for God and love for us.

In following Jesus’ example, the work of picking up our own cross is to discern faithfully what God has SENT each of us to do, and then to do it in the spirit of love.

Now, to be clear, discerning what God is calling me to do isn’t the same thing as deciding what I want to do for God.  What I want to do for God and what God wants me to do may be vastly different things!

Look at Moses, for example. He made the mistake of looking at the burning bush a little too long and got 40 years in the desert – leading a bunch of grumbling, stiff-necked people – for his trouble. And he didn’t even get into the Promised Land! But, that “mistake” of looking at the bush was his act of HEARING the voice of God that told Moses what God wanted Moses’ purpose in life to be.

So, in order to discern, we must put ourselves in connection with God. We must look at the burning bush. We must set aside time for reflection. To clear out the distractions of the “doing” of life and allow our self to “BE in the presence of God.”

This is PRAYER, not as an act of petition but as an act of connection with God. This kind of prayer keeps us tuned-in to hearing the voice of the shepherd. If we don’t stay tuned into that voice, the risk is that we let our own voice be our guide and our motivation becomes based in human desires.

When this happens, even those actions that seem good – saying the Daily Office, sharing the Eucharist, fighting on behalf of the outcast – these acts are just “a noisy gong and clanging cymbal;” even if I have faith that removes mountains, if the God of love is not the guide of it, “I am nothing.”

It is God who SENDS us – who empowers and sustains us and allows us to act in genuine love. And much of what we are called to do will not be glorious things done in glamorous places. Yet, there is a freeing satisfaction in knowing that we have truly, faithfully allowed ourselves to be guided by God.

me and nanceThe work my sister does seems to fit this definition. Her difficult cases aren’t the talk of Happy Hour or Pot-luck dinners – or even something she would share with her spouse. Yet, it is work that must be done and thankfully, God empowers and sustains her to do it. It is done with the hope that one less child will be exploited and damaged at the hands of another person. I believe that it is a genuine act of love.

This, like countless other love-directed works, doesn’t require ordination to Holy Orders, just obedience and trust in God.

And as my own time of retreat has come to an end, I hope that even in the midst of the chaos of ministry, that I will continually seek God’s love-centered will for me – so that I will know the truth, and that the truth will make me free.

photo 2

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