There have been many movie scenes in which a student approached a teacher to learn what is important in life. Luke approached Yoda to complete his Jedi training in Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Remember those famous words, “So, or do not – there is no try.” Rafiki tries to teach Simba a lesson in The Lion King when Simba isn’t particularly listening – that one involves whacking him on the head with Rafilki’s medicine pole. “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But you can either run from it, or learn from it. – Rafiki. Or Dumbledore’s words of wisdom to Harry Potter in The Chamber of Secrets: It is not our abilities that show what we truly are… it is our choices.
It is a part of “The Hero’s Journey” that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.[i] This is the background for The Gospel of John, which was written to provide the teacher’s answers when the community was ready to hear them. Answers to the major questions of the meaning of life. It was likely written between 85-95 CE (or AD), because of practices and religious conflicts detailed in the gospel which didn’t begin to emerge until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.[ii] It was written for a first century Jewish Christian audience, and uses language and images from the Hebrew Bible to help connect roots with the new Way, or following Jesus. It was” written by a Jewish Christian for and in a Jewish Christian community that was in conflict with the synagogue authorities of its day.”[iii] It was written to provide them with crucial information on how to live as followers of Jesus – to help them KNOW and FOLLOW the WAY OF LIFE.
Not a matter of right belief
Some scholars have said that the approach of The Gospel of John so very different from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke that it almost should have its own category. Unlike the Synoptics, which share a great deal of material, The Gospel of John has 92% of its content that is exclusively in JOHN. The Gospel of John is less concerned with what Jesus said and did – and more focused on sharing WHO JESUS IS and WHAT HIS LIFE MEANS. This matters most to the writer of John because he – probably he – wants to help readers understand how faith in Jesus, and living in relationship with Jesus brings life. While the Synoptics gospels are probably more accurate in terms of what happened when – John helps us understand SIGNIFICANCE.[iv]
The Gospel of John begins with words so memorable, that many of us could say them from their resonance within us. “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God…” Those words tell us, right at the beginning of The Gospel of John, that life as we experience it isn’t enough – there is a deeper dimension. The foundation of life, the very moment of life’s beginning, is rooted and grounded in God. That is meant to tell us that the one that we experience as Jesus Christ is more than a living witness to us, but the Ultimate Ground of the Universe. We are only truly in touch with the power of life when we are “plugged in” to the power of the living God. Or, in the words of St Augustine, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”[v]
The stories of Jesus, the author of John says, as COSMIC in their truth. In this human being, the LOGOS, the WORD of God is made flesh and made his dwelling – the word for dwelling is tent or tabernacle, creating an echo of the Exodus story – and pitched a tent in our neighborhood. The story of Jesus is the story of the INCARNATION – of God’s indwelling in our midst. This, the WORD made flesh is the decisive event in human history. This isn’t just a story about Jesus – this is the story of GOD!
Once we know that – we are ready for the stories in the Gospel of John. Once we understand what the story is REALLY about, we can watch the scenes as they unfold and meet some nuanced characters. We can share their experiences to some extent, and hear the commentary that will help us understand. The writer of John hopes that we will SEE in the stories, that “The one who does the truth comes to the light, …that their deeds may be seen as being WROUGHT IN GOD.” (John 3:21) In the stories, as we identify with the characters, we EXPERIENCE Christ for ourselves – and then we as readers are presented with a choice to DO THE TRUTH.
In THIS Gospel, the purpose is to SEE the Truth so we can LIVE DIFFERENTLY!
2. There is an inherent challenge in John’s TRUTH. It looks at life very differently than the popular conceptions of the cultures in which we live. We live today in world that largely ignores God. Secularism pushes us, insisting that there is no God, or that whatever idea we had of God was primitive and doesn’t make sense. But John shows us Jesus as LIFEGIVER.
SURVEY SAYS: While 4 out of 5 Americans say they believe in God, 1/3 of them don’t believe in God as described in the Bible. [vi]
In Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley in 1932, the world is controlled and “managed” to an amazing extent – conception and birth happens in vessels not human bodies – and sleep tapes program thoughts and feelings appropriate for each developed strata of society. Drugs bring positive feelings and relationships are superficial. Into this managed world, comes John Savage, a Native American who is brought off the Savage Reservation to London. Savage is not pleased with the change in his environment, and he argues with Mustapha Mond, the World Controller. Savage says that if people were allowed to think about God that they wouldn’t need all of the management of the brave new world. They would have a reason for living, and help to live through difficulties with patience and courage. The Controller argues that there is no need for patience and courage – the drug soma has overcome that need. It is “Christianity without tears.” And Savage argues that tears are important – pain and suffering help us develop as people. The argument continues to the point where The Controller explains that everything is designed for comfort, and Savage replies, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”[vii]
John Savage in Huxley’s book challenges us in our world where inconvenience is eliminated as much as possible, where germs are killed – as much as possible – and we do not often wrestle with the meaning of God who is the source of life, or God’s desires for us.
The Gospel of John pushes us also. It keeps pushing us to accept that life is so much more than our everyday lives acknowledge. That meaning is REAL and found in JESUS, the one who gives us more than just glimpses of God – in whom we live and move and have our being. In fact, the writer of John wants to help us understand that R> Jesus/God is the LIFEGIVER. Read the story of raising Lazarus from the dead – yes, he is raised to physical life from physical death – and that is impressive. But there is another resurrection in the story. Martha offers a confession of faith that reveals that she is experiencing hope and trust instead of fear and loneliness. She is raised to spiritual life, which might be more complicated. Jesus is the LIFEGIVER for her as well. Read the story of Nicodemus – a good man, but empty inside. He needed God. Jesus is the LIFEGIVER. Read the story of the woman at the well – who asks and receives Living Water – and then brings the whole town to meet Jesus, the LIFEGIVER. To the Son is given the power to reveal God – and to give LIFE – and those who hear and believe have ETERNAL LIFE.
The way of life.
To find the way of life, we follow Jesus. And this isn’t a theoretical assent. The second reading for today lays it out in a simple figure of speech to help us do it. Sheep and shepherd. The sheep respond to the shepherd. They listen for his voice. The follow him. They don’t follow strange voices or different people – they follow the shepherd who knows them and calls them by name. They follow the shepherd who leads them.
Granted, we are not in a herding culture. But this is a familiar enough image that we can understand it anyway. When we pick up the phone and hear a voice talking without identifying themselves we do one of two things – we are excited because it is the voice of someone we love, whose voice we know so well that identification isn’t required – or we hang up because it is a robocall or sales call. We DO recognize the voices of those who are most dear to us.
But we still have a choice to make. Because the way of following the shepherd isn’t always easy. We are expected to follow and stay on the path and not wander off on our own because something else looks good to us. Following Jesus is a serious decision, although it will bring immeasurable joy. REAL Life – abundant life – comes in being one of Jesus’ sheep – in being a part of a community that chooses to follow even when it isn’t convenient.
Yesterday, many of our key leaders were here for six hours working on ways to move beyond divisions. No one came excited at the idea of spending six hours at church – everyone had other things to do. But they came because they understood commitment – and that it isn’t always convenient and rarely matches our preferences. And there was a blessing – of course there was. That is how God works. We follow, and it isn’t easy – but there is blessing.
Here is the secret to ABUNDANT LIFE – it is giving. Giving in service. Giving our financial support for ways that God is making a difference in the world. Giving ourselves to follow Jesus. When we follow Jesus, we don’t make financial decisions based on our usual financial considerations. Because we’ve let Jesus have our heads, our hearts and our wallets – what John Wesley called the third conversion. We give to support the poor, for we are the poorer when we neglect them. We find abundant life as we give to God – not out of our remainder, but off the top – the first fruits. There is joy in giving, even when it is a sacrifice, because it lines out our priorities.
The Gospel of John challenges us because SOMEONE needs to. The world keeps trying to swallow us whole – and we largely allow it. This Gospel challenges us to hold onto our souls – and our righteous minds – by giving them to Jesus. In The Great Debaters, teacher Melvin B Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, explains that there are forces trying to keep the body strong, but enslave the minds of his young black students. He offers himself as their defense. “I and every other professor the this campus are here to help you find, take back and keep your righteous mind. Because obviously you have lost it.”[viii] The writer of John might well say the same to us.
The way of life – real life – abundant life – is giving our WHOLE selves: all that we are and all that we have – to God through Jesus the Christ. May we say YES and follow. AMEN.
BENEDICTION: God forth in that power of the God who is the ground of our being…by the power of the one who is at work within you, who is able to do abundantly far above what you could ask or imagine.
[i] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Also explained in Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers.
[ii] IBC, volume on John , 504-5.
[iii] Ibid, 506.
[iv] Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, 104-5.
[v] Inspired by James A Pike’s sermon “Christ as Meaning,” in Sermons for Intellectuals, ed. Franklin H Littell, 120-122.
[vi]Pew Survey. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/april/we-believe-in-god-what-americans-mean-pew-survey.html
[vii] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 215.
[viii] The Great Debaters.