John’s Risky Gospel

I’m not sure of the last time I preached from John, and this week’s lectionary reading reminds me why: It’s a wild gospel! Thanks to friends at New Creation Fellowship Church for inviting me to look more closely at this week’s reading.

John has gotten to be a harder gospel for me as I’ve matured in my faith, or maybe just because I’m older. When I was an adolescent, it was easy to like the Jesus I encountered in the fourth gospel. He walks through Judaea and Galilee and Samaria like he owns the place, like he’s God or something, which is the big question that keeps getting him in trouble. He’s sassy, and he never asks or answers a question in a straightforward way. He’s often sarcastic. A great Jesus for a teen, but I’m impatient with it now.

“Who are you?” the Pharisees ask in John 8:25. “Just what I have been claiming all along,” Jesus replies, which is not very helpful. Later, the Pharisees ask for a miracle as proof of his authority to remove the moneychangers from the temple, and Jesus gives them this ridiculous dare: “‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’” But he knows that they mean the actual temple, which took two generations to rebuild after the Babylonians destroyed it, whereas he is referencing his impending death and resurrection. So, again, not a straightforward answer. Why not just say, “Well, I’m a co-equal member of the Trinity, so that’s the authority I’m using.” He often answers people’s questions with an answer that makes no sense to them. “‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly,’” the Pharisees appear to implore in John 10:24-25. Jesus answers them, “‘I did tell you, but you do not believe.’” But, no, he didn’t tell them. Not plainly, anyway, at least not in the text as we have it. If he had said plainly exactly who he was, what he was about, how he related to God the Father, then we could have skipped the first few hundred years of Christians arguing about it. If Jesus’ words were clear here, we wouldn’t have had to go through the Nicaean Council or Chalcedonian Council to decide on what he meant when he said, “I am the bread” or “I am the water” or “I am the life” or “I am the way” or “I am the Son of Man” but also that he’s the Son of God. We wouldn’t have had to debate whether he was God, was co-equal to God, was both fully God and fully human—and, if so, at the same time or alternating. There’d be a lot less fighting among theologians if Jesus had taken the opportunity in John to lay some things out clearly.  

But that’s not what happened, and it’s not the text we have. I trust that Jesus wasn’t just being a wiseguy here but was actually doing something wise.

Let’s work today to see if we can figure a bit of it out. We’ll get to today’s text eventually, but I want to look at the big picture of John first. It’s a gospel that gets quickly to Jesus’ ministry—no Christmas story here. If it were a movie, it would switch between scenes of Jesus healing the blind, the lame, and even people who are actually already dead and the religious authorities plotting to kill him, then him escaping. They’d confront each other sometimes (John 7: 21-24), with them pointing out that these miracles he’s performing keeping happening on a Sabbath—evidence that he’s not the Messiah, right? (John 9:16). But their real problem is that he’s dancing around the claim that he is divine. And he’s threatening their own religious authority since they are the ones who get to determine things like whether someone is the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed by God to save them from their suffering.  

As Christians, especially during the seasons of Lent and Easter, we must be very careful of not allowing our interpretation of these conflicts to dabble in anti-Semitism, and as Mennonites, we must be aware of how they can also be anti-Catholic. I think that, as progressive Mennonites, we can especially feel self-righteous when we hear Jesus rebuke people for following the letter of the law to the exclusion of the spirit of the law because many of us reflexively reject anything that looks like the letter of the law; we’re the rebels of the Anabaptist world, and we show it by making sure we don’t engage in those legalistic practices of our conservative Anabaptist cousins, the Amish. Or conservative Mennonites. Or even those other Mennonites who are also progressive but still play the organ in church. We’ve rejected those archaic practices, ones sometimes associated with the stuffy churches of our childhood. In the process, we can veer toward harming others for whom these practices are important. In our effort not to be hypocrites, we may unnecessarily criticize those for whom the rules of their faith may be liberatory, even if we don’t find them to be so.

Still, we cheer as Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who will circumcise on Sabbath or pull an ox from the ditch but won’t heal a blind man (Luke 14:5). We hear in other scriptures that God hates burnt offerings incense and wants justice, not worship (Amos 5:21-25), and lots of us like that because, well, we don’t use incense often if ever. Our more informal worship traditions make it easy for us to look down on those whose traditions are more formal or who have more guidelines to shape their lives. We can’t be people who recite empty prayers in languages we don’t know since… well, we don’t know Hebrew or Latin well enough to recite prayers, empty or not. When Jesus calls people whitewashed tombs or empty vessels, more committed to the outward appearance of religiosity than the inward spirit (Matthew 23:27-28), we can sit satisfied, since, as progressive Mennonites, we don’t care about outward appearances at all. Just look at our fashion choices if you want proof! We congratulate ourselves as we read about Jesus pointing out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy because we are the kind of people who will always heal on the Sabbath, tradition be damned, and, in fact, for some of us, if we can damn tradition while we do it, that’s even better. Let me be clear: This attitude is one of the reasons why I’m a member of New Creation Fellowship Church.

But I warn that we must be cautious about this turning into anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism, both of which lead to dangerous violence and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, because it’s common, unfortunately, for the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees in John to be understood as saying something about contemporary Jews or Catholics. If you’ve grown up with Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees’ creeping into how you think about Catholics or Jews, take some time this Lent to root that out of your theology.

Jesus is offering a criticism of his own religion, and we are called to do the same: to think critically about how our faith tradition might tempt us to seek safety rather than justice. Earlier, I said I was frustrated that Jesus won’t answer what seem to be straightforward questions—“Tell us plainly, are you or are you not the Messiah?”—in a straightforward way. Why not? Well, John 2:24-25 tells us that many people believed in Jesus, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them”—not even to believers!—”for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” It sounds a little critical, I know, but Jesus was being practical: he knows human nature (perhaps because his nature is both human and divine, though it would have been great if he had just said that somewhere in John rather than waiting for us to hash it out at the Council of Chalcedon). And he knows that he can’t trust people with all of himself quite yet.

He knows, moreover, that the Pharisees aren’t really interested in an honest answer. They’re asking dishonest questions. They claim they are asking straightforwardly, but announcing that you’re asking a straightforward question isn’t the same thing as asking a straightforward question. They are bad faith actors; in legal terms, this means that they announce one set of intentions but act with a different set.

But, for a moment, let’s see from the perspective of the Pharisees, the religious leaders. They live in a pressure cooker. The Roman Empire, which has colonized the region, permits Judaism to survive only because it doesn’t threaten the Empire’s power. As soon as it does—or even if it looks like it might—the Jewish people would be eradicated. Not just the Pharisees but the everyday people, too. Judaism, which came precariously close to being lost with the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, could be lost forever. Anti-Semitic readings of this text often blame individual Pharisees for using legalism—the idea that the rules are more important than the people the rules are designed to care for—to maintain their own power. But they likely saw themselves as protectors of Judaism. And protecting Judaism wasn’t just protecting a religion; it meant maintaining the status quo with the Romans, which, while not great, was better than annihilation.

Woe Unto You Scribes and Pharisees by James Tissot shows Jesus at the center of a courtyard, hand outstretched toward men seated in chairs, their hands in their heads, sitting as if in thought.

Into this pressure cooker strolls Jesus. His activity isn’t just threatening their theology (They are children of Abraham, so how he can he be the Son of God? (John 8:39-47)) but their much more immediate survival. The Pharisees know that if they don’t stop him, people will assume that they agree that he is the Christ. “Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ?” (John 7:25). “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and [his disciples] baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1-2a). To deter people from following him, they threaten to throw anyone who acknowledges him as the messiah out of the temple (John 9:22-34, 12:42). This isn’t just to discourage Jesus’s new adherents from speaking about their faith in him but also to make sure the Romans keeping their eyes on the Jewish leaders knew that they were doing their best to discourage these Jesus followers. See? they will be able to say if their Roman overlords ask, These Jesus followers don’t belong to us. They’ve not been radicalized in our synagogues. We don’t even really know them.

They seek to sideline him in other ways, too. The use the law to discredit him, saying that only unruly and low-class people trust him. “Has any of the rules or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law…” (John 7:45-49). They weaponize the law against him, saying, after he heals a blind man during the Sabbath, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:16). But it’s not working. “‘See, this is getting us nowhere,” one says in a meeting to plan how to neutralize him. “Look at how the whole world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19). It turns out that sick people aren’t outraged at someone healing on the Sabbath. The hungry don’t care which day of the week it is when they are finally being fed. The laws, it turns out, weren’t keeping them healthy or fed.

But it could be that following the letter of the law rigidly might have been keeping them safe—or at least safer than they would be otherwise. After Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus, the Pharisees meet to revise their plan: “‘Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.’” The writer tells us that this is prophetic: Jesus will die—and, in doing so, save the world. But here he means that they face a choice: to kill Jesus themselves and thus save the people and the nation and their religion from extinction at the hands of the Romans. They begin to plot to kill Jesus. (John 11:47-50).

I am sympathetic to the Pharisees in this moment. Here is Jesus, calling for a new way of being in the world. It threatens their theology, but, more it actually threatens their lives—and not just theirs, but all the people they see themselves as responsible for. And not just those people, but the entire possibility of future Jews. Whatever miracles he performs—water into wine here, giving sight to the blind there, raising the dead, casting out demons—he can’t bring more good into the world than the Roman empire can bring bad.

Jesus, we assume, understands the issue of Roman oppression. He is about to be killed by it, after all, with Roman centurions nailing him to a cross and piercing his side. The people he ministers to suffer because of the occupation daily and he sees it. He knows they live in injustice because of it, pressed at any moment to carry the very weapons that oppress them on behalf of their oppressor (Matthew 5:41). And he likely knows how his behavior and his teachings are causing fear for his fellow Jews. And yet he continues. He does something that happens in a society where opportunities for justice have been denied: He brings people to a point where the pain of maintaining the status quo is worse than the pain of challenging it.

And this is how we know that the Pharisees, with the questions they claim to be straightforward, aren’t acting in good faith: they also know that the status quo is intolerable, that it is killing those below them in the hierarchy of Jewish society. It killed the baby boys of Jesus’ birth year, if the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents is to be believed. It broke their mothers’ hearts. From his birth, Jesus has witnessed the injustice of this system. And he is pressing the religious leaders to do more to solve it.

They pretend not to know what this is all about, and that is why, I think, Jesus doesn’t answer their questions, at least not directly and clearly. They are looking for the justification to stone him, and he doesn’t want to give it to them (and never will (Luke 22:70)) but also, he done yet teaching the world this lesson: You cannot hide behind the laws to avoid doing what is right, even if the risk is great.

  • For Midwesterners, we might say: You can no longer use politeness as an excuse to ignore injustice when you witness it.
  • For white ethnic Mennonites, we might say: You can no longer claim something is tradition in order to keep people outside of your faith.
  • For white Americans, we might say: You can no longer be more upset about property damage during an uprising against racial violence than you are about racial violence itself.
  • For men, we might say: You can no longer claim to care about women and children while failing to dismantle patriarchy.
  • For the wealthy, we might say: You can no longer care more about the economy than you do about the poor.

There is a proverb that says you can’t wake a man only pretending to be sleeping.

The Pharisees are only pretending to be asleep. They know that there is trouble afoot, and that it is not Jesus—it is injustice. We, too, pretend to be asleep, because being awake is much harder work.  

I have been all over the first half of John today to show you some of these patterns and the motivations the Pharisees may have had in protecting an unjust system. I want to end with a short excerpt from today’s lectionary text, from John 12:25-26: “‘The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” Jesus speaks these words to a bunch of Greeks, people who don’t share the Pharisees’ investment in maintaining the status quo with the Romans because they fear something worse. We don’t know what question the Greeks asked that prompted Jesus words here, but I see them as a response to so many burdens we carry, including Caiaphas’ worry: The Romans will take away our place and our nation. Or the worry of us polite Midwesterners: I will lose my reputation as a nice person if I identify racism when I see it. Or the worry of white ethnic Mennonites: I will lose my place of prominence in this faith tradition if I truly welcome others and share power with them. Or the worry of white Americans: I might have to admit my role in white supremacy if I listen to victims of racial violence. Or the worry of men: I will lose my place in the patriarchy, above women and children, if I challenge patriarchy. Or the worry of the wealthy: If I advocate for just treatment of the poor, the value of my house might decline, or I might pay more in taxes, or the funds from my investments might decrease.

And here is the unpleasant part of this sermon: Caiaphas could have been right. Your worries, if you have them, that you will lose out if you push for justice, might be right. But Jesus says: It’s okay. Lose it. Unless you die, you can’t be born again. The life you cling to is not life. Taste and see instead the good life I offer! It’s eternal, and doesn’t begin when you die: it starts now.

This is the good news of the gospel of John. And I am thankful to God for it.

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