That You May Believe

Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.

This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

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Preaching John’s Wisdom

Ben Witherington is recognized for his exegetical expertise. Not as many know him as a preacher but his commentary John’s Wisdom shows his interest in homiletics as well. Look especially in the sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” for sermon starters. I will go straight to the back of the book to highlight some examples.

He offers a helpful reminder;

A great deal of good preaching involves drawing out the significances of the text for audiences vastly different from those originally addressed. This does not provide a warrant for making the text say whatever we would like it to say, for the starting point must always be, What did it mean in its original context? The later significances must be seen to be moving in the same direction as the text’s original meaning or drawing out its possible implications. Otherwise we lose contact with the original intent and purposes of the inspired author and the Bible becomes an ink blot into which we can read whatever we please with impunity.

Witherington goes on to give some sermon suggestions. Throughout the course of the commentary he suggests the characters of John’s drama as paradigms of people on the way to full Christian faith. In chapter 20 this changes with examples of Mary and Thomas who have met the Risen Lord. That is why Thomas can be referred to as “unbelieving” in 20.27 yet as having “believed” in 20.29. It is the episode with Thomas that prompts a memory of an Easter sermon “Late for the Holy Spirit.” Witherington then tells us about this sermon and its repeated emphasis to the largest crowd of the year that by not gathering with God’s people puts one at risk to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that entails.

Witherington draws from Fred Craddock for a sermon idea in chapter 21 and what inevitably happens in churches after Easter. What does one do after a “mountaintop experience?” One is unable to sustain that level of enthusiasm constantly. Yet, the answer is not the one that Peter takes. The text does not call us to go about business as usual. Instead, Peter is called to get on with the mission “Feed my sheep.” This, Witherington reminds us, is what defines life’s work. Not mountaintop experiences.

Witherington goes on to offer further sermon fodder as he reminds us of the problems of comparing ourselves with others. As Peter turns to ask about the disciple Jesus loved “following”, we are reminded that though others may interest us, “Jesus in this passage insists more than once that the task of each Christian is to follow him, not be a follower of other human beings.”

While exegetes are a gift to the church, some seem far removed from this role. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an attempt to connect sound exegesis and the ministry of the local church by offering starter ideas for preachers. I propose this is a helpful resource for those who attempt to communicate the message of John’s Gospel.

Making a Sermon Move

Preachers are always looking to put words together in ways that make a sermon move.  We want to help listeners recognize themselves in the story and see themselves as part of a spiritual adventure.  I fear that we sometimes overlook the biblical text as a natural place to find movement.  Exploring structure, genre, and purpose are not simply academic exercises.  This is necessary work to discover narrative movement.  In our discovery we find that sometimes physical motion helps the text move.  Other times, emotion, behavior, or newly introduced characters or places move the narrative.  The fact is that the text has a pace and moves in a specific direction.  The text knows where it is going and the preacher should follow it.

For example each of the four Gospels may take us to Easter, but they pace themselves differently and highlight different things along the way.  In an effort to illustrate this I make the following simple statements (perhaps too simple) about the Gospels.

Mark is intentional about moving us to a fuller understanding about who this Jesus is, especially His relationship to a cross.

Matthew creates space for us to reflect by switching back and forth between narrative and teaching sections.

Luke pulls us forward by demonstrating how innumerable barriers to the Good News are overcome by the activity of God.

John carries us along with scene after scene (or sign after sign) toward the possibility that we might believe.

I am not suggesting that we get locked in on a particular path to the neglect of others.  I am suggesting that the text tends to take us along specific routes.  We hinder the text when we try to take it down paths it was not intended to travel.

Preaching the Crucifixion Narrative of John

A harmony of the Gospels is an interesting exercise but any attempt to do it likely results in missing out on the emphasis of the individual gospel writer.  Thus, preaching should result in telling the story as the gospel writer tells it.  Ben Witherington says it like this, “let the evangelist have his say.”

For example, the first century view of crucifixion makes it somewhat surprising that John presents it as a moment of triumph.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Witherington refers to Mark as providing “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

As a side note, if you are unfamiliar with Witherington’s commentaries, his John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an excellent one to start with.  Preachers will find his sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” particularly helpful.  He suggests that John includes “many ironies and peculiar turns to the story of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that “none is more strange than the way this story ends.”

In his discussion about the ending, he introduces a word from J. R. R. Tolkien to the conversation.  Eucatastrophe is defined as a fortunate disaster.  He then suggests that the death of Jesus is an illustration of such a fortunate disaster.

Such a triumphant, victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But the crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.  We have here “the benefit of hindsight and insight” – we have eucatastrophe!

Preaching John’s narrative does not put preachers in a place to describe crucifixion or retell history.  When we preach John’s version of the story, we are preaching for the same reason that he wrote, “so that you also may believe” (John 19.35).

In the Hands of a Savior

In the Gospel of John chapter six Jesus and the disciples “cross to the far shore of the Sea”, perhaps to get away from the crowds. Yet, in the very next verse we learn that a great crowd followed Him. In fact, over five thousand people show up. Craig Barnes states the obvious. Crowds come with needs. Crowds make demands. This is something that preachers know all too well. The Gospel of John is a reminder from the start that crowds can be needy. They need more wine. They need a sign. They need their children to be healed. Crowds come with needs.

Barnes likes to bring our attention to the subtext. For example, to make John chapter four about race relations or a woman who can’t seem to hang onto a husband is an attempt to make the text safe for us. Instead, John may want us to realize that we can try many things multiple times and in multiple ways – and still, it will not be enough. Barnes wants us to work with the text as if the congregation is always looking over our shoulder asking where they are in the story. That job did not give you renewed sense of purpose. That car did not grant you meaning. That vacation you are planning will not provide salvation. Nor will your next attempt, or the next, or the next… I think you get the point.

And in chapter six, Jesus looks up only to find another crowd. A hungry crowd. He then turns to Philip “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” We do not know why Jesus asks Philip (Barnes says this is like calling on the B team). No matter the reason, all Philip has are figures to say that six months wages would not be enough to feed this crowd. However, Andrew discovers a boy with bread and fish. One thing we know for certain, Philip and Andrew do not have enough. Yet, Jesus gives thanks.

We have probably never been caught in the dilemma to feed a crowd like this. Yet, we know all too well what it is like to try to figure out how to help others in need. We know when a situation seems impossible or when we only have a little bit to work with. What are we to do with the little bit that we have? Like in the Gospel, the crowds can be demanding. Like Philip and Andrew, we do not have enough. But, as in the Gospel, in the hands of Jesus – what we have is enough.

We sometimes get caught up in the miracle. We find ourselves asking “how did that happen?” John may only want us to know what we already know, it happened on account of Jesus. Barnes presents this text as a picture of preaching. A reminder that preaching is difficult. That preaching sometimes seems to be impossible. Other times, we just don’t have much to work with. Yet, the Gospel would encourage us to bring what we have. Bring our words to Jesus. In His hands, what we bring is enough.

We bring our words. Sometimes confidently, other times not. Words from us are never enough. Sometimes we bring our best efforts. Other times, not so much. But, Jesus takes what we bring. And He gives thanks. We recognize a hungry world, but also a Savior in the midst of it. And in His hands, our words are enough.