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.”

Enough Gospel to Go Around

Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.

Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”

Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

Are We Listening?

A quote to remind us the gospels were written with a purpose in mind;

“One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of ‘evangelists’ in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with problems of ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: ‘You’re just not listening!’ ‘Yes, we are,’ reply the modern preachers… ‘but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!’” (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 197)

A Relational Adventure

We sometimes treat Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it is the apostle’s theory about gospel or his magnum opus of theological insights. Yet Romans is a letter. It is a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. We should be reading Romans as a relational adventure.

We sometimes have treated it as if all that matters are the greatest hits. We pick the parts we like and treat the rest like b sides. We act as if the selected parts tell us everything we need to know about Romans.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” and “For all have sinned…” and “For the wages of sin is death…” and “All things work together for good…” and “If God is for us…” and “Offer your bodies a living sacrifice…” I think you get the idea.

Just saying, we tend to read Romans with presuppositions. We convince ourselves that here we have discovered the straight road to salvation. This is a certain way to miss out on a wild and unsettled Romans that is an important part of our adventure. I suspect this is a constant problem for the church. We spend a great deal of effort cleaning up the messy parts of the bible to convince ourselves of clear principles that do not match with the messiness of real life. This has likely caused many to decide the bible is not for them.

N. T. Wright has said that Romans “sweeps you along on a tide of extraordinary writing and glorious hope.” He also says “it plunges you not only into gloom, but into serious puzzles, knotty intellectual problems, and arguments that will make you wonder whether St. Paul is losing his balance…” I enjoy Wright’s description because it moves us toward Romans as an adventure.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa claims we tend to read it “as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time…” Reading Romans this way will cause us to miss out on what Romans is saying and we will fail to see that the “metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine.”

Romans is literature that sees church and world in realistic ways, including the clumsy messes where we sometimes find ourselves. Even more, Romans highlights the significance of God’s action on behalf of the church and the world. Gaventa cautions us about the twists and turns on the path that is Romans. And she gives warning that it will take us “into a gospel far more vast than we usually imagine, and that gospel may take us places we would prefer not to go.”