“Christians still read the Bible strangely. We read the Bible as if we were the point, as though we are not, or never were, the Gentiles” (Willie Jennings).
Is that ever the truth.
The more-often-than-not meaning of 15:6 is one of those strange readings, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” You don’t abide in me? Well, then, you are cut off, discarded. And if that were not enough, let’s be sure to throw you into the furnace of hell for good measure.
As if Jesus’ words are a rationale for judgment. As if Jesus’ words justify that we’ve always been a part of the “in” crowd. As if Jesus had only us in mind. We are quite accomplished when it comes to judgment – so quick to determine who’s in and who’s out. And we seem to get better at it all the time.
We are not the point. The fact is, the community for which John was written was indeed thrown away, thrown out – like the man born blind (9:34). Verse 6 is not a verse of condemnation because that is not what Jesus came to do (3:17). Rather, it is a statement of life. Without connection to a life source, abundant life is not possible.
The image of the vine introduces the last “I AM” statement with a predicate nominative in the Gospel of John. Why? Why this image here and now, at this point in the narrative? Preaching this text should ask this question. Twice Jesus will identify himself as the vine, first, as the true vine (15:1) and then as “I AM the vine” (15:5). The image follows on the heels of “do as the Father commanded me” (14:31) so the disciples may very well be wondering what might that be and how do we do it? The image of the vine offers a picture by which the disciples may see themselves as able to do as commanded because of their connection to the vine. To do the commandments means to bear fruit. Jesus first unpacks this image as it describes his relationship with his Father before he moves to how the image might portray his relationship with the disciples. This is key for the mutual abiding at stake between Jesus, the Father, and the disciples. Jesus is the vine, “my Father” is the vine grower. Like any good vine grower, the Father tends the vine with care, pruning where necessary so that it bears as much fruit as possible (15:16). At the forefront of this image is the theme of dependence. The vine needs the vine grower as much as the vine grower needs the vine. The vine needs the vine grower for its optimal growth and production, even its abundance. It will produce more fruit, fruit in abundance, if cared for. The vine grower needs the vine to produce, to make abundance possible for sustenance and life. The mutuality assumed in this image is essential especially at this point in the story. Jesus knows what’s next. The Farewell Discourse is all about leaving his disciples with words of comfort and hope in the midst of troubled hearts and worried souls. Why this image here and now?
Why? Because it is an image that intimates profound dependence. Profound reliance. Because life is nothing without belonging, without intimacy, without relationship.
How can you bear fruit? How can you imagine being beyond yourself? How can you realize your potential if you have no grounding, no sense of origin, no affirmation of possibility outside yourself?
The bearing of fruit depends on dependence. It depends on connection. It depends on origin. It depends on belonging. As soon as you think you can produce anything from the basis of your own sovereignty, from your own efforts, from your own sense of independence, think about it. What kind of fruit will that be?
Because bearing fruit has everything to do with who you are in relationship. I wonder if this is what we tend to forget or ignore. That the manifestations of our faith are not individual expressions of our theological commitments and convictions but are deeply lodged in and arise from the communities of our lives. That there is truncated potential for faith embodied if we are not fully on board with, realize, that the bearing fruit of our faith is premised on dependence.
I fear there is a fear of bearing fruit. And that fear has many levels. Because once we bear fruit, we lose control. We chance exposure. Others will be able to see on what or whom rely; in what and in whom we locate and lodge our strength.
And once we’re out there? Well, it’s awfully hard to take it back. Impossible, actually. And others are then free to pick and choose the fruit they preference, like perusing the options at a farmer’s market or in the produce section in the grocery store.
Bearing fruit is risky business. It will reveal who you are and on whom and what you depend. It will expose your lack of self-sufficiency. It will show others that there is no other way to be but to be dependent. Many will think it’s weakness. Many will think the ties should be broken. Many will think that being cut off is beneficial because it will result in some sort of self-actualized and admirable autonomy.
But you know different. And that’s what needs to be preached.
“Good sermon, Pastor!” Don’t you then want to respond, “What does that actually mean? What was good about it?” Isn’t that the anticipated adjective to describe your sermon as you shake hands at the back of the church at the end of worship? It is a rather vague and unsatisfactory adjective and yet uniform and ubiquitous. Does it really mean anything? What does it communicate anyway? It is a rather useless adjective, and if we are honest, means nothing.
Furthermore, what makes for a good sermon for some is not the same for another. I avoid using this adjective altogether in my teaching of preaching. I tell my students that their goal is not to come up with a good sermon, but a faithful sermon. A colleague in preaching, Clay Schmit, Provost of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, puts it this way, “Rather than try to be a good preacher, be a faithful preacher. The goodness is always in God’s hands.”
A faithful sermon will tend the following aspects with rigor: the biblical text, the multiple contexts into which a text comes alive, the human condition and God’s response, theological imagination, the mind of the listener, the heart of the listener, and orientation to living a life of faith in God’s world. I think this is what our parishioners mean by “that was a good sermon, Pastor.”
But the problem with good is its expected antithesis – bad. And dichotomies are often not helpful when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a sermon. Preaching necessitates more nuance – so does life. Unfortunately that seems to be the world in which we live – where assessment, adjudication, even identity is construed by contrast and opposition. You know what I mean: Democrat or Republican, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, gay or straight, black or white. If we are honest, it’s a rather safe move. Contrasts are easier. They require less dialogue, less listening, less thinking.
Which is, in part, what has happened to Jesus as the good shepherd.
If Jesus is the good shepherd, our first response seems to be, “in opposition to bad shepherds” and then we immediately embark on all kinds of allegorical fancy to determine the identity of these bad shepherds so as to avoid them, pit Jesus against them, or make sure we aren’t one of them. Lest we forget, the audience of Jesus’ discourse in response to his healing of the man born blind includes the Pharisees and the disciples, not to mention the original audience and those of us who authorize John’s Gospel as Scripture. So before we quickly assert simplistic designations that determine the “bad” shepherds as the Pharisees, we would do well to remember that listening to Jesus is Judas as well.
As a result, we spend a good deal of interpretive energy sifting out those that appear to oppose Jesus, those that seem counter to Jesus, those who are not Jesus. And it’s in that kind of interpretive space that we get into trouble – that Jesus is the only way. That without Jesus, hell is the future. That Christianity is good and every other expression of faith is bad. As a result, little interpretive imagination is located in just what makes Jesus a “good” shepherd. We need to think more about what makes Jesus the “good” shepherd before our answer is, “he’s good because he’s not bad.”
Can you answer that? What makes Jesus the good shepherd? Without collapsing into dichotomy? Without acquiescing to all that which is opposite? And without your answer only being “well, at least he’s not this….” It means that you have to give specificity to an imprecise adjective. It means that you have to be willing to enter into gradation. It means that you can’t jump immediately to the cross, because Jesus is going to ask you be the shepherd (21:15-19). It means that all of a sudden “good” is not a generic or ubiquitous claim but that which takes on a breadth and depth of meaning as vast as the incarnation itself.
As a result, a sermon on Jesus as the “good” shepherd could focus on any of the following truths because all of these definitions of “good” are possible if you tend to John. Pick one and preach it for all it’s worth. If you try to preach on all of which makes Jesus the “good” shepherd, you have just made the adjective “good” as bland as before.
Jesus is the good shepherd because he the source of abundant life, first to the man born blind, giving him a new existence, new life – he is a new creation, a child of God (1:1; 12-13). Jesus is the good shepherd because he finds the man born blind after the blind man has been thrown out (9:35) which the disciples need to hear because they too will be thrown out (12:42; 16:1-2) and which they need to remember because Jesus found them (1:43). Jesus is the good shepherd because he knows his sheep and he calls them by name (Lazarus, 11:43; Mary Magdalene, 20:16). Jesus is the good shepherd because before he goes to the cross, he lays down his life by coming out of the garden, the fold, leaving his sheep protected and safe in the garden, giving himself up (no kiss from Judas) for the sake of his disciples, his sheep (18:4). Jesus is the good shepherd because he will take up his life again in the resurrection AND the ascension, the resurrection being our promise of life here and now (11:25) and the promise of life in our future; the ascension being the abiding place that Jesus prepares for the ones he loves (1:18; 13:23; 14:2).
That is what’s good about a shepherd.
“You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48; Acts 3:15).
We certainly are. Thanks for the reminder, Jesus.
Because we need reminders of the resurrection – and often. Left to our own devices, left to the way in which life returns to normal after Easter, left to planning the last big worship push before summer, left to looking toward the end of the program year, left to confirmations and graduations, it’s all too easy to forget the resurrection.
Easter Sunday, only two weeks past, seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it? And in many ways, it is. Because that’s how ministry works. The church goes on. Life goes on. Since Christ has been raised from the dead, all kinds of ministry acts have likely taken place: weddings, funerals, confirmation classes, bible studies, hospital visits, commendations of the dying. Sure, we can see the resurrection promise in each of these experiences, but it does take some effort, and a reminder.
As a result, resurrection has the tendency to be a less than present reality, more likely a claim about a past event or a future assurance. Why is the presence of resurrection often overlooked? Understated? Even denied? Why do we seem to be more comfortable keeping resurrection in the past or postponing its promises for the future? Why is it so difficult? What are we afraid of?
Why is life, here and now, so hard to see?
I suspect there are a lot of reasons why. There is the simple truth that life is lived in the consciousness of death. And it seems that we have all too many reminders of death and not enough reminders of life. Globally, nationally, communally, personally, the presence of death is more palpable than the promise of life. I had one of those weeks last week: a dear friend, once vibrant and alive, now in the throws of chemo; aging parents facing heart surgery and recurrent ailments; a friend whose nine-year-old son was diagnosed with depression; my sister’s struggle in learning that their church secretary’s back pain was actually a body filled with cancer; listening to stories of broken relationships and then realizing some of your own. You know these weeks. You have lived these weeks. And so have your parishioners.
I also suspect that life, here and now, is hard to see because of fear: a fear of rejection; a fear that it could really be true. Seriously, what if the testimony of the women at the tomb was true? We are in good company when it comes to these fears. The women in Luke’s Gospel return from the tomb, go to the disciples and testify to what they themselves heard and witnessed, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-7). And how do the disciples respond? They conclude that what the woman have to say is “an idle tale,” which, as many of you know, is the G-rated version of the Greek word better translated as “crap, garbage” or, yes, you guessed it, “bull….”. Like the response to Jesus’ first sermon when the hometown folk want to through him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30), good news is rarely accepted at the first hearing. Why? Because rejection is easier than resurrection. If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?” (Preaching Moment #10)
Life, here and now, is very hard to see. In the end, I think being resurrection people takes some effort, in fact, a lot of effort. And some weeks will demand more effort than others. Jesus knows this reality, our reality. And knows that we need a reminder. In fact, we probably need a lot of them, daily perhaps. Notice the tense of Jesus’ assertion – not “you were”, not “you will be”, but “you are”. I have a feeling Jesus takes that seriously. You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment. In this life. In your daily life. For the sake of life. Jesus reminds us of who we really are – resurrection people, resurrection witnesses. And it is also important to note that Jesus does not stop talking at verse 48 where the lectionary pericope ends. In verse 49, Jesus witnesses to what makes it possible to be witnesses – the promise of the Spirit.
We do not witness alone, as the first resurrection witness tells us, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:10).
We do not witness alone, as we sit amongst a community of fellow believers.
We do not witness alone, as the Spirit is indeed coming, and coming soon.
Our lives, on every level, need resurrection witnesses. Remind your congregation. Remind yourself.
A letter to Thomas, the disciple, based on John 20:19-31.
Ah Thomas. Every first Sunday after Easter. Forever called “the Doubter”.
And even when we recall that the word “doubt” never appears in your story, that Jesus says to you “do not be unbelieving but believing,” that believing in the Gospel of John has nothing to do with an ascent to claims and creeds of faith but is rather a synonym for relationship with Jesus, you are still given a name you didn’t deserve. That happens a lot with name-calling, doesn’t it?
And I wonder if anyone remembers that this is not the first time you’ve requested something of Jesus. I imagine most of us don’t.
Why? I suspect that it’s because we are so captivated by your disbelief in that it validates our own. So thankful for your so-called need for proof because it justifies our deepest desires for evidence of an empty tomb. So admiring of your willingness to speak up for what you need for belief because, if we are honest, for the most part we are all too comfortable in our allegiance to and acceptance of doctrine and dogma and determined faith that, in the end, means nothing to us.
So many of us don’t speak up. We don’t speak up for the things we need, the things owed us, the things that matter, the things promised to us, the things about which we think we can’t or won’t speak up because who will listen? Will anything change? So we stay silent. For ourselves. For others. In shame. In guilt. Someone else will say something, right? Surely someone else will speak up. Someone else will stand up for injustice, for discrimination, for false claims about religious freedom. For those abused. For those who have no voice. Someone else will give voice to what I feel and know and want. Someone else will speak up for me.
No wonder we can hardly remember, or try not to anyway, your first request of Jesus.
This is what I like about you, what I admire about you, Thomas. You ask for what you need. For what’s owed to you, yes. For what you deserve, yes. But more so, for what Jesus had already promised you. For what Jesus promises every believer. You have a good memory, Thomas.
Back in John 14 to be exact: “‘And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”
Show us the way! We don’t know the way! I wonder what you thought after that. Maybe you took Jesus seriously. Maybe you thought you could.
So when the disciples say to you, Thomas, “Guess what? We saw the Lord!!” (the same thing that Mary Magdalene says to the disciples, by the way) you had to be thinking, “Well, that’s just great! Jesus did say he was the way. I remember that. And when we were talking about the way, well, that meant Jesus was preparing an abiding place for me. And how can I know an abiding place with him without being with him? I mean, wait a minute. Mary saw the Lord. The other disciples saw the Lord. It’s not that I need proof. I just need to be with him. Because that’s what it means that he’s the way, right? Jesus’ way is not that which discriminates. Jesus’ way is not that which disregards. Jesus’ way is not that which discards. Jesus’ way does not mean I’m left out. That’s not how I heard it anyway. I didn’t know where he was going and I didn’t know the way. And then, he said he was the way. I need to feel that abiding place again. Because that’s what the way is. I just need to be with you Jesus. To touch you, feel you, see you, hear you, taste you. One more time. I need to feel that abiding place again, I need to feel the way, again. One more time.”
It seems you found the way, Thomas, but really, you knew it all along.
You knew the way was not a roadmap.
You knew the way was not a claim meant to exclude others.
You knew the way was not that which you could use to reject others.
Instead you knew the way was being in the presence of your Lord and God – and that’s all you wanted. You wanted what Jesus said you know. You asked for what Jesus said you should. You needed what Jesus said is yours – always.
And in that moment you saw Jesus as your Lord and as your God. Thank you, Thomas, for your courage to ask.
Happy Easter, preachers! We have some resurrection matters to address.
I am torn. Mark or John? John or Mark? I am usually inclined to say that a preacher needs to choose one or the other. It’s too important to lodge an Easter sermon in an actual biblical text rather than offer bland and all-purpose claims about resurrection. Why?
Because resurrection in general means little until its recognized in the particular.
What do I mean? You can go on and on about the doctrine of resurrection. Quoting all kinds of scripture and theology and histories of interpretation to prove your point. But where resurrection really matters is when it matters for you. When you sit in the pew attending a funeral. When you look in the casket of one you have lost. When you face your own death. Resurrection is personal.
In this respect, this Easter I am drawn to two verses. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). And “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). What would happen if this year you put these two together? Mark and John together? In the same sermon! To what extant the two of them, side by side, offer our congregations a spectrum of response to the resurrection, possibilities for replies that taken alone limit and prescribe. Wow. You could open up space for theological imagination with regard to the resurrection that is verified and justified. I fear that all too often claims about the resurrection, assertions about the resurrection, even proclamation about the resurrection is approved, determined, defined. As if we have all the answers as to how God works. As if we have resurrection all figured out.
Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome in Mark, Mary Magdalene in John are particularized claims about the resurrection, personal responses, reactions that are not beholden to belief but arise from grief. There’s no attempt to prove, solve, or resolve. It’s only about their individual reaction, as individual as their names provided in the stories.
What’s yours? What do you think about the resurrection? You may want to ask this question of your parishioners. You may want to ask this question of yourself.
Because these two responses recorded in Mark and John represent the gamut of the human answer to the resurrection – saying nothing and saying everything. And these two very different resurrection stories then give permission for us all to fall into everything in between. In other words, rather than make sweeping claims about the resurrection, invite those present to witness to it, to respond to it, in all of their particularity of faith.
Then maybe the C and E people (Christmas/Easter) will actually come back. Because rather than tell them what to believe, you invite them into believing. And invitation is much more attractive than determination.
Suggest that their own reaction matters. That they don’t have to respond as dictated and determined by our liturgical restraints. That they are not required to acquiesce to the official response of the church, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Alleluia!” but are invited to imagine their own witness to the resurrection. That how they respond matters. There can be no single rejoinder to the resurrection. Why? Resurrection is personal. It makes a difference. It has to.
Because then resurrection matters really matter. Because it matters when resurrection really matters. When they attend a funeral. When they wonder about their own. Generic claims about the resurrection will not make a difference. At all. Because they see a husband in a casket. A friend in a grave. And imagine their own death, all too real and imminent. And no general churchy promise quoted by scripture, creeds, or confessions will suffice.
In the end, I do believe that is why the C and E people are there. To hear a truth that they will hear nowhere else. To hear that how they respond to the resurrection of Jesus might actually lay claim on their own. To hear that imagining a life beyond now makes claims on their present.
No place else will they hear that there’s something beyond now. No place else will they hear that those they love are not alone in the grave. No place else will they hear that the promise of resurrection is not only for their future but also impedes on their present. And this is where it matters. That we invite them into a resurrection life. A life lived now, fully believing in a future resurrection, but that also recognizes that a future resurrection has to matter now. To believe in a future, to make claims about God’s future for us means that now is different. Changed. Matters. Extraordinarily. And they get to express that truth in any way they want.
Then, really, resurrection matters.
It’s hard to compete with Palm/Passion Sunday. And maybe, you shouldn’t.
Have you thought about letting the texts speak for themselves? Let this story simply be? Letting the liturgy do what it does and work as it should? Anything further on your part may very well be overkill – every pun intended. As if you are trying too hard to cover every detail of Holy Week, trying to pack it all in, because you assume that you won’t see many of these folks again until Easter Sunday. That’s why we have Palm/Passion to begin with, right? Our concern that people won’t come to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, so let’s make sure we cover all the bases, just in case. How to get Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil all in before the women get to the empty tomb.
Don’t try this at home. Not only is it not possible. It’s not necessary.
I suspect that your liturgical and homiletical decisions have already been made at this point. If I am wrong, my main point of advice would be what we suggested on the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Pick a verse from the passage and preach it for all its worth.
Because the hard thing about Palm/Passion Sunday is that there is just too much text. Or as Salieri says to Mozart, just too many notes. What else is there to say?
Maybe don’t try. And admit that you can’t.
Is a sermon necessary? is my question. If so, why? What do you hope to accomplish, to achieve? What can you add to this story, really? But, I get the anxiety because this is what we are trained to do – offer interpretations of texts for specific times, places, people, and purposes. It’s what we are paid to do. It’s what we are called to do. So then, if that’s not what is needed, then what? Rather than leaning into the moment, we control the moment, trying to communicate, persuade, proclaim how important this week is when all we really need to do is to testify.
This week is an opportunity for witness. Put yourself in the story and say this is what I see, what I feel and then ask, how about you? What do you see, feel? Where are you moved? Any attempt to interpret or explain will result in the poignancy of this week being lost. Big time. Because there is no explanation. There is no exegesis that can rescue this moment. There is no doctrine that can give an acceptable account. There is no denominational recourse that makes Holy Week more palatable or acceptable.
So why not just say that and let it be? Let the story do what it intends to do. Let the story be what it has to be. Let the story work on the people in your pews as individually as they are. No one answer will work. No one interpretation will meet all needs. Articulate your personal point of entry and then invite them to imagine their own.
Because if the default is to make Passion Sunday and Holy Week doable, then we will end up reducing wonder to want. Amazement to acceptance. Resistance to recourse. Disbelief to discussion. And then everything we hope for on this Sunday is rather a pedantic roadmap to traverse the week that plots and plods rather than one that invites new routes of discovery.
For Holy Week to work a preacher needs to figure out how to let it work. And then let go. The biblical witnesses suggest that this is no place for statements of certainty. Rather, it is a space for ambiguity. Disappointment. Fear. Contemplation. Anger. Dejection. And there are not enough spaces in our lives that invite such real, visceral, embodied, unchecked, uncensored emotions and reactions to the events of faith.
In the end, I think your parishioners will be grateful. Grateful for your honesty. For your bewilderment. For your willingness to invite questions rather than provide answers. For your commitment to confusion instead of some confession beholden to something outside of what you believe.
This is not to say that you stand up and preach doubt or dejection. It means that you stand up and tell the truth. That you don’t attempt to apply some sort of homiletical bandage. Because if you do, you then communicate that all of this can be fixed. By us. And it can’t. Only God can carry us through to the empty tomb, to the promise of the resurrection.
And so in your confession, this is what you say. “I don’t know what to do with all of this. But God does. I don’t get it but I don’t have to because God does. I don’t want to figure this out. That’s OK. God has.”
And then we let Holy Week be.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Another grand and glorious verse from John, a Gospel filled to the brim with pithy phrases that end up in contexts and situations far removed from their origins. Yet John 20:21 has found a fitting home outside of its narrative as a verse carved in pulpits around the world. As I noted in my commentary on John 12:20-33, this verse is a summative theology of preaching for the Fourth Gospel. Preaching John means creating an experience of Jesus. It’s that simple. The request of the Greeks voices the desire of every parishioner in the pew — not to be told about Jesus but the desire to encounter Jesus. Too many sermons stop at information. Perhaps this week a Post-It note in your pulpit would be an important reminder of the purpose of preaching — to show them Jesus — particularly when having Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in clearer view.
Accordingly, for the last Sunday in Lent, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” is a more than appropriate appeal when bringing Lent to a close. But it’s not a verse only for seeing Jesus in the present passage or only for orienting our vision for the future. To see Jesus also means some retroactive gazing.
What have we seen of Jesus in these last few weeks? What has Jesus revealed about himself to us? Or, in the words of the Fourth Evangelist, how has Jesus made God known (John 1:18)? These kinds of questions can be important in preaching. Questions of hindsight bring perspective to the present. They help us take stock of where we’ve been so as to make sense of what is to come. They invite reflection and deliberation and contemplation, none of which there is enough when it comes to faith. Rehearse the stories. Remember the revelations. Why take the time to do this? Why is all of this important? Because then in our preaching we are modeling a hermeneutic for faith. That a life of faith recalls the past, resides in the present, and rests in the future. That being a believer means, simultaneously, to be an interpreter of our traditions and of our current reality, all for the sake of interpreting the kind of future into which God wants us to live. What have we seen, what do we see, what will we see?
Reflection on what we have seen will help us interpret what we will see. And this is why the request of the Greeks is also a request that should make for a significant cause for pause. Which Jesus do you really want to see? What we might want to see, expect to see, is not always grounded in reality, which is why hindsight is essential. Our myopia is frequently symptomatic of our selected scope of vision, whether it’s a convenient forgetting of the past or a choice to ignore the present.
In this case, a hindsight hermeneutic is also an act in acknowledging the grand vistas that lay claim on any given text. It provides corrective lenses for nearsighted readings. We are never just preaching one verse, one pericope, one story. We are preaching the breadth of the witness to God’s love in the world. We do this by recognizing that to interpret a part means using the whole of a narrative, so that looking back on the first eleven chapters of John and looking forward into the next nine is essential for making sense of chapter twelve. At the same time, we return to the scriptures that informed and shaped the imagination of the New Testament authors as they sought to make sense of God’s activity in Jesus. But a word of warning here — this is not an injunction to bring every text but the Christian sink into a sermon to prove a point. Preachers that provide endless quotes from other parts of Scripture, whether nearby or far back from the Old Testament, are frequently those uncomfortable with the text they have. They will argue that they are letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or make some sort of claim about the importance of canonical criticism.
But, there is a difference between using other parts of Scripture to inform an interpretation of a biblical passage and quoting other biblical passages to avoid the one in front of you.
Worried about being wrong, anxious that our interpretations will be wide of the mark or mistaken, afraid of being accused of heretical leanings, we even use the Bible itself to dodge having to make a clear and concise statement about a text. Why? Because to make memorable proclamation about a text is a vulnerable act. It exposes you for the theology you have. It lays open how Scripture works in your own life. It uncovers your character, for good or for ill. You will be seen. So we lodge generalities about God that save no one or say nothing at all worth remembering. What might all this mean for this last Sunday in Lent?
“Pastor, we wish to see Jesus.” Show them. Show them, big time. Or, to put it another way, “go big or go home.”
As Fred Craddock once noted, “If there is a disease in preaching … it’s not that what the minister says is wrong. It’s that it is just too small.”
John 3:14. Not even a close second to John 3:16 but certainly the reason why these verses from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus make up the designated Gospel pericope for the fourth Sunday in Lent. Any possible connection to Jesus’ crucifixion will win any contest to be selected as a reading for the Sundays in Lent. A preacher could certainly opt for this route. But great care will be necessary when it comes to what John means when he says “the son of Man must be lifted up” because it’s not just on the cross. Yet, perhaps that is for another column.
Because another preaching challenge that comes with John 3:14 is that two verses later, there’s 3:16. And John 3:16 is perpetually problematic. To preach on this verse will seem like tinkering with constructs of faith so embedded and beholden that a preacher might ignore it all together. Yet, it’s one of those verses that once read out loud, it demands address from the preacher. Otherwise, its misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misuses will abide with and be maintained by our listeners who may really want to believe that God loves the world even though they have been told otherwise.
Statements about this most ubiquitous verse continue to surprise me – from fondness to ambivalence to flat out dislike. Why? Why these kinds of reactions toward what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible?
Well, motivations for John 3:16 being one’s favorite bible verse might be somewhat questionable. Does it hang on a wall, appear on a plaque, fly across computer monitors as a screen saver because people really believe God loves the world? Or because they appreciate frequent reminders that they are saved while others are not? Is John 3:16 in peril of losing its voice of promise because rather than being a claim of assurance it’s used as an injunction for judgment? Because rather than being a statement about God’s love for the world it’s a threat for those unwilling to accept God’s love? Because rather than heard as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love it’s a summons to exclude those we think God does not love?
To say the least, it’s unfortunate when bible verses are taken out of context. And I have a feeling that the Bible doesn’t like it any more than we do.
John 3:16 is first a word to Nicodemus. And Nicodemus, a man, a Pharisee, a leader used to privilege and entitlement needs to hear that God loves the world. And so do the disciples, which is why in the very next chapter Jesus then takes them to the world, to a small town in Sychar, Samaria, so that they can meet who the world is. Because the world may very well be the last place – and the last person – on earth we think God would love.
And further contextual conscientization will keep reading into 3:17-21 where we hear that God became flesh not to condemn the world but to experience life with us. We make John 3:16 words of judgment when we stop reading at the period placed at the end of 3:16; when we ignore what judgment actually means in John’s Gospel, which is not that which we do or God does, but represents your own moment of crisis of whether or not you will choose to enter into the life-sustaining relationship God provides; when we limit salvation to some future guarantee instead of the intimacy God so desires with us here and now.
And so perhaps John 3:16 accords ambivalence as a preacher; or elicits a heavy sigh that embodies your weariness. As if getting through Lent was not enough. Now you have to figure out what to do with John 3:16.
You know, all too well, that this is critical work – preaching on a passage that demands great attention to what it is, what it isn’t, what we we want it to be, or what we think it is. What’s a preacher, then, to do?
As many of you know, one of the greatest preachers and homileticians of the 20th century died this past week, Fred Craddock. I had the joy of meeting him and hearing him preach while I was doing my doctoral work at Emory University where he had been the Bandy Professor of Preaching and New Testament in the Candler School of Theology. Craddock’s words may be helpful this week when considering whether or not to tackle the hard work of preaching a text like John 3:16, “I’m grateful for work more important than how I happen to feel about it on any given day.”
So, we start with anticipating and acknowledging our feelings about what it means to preach on this verse. And in general, I am not sure that we do this enough – admit to ourselves our own ambivalence, uncertainty, even fear when it comes to preaching, especially those verses and passages that we think we should have all figured out, or, that we simply don’t want to tackle, lest we upset some sort of proverbial theological apple cart in our congregation. Take the time to reflect on your own relationship with John 3:16. And then be grateful that you get to enter into the sacred space of figuring out what difference this verse makes, for you and for your congregation, but also for what God is up to.
And then? Perhaps another word of encouragement from Craddock will help, “Preach like you know they almost didn’t come.”
We have them. We inhabit them. But often we do not know what to do with them.
We desperately want to change them, improve them, shrink them, hide them. We want to tighten them, shape them, mold them. We compare ours to others. We describe them with odd categories, like fruit. We analyze them, take them apart, and
we like some parts more than others.
We take them for granted. We look at them in the mirror with disgust or with modest admiration. We keep the lights off so that they cannot be seen. We expose them in ways that leave little to the imagination.
I doubt I am saying anything that you have not felt about your body at some point in your life.
Recently, I attended the visitation and funeral of one of my husband’s best friends from college. They were roommates in college. They went on fishing and hiking trips together with the other “roomies” every summer. They had known each other for 38 years. They shared the same name. He was six days older than my husband. I hadn’t seen him for months and there was very little left of his body. Pancreatic cancer had left an already slender and fit man with only bones and skin. I fear that perhaps we do not realize the beauty of our bodies until our bodies are no longer.
“But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” We know that the circumstances of the temple incident in John are different from the other Gospels. We know the theological claim that Jesus is making in this very different temple skirmish story. And certainly, reflection on or a sermon about any of these points of specificity in John’s version would be worthwhile.
But what I was drawn to in thinking about this column is bodies – the temple of his body. That God chose to localize love in a human body. That God decided becoming human was a good idea.
You see, since God made the decision to be incarnated, it seems to me that God was probably not choosy about bodies. Sure, God became a man. But if we take the incarnation seriously, and that God loves the world, the full expression of human bodies is at stake. Otherwise, incarnation is partial and penultimate. You can’t be partly human, selectively human. If you are human, well then, it means the whole thing.
Why does this matter for you as a preacher? Because when was the last time you thought about how your body expresses the Gospel? How your body communicates the message of your sermon as much as your words? How your body reveals the truth about the truth you preach?
We tend to be so caught up in words. We avoid our bodies with albs. We hide behind pulpits and lecterns, relieved that we only have to figure out what to do with our bodies from the waist up. If you are a female preacher, you’ve decided not to wear a cincture, lest someone notice that you have a waist and breasts.
Or, if you are not behind a pulpit, when was the last time you thought about what to do with your body? Do you pace? Flail around with your arms? Your body is who you are. Your body communicates your sermon as much as the words you so carefully craft.
What does this all mean? Maybe it has nothing to do with your sermon this week. Or, maybe it has everything to do with your preaching. That you call attention to the fact that bodies matter, in all shapes and sizes. That who your people are as witnesses to the God’s love in the world is not just about the words they say. That actually, their calling is not just telling people about Jesus but embodying Jesus for others; how not just your words and actions but your actual body communicates the love of God, the presence of God.
Bodies matter. Your body matters. Incarnational preaching is not just talk or voice or speech. It is how your body embodies the truth of the Gospel; how your body has felt what it feels like to be experience grace upon grace.
Lent will be a body anointed, a body beaten, a body on the cross, a body laid in a tomb. What does that feel like? The only way we can get at that is to embrace our own bodies. Lent, Easter, even theology, cannot be fully captured or experienced in our heady confessions, our lofty logic, or our need for knowledge. Lent invites a deep reflection on the role of bodies in faith, in theology, in life.
In the end, Jesus is saying that his body is the location of God. Yours is, too. It has to be. God is counting on it because God loves the world. Jesus is counting on it because his incarnation came to an end on that cross. This week, embody your body. Explore how your body ministers as much as your sermon manuscript. Imagine how your body preaches as much as your words. Because then the Word becomes flesh – again and again.
I have to admit. I was a bit baffled this week by the relationship between the Gospel and the first and second lessons. Not that we have to make a connection every time, that’s for sure. But you never know what interpretive gem might surface when you put texts in conversation, which is why the lectionary frequently fascinates me.
But I stuck with it for a while, and here’s what I started seeing. Abraham and Sarah? To what extent they “deny themselves” just as Jesus asks. But it’s not a denial of the self. It’s a denial of remaining by themselves. That is, they deny a life that is autonomous, secured, enclosed, safe, and just the two of them, for a life that propels them into relationship – with God and with a future realized by abounding relationship.
I wonder if this is exactly what Jesus means.
Because I have to say “deny yourselves” has always been problematic for me. It rubs against my incarnational theology that says who I am matters to God. And Jesus wants me to deny that? No thanks. I’ve worked really hard to be me. I’m not giving that up now. And denial is ever so popular during Lent. So we jump on the denial bandwagon and give up all and sundry aspects of our lives that actually might simply give us joy.
Moreover, I think way too much of that kind of denial happens in church, especially for preachers. You know what I mean. To be someone or something you are not. To eschew your truth for the sake of the truth of the Gospel. What do you deny about yourself for the sake of your ministry? And that whole business of “getting out of the way” when you preach to let the Word of God be heard? That’s a load of crap. If God wanted us to get out of the way, God wouldn’t have decided to become human in the first place.
So, what if we take deny “yourself” totally literally? Hang in with me here.
That is, you deny your selfhood when it rescinds relationship. You deny your autonomy when it refuses community. You deny your individualism when it rejects intimacy.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross can also mean – not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying. At least today I do.
Because Lent cannot be just about yourself. Somehow, you have defined your identity as that which is connected to Christ and to a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is this radical communal experience in many ways. People willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People willing to talk about their Lenten disciplines – out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize it’s not just about our own selves. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, the self that refuses community. The self that thinks it can survive on its own. The self that rejects the deep need of humanity – belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. It’s an invitation to imagine that your self needs the other. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what to be human is all about – intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others in our lives acknowledging, regarding who we are. We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to be become narcissistic in its truest form, where those around you are only pawns to placate your self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do as a pastor, as a preacher. And this is where a lot of pastors and preachers go array. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Your own sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “deny yourself.” The sense that your own authority trumps that of your people, the Scripture, and our God.
And we have seen it. Perhaps even done it. So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on ourselves alone and seek the help of others. To deny the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some sort of skewed assertions that we have all the answers. To deny the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our own worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that you can’t live in this world, you can’t live your life, without your self being in relationship.
A different kind of denial indeed.