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Speaking Plainly About Jesus

Sermon - 4/29/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 10:22-30

I don't always use slides in my sermons, but the last couple it just seemed to fit, so here we go again.

The text for this morning comes from the gospel of John, the 10th chapter.  This is the chapter where Jesus talks about the meaning of being a good shepherd.  Hence, this story kind of follows from that and is connected to it:

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’


I want to begin this sermon with a footnote.  Through the Sojourners peace and justice group that meets on Tuesday mornings at Theo's coffee house, I discovered the writings of Wes Howard-Brook, who lives and teaches up in Seattle, part of a peace and justice community up there, and has written a new commentary on the gospel of John that is published by Wipf & Stock.  I mentioned that only because many of you know the Stock family, and it's part of that family that operates the publishing in that same building as Theo's coffee house and part of that same group.

In any case, Howard-Brook makes a compelling argument that the Greek word for "the Jews" -- Ioudaioi -- typically translated throughout the gospels as "the Jews", in fact, should be translated "the Judeans".  Now why is that important?

Most references to "the Jews" in the gospels are negative.  The Jews kicked out the followers of Jesus from the synagogue.  The Jews tried to trap Jesus with their questions.  The Jews called for Jesus to be crucified, and so forth.  Hence it has long been recognized that the roots of anti-Semitism lie within our Christian scriptures.  And that's been a problem for us over the years that we've had to work through.

Howard-Brook asserts, then, that Ioudaioi refers not to 'the Jews' (which would include Jesus and the disciples) but to those that are loyal to the domination system represented by the collaboration between the Temple in Jerusalem and the Governor of Judea.  And so we should read "Judeans" instead of "Jews", and then much, if not all, of that anti-Semitism would disappear.

And so in this text this morning, in the 10th chapter of John's gospel, it is not some generic group of Jews, representing all Jews, who come to Jesus with their questions.  Rather, the Judeans, loyal to the existing power structure, and who, therefore, are invested in the status quo that would be challenged by any would-be Messiah.  It is to them, not to all Jews, that Jesus says "You are not part of my sheep", and therefore you do not hear what I am saying.

Now, that insight alone should be worth the price of admission this morning J.  But since we don't charge for admission, I have a few other things to share, which I'll give for free.

The Judeans, then, want Jesus to speak plainly.  Are you or are you not the Messiah?  It's not because they are hoping he is [the Messiah], but rather because they want to catch him in a Don Imus moment, making some derogatory comment that will get him fired from his job as Messiah.  Well, Jesus does not disappoint them, and says 'the Father and I are one'.  And that, of course, for these status-quo loyalists, is blasphemy.

C.S. Lewis is well known for his argument for Christianity.  That either Jesus is who he said he was, or he was a madman.  Case in point:  a young man came into my office, introduced himself to the receptionist as "Jesus", and said he wanted to talk to the pastor.  Now I was not fooled J.  I knew that if it really was Jesus, he would have asked for the janitor, you know, clean up those over-turned tables or something.  I don't know why the Jesus visitors always ask for the minister, but they always seem to want to speak with the minister.  And so I was called out, and I said "What can I do for you, Jesus?"  And Jesus said, well, he just wanted me to know "I'm back".  And I said "Great, where have you been?"  And he said, "No, I've come back, I've returned to earth".  And I said "Well, thank you for sharing that information with me.  Is there anything else I can do for you?"  Well, no, so I thanked him, he went on his way, I went on mine.  And ever since, I've honestly told people that I've spoken to Jesus.

Now, either he was who he said he was, or he was a college student pulling a prank.  We concluded in the office, not just by what he said but also by the way he was dressed, that he was unfortunately just a tad mentally ill.  And that, of course, is a tragedy in and of itself.

In first-century Jerusalem, those who made such claims were not discounted as 'mad', more likely there were executed as heretics.  Stoned to death.  And indeed, these Judeans attempt to stone Jesus, for making this claim -- that he and God are one, he is the chosen one of God.  And somehow Jesus escapes.

That raises a thorny issue.  If Jesus was going around saying things like 'The Father and I are one', 'I am the light of the world', 'I am the resurrection and the life', 'I am the way, the truth, and the light', 'I am the Messiah', how did he manage to escape execution for so long?  Why wasn't he stoned for blasphemy by the Judeans before he was executed for treason by the Romans?

The search for that answer, among other things, has led scholars to this unavoidable conclusion:  that all claims concerning the identity of Jesus in the gospels were not made by Jesus for himself, but for Jesus by his followers.

In other words, the statement here -- 'The Father and I are one' -- an unthinkable self-assertion by any first century Jew (Messiah or not), which would immediately result in stoning, is the witness of the community from which the gospel of John emerged.  Of the presence of God that they experienced in Jesus.  A presence so real, so powerful, they can truthfully say that God was fully present in Jesus.  The Father and I are one.

And that realization, that Jesus did not make such claims about himself but rather were made for him by others, has opened up a myriad of problems and new answers and possibilities for us.  Which has made reading the Bible more daunting, and more exciting, and more powerful, and more relevant for us today.

The problem:  if the gospel stories about Jesus are not the literal word-for-word factual accounts of what happened in the first third of the first century, what are they?  The answer:  metaphorical narratives containing not only parables told by Jesus, but parables told about Jesus.  They combine memory with metaphor in powerfully poetic ways that reveal, as Marcus Borg says, truth greater than the literal.  Meaning more than the historical.

The possibility:  one of the many exciting results of this way of understanding scripture is that one does not have to choose between truth and fact.  Between faith and science.  Between the wonder of the star of Bethlehem and the reality of celestial objects.  In other words, the choice that C.S. Lewis gave us is a false choice.  It is not a matter of either accepting Jesus at his word or throwing it all out as some grand deception.  There is a third possibility:  that even if Jesus did not make those claims about himself, he is still for us precisely who the gospels say.  

And because more and more Christians and non-Christians alike are waking up to this realization, that the Bible is not a history book about God, and that gospels are not biographies about Jesus but witnesses to Jesus, it is now more important than ever for us to speak plainly about Jesus.  To also give such a witness.  Who was he?  What was his message?  And what does he mean for us today?

We just finished a 10-week course that addressed precisely these kinds of questions, using the latest book of Marcus Borg:  Jesus (Uncovering the life, teachings, and relevance of a religious revolutionary).  Since there were only about 20 of you in that class, plus another 10 or more from the community, that means a few of you were not there, so I thought I would just repeat the 10 or 12 hours of lectures that I prepared J.

Since that's not realistic, I do want to share with you the top 10 insights I gained from teaching this course.  As they say, you always learn more when you teach than you do as a student, and that certainly is true.  And if this strikes your curiosity at all, there are 20 or 30 of those books floating around here in our community, you might borrow one from someone or go down and pick up your own copy.

So, the top 10 things for us to know about Jesus that we did not know, or perhaps have forgotten:

10: Jesus is the decisive revelation of God for Christians.  In Jesus, we see both the character of God and the passion of God.  As the gospel of John begins, in the prologue, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  In other words, Jesus reveals to us who God is, and what God cares most about.  So if you're image of God is not consistent with what you know about Jesus, something is out of whack.


9: How we tell the story of Jesus matters.  And by the way, I picked up these images of Jesus from Chuck Sturms' sermon back in March.  They were such wonderful images, I figured I can make use of them too.  How we tell the story of Jesus matters.  Marcus Borg cites the example of Robert Capon, who says the true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman.  Borg quotes him as saying that very well known prologue that begins each episode of Superman:

"Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, it's Superman!  Strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way".  And then Capon writes:  "If that isn't popular Christology, I'll eat my hat!  Jesus, gentle, meek, and mild, with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides, bumbles around for 33 years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the kryptonite cross, but at the last minute struggles into the phone booth of the empty tomb, changes into his Easter suit, and with a single bound leaps back into planet heaven.  It's got it all, including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson kiddies, he never once touches Lois Lane".

So what's the matter with portraying Jesus as Superman?  The humanity of Jesus completely disappears.  Instead of one of us, born in a lowly stable, he is a superhero -- someone we admire from afar, not a mentor we follow and try to mold our lives after.

8: The mission of Jesus is not about how to get to heaven, as is commonly assumed, but about personal transformation and global transformation.  Jesus sought to change lives and to change the world.  The primary image, or metaphor, that he uses to describe such change was the Kingdom of God.  Or as Matthew's gospel says, the Kingdom of Heaven.  What the world would look like if we all followed the way of God.  As such, his message was both extremely personal and intensely political.  And I know that makes us uncomfortable.  But both require repentance -- one individually, and the other collectively.  Thus, all areas of our lives, individually and collectively, are touched by the demands of the gospel.

7: The mission of Jesus was was based in his experience of the presence of God in his life and in the world.  He was someone in whom that presence could be seen and felt, as evidenced by the healings he performed and the wisdom he displayed.  He was, as Marcus Borg likes to say, "God intoxicated".  Or as Jesus says in this text, "The Father and I are one".  His teachings and actions come directly out of that experience.  And here's the lesson for us:  that experience of God, tangibly present in our world is just as available to us today.

6: Jesus rejected violence in all its forms.  Not because he thought violence was not pragmatic (e.g. he couldn't get enough disciples to overthrow the Romans), but because it is incompatible with the nature of God.  From the Sermon on the Mount, we learn to "love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you".  To the parabolic entry into Jerusalem on a donkey -- an intentional parody of a triumphant warrior on a horse.  Jesus taught non-violence as the way of God.  And it is only when, I think, we feel the horror of that carnage in Virginia Tech on a daily basis -- every single day -- that we will get how abhorrent God must find what is happening in Iraq and elsewhere around the world.  

5: Contrary to many before and after Jesus who taught that God's will on earth would finally only be done through divine intervention, Jesus taught it would only be done through our participation.  The kingdom of God was not something that would drop upon us from on high without warning, but something we are to seek like a hidden treasure buried in a field, or a gold coin lost somewhere in the house.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, working for justice for the oppressed, liberty for the captives, and the end of war is doing the work of the kingdom.

4: It was the passion of Jesus for this kingdom, the new Jerusalem, that got him killed.  Had he concentrated solely on his passion for God, he would be remembered today as a great spiritual leader like St. Francis, who helped hundreds (perhaps thousands) connect with God for dozens of years, and then died of old age in some Palestinian hermitage.  But because of his passion, not only for God, but for God's kingdom, he confronted the domination system in Jerusalem and was executed by it.  In the form of crucifixion, which we always must remember was used by Rome exclusively for treason.  Remove that meaning from the passion narrative and you betray the passion of Jesus that got him killed.

3: God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead in ways that could be powerfully experienced by those who knew him and even those, like Paul, who only knew about him.  And hence also for us.  Rome's "no" to Jesus on the cross was turned upside down by God's "yes" of the empty tomb.

2: The way of Jesus, the way of the cross, is not about martyrdom, but dying to an old way of life (the way of the world), and being born to a new way of life (the way of God).  Discipleship, then, is about following this way of Jesus, not just believing the right things about him.  Or, to put it differently, we should think of Christian faith not as belief-centered, but as transformation- centered.  It is changing lives and changing our world that matters most.  Changing minds, a means to an end, is not the end in itself.  To be a follower of Jesus is about a new way of life, not simply a new way of belief.

1: And finally, how we live our lives, how we act as a community, the body of Christ, proclaims to the world that Jesus lives.  And that he is our Lord, and no one else.

And that says it all.


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