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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.