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Making Sense

Simple Faith?
Cycle B Sermons for Lent and Easter Based on Gospel Texts
Have you ever come across a piece of scripture that you really just didn’t know what to do with? Everything you read before it makes sense, and everything after it, but that one passage just sits there staring at you, almost defying you to understand why it is there and what it means.

We may have that problem with today’s passage from John’s gospel. John is describing the things that happened while Jesus and the disciples were around the table celebrating the Passover seder on the night before he was arrested. When the meal was over and Judas had run from the room after being identified as the betrayer, Jesus talked with them for quite a while. He seemed to understand this was his last opportunity to teach them and help them understand. He told them not to let their hearts be troubled, but just believe in him, and in God, and all would work out. He talked about his love for them, and how they should love one another. He told stories like the one about him being the true vine. He warned them that he soon would no longer be with them as he had been, but they should not be afraid, comparing what was to happen to a woman giving birth to a child. There would be pain, but then everyone would celebrate when they saw what was actually borne from that pain.

Jesus was trying very hard to help the disciples understand what he was saying, and at one point they actually said to him, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in figures of speech! Now we know that you know all things.” The disciples had always struggled with the many parables they had heard him tell and seemed to do much better with this “tell it like it is” approach. We can almost see them all smiling and looking at each other, excited about the fact that they were finally understanding what he was saying. But then, right after they said they were beginning to understand him, Jesus paused, and we’re told he looked upward toward heaven as he began praying.

And this is where it seems a bit puzzling.

After trying so hard to speak in a way the disciples could understand, he sat with them and offered a prayer that included, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you” (vv. 9-11). And he ends his prayer with, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26).

Why the huge change in language? After speaking so casually to help the disciples understand everything, why would Jesus become so formal when he prayed? In less than an hour he would kneel in the garden of Gethsemane and pray: “Daddy, if you can get me out of this, please do!” It wasn’t that Jesus believed that he had to speak in a highly formal way when he prayed to God. So why?

In my imagination, I see the smiles disappearing from the faces of the disciples as Jesus began his prayer. Once again, they were lost. They just didn’t understand. He was speaking so clearly before, but not now. Why?

I have a particular reason in mind for looking at the many people who have made a personal decision to look more closely at their faith. As a part of that decision, they set a personal goal to spend time each day reading the Bible. Their goal is to read every day until they have read the entire story of the faith. They get started and things go very well until the day they run into a passage like this one in John; one that seems to defy them to understand what it says. In almost every case that is the day they stop reading. There is usually one of three reasons they actually stop. Either they aren’t capable of understanding the great mysteries of the word of God, the Bible is just too old to make any real sense today, or the Bible is just kind of thrown together with no real design and no real way to sort through it all to make any sense. If we can help make some sense of this strange little passage, perhaps it will help someone keep reading when they run into it, and others like it, in the future.

Because the passage does make sense.

What we want to remember is that each of the gospel writers was writing at a specific time, to a specific audience. John wrote his book later than the other writers, and during a time in which the early church was facing some really horrendous challenges. The church had become visible enough to get the attention of the Roman leaders, and their response was to begin some profoundly harsh acts of persecution. They also worked to keep new converts from joining the church and to destroy those who already professed to be followers of this Jesus of Nazareth. Much of what John wrote was aimed at those persecutors or at those who needed encouragement to take the huge risk to become a part of the new church.

Even more disturbing were the arguments that had developed within the church itself. As much as Rome damaged the church by discouraging converts, this internal battleground served to divide and split the new church into pieces, further weakening it to the point of threatening its very survival. John wrote many of his words to ease this internal fighting and that is what we find him doing in this passage we are talking about today. The things the early church fought about may sound strange to us today, just as our current religious arguments would be strange to them. They argued about numbers. The Bible talked about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Did that mean there were three different beings or were they all actually one being who appeared at different times? It may not sound all that important to us, but it was enough to divide the small early church into different factions at the time. And was Jesus truly fully human, or was he partly God and partly human, or was he fully God and only appearing to be human? Again, it sounds like the topic of a seminary class today, but then, it sparked the creation of several other branches of the Christian church.

These are the kinds of arguments that develop as the church spreads into different places with very different beliefs and cultures. Our passage today is based on an argument that arose as the early church began to grow in the highly intellectual cultures of Greece and Rome. These were also the seats of the origin of things like logic and law, so this new Christian faith was viewed through those filters. The argument went like this: Even if we do accept the story that Jesus lived on earth, died on the cross, and was fully resurrected as the stories say, how does that give him the authority to be the one who can forgive sins? According to the law of the day, forgiveness of any crime could only be granted by a supreme judge who had the ultimate authority to grant such forgiveness. It was clear that even Jesus admitted that God was the ultimate judge, and he was only the Son or servant of the judge. How could anyone possibly have his or her sins forgiven by being a follower of the servant of the judge?

For John’s reading audience, the one thing that made the new church so difficult for people to accept was the fact that it was not logical; it argued that sins could be forgiven by the servant, rather than by the supreme judge. No matter how wonderful a story John told, it was meaningless unless he could somehow resolve this issue of the forgiveness of sins.

With that in mind, we can close our eyes and imagine Jesus no longer sitting at the table with the disciples but standing in the courtroom, making his closing statement before the jury. While the words before and after the prayer were to help the disciples understand, John wrote the prayer to make perfect sense to those logical Greeks and Romans.

In a formal, structured manner, Jesus stated his case in his prayer. He recognized that God is supreme and that everything and everyone belongs to God. He then made the affirmation that he, Jesus, actually came from God and that he was acting on God’s behalf. He was not a servant but the earthly representative of the supreme judge with full, legal authority to care for those God has given him. While we read through these words, scratching our heads and trying to make sense of the language, John’s audience would have read it in amazement, for the first time finding the logical argument that made sense to them and clarified just who this Jesus actually was. John was not writing to us here but taking the opportunity to talk directly to those first-century logicians, with the hope of avoiding another destructive split in the church. As soon as he made his point, he wrote: “After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley” (John 18:1).

Sometimes things just may not make sense to us, simply because they weren’t written for us. And rather than close the book, we simply turn the page, and wait for the writer to look back in our direction and speak to us.

It’s always worth the wait.
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