Easter 5, Year A: The way, the truth, and the life (John 14:1-14)

Jesus is not one teacher among many through whom we might find the way. His Gospel is not one message among many through which we might find the truth. His life is not one life among many through which we might find the life.

Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” You will not come to the Father, except through him.

Now, if that sounds offensive and scandalous, it’s because it’s supposed to sound that way.

The Gospel will always be an offense and a scandal to a world content in its own fallenness.

It is all too easy to cite this verse as we rage against the dying of the light in a world that has arrogantly shoved Jesus aside and ridiculed all those narrow-minded bigots who keep insisting that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

But if you’re a careful reader of the Scriptures, you can’t but notice a rather harsh reality: those most offended and scandalized by this message when it first began to be proclaimed were not the godless and the lawless, but the most devoutly religious.

Consider what happened to Paul and his companions when they came to Thessalonica and began proclaiming the Gospel.

A group of “jealous” Jews—not Romans, not Greeks, not pagans—“formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason” (Acts 17:5).

Paul and his companions are referred to as “These men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The Greek term Luke employs for “turned the world upside down” is a form of the word, anastasis, literally “resurrection.” Earlier on, when the original disciples were still in Jerusalem prior to the stoning of Stephen, Luke records that the leaders of the temple establishment were “greatly annoyed” with Peter and John “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). By the time Paul and his company reach Thessalonica, the message that had at first “greatly annoyed” the Jerusalem establishment is now said to “have turned the world  upside down,” and, much to the annoyance of the Jews in Thessalonica, devoutly religious people, the men who have been proclaiming it throughout the region “have come here also.”

The message of Jesus and the resurrection is bound to cause an uproar and those who proclaim it can expect fierce opposition. Paul certainly understood this, and not just because of his experience in Thessalonica. But Thessalonica does provide a very clear illustration of the power of the Gospel. Read Paul’s correspondence with the believers in Thessalonica and you will learn how they endured, despite all the affliction. They received the message “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” and “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7). In spite of the fierce opposition, which included being dragged before the city authorities and charged with sedition (Acts 17:6-7), the believers in Thessalonica persevered became a model congregation, not only hearing the word, but putting it into practice.

Paul is one of those people who would, by our post-modern standards, be considered a “polarizing figure.” His preaching divided synagogues and entire cities. But he always managed to find believers in every town, both Jew and Greek, men and women. But trouble would arise when his opponents from one town follow him into the next. The “noble” Jews in Berea “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). But the Jews from Thessalonica, upon hearing this news, roll into town to stir up trouble just as they had in their own city (Act 17:5-9).

The word of God is, indeed, a double-edged sword. With one edge, it cuts down the division between Jew and Greek, making one new man out of the two, bringing peace. With the other edge, it divides believer from non-believer, exposing the jealousy and selfish motivations of those—devoutly religious and zealous for what they believe to be the truth—but who would keep the message of salvation as their own private possession.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says our Lord Jesus Christ. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Yes, this is offensive. Yes, this is scandalous. But, yes, this is the Word of the Lord.

And because it is the Word of the Lord, we are called not to keep it as our own private possession, not to use it to cast aspersions on an unbelieving and godless world but, as a people set apart as God’s own possession, we are called to proclaim it to those who have not heard it and, especially, to those who don’t want to hear it, that this unbelieving and godless world might be turned outside down by the message of Jesus and the resurrection.

The resurrection and the life (Lent 5/Passion Sunday)

We don’t learn much from Jesus about how to conduct a funeral. Every time Jesus shows up at a funeral, he has the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ends as a wedding feast.

That, in fact, would appear to be the point John is trying to make. He structures the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. He begins with a wedding in Cana and then comes full circle with a funeral in Bethany (John 11:1-44, this week’s Gospel text). Jesus has been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.

To fully understand the story, however, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. During that dark period of Israel’s history, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision that looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life. This week’s Old Testament text describes what Ezekiel envisioned.

Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.

The images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberate in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel.

“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision was symbolic of their return from exile. They were at the time “dead” in Babylon, but God promised that the day was coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. Ezekiel had spoken, in previous chapters, about the renewal of the covenant, of cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God was going to act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The language here is that of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, was going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant would mean the new creation. The word that came to be used to describe this great reworking was resurrection!

After their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than a metaphor. There was a deeper meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.

As John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus has said and every sign he has performed has been leading up to this moment.

“You must be born again.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I will raise them up on the last day.”

“[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

“I am the good shepherd.”

“Before Abraham was, I AM.”

But every time Jesus opens his mouth or performs some sign, somebody somewhere wants to kill him. The people are so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they cannot receive the Word of God, but instead reject the Word made flesh as a blasphemer.

By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus is in no mood for sentimentality. The Greek term politely translated, “deeply moved,” means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples appear clueless. When he tells them they are going back to Judea, they try to stop him.

“Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.”

When it is obvious they cannot prevail, they seem resigned to a tragic end. As Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What are they expecting?


What was Mary expecting?

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What were the people expecting?

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seems to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confesses her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confesses her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. But all of this only compounds her grief, because even her expectations are clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complains . . .

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus is uniformly on DEATH. It is the valley of dry bones all over again.

Martha is right about one thing.

“Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”

Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over the hopes and expectations of a people. Death has a way of closing their eyes in blindness, of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb.
But against this dark backdrop, the light of the world is about to shine. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means it literally. “You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”

In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

 “Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs?”

“Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day?”

“Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out?”

“Lazarus, come out!”

This is a pivotal moment in John’s Gospel. Here begins the unfolding of the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus has performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby we begin to understand that Christ draws us to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.

Worshiping out of place: This Sunday’s challenge and opportunity (Lent 4)

The challenge faced by some churches last week will undoubtedly be faced by many more this week. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and government leaders are urging a period of “social distancing” in an attempt to contain the spread, most churches are having to curtail their on campus activities, including regular worship services.

If you are like me, you shudder at the phrase, “worship services cancelled.” Only extreme occurrences of inclement weather, which made it literally impossible even to walk, much less drive, to church have forced such a measure in the past. Fear of contracting an infectious disease while worshiping in the house of God is not something to be countenanced by persons who take their faith in Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, seriously.

Nevertheless, the continued shifting of the goal posts with regard to how large or small a group of people are permitted to gather in one place, has finally forced most churches to make the difficult decision to suspend normal operations until the coronavirus threat is contained. It would be a mistake, however, to say most churches are “cancelling” their services. The availability of a variety of social media platforms affords them the opportunity to offer services online via livestreaming. Many churches, of course, have been livestreaming for some time but those webcasts were of actual in person worship services. The challenge even those churches now face is creating a meaningful worship experience for a congregation that is entirely virtual.

Those of us charged with the proclamation of the Word face perhaps an even greater challenge. We are going to have to reconfigure our homiletical approach, as we will be speaking, from our vantage point, either to a nave full of empty pews or a computer screen in our study. As is so often the case, through the providence of God, this Sunday’s lessons offer us a unique opportunity to address the unusual circumstances that we and our parishioners now face.

In the Gospel text (John 9:1-13, 28-41), John gives the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by rubbing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (“sent”). This miraculous sign is not met with great enthusiasm by the Pharisees who, after some considerable back and forth with the man, “cast him out” of the synagogue. Jesus, hearing of the man’s expulsion, seeks him out and reveals his identity to him. Believing that Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has healed him of his blindness, the man responds by worshiping him.

The contrast John has drawn is stark. The man has been cast out of the synagogue, that is, the place of worship, by those who would claim to be the true worshipers of God by virtue of their being “disciples of Moses.” He is subsequently found by Jesus and, upon declaring his faith in him as “the Son of Man,” he worships him, not in the place from which he has been “cast out,” but right at the very feet of the One who gave him his sight.

As with last week’s account of Jesus and the woman at the well, the message conveyed here is that worship is not, indeed cannot, be confined to any particular place. For those of us who believe, the “place” of worship is wherever we may be; for whenever we worship God “in spirit and truth” (to borrow again from last week), we know that God is with us.

Nicodemus, the New Birth, and this week’s truncated pericope

“Truncated pericope” is a term I use whenever I come upon an assigned lesson from the lectionary that does not convey the full meaning of the text because important elements of its context are missing. The most notorious truncated pericope comes during the First Sunday of Advent. Whether it’s Year A, B, or C, the Gospel lesson for that Sunday picks up in the middle of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), specifically the portion in which Jesus speaks of apocalyptic “signs” such as the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, stars falling from heaven, the powers of the heavens being shaken heralding, one would assume, the return of Christ, “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Such a reading certainly fits the theme of the First Sunday of Advent, and the overarching theme of the season, namely, preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.

The problem that becomes clear, when reading not only the entirety of the Olivet Discourse but also the wider context of the whole biblical narrative, is that the image of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is not one of Christ descending from heaven to earth to establish his kingdom, but ascending from earth to heaven to receive his kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14).

This is not to say that the three versions of the Olivet Discourse do not contain plenty of Second Coming material. It is only to say that the pericope in truncated form forces an incorrect interpretation of a major biblical image in order to fit it into the theme of the day.

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, is also a truncated pericope, although it may not appear to be at first glance. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading is John 3:1-17. The new ACNA lectionary cuts it off at verse 16 and the bulletin inserts from the provincial office, interestingly, end it at verse 15.

Those minor tweaks are not the problem, however. Obviously, the editors of whatever lectionary you are using want to focus this Sunday on the very familiar theme of the New Birth. That is well and good, but John 3 is not merely a discourse on how to be “born again.” It is an account of a conversation between Jesus and “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).

Understanding the wider context surrounding that conversation is important in developing a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the New Birth.

Nicodemus is often viewed sympathetically. Out of all the Pharisees, he is the one who bravely breaks ranks and seeks an audience with Jesus to learn more about him and his teachings. As John’s story unfolds, Nicodemus does, indeed, show signs of a growing awareness of who Jesus is but, as he is introduced in chapter 3, he is the very embodiment of all that is wrong among the Jewish religious elites.

To begin with, the opening of chapter 3 cannot be understood without first reading the last three verses of chapter 2.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

John has not constructed a favorable context for the introduction of Nicodemus.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2)

The context is even less favorable when Nicodemus is contrasted with John the Baptist, introduced in chapter 1.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

The contrast here is stark. John the Baptist was “a man sent from God,” a divinely inspired prophet with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees,” a member of the old guard who held his position merely by virtue of his birth according to the flesh. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” His work was done out in the open, for all to see. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” He snook away from his colleagues and met with Jesus under cloak of darkness.

John is intentionally playing one “man” off of the other. John the Baptist was the herald of the new order, a “man” anointed with the Spirit of God, bearing witness in broad daylight. Nicodemus was the embodiment of the old order, a mere “man” about whom Jesus needed no one to bear witness, seeing the “signs” but failing to comprehend their meaning (cf. John 1:5).

Nicodemus was bound up in generations of human tradition which made it impossible for him to grasp the truth embodied in the man with whom he was conversing under cloak of darkness. As a Pharisee, he understood the essence of Judaism was being a child of Abraham, a descendant of Israel’s great ancestor according to the flesh. But it was precisely this cherished tradition that put Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” outside of the kingdom of God. It was not enough to be born of Abraham. You had to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), that is, you had to be “born again” or, literally, “born from above.” Citizenship in the kingdom of God was not someone’s right according to one’s heritage. Jesus gave “the right to become children of God” only “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).

Nicodemus could not comprehend the things of the Spirit because his mind was dulled by the things of the flesh. He knew of no other birth than that which involved entering his mother’s womb, a feat which he could not imagine accomplishing “a second time.” The birth about which Jesus speaks is a birth “from above,” entering into the realm of God and being transformed by the power of his Spirit to be a part of a glorious new creation. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand precisely because he was so in love with the old creation. After all, he had done pretty well for himself under the present regime. He was wealthy, respected, and influential. Why should he have the faintest desire to be “born again?”

Yet, Jesus’ words, “You must be born again,” were spoken directly to Nicodemus. This well-to-do “man of the Pharisees” and “teacher of Israel,” this elite “ruler of the Jews” was staring God’s long-awaited Messiah in the face. But he was unable to see because the darkness of cherished tradition blinded him to the truth.

Two bitter fruits of the same poisonous tree?

[Note: With news of “prosperity gospel” charlatan Paula White’s appointment to a key advisory position in the White House, I thought it timely to revise and extend this post from several years ago.]

The emergence of theological liberalism in the nineteenth century had a devastating effect on the American pulpit. Preachers like Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) were at the forefront of the transition from strict doctrinal precision to broad doctrinal license. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a twentieth century man, building his reputation through adept use of the mass media of book publishing and radio (the weekly “National Vespers” on the NBC network). However, he was every bit a product of the nineteenth century liberalism in which he was immersed.

Paul Scott Wilson, in A Concise History of Preaching, describes how Fosdick came to develop “a new, alternative method of preaching.”

In journal articles in the 1920’s, 1930’s 1950’s, and in his autobiography, Fosdick discussed his “project method” of homiletics. It was in contrast to topical preaching, which he felt was a “Sir Oracle” lecture on a theme, and expository preaching, in which preachers “assumed that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” He outlined the contemporary expository preaching of which he was critical: “First, elucidation of a Scriptural text, its historical occasion, its logical meaning in the context, its setting in the theology and ethic of the ancient writer; second, application to the auditors of the truth involved; third, exhortation to decide about the truth and act on it.”

After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.” He looked for the way even larger issues of the day, national and international, affected the lives of ordinary people. He wanted sermons to be conversational, “a co-operative dialogue in which the congregation’s objections, questions, doubts and confirmations are fairly stated and dealt with.” The preacher’s business is “to persuade people to repent . . . to produce Christian faith [and] to send people out from their worship on Sunday with victory in their possession.” To this end, “A preacher’s task is to create in his congregation the thing he is talking about.” A sermon on joy is to explore wrong ideas about it, false attempts at it, problems in getting it, and then move to create it.

Whereas lectures had “a subject to be elucidated,” preaching had an “object to be achieved.” Determining this “object” or problem to be solved was the first step in preparation. This was followed by “free association of ideas,” perhaps for several hours, followed in turn by exploration of literature, cases from counseling, the Bible, and personal experience. His structure, commonly three points, for which one must listen carefully to discern, often emerged in the writing of his sermons. Someone said his “sermons begin by describing a human need, next illustrate that need from literature, from contemporary events and personal experiences, and then turn to the Bible for those principles which could meet that need.” His critics caricatured his preaching as “undogmatic Christianity” and “problem-solving.”

Fosdick was also criticized, rightly according to Wilson, “for taking his message to the biblical text and for using the text to illustrate his predetermined point.” He was not the first, and certainly not the last, preacher to commit this error. His methodology, the mistakes inherent in it, and the paucity of its doctrinal and theological underpinnings represented the coming of age of the liberalism birthed in the preaching of Bushnell and Beecher and brought to its tragic conclusion in the incoherent psychobabble of Spong and Schori. Less obvious, at least on first glance, is the sowing of the seeds of the equally innocuous false gospel of “positive thinking” first popularized by Norman Vincent Peale, advanced through mass media by Robert Schuller, and now embodied in all its garish glory by the the insufferable Joel Osteen. It is also quite easy to draw a direct historical and theological line from Fosdick to Peale to President Trump’s faith adviser and peddler of the “prosperity gospel,” Paula White.

Except for students of homiletics and church history, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons and writings are largely forgotten. To the person in the pew, he is best remembered for the stirring hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” In recalling the era in which he was at the height of his influence, however, we can see two bitter fruits produced from the same poisonous tree of the liberalism which shaped his methodology and his ministry.