“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).
The Gospel of John concludes with this sentence, a sentence which might be pronounced as the summary of all the gospels together. A gospel is not a biography. A gospel is not a treatise. A gospel announces something new and something good, good news. In the fourth gospel we arrive at the summit of the gospels. This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John.
Not long ago we received a hand written letter here at Marsh Chapel. The letter came from one of our radio listeners. She was listening from a cabin in the White Mountains. She expressed appreciation for liturgy, homily and music. This caused her to reflect a bit on her past and her future and her relationships. She closed with an expressed yearning to listen again. In the height and beauty of the mountains, she heard something, something new, something good, good news.
In its true hearing and real speaking, the gospel is that kind of beauty and height. Heaven is a little higher in these pages. John is a mountain among others in the range, but more so than others in the range. John is Slide Mountain in the Catskills, Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks, Pikes Peak in the Rockies, Mt Everest in the Himalayas, the Matterhorn in the Alps, Mt Fuji in Japan. John is the bride, the synoptics are the bridesmaids; John the groom, the others the ushers. John is the gospel for which the others were made. Before John, the rest is prelude.
2. Dislocation and Disappointment
John is a craggy, cliff walk story of dislocation and disappointment. Your life is such a story too. In fact, these are the two great struggles of salvation, the two great struggles of the salvation we work out daily in fear and trembling. Dislocation and disappointment. The Gospel of John brings grace for dislocation and freedom in disappointment, and hence is great and good news!
The high peak of the fourth gospel is shrouded, like the Matterhorn it is, in clouds of mystery and unknowing.
What is John’s conceptual background? The synoptics? Paul? Hellenism? Judaism? Hellenistic Judaism? Gnosticism? We still wait for the cloud cover to lift.
What is John’s documentary history? One of pages displaced by wind or error? One of original writing quickly transformed? One of a source rewritten by an evangelist then twisted backward by an editor? One of many stages of community, influence and composition? We wait still for the cloud cover to move.
How did the words we here on Sunday come to life? In a monk’s meditation chamber? In the reflections and memories of an aged apostle? In the non-Christian philosophical schools of late antiquity? As a series of sermons, later, by request, stitched together? The cloud bank hovers still over the ice clad peaks.
For whom was this document written? For a universal or a particular audience? For a Jewish or a gentile audience? For a Christian or a non-Christian audience? For those coming to faith or those continuing in faith?
No wonder Adolf von Harnack could call John, “the most marvelous enigma in early Christianity”.
Answers to these questions are significant for the meaning of the gospel today. Beware interpretation that ignores them. You may judge that the first option in each list is the truest. I do judge that the last option in each list is the truest (gnostic, multi-stage, sermonic, particulargentilecontinuing in faith).
A greater mystery though remains in the craggy cloud covered mists above. What was going on in the life of the first hearers of these words?
Is the gospel telling the story of an actual event in the life of John’s community in such a way that it may be seen to re-enact episodes in the life of Jesus? (So, J L Martyn) Is that why coming to faith in Jesus in this gospel does mean a change in social location? (So, W Meeks) Is its embarrassing vitriol and anti-Semitism the work of a cognitive minority trying to assert identity over against their parent synagogue? (So, J Ashton). Is the gospel written in the midst of social dislocation and spiritual disappointment? (So, Hill)Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.
3. Grace During Dislocation
There is bitter hurt in this sublime chapter, caused by a break with the first identity, a cutting of the umbilical cord, a leaving home, a separation from the family, a dismissal from the synagogue. John was written for and by a group which recently had departed from their mother congregation, their mother religion.
The religion of origin said, “In the beginning, God…” Replies John, “In the beginning was the Word”.
Inherited religion said, “In the beginning God created…” Rejoins John, “All things came into being through Him”
Old time religion said, “God created the heavens and the earth”. Retorts John, “In Him was life”
Inheritance said, “God said “let their be light”. Rebuts John, “In Him was life and that life was the light of all peoples, which shines in the dark.”
Tradition honored prophets from Moses to John the Baptist. Rephrases John, “there was a man named John”.
Old time religion was law and prophecy, culminating in the great Baptist. Says John, “He came as a witness…to testify to the light…the true light that enlightens everyone. He himself was not the light (in case you missed the point made three times before).
Inheritance said, “there was evening and morning, one day”. Replies John, “the world came into being through Him.”
Old time religion said, “we are his people the sheep of his pasture”. John retorts, “he came to his own people and his own people did not accept him.”
The community that formed this Gospel has been given the heave-ho, shown the door, given the bum’s rush, given the wet mitten by their former community. You are listening to a family feud, 19 centuries old. This Gospel is born in dislocation. The Gospel of John is written in the pain of dislocation. In John we overhear the bitter pain of the church leaving church, the congregation leaving the synagogue.
Dare we summon the courage needed for change? Dislocation is a part of healthy growth.
I returned to my pulpit from summer vacation to find a thriving community, and growth, and dislocation, at Marsh Chapel. A growing service to the hungry—and some dislocation. A new ministry to the students—with a little dislocation. A new enlarged choir—did some of you sense dislocation?
What issues challenge you most? Loss, defeat, death, vocation, sexuality, pride, sloth, falsehood, disorientation, illness, hunger, loneliness? Each of these involves serious dislocation.
“The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.
It is the Gospel of John that most profoundly addresses our ongoing need to develop as persons.
Dislocation visits every age and place.
The past decade of dislocation in this country has yet to find full expression. Corporate dislocation: I thought this job was for life? Medical dislocation: were we not the pride of the country in health care? Economic dislocation: someone threw a recovery party and forgot our upstate invitation. Geographical dislocation: I left two generations to the west or east to come here, now what?
The Gospel of John is not focused on ethics. There is only minimal ethical teaching here. One looks in vain for a sermon on the mount or plain. One searches without result for a parable with a point. One hungers without satisfaction for a wisdom saying, an epigram, a teaching on virtue. In John we have the teleological suspension of the ethical (there a phrase worth the price of admission itself!). Only the command to love remains.
Instead, the Fourth Gospel focuses on your need to become who you are, to grow up. We grow by changing. Real response to life, and its requisite mediation on death, summons a courage to change.
One freshwoman sat between her mom and dad, having a sandwich at a nearby restaurant. They were tightly seated, mom and dad and daughter, although the room was not full. They huddled together, like geese heading for the water. Mom and Dad drank coke and spooned soup, wordless, mute, silent. They never dared to catch each others eyes, so filled were each others eyes. They spooned and listened. And waited, for that last trip to the room, coming you could tell after dinner, and that last hug and that last gift and that last goodbye. There are no atheists in foxholes, and all parents pray when they leave the freshman dorm.
She roamed the world by cell phone, while her parents spooned soup. A friend in Milwaukee, was it? Can you hear me now? High school sweetheart in New York. Can you hear me now? Sister in San Diego. Can you hear me now. I could not hear her, but I can hear her now. She was not about to let her geographical dislocation become a matter of relational disorientation. By glory, she was carving out her own virtual dorm, her own telephonic suite, her own cyber city. What they faced in despair, she addressed in anxiety. As you know, both were doomed. The dislocation would come, soon enough. Dislocation is assured. The open question is about the courage to change when the inevitable arrives.
The great and surprising good news of Jesus Christ, in this Gospel, is that grace may be found, may especially be found, in the upheaval of dislocation. Grace may be found, may abound, in the freshman years of life. Students or parents, hear it well. Future students or grandparents, hear it well. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.
You can do it. You will get through it.
Oh, prayer will help, and reading of the scripture and a church family and the habits of generosity and service. All will help. You can do these. Please do. But it is largely and lastly Grace that will see you through.
Out they walked, the dislocated trio, arm in arm, into a dark and unforeseeable future. Is that not grace, the faith to walk into the dark? Grace during dislocation. Good news!
4. Freedom Following Disappointment
Like dislocation, disappointment provokes a serious existential battle.
Now there are varieties of disappointment, but the same Lord who heals us from them all. In Boston, we have a division pennant. We won! We have survived, though I did hear of someone remark that now he might be disappointed not to be disappointed! But we know that not all life is victory. Joy may tarry for the night, but weeping comes in the morning. We know about disappointment. John has a lastingly strong word for the experience of disappointment.
I believe it is very difficult for us to appreciate the courage in John, the theological courage of this writing.
One of the most precious beliefs of the earliest Christians resided in the confidence that very soon the world would come to an end and the Lord would return for his people. This expectation of the end governs the letters of Paul and the first three Gospels. It was, if you will, the bedrock belief of the primitive church.
Had not Jesus preached, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”?
Yes he had. And he was wrong.
Had not Peter left nets, family, homeland and life itself on the expectation of the apocalypse? Yes he had. And he was wrong.
Had not Paul predicted, “we the living, the remaining, will be caught up together with him in the clouds”? Yes he had. And he was wrong.
Had not the community described in Acts pooled all their possessions, assuming a short wait to rapture? Yes they had. And they were wrong.
Only John faces this grave disappointment with utter honesty. The others hold onto the old religion, the expected return. John admits delay. John has the guts to say to his people: “What we once believed is clearly not true. Let us look about us and see what this means.” I wonder whether there are some listening today for whom an old verity or two no longer holds. I wonder whether you are realizing that your old idea of God was too small, or your old idea of love was too big, or your old idea of self was not yours.
If so, climb with me a clouded mountain. John finds freedom on the far side of disappointment.
And behold, atop this mountain, what do we find?
In place of parousia, we find paraclete.
In place of cataclysm, we find church.
In place of speculation, we find spirit.
In place of Armageddon we find artistry and imagination!
When finally we stop chasing what is not to be, and wake up to what is, we may be utterly amazed.
Seasoned Religion said that the end was near. John says the beginning is here.
Old Time Religion saw the end of the world. John preached the light of the world.
Inherited spirituality waited for the coming of the Lord. John celebrated the Word among us, full of grace and truth.
Old Time Religion feared death, judgment, heaven and hell. John faced them all in every day.
Traditional Religion clung fiercely to an ancient untruth. John let go, and accepted a modern new truth, and hugged grace and freedom.
Our inheritance, and Matthew and Mark and Luke and Paul and all looked toward the End, soon to come. John looked up at the beginning, already here. They said with Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well”. John replied, “well begun is half done”.
John alone had the full courage to face spiritual disappointment and move ahead. So we memorize 8:32: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free! Galileo knew that truth. Darwin knew that truth. All faced the need to change from inherited untruth to new insight and imagination. These and others knew V Havel’s definition of hope, working for something not because it will succeed, but because it is right, true and good. Even in a disappointment, sometimes especially in disappointment, a kind of freedom emerges.
Ours is a resigned, disappointed culture just now. Events since 2001 have conspired to disappoint some of our earlier understandings. We face new truth: the world is smaller and starker than we wanted to believe. We have not yet found our way out of the psychic rubble of our time yet. We are trying, and we are moving, but an almost unspeakable disappointment remains. We shall need to summon and be summoned by the courage to change. For we may have to change our understanding, our philosophy, our theology even, to face a new day. And we have to face the hard fact, that the future is open, freely open, both to terror and to tenderness. And here is John, he who wrote in the ancient rubble of dislocation and disappointment, telling us something wonderful and good: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In disappointment, a new kind of freedom can emerge.
There is a way of living that finds grace in dislocation and freedom in disappointment. There is a way of living with courage to change. As John Kennedy described such courage at his nomination:
(This is) not a set of promises, it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook – it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.
But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric – and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me regardless of party.
But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age – to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.”
For courage – not complacency – is our need today – leadership, not salesmanship.
These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
Faith is the courage to change. It involves a leap.
Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.
Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.
Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.
Now is the time to jump. Now is a time for courage to change.