Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part Four)

Toward the end of Martin Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, Luther offers a section entitled “Concerning Works for the Neighbor.” Luther roots works of love for the neighbor in our trust in God because of Christ. Since we receive all that God has to offer for free, by grace, and accept that grace through faith, we are freed to do everything in love for God who loves us completely. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes, “just as Christ offered himself to me” (page 524).

This is the first of several expressions of “Luther’s Golden Rule.” While the more familiar form of the Golden Rule is something like “do to others as you would have them do to you,” Luther’s expression of the Golden rule is different. For me as a disciple, what I would wish done to me is not the standard for measuring and assessing my behavior. God’s grace makes it possible for me to de-center myself and put Jesus in the center of the frame as the standard of loving service.

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Luther reminds his readers that “just as our neighbor has needs and lacks what we have in abundance, so also we had need before God and lacked God’s mercy. For this reason,” he continues, “our heavenly Father supported us freely in Christ, so also we ought to freely support our neighbor with our body and its actions, and each person ought to become to the other a kind of Christ, so that we may be Christs to one another and be the same Christ in all, that is, truly Christians” (page 525).

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus tells the disciples in John 13:34b (NRSV), “you also should love one another.” The standard for the disciple life in the Johannine account is the active and embodied love that Jesus extends first to us as disciples. “We continue to love,” the writer of the First Letter of John says, “because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19, my translation). That love is to the end, the completion, the uttermost. It is both the means of and the model for our love for one another.

It is not that Luther diminishes the importance of what most people would consider to be “the Golden Rule.” Luther puts his esteem for that rule like this. “Look here!” he proclaims, “This should be the rule: that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way,” he continues, “each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place” (page 530). That’s a pretty strong endorsement of “the Golden Rule” (and a nod toward Luther’s socialist tendencies, at least within the Christian community).

The rationale for this rule, however, (according to Luther) is not because it’s a wonderful general principle for human conduct – although it is certainly that. Instead, love for neighbor is rooted in Christ’s love for us. “Just as my faith and righteousness ought to be placed before God to cover and intercede for the neighbor’s sins, which I take upon myself,” Luther writes, “so also I labor under and am subject to them as if they were my very own. For this,” Luther concludes, “is what Christ did for us. For this is true love and the genuine rule of Christian life” (page 530).

Perhaps we are reminded at this point of Paul’s encouragement to the Galatian Christians. “Bear the burdens of one another, and this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, my translation). Luther brings the final section of is tract to an end in this way. “Therefore we conclude that the Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith,” Luther writes, “and in the neighbor through love” (page 530). This is, according to Luther, the definition of the “freedom of a Christian.”

Here and elsewhere in his work, Luther is clear that this rule of love is not something we disciples carry out on our own or to our credit. Instead, he argues, in the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, that Christ is present in each of us and all of us through faith. In Johannine terms, the disciples receive the model of this love in John 13, the foot-washing. But it is not until John 20 that they receive the means of this love, when Jesus breathes into them his Holy Spirit.

“Christ is, thus, the true agent of good works in the Christian,” Tuomo Mannermaa writes in Christ Present in Faith (Kindle Location 682). This loving presence of Christ in the disciple makes it possible for the disciple to fulfill the “law of Christ,” what in the Johannine account is now called a “new commandment.” Mannermaa quotes Luther, who puts it this way: “Thus he is a true doer of the Law who receives the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ and then begins to love God and to do good to his neighbor” (Kindle Location 712).

I think the context of our reading has a profound impact on how we understand and then embody this love for one another. As we have noted previously, the new commandment is sandwiched in between references to the betrayal by Judas and the denial by Peter. It is precisely these failed disciples that Jesus loves to the uttermost. Jesus does not love either Judas or Peter because they achieve some required behavioral standard. Jesus does not mandate that they conform to some model of being or behavior. As the First Letter of John reminds us, Christ loves us first.

This is the part that I can write but struggle to accept. Each of us has a story about the formative role of conditional love in our lives. I don’t consider myself exceptional in that regard. Nonetheless, my story is indeed my story. I was trained, as were those who came before me, to believe that loving care was always a reward for performance. That performance might be taking care of the needs of another, having the right answer to a question, or just getting out of the way and trying not to be a bother. In any event, loving care did not come first, but rather second.

And that loving care was conditioned upon my being assimilated to the needs and standards of another or of others. I didn’t suffer nearly as much trauma as many people, so I’m not making a case for some special victimhood here. Instead, I think I’m quite typical and ordinary of our human experience – systems that require us to become something we’re not in order to be embraced and included, at least for the present moment.

Temporary and conditional loving care is not the love that Jesus gives to his disciples (and God to the world). Jesus loves us first, as we are, where we are. We are not called to change in order to be loved. We are loved into the beautiful creations we were always meant by God to be. That is the love present in us by faith in Christ – who gives himself to us to the uttermost and without condition. And this is the love we are empowered to emulate as Jesus’ disciples.

Love one another as Christ loves you. It sounds so simple. But it has revolutionary implications. For example, in our anti-racism book study, we (White participants) continue to reflect on and wrestle with our individual and systemic behaviors that center our Whiteness in our awareness, our actions, and our worldview. That White-centering makes it impossible to love BIPOC folks for themselves. White supremacy means that BIPOC folks are objects to be appropriated into the White story of the world and of individual life. That’s the opposite of loving one another as Christ loves us.

If I am to bear another’s burdens and thus fulfill the Law of Christ, then I must become intimately familiar with those burdens before picking them up. That’s why it is so important to do the work of learning as much as we White people can about the experiences of our BIPOC sisters and brothers in our White-centric culture and churches. This learning requires humility, listening, self-awareness, self-reflection, and repentance. Until we’ve done that work – coming to terms with our White identity – we won’t be either safe or competent in bearing the burdens of others in this culture.

In another line of thought, my enemies are not God’s enemies – or at least are not punished for being anyone’s enemies. I’m leading a brief study on the Book of Jonah both online and in our local congregation. And this is one of the lessons of that little book. Loving as Jesus loves means that my enemies are still objects of God’s love. A preacher might point to the reading from the Book of Acts for Sunday to find additional support for this assertion.

So, my agenda in scapegoating and punishing others does not fit with God’s agenda of giving abundant life to all. If I have higher standards than God in this realm, I should probably re-examine my standards and adjust my thinking. Just as Christ has loved me (and loves me to the end), so I am called daily to love others.

And that’s the Good News…

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525.

van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.

Wengert, Timothy J. The Freedom of a Christian 1520 (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Fortress Press, 2016.

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Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part Three)

What does Jesus, as portrayed by the Johannine author, mean in our text by the word “commandment”? We who live with a post-Reformation Protestant mindset in the West jump immediately to the idea of a “law” to be obeyed. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments, for example, as laws God’s people must keep in order to demonstrate their worthiness for a relationship with God. We tend to think, then, that such “laws” are bad since they are the scaffolding upon which we seek to build our works-righteousness.

That’s not a helpful or accurate understanding of the nature of the Ten Commandments. Nor is it a faithful exegesis of Paul’s arguments about the righteousness of God in Romans, Galatians, and elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. Mostly, this understanding of the nature of a “commandment” is yet another way to make Christians look good by making Jews look bad. That’s a post-Reformation Protestant sin for which we in that camp need to offer ongoing repentance and repair.

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Thus, that’s not what “commandment” means here in John 13 and elsewhere in the Johannine account. But what, then, is the meaning of the term? Let’s look at the narrative logic of our text for some help in answering that question.

The disciple community is cracking under the strain of events and the threat of destruction. Judas has left to put in motion the end game which will bring the movement to a head or put it out of its misery for good. Jesus declares that this action has launched the “glorification of the Son of Man” and the “glorification” of God through the Son. In John, this glorification is the whole complex of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. This glorification means that Jesus is leaving the disciples to go where they cannot come.

Since Jesus is leaving to accomplish his glorification, he leaves the disciples with a “new commandment” to guide and form them in his absence. This is the commandment for the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This isn’t a way to demonstrate their perfection or worthiness. Instead, I would suggest that Jesus leaves the disciples with a “community rule” to form them as a fellowship and to guide them in their ongoing life together in and for the world.

Dirk van der Merwe tracks the vocabulary of obedience in his recent paper. He writes that in the Johannine account, the disciples (and we who benefit from the testimony of the disciples) learn the meaning of “obedience” through the example of Jesus. Jesus tells them this explicitly in John 13:15. Anyone who wants to know God, van der Merwe continues, must obey God. In the Johannine account, he argues, the essence of that obedience is to love like Jesus loves.

The typical words for “obey” and “obedience” in New Testament Greek show up only rarely in the Johannine account. Instead, the word most often translated with some form of obey is the verb tereo. This verb to keep or observe as well as secondarily to obey. It has more the sense of maintaining a practice than obeying a law. If the new commandment in John 13 is really a community rule, then this vocabulary makes eminent sense. As Jesus goes to be with the Father, he leaves a rule to form and maintain the disciple community.

Van der Merwe writes that “in the Gospel of John, love is primarily understood as a bond of commitment.” It is more than a feeling, instead this love is actions based on that bond of commitment. “Because of his commitment to the world,” van der Merwe continues, “God has sent the Son, whom [God] loves, to communicate [God’s] love to a world, alienated from its Creator.” This reminds me that any message about God’s love based on the Johannine account must always be anchored, in one way or another, to the fundamental description of that love in John 3:16.

It’s important to remember at this point the proper translation and understanding of John 3:16. That passage is not about the amount or degree of God’s love for the cosmos. Rather, that verse offers a description of the method or means of God’s love for the cosmos. If love is an action in response to a bond of commitment, then God sends the Son into the world as that action – not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through the Son.

This new commandment of love for the brother or sister is discussed in 1 John 2:7-17. Scholars debate the relationship between the Gospel of John and this first letter, arguing over which document came “first.” It makes some sense to me that the letter precedes the gospel chronologically and gives us some framework for understanding that’s at stake in the gospel. At least some in the Johannine community seem to be separating their love for the Father from their love (or the lack thereof) for the members of the disciple community.

The discussion continues in 1 John 3. “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning,” the writer declares, “that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11, NRSV). The counter-example of this love is the hatred that Cain has for Abel, enacted in fratricide. “We know that we have passed from death to life,” the writer continues, because we love one another” (1 John 3:14a, NRSV). But some in the community are not living out that new commandment, since they refuse to help other community members by sharing their resources with those in need (see 1 John 3:17).

“Love from the Father is fundamental for God’s children,” van der Merwe notes, “because they are requested to share their love with others…After communicating to his followers, the Father’s love,” van der Merwe continues, “Jesus called them to love one another.” The shape of the community between the Father and Jesus will also be the shape of the community between the disciples. “Little children,” the writer of First John urges, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

Loving one another will be the rule that forms the disciples as community and the behavior that identifies them to the world. This behavior is most clearly modeled in the foot washing, the “example” that Jesus gives for how this community rule is to be implemented and imitated over and over in the life of the disciple community.

The word for “example” really translates best as a “type” or “pattern” or “model.” I think that the Johannine author sees this example as a kind of recursive model that produces deeper intimacy with the Father through Jesus and deeper intimacy within the disciple community. I don’t think that Jesus means we should spend all of our time washing one another’s feet, although that might be a good start. Instead, the community will be formed and deepened each time disciples act according to this pattern of behavior.

For the Johannine author and community, the recurrent application of this rule for life together will deepen and expand the community and each disciple’s relationship with Jesus and with one another. In a real sense, doing will lead to believing rather than the other way around. That’s contrary to modern ways of imaging the relationship between belief and action. We’d like to belief ourselves into acting, rather than acting ourselves into believing. But that’s not the rule described here in the Johannine account.

Van der Merwe outlines the “rewards of being obedient” as described in the Johannine account. I would use the word “result,” perhaps, rather than “reward,” since the latter term always has something of the sense of merit associated with it. Instead, the Johannine author expects that keeping the community rule will have certain desirable outcomes for the disciples. Those outcomes would include experiencing the presence of Jesus and God in the lives of believers, becoming friends of Jesus, being honored and glorified by God, and honoring and glorifying God in return.

These outcomes of living the community rule are listed as well in 1 John 3. Even when we disciples are convicted by our own conscience that we have not loved as we ought, God is greater than our own self-condemnation. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, the writer told us in the first chapter of the letter. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “Because if our hearts do not condemn us,” we read in 1 John 3:21-22 (NRSV), “we have boldness before God; and we receive from [God] whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”

The fourth chapter of First John expands further on the meaning and outcomes of this community rule. Everyone who loves (according to this rule) is born of God and knows God. God’s love is the root of our love, and we love in response to that gracious gift. Loving one another as God loves us is the way to see God in our lives and our communities, and to have that love made complete in us. This is the work of the Spirit who testifies to God’s love and causes us to abide in God.

The bottom line in chapter four takes us back to the importance of this community rule. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21, NRSV). This is the “one simple rule” for life with God in Christ, embodied in life with the community of faith.

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525. van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.

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Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part Two)

“A new creation comes to life and grows,” John Geyer wrote in verse four of the hymn “We Know That Christ Is Raised.” Geyer continues, “as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood. The universe restored and whole will sing: Hallelujah!” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #449). Geyer’s words are set to Charles Stanford’s tune, “Engelberg.” It’s a great hymn for the Easter season and moves us from Jesus’ resurrection as an historical event to Jesus’ resurrection as a cosmic reality.

The same tune serves as the setting for words by Delores Dufner. “To be your presence is our mission here,” Dufner writes. She goes on to declare that this presence means to be Christ’s heart of mercy, hands of justice, voice of hope, and love expressed. She summarizes the call in the fourth verse: “We are your heart, O Christ, your hands and voice, to serve your people is our call and choice, and in this mission we, the church rejoice, alleluia!” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #546).

Studies of Hands and Feet by Franu00e7ois Le Moyne is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

It is not unusual for different hymn texts to be set to the same tune. As a general practice, I don’t use such hymnic twins in the same worship service for the sake of melodic variety. But I might make an exception in worship this coming Sunday if I were doing the worship planning. If one reads the texts of the hymns, the flow from Geyer’s poetry into Dufner’s proclamation is clear and seamless. Using the same melody might help worshipers to experience that connection and progression in a more visceral way.

I begin with this liturgical commentary because I think this is one of the possible emphases in preaching on John 13:31-35. In the Farewell Discourse, the Johannine Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure and absence. Where he is going, they cannot come. In chapter fourteen he will remind them that they already know and have seen the Way to the Father in him. A major part of the preparation in the Farewell Discourse is, I think, preparing the disciples not only to witness to Jesus’ presence among them even when he appears to be absent but, more importantly, to be that presence for one another and for the cosmos.

Conversation about the “presence” of the risen Christ to, in, and/or through the community of disciples leads me to thinking about a sacramental understanding of that presence. That is certainly not a required or universal direction for the text. It also requires a subtle examination of the Johannine account since the possible presence of a sacramental sensibility is a matter for both scholarly and confessional debate and disagreement.

That being said, it seems to me that one of the arcs of John 13 is this preparation of the disciples to be the ongoing presence of Jesus to and for one another. Frances Moloney discusses the sacramental sensibilities in the Johannine account in his article. I want to spend some time reviewing and reflecting on that article here.

Moloney notes that the Eucharistic themes of the Johannine account are mostly absent from chapter 13. These themes show up most clearly in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. They also show up, Moloney suggests, in John 19. This is the moment when the soldiers pierce Jesus’ side and blood and water flow out (see John 19:34). “The community is linked with Calvary,” Moloney writes, “through the presence of the pierced one in their eucharistic celebrations” (page 238).

Moloney argues that these eucharistic anchor points in the Johannine account develop a sacramental understanding of the eucharist as “presence.” It’s clear that the Johannine community addressed by the gospel account is struggling with an experience of the “absence” of the risen Christ. This sense of absence is perhaps increasing as they become more distant in time from Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And, I would add, that sense of distance is also perhaps increasing as the community experiences conflict with and then rejection by the synagogue communities in which these Jewish Christians have lived since the Ascension.

Moloney suggests that the Johannine author wants to assure the believing community that they can find the presence of the “absent” Jesus in their sacramental life – in Baptism and the Eucharist. “This message was addressed to a community wondering,” Moloney writes, “at the end of the first century – where they might encounter Christ, the Son of God, so that they might come to a deeper faith in him (20:31)” (page 239). The Johannine author is pointing to the ongoing “presence of the absent one.”

You might recall that many of the Johannine verbs related to believing are in the present or imperfect tense. These tenses have to do with either continuing action in the present or action that began in the past but continues into the present. In the Johannine purpose statement, we know that we can readily translate John 20:30-31 as encouraging us to continue to put our trust in the fact that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.

Do the sign, dialogue, and discourse in John 13 support this proposed emphasis on sacramental presence in the Johannine account? Moloney argues in favor of that notion. There is the possible connection between the foot-washing and the Johannine understanding and practice of Baptism. In addition, Moloney makes a strong exegetical argument for a Eucharistic connection in the scene when Jesus gives a chunk of bread to Judas. There are strong verbal connections between John 13 and the Bread of Life discourse in John 6.

“The whole of [John] 13:1-38 indicates that Jesus shows the quality of his love,” Moloney writes, “a love which makes God known – by choosing, forming, sending out, and nourishing his disciples of all times, catching them up in the rhythm of his own self-giving life and death” (page 254). The disciples who are “caught up” in the rhythm in the Johannine account show ignorance, fail Jesus, deny him, and even betray him. After all, in John 13, Judas is the one who receives the bread from Jesus’ hand and then goes out to hand Jesus over.

“It is in Jesus’ never-failing love for such disciples, a love which even reached out to the archetype of the evil disciple,” Moloney argues, “that he shows that he is the unique revelation of God among us. The text calls,” Moloney continues, “for the reader’s response to this God through a commitment to a similar quality of love (vv. 15-17, 34-35)” (page 254). Washing feet and feeding even the worst betrayer are practices that embody Jesus’ presence in, to, and through the disciple community. These practices of mutual love will demonstrate Jesus’ presence to the world, as we read in John 13:35.

“It is critical for the interpretation of this commandment to recognize that it follows Jesus’ very direct statement about his departure,” Karoline Lewis writes. “To love one another is for the sake of remembering the feeling of how Jesus loved them,” she continues. “Love is a mark of discipleship, for the outside world to see, but it is also necessary for them to show each other” (page 184). This ministry of disciples washing and feeding one another is Jesus’ response to the community’s anxiety about his apparent absence.

I have been physically absent from the worshiping community for most of the last two years. As I return to a much more physical presence, I find this text (when taken in the whole sweep of John 13) to be challenging and invigorating. I know that even when most of us were physically present at worship in “the before times,” we didn’t really show up as who we truly were. We put on our church personas and were always “just fine” or “blessed” or “grateful,” when asked how we were. We brought our bodies to church and checked our lives at the door.

That’s not being present to one another or to Jesus. I find it so easy to slip right back into that way of appearing in my body without being present to the Body. I may arrive ignorant, failed, cowardly, and self-serving. But I certainly don’t wish for anyone else to see what is so painfully obvious to me. Part of the challenge of coming back, for me, is to be present as I am and to trust that we as the Body can be present to one another in ways that give life.

Perhaps this is a bit of what it means to move from the “Age of Association” to the “Age of Authenticity.” Dwight Zscheile offers a quick summary of those ideas in his recent Living Lutheran article. Checking my real life at the door and assimilating to the expectations of the social club is a hallmark of behavior in the Age of Association. But we live in a different culture now.

Zscheile describes what he calls the opportunities of the Age of Authenticity. “This age is full of yearning for deeper connections than those facilitated by social media, for more adequate stories than those provided by consumerism, and for more just and sustainable ways of patterning human life than people see around and within themselves. There is isolation, despair and division,” he continues, “What an opportune moment for the promises of God in Jesus to be made known!”

While Zscheile doesn’t offer much in the way of paths into this age, he does talk a bit about presence. He encourages us to take a shot at “faithful innovation…investing presence and relationship in community spaces where people already spend time (both virtually and physically) so that we might listen to their stories and learn how to connect the gospel with their longings and losses.”

So, we wash feet, share bread, and tell true stories. We live John 13 lives, perhaps…

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525.

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Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part One)

5 Easter C 2022

Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together.

We have passed the midpoint of the Easter seasonal journey and are beginning the move toward Ascension Day and Pentecost. In the Johannine account, this means that along with the disciples, we are reflecting on what it means for Jesus to “leave” us and return to the Father. That reflection is the basis for the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17. In our text this week, we have the words that introduce the Farewell Discourse proper.

Karoline Lewis suggests that the sign, dialogue, and discourse that make up the narration of the Foot Washing (John 13:1-30) “should function as the prologue to the Farewell Discourse, that is, an introduction to the tone and themes that will unfold in the following chapters” (pages 177-178). While I don’t recommend that we read those verses aloud in addition to the appointed text, if we’re preaching on the gospel text, then we should take this narrative context into account.

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In John 13:1b, we get the superscription that describes the love Jesus has for the disciples. Jesus loves his disciples “into the end,” that is, both through the fulfillment of events and to the uttermost. In verse 2, we get the certain signal that Judas will hand Jesus over – although we know from John 10 that this is according to Jesus’ intention and plan, because only he can lay down his life and take it up again.

I think we need to tell our listeners that the immediate framing of our text is Judas’ journey into the darkness of betrayal on the one side (John 13:21-30) and the prediction of Peter’s craven denial on the other side (John 13:36-38). In the center of this frame is the command to the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This is not the sweet script for a cross-stitch project. This is a description of the only ethic by which the disciple community under existential threat can survive.

In John 13:30 we read that Judas, perhaps still chewing on a chunk of bread from Jesus’ hand, “went out immediately.” We get three more chilling Greek words to follow – “but it was night.” Lewis notes that these two details ring down the curtain on Judas as disciple and introduce him as an agent of the Evil One. “Judas has left the fold,” Lewis writes. “Judas has entered the darkness,” she continues, “He has gone to the dark side” (page 183).

This is the scene that leads us into our text for Sunday. If I were performing this chapter of the Johannine account, I think that I would leave some silence between John 13:30 and 13:31. The language of the Johannine narrator encourages this move to shocked silence. “When, therefore, [Judas] went out, Jesus says…” (John 13:31a, my translation). The narrator draws a deep and pained breath as those words are uttered. There are too many emotions wrapped in too few words to skip forward blithely.

I think it would be appropriate to leave enough silence for the crowd to grow restless and uncomfortable. In the narrative itself, I imagine this was the situation. While the Johannine account moves on to Jesus’ words, Judas’ abrupt departure was a troubling and destabilizing event. And yet, Jesus’ next words are perhaps even more troubling and destabilizing.

“Now the Son of Man shall be glorified,” Jesus tells the remaining disciples, and God shall be glorified in him” (John 13:31b, my translation). We know from the words in John 12 that when the Son of Man is “glorified,” a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die. Those who serve Jesus must follow him into that death and will be honored by the Father for that service.

Jesus recognized at the beginning of chapter 13 that the hour of his glorification had arrived. Judas may have left the building and entered the darkness. But now it was time for Jesus to leave the disciples and return to the Light. What precedes the commandment to love one another is this clear statement about Jesus’ departure.

“As a result,” Lewis writes, “this is not a general, generic claim to love one another; it is rather, an essential injunction to know and feel Jesus’ presence when he is gone” (page 184). Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. This new situation, when the disciples must continue their life together in Jesus’ absence, calls forth a “new commandment,” to love one another. “What is new about the commandment,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is that it directs disciples toward one another; up until now,” they continue, it was mutual love between Jesus and the disciples that was underscored” (page 226).

“In the Mediterranean world,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “love always had the underlying meaning of attachment to some group,” including a fictive kinship group such as that of Jesus and the disciples. “Since in first-century Mediterranean society there was no term for an internal state that did not entail a corresponding external action, love always meant doing something that revealed one’s attachment,” they continue, “that is, actions supporting the well-being of the persons to whom one was attached” (page 228).

This is a demanding text to preach in our time of radical individualism, toxic partisanship, and deep divisions – in the larger society, in the American church, and in particular congregations. The love to which Jesus points, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh “is reliability in interpersonal relations; it takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The phrase ‘love one another,’” they suggest, “presumes the social glue that binds one person to another” (page 228).

“A new commandment I am giving you, in order that you may love one another,” Jesus says, “just as I have loved you, in order that you also may love one another” (John 13:34, my translation). It should be clear from a reading of John 13 that this “love” is most clearly demonstrated in the foot washing. Jesus says he has given an “example” – a type, model, or pattern for what it looks like to love one another. I don’t think we can preach on this love without helping our listeners remember the model.

It is a model of humble and self-giving proximity – literally getting in touch with the one whom I am called to love. Personally, I’m not comfortable with any of this. I know lots of people have been damaged and devastated by the lack of interpersonal contact and connection during the pandemic lockdowns. I’m wired in such a way emotionally and was situated in such a way relationally that I wasn’t the least bit troubled by this separation. The hard part for me comes now – when we start to get back together.

What I know is that the lack of proximity, as necessary as it has been and perhaps continues to be, is damaging to my capacity to love others. There is just no substitute for being together in one fashion or another as the community of disciples. I’m starting to participate again in face-to-face worship. We’ve been involved in the restart of adult education activities in our home congregation. We’ve gone to meetings in person and not just on Zoom. We’ve even been to a congregational potluck (and I enjoyed it!).

I’m not a complete misanthrope (no matter what some people might say). I’m just an introvert, and increasingly so as I get older. But without proximity, contact, conversation, ministry together – I cannot find myself in the place to love others as I am loved. So, loving in the way Jesus loves the disciples means, at the very least, being “in touch” with one another (whatever the safety precautions and vaccination doses might be necessary to make such proximity possible).

Of course, being in the same space with others means that I cannot avoid my differences with and dislikes of some of my colleague disciples. Nor can they avoid my objectionable and off-putting characteristics. I know that I have gotten out of practice in applying the skills of interpersonal tolerance of irritating differences (and the habits of keeping my most unnecessary and offensive thoughts and behaviors to myself). I assume that many others are as out of practice in dealing with me. Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. We disciples are called to respond to the difficulties by going toward one another rather than away from one another.

I know from our text that going away from one another means going “into the darkness.” And it is certainly possible to enter that darkness even with a mouth still full of bread from Jesus’ hand. For me, it’s the easiest thing in the world to whip up a self-righteous snit and storm out a door, certain that I’m right and the rest of those idiots can just go to hell (my interior ruminations are often not a pretty item upon which to report). The result of that going out, of course, is increased isolation – the opposite of the abundant life which Jesus promises.

Our text is an invitation, a command, and a plea to draw near to one another in love – particularly in the most challenging of times. If the church and individual disciples could do that in such a time as this, perhaps we would do something really countercultural and world-changing.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

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Text Study for John 10:22-42 (Part Five)

My Aland, et al, Third Edition of The Greek New Testament entitles John 10:22-42 as “Jesus Rejected by the Jews.” On the face of it, that’s an unhelpful superscription for us as Western Christians who live after the Nazi Holocaust. Because of the consistent and direct work and testimony of Amy-Jill Levine, among others, I find myself more and more aware of the casual anti-Judaism that creeps into sermons and Bible studies – mine included – unless we Christians pay particular attention to straining out such prejudicial and dangerous language.

The reading from John 10:22-42 is another Johannine lection which can easily lead us dominant-culture Christians into the kind of casual and unexamined anti-Judaism which sustains a discourse of contempt toward Jews. In the reading, Jesus is surrounded by a hostile group of Jerusalem religious authorities, labelled in the text as “the Jews.” That same group then, in verse thirty-one, takes up stones to punish Jesus for what they hear as his blasphemous self-identification with the God of Israel.

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The labelling continues in verse 33 and in verse 39, although it is a pronoun in that latter verse. A casual reading by a lector or preacher can leave those hostile references hanging in the air without question. Given the ongoing and obvious anti-Jewish bent that has resurfaced in American culture, such a casual reading left without comment will, I fear, reinforce such unquestioned anti-Jewish assumptions and interpretations.

It may be that nearly every sermon based on a Johannine text must be accompanied by a clear disclaimer to dislodge such unquestioned assumptions. I think that is the least we as Christian preachers can do in such a time as ours. The introduction to Paul Anderson’s article makes a number of points that should be in such a disclaimer. “While it is a tragic fact that the Gospel of John has contributed to anti-Semitism and religious violence during some chapters of Christian history,” Anderson begins, “John is not anti-Semitic” (page 1).

Anderson points to a number of pieces of evidence to make the case. The Johannine author was clearly Jewish, as was Jesus. The first audience for the account was Jewish. The purpose of the Gospel of John was to demonstrate that the Jewish Messiah is Jesus. That Jesus, in the Johannine account, says that salvation is “of the Jews.” The “I am” sayings in the Johannine account would only make sense to and have an impact on Jewish listeners and readers.

It is, of course, the case, Anderson acknowledges, that “the Jews” serve sometimes in the Johannine account as stand-ins for the unbelieving world. As in the case of our text, they are “portrayed as primary adversaries of Jesus and his followers despite the fact that some are also presented as coming to faith in Jesus” (page 1). “The Jews” sometimes represent a group geographically distinct from “the Galileans.” They also sometimes represent the religious leaders in Jerusalem or in the countryside who oppose Jesus and his movement.

“The main problem is with interpreting John wrongly or with allowing flawed interpretations to stand,” Anderson writes. “When read correctly,” he continues, “the Fourth Gospel not only ceases to be a source of religious acrimony; it points the way forward for all seekers of truth to sojourn together, across boundaries of religious movements, time, and space” (page 1). I’m not sure I’ve portrayed that understanding of “the Jews” in the Johannine account very often in my preaching and teaching.

I continue to wonder if we post-Holocaust Christians can responsibly read the Johannine account out loud in settings of public worship. In speaking of both the Matthean and Johannine accounts, Anderson notes, “One’s first reaction might thus favor banning these or other religious documents from the marketplace of ideas altogether. Censorship, however,” Anderson continues, “would produce a new set of prejudicial disasters, as inquisitions and book-burning schemes always create more problems than they solve” (page 3).

That being said, Anderson pursues the question of whether there is anti-Judaism native to the Johannine text or if the fault resides completely with bad interpretations based on flawed readings of the text. He argues for the latter option. “The thesis of this essay,” he declares, “is that while John has played a role in anti-Semitism and religious violence, such influences represent a distortion of this thoroughly Jewish piece of writing, which actually provides ways forward for all seekers of truth and inclusivity if interpreted adequately” (page 3).

Some interpreters would use the Johannine document to make the case for Christian supersessionism. Anderson argues that the real agenda in the Gospel is not to challenge Judaism but rather to challenge all human attempts to manage God on our terms. The Johannine account does give voice to some regional tensions between northern “charisma-oriented” Judaism and southern “cult-oriented” Judaism in the first century. Seeing “the Jews” in John as the religious authorities thus has some legitimacy but is not the whole story. And the Johannine account may also reflect later struggles in the synagogues as Christians found themselves less and less in sync with ongoing developments in Judaism.

None of these perspectives is adequate by itself to account for the rhetoric in the Johannine account. Nor is it sufficient to see “the Jews” in John as merely stand-ins for any and all who might resist the message and person of Jesus. Such an abstraction takes the “flesh” out of the “Word made flesh” which arrives in a specific historic context. Some would see the Johannine Jesus as “pro-Jewish” rather than anti-Jewish, seeking to reach “his own” (see John 1) with the gift of abundant life.

“Adequate interpretation of John and Judaism would thus involve a synthesis of multiple factors,” Anderson argues, “and it is likely that at different stages of its development the Johannine tradition possessed distinctive approaches to the Ioudaioi in the Johannine situation” (page 7).

Anderson concludes that it is most accurate and helpful to see the negative references to “the Jews” in the Johannine account as “almost exclusively confined to particular Judean religious authorities who engage Jesus pointedly in adversarial ways” (page 32). That would certainly be the appropriate interpretation for the labels applied in John 10:22-42.

Anderson notes the accusation the authorities make that Jesus is a demon-possessed blasphemer who should be executed. This exchange should not be seen as either anti-Jewish or anti-Christian. Those labels are anachronistic and don’t represent the situation “on the ground.” Instead, “John’s story of Jesus – in tension with Judean authorities, some of whom indeed believe in Jesus – must be seen as an intra-Jewish set of engagements. Just as John’s narrative cannot be used as a basis for violence,” Anderson notes, “nor can it be read responsibly as advocating any form of anti-Semitism. It is radically Jewish in its self-understanding,” he continues, “even if that inference is contested” (page 32).

The Johannine account does, however “challenge religious and political bastions of power and authority,” Anderson argues, both in the first-century context and well beyond that Judean and imperial Roman context. This is, he urges, the real interpretive context for preaching and teaching on the Gospel of John. In the Johannine account, Jesus does not overturn Jewish religious structures and forms merely to replace them with Christian religious structures and forms. This is neither supersessionism nor triumphalism. Anderson asserts that “the Johannine Jesus challenges not only Jewish dogmatism and religiosity, but it also challenges Christian instantiations of the same” (page 33). This means, he declares, that the Johannine account is a source of universal inclusivism, not parochial exclusivism.

All that being said, Anderson wonders what we are to do with the anti-Semitism and religious violence that claim to find their justifications in the Johannine account? First, we must let the Johannine account be what it is – an intra-Jewish debate that seeks to fulfill Israel’s vocation rather than subvert or supersede it.

“It is not Jewish religion proper that the saving/revealing initiative of Jesus as God’s agent in John confounds,” Anderson declares, “it scandalizes all that is of creaturely origin, including the religious platforms and scaffolding of Christianity, political and social empires, and even irreligion as a human construct. The reader is thus invited to be a seeker of truth,” he continues, “and such is the means of liberation, the character of authority, and the center of our common commitments” (page 34).

What does this mean for the preaching of the text at hand? I think it means a bit of time spent on a disclaimer rejecting any anti-Jewish interpretation of our text. It also means reminding our listeners that Scripture is much more of a mirror than it is a snapshot of the past or a window into another world. Especially when we read this text, or any text, as people with power, privilege, position, and property, we need to see that we are more often than not in opposition to Jesus and his movement.

When we allow scripture to perform that diagnostic function for us, we stand a better chance of reading accurately and in ways that are not deadly to others. And we stand a better chance of trusting that the Messiah is Jesus and that in that trust we can have life in his name.

References and Resources

Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289

DENNERT, BRIAN C. “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 431–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488021.

Janssen, J. and Hartley, J. “Psalm 82 and the Trial Motif in John 10.” https://www.academia.edu/download/44574210/Psalm82_and_the_Trial_Motif_in_John_10_-_James_Janssen_2010-12-19.pdf.

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust. HarperCollins, 2000.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 10:22-42 (Part Four)

The more I read Sunday’s text, the more I think it is critical to take John 10:31-42 into account, at least in our preaching if not in our reading. Jesus’ opponents surround Jesus and press him for a public declaration. This sort of encirclement usually happens on the basis of hostile intent, at least according to regular usage in ancient Greek. As we see later in the text, this is a group that is itching to pick up rocks and start throwing.

This exchange has much more the flavor of a trial than of a rabbinic debate. In fact, some commentators describe it as precisely that – a preview of the trial that is to come during Holy Week. That image is important to keep in mind when we think in a few moments about the particular scripture verse Jesus quotes (or that the Johannine author places on his lips – that’s not critical to the thinking here). Psalm 82 also depicts a trial scene, so there’s something going on that’s worth noticing.

Photo by M. Enes Anlamaz on Pexels.com

This encounter takes place in “Solomon’s Stoa” – a portico on the east side of the Temple complex. Of course, this was not the actual structure built by Solomon nine centuries earlier. That temple had been destroyed. The current structure was probably founded on some foundation stones remaining from the (an?) earlier structure, but it was part of the new facility still being built by King Herod and his successors. That being said, this part of the complex was associated with judgments rendered by the king – that is, in the context of controversies and trials.

The details of the text, which have been apparent to the first listeners and readers interacting with the Johannine account, lead us to imagine this as a trial and judgment scene. One of the ironic questions which I believe the Johannine author wants to pose is this. Who is really on trial? And what is at stake in the outcome of this confrontation, beyond Jesus’ physical safety? It is clear that Jesus’ opponents seek to put him on trial and demand his testimony. But I think the outcome is that Jesus puts them on trial and finds them wanting.

The quote from Psalm 82:6, in John 10:34, is yet another example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. On one level, Jesus uses the language of that verse to turn the argument against him on its head. On another level, I think that Jesus (or at least the Johannine author) wants listeners and readers to imagine the setting and argument of the entire Psalm as we seek to interpret and respond to the story we have before us.

James Jansen examines this text through the lens of the trial motif in the Johannine account. “If the major theme of John is the question of the identity of Jesus,” Jansen argues, “then forensic exchange in response to the signs and words of Jesus would appear to be the primary method deployed by John to expose the truth regarding Jesus’ person and purpose” (page 2). We know from the Johannine statement of purpose in John 20:30-31 that a true understanding of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God is precisely the primary Johannine purpose.

Repeatedly in the Johannine account, Jesus’ assertions about his own identity are put to the test. But that trial is always reversed. The forensic lens is focused on the supposed questioner. For example, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and wants some certification of Jesus’ identity to legitimate the signs he does. It takes just a few lines, however, for the test to become one of Nicodemus’ willingness to be born anew and to see God’s work in a new worldview. I would suggest a similar reversal takes place in the second half of John 10.

I want to quote Jansen in this regard, as he summarizes the work of Lincoln in Truth on Trial. There is a “surface trial” where the Jewish authorities position themselves as plaintiff and judge. Jesus is therefore the defendant. “But the second level situation sets Jesus as both chief witness and judge of a cosmic trial where He,” Jansen writes, “as God’s authoritative representative, stands against all those who d not receive the truthful witness of His signs and words” (page 3).

What is at stake in this proceeding is, I think, the place of the sheep in the arms of the Good Shepherd. We might well focus on a variety of characteristics of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep rather than drives them. The Good Shepherd knows the sheep by name and calls them. The Good Shepherd walks with the sheep and will not abandon them. The Good Shepherd lays down the Shepherd’s life for the sheep.

It is this last feature that I think is highlighted in our text for Sunday – that the Shepherd advocates for, defends from attackers, and fights for the flock. As part of that work of flock defense, the Good Shepherd calls to account those who should also be fighting for the well-being of the members of the flock. This is where some reflection on Psalm 82 is perhaps helpful.

Psalm 82 is a trial scene. The God of Israel stands in the midst of the Divine Council. This is a fairly typical image in the Old Testament and reflects the assumptions of the ancient Israelites regarding the reality of other gods. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on that one, but the archaeological and ethnological details are not critical at this point. What does matter is that the God of Israel is encircled by figures who are charged with maintaining the well-being of the weak and the orphan, the lowly and the destitute, the weak and the needy (see Psalm 82:3-4).

Scholars debate the identity of those “gods” who find themselves on trial here. That identity is not so much to the point as is their responsibility. The verdict is clear. They have judged unjustly and shown partiality to the wicked (verse 2). The wicked are in contrast to those classes of people who need protection, listed in verses three and four. Thus, the wicked are the powerful, the well-positioned, and the rich – those who make up the privileged establishment.

These rulers have been placed in the position of “gods” by God – in the place where they have the power of life and death over others. They have been given the role of children of God – called to care for those for whom God cares. And they have failed in their responsibilities. Thus, these kings will lose their exalted positions and will die like mortals, will fall from their thrones like any human prince (Psalm 82:7).

The Psalmist calls this scene to mind imploring God to judge the earth – which is clearly ruled by kings who have failed in their responsibilities. Come and advocate for us, O God, the Psalmist seems to pray. Fight for us in the divine council and call these failed rulers to account for their wickedness! I think that Jesus calls this setting into the imagination of his opponents, and the Johannine author calls the setting into the imaginations of us as listeners and readers. Therefore, it seems to me that it is critical to understanding the scene we have in John 10:22-30.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, fights for the well-being of the flock. Jesus advocates for the well-being of the flock in the midst of those who have failed in their responsibilities for those who need such tender care. I want to be careful and note that this is not an anti-Jewish reading of the text. This is a reading against any and all members of any religious establishment who put personal power, privilege, position, and property ahead of the needs of God’s flock. Jesus’ opponents find themselves on trial in the same way that the members of the divine council did in Psalm 82.

I hear tremendously good news in this reading of the text. Jesus advocates, argues, and fights for me when I cannot do so for myself. Especially at those times when I am beaten into submission by the realities of life and loss, I can and do pray with the Psalmist for God – for Jesus, who is one with the Father – to rise up and advocate for me. I am comforted, encouraged, and energized by the image of Jesus in the center of the courtroom (or the ring) doing battle for me against the forces that would seek to hold me in bondage.

I don’t see Jesus, however, as the sort of hyper-masculine conqueror that so many American Christians seem to desire today. Instead, the One who fights for me uses the weapons of love and tenderness, of peace and justice, of compassion and self-giving. The Good Shepherd will not use the tools of the Evil One to defeat the Evil One. That would simply exchange one self-serving tyrant for another.

In the Easter season, we Christians confess that God does indeed “rise up” (again see Psalm 82:8) to confront and defeat the forces of sin, death, and evil. God will not permit anyone to rip the beloved from the arms of the Good Shepherd – not even that unholy triad.

Those who are committed to any religious establishment that puts personal power, privilege, position, and property ahead of the needs of God’s flock have chosen to trust in someone or something other than Jesus. That’s not predestination or fatalism. That is a choice that has been made, a choice that refuses to protect God’s flock. Those who make such a choice in Christian communities today stand in the same adversarial position with Jesus as did those in Solomon’s portico with their stones stacked at the ready.

While I’m not sure that all of this exegetical detail is useful for preaching, I do think it gives a clear indication of the center of the text – that Jesus not only holds us close but fights to hang onto us in the face of threat and danger. And I think it’s an invitation to hold one another tightly as well in this time when so much seeks to tear us apart.

References and Resources

DENNERT, BRIAN C. “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 431–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488021.

Janssen, J. and Hartley, J. “Psalm 82 and the Trial Motif in John 10.” https://www.academia.edu/download/44574210/Psalm82_and_the_Trial_Motif_in_John_10_-_James_Janssen_2010-12-19.pdf.

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust. HarperCollins, 2000.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 10:22-42 (Part Three)

It’s clear from our text that the report in John 10:22-39 is set during Hannukah, the Feast of Lights. You will recall that this Festival commemorates and celebrates the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, and especially of the altar, after the facility was commandeered and intentionally desecrated by the Greek colonial ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. These events took place from about 168-165 BCE and are recorded in various fashions in both I Maccabees and II Maccabees.

With our text, the Johannine author has set Jesus’ confrontations with his opponents in the framework of each of the three great Jewish festivals. The connections between the Passover (Pesach) and the Exodus journey are obvious in John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.

Hanukkah Menorah by Jewish is licensed under CC-BY 3.0

The Feast of Booths (Sukkoth), which we Christians may know loosely as Pentecost, takes its place in John 7-8. The focus there is on the “living water” made available during the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews and the ways in which Jesus fills out that sign of God’s grace.

While the Feast of Lights (or Rededication) is not directly mentioned until John 10:22, there is good reason to think that it is the framework for John 9-10 inclusive. I noted in a previous post that there could be a gap of a couple of months between John 10:21 and John 10:22. That is only the case if we assume that the Sukkoth framing in the Johannine account runs from John 7 through John 10:21. In light of additional reading and research, I am rethinking that idea.

If you would permit me to digress for a moment. One of the reasons I do this regular reading, reflecting, and writing is to explore, curate, and describe additional resources, materials, and perspectives to assist the actual “working preachers” (to shamelessly pilfer a phrase) who are out there on the homiletical front lines week in and week out.

Another of the reasons for my efforts is for my own edification and growth. I often discover what I think by writing it down. And I sometimes discover that my mind has changed, even during the course of a week. I hope it’s useful for you to observe this inner dialogue and debate. And I trust that it’s not too distracting from the task at hand.

Brian Dennert explores the usage of Hannukah imagery in our text and its implications for interpretation. He argues “that the discussion of Jesus’ works in this discourse [John 10:22-39] reflects the tendency to associate miracles with Hannukah in order to promote its observance” (page 451). Dennert tracks the trajectory of that association with miracles in Jewish documents from the centuries before the writing of the Johannine account to those after. The Johannine emphasis is consistent with and serves as a part of that miracle-emphasizing trajectory.

He concludes, “The proposed connection between Hannukah and miracles points to the discourse of John 10:22-39 operating as a defense of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God rather than as an argument that Jesus ‘fulfills’ or ‘replaces’ Hannukah” (page 451). The argument being made in the discourse, according to Dennert, is that the Jews accept miracles as grounds for establishing the legitimacy of the Hannukah observance. By contrast, they reject Jesus “in spite of his great miracles, which testify to his identity as the Messiah and Son of God” (page 451).

Even a superficial reading of this part of John 10 should make it clear that the emphasis here is on the “works” of Jesus as the grounds for establishing his legitimacy as Messiah and Son of God. Even if his opponents can’t put their faith in Jesus himself, they have precedent for giving their loyalty and trust to someone or some event based on the miracles attached with that entity. Jesus’ works, as Dennert notes, are what allow Jesus to be able to make and sustain his claims (page 448).

This framework helps us to make sense, then, of the contrast between Jesus and John in our text. The discourse notes that John didn’t do any signs – not a single one (see John 10:40-42). Jesus, on the other hand, did a great number of good works. John testified to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Jesus did the works that themselves testify to his identity as the Son of God. Dennert reminds us of Jesus’ assertion in John 9:3 that the man’s blindness was not a punishment from God but rather that “the works of God might be revealed in him” (my translation).

“The emphasis on ‘works’ in John 10:22-39 and its surrounding context,” Dennert writes, “thus corresponds to the appearance of miracles in discussions surrounding Hannukah. The discourse also features,” he continues, “a similar line of argumentation, as the miracles of Hannukah justify the feast and the works of Jesus prove his identity” (page 448-449). In addition, the connection makes it more likely that the setting for the healing of the man born blind is Hannukah and not Sukkoth. This brings a different resonance to the “Light of the World” elements of John 9.

Jesus’ opponents want to separate his works from his offensive claim that he and the Father are “one.” When Jesus asks them which of his good works is the source of the trouble, they note that the works are not the problem. Instead, the problem is Jesus’ claim of equality with God. But they can’t have the works without what the works signify. “They desire to stone him not for the good works, in their eyes, the signs that Jesus has performed,” Karoline Lewis writes, “but for making himself God, which is exactly what the signs indicate” (page 148).

The signs which Jesus performs in John 9 and 10 are those signs which are central to the Hannukah observance. Jesus gives light and life. He opens the eyes of the man born blind. And he comes that his sheep may have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10). Either he delivers on these gifts, or he is a fraud and a blasphemer. If he gives light and life, he is doing the work of God for the sake of the world. He is, thus, “one” with God.

All right – so what do we do with this hermeneutically and homiletically? Here we are on the fourth of the seven Sundays of the Easter season. The lectionary reminds us that the shine is already wearing off the Resurrection penny. The trumpets are distant echoes. The lily blossoms have faded and fallen (although some of us may have dug in our plants in hopes for future blooms). The festal crowds have dwindled back to the faithful few. It seems that nothing much has changed.

Putting our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, day in and day out is hard. At least it’s hard for me. It doesn’t come naturally for me. Nor does it have its own staying power. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I have to keep hammering away at these texts day in and day out. Without this deep exposure to and nurture by the Living Word of God, the trumpets and lilies of my faith disappear into the darkness.

“The ubiquitous presence of pain and suffering – unwanted, apparently undeserved, and not amenable to explanation or remedy – poses an enormous obstacle to unfailing trust in the infinite goodness of God,” writes Brennan Manning in Ruthless Trust. “How does one dare,” Manning asks, “to propose the way of trust in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder, and the terror of history?” (page 39). Manning asks a particularly apt question in this moment of political insanity, wars of aggression, pandemic pandemonium (no matter what the news tells us), and social upheaval.

Jesus invites us to look again and again at his “works,” if we cannot bear to look at him. But those works are him – the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth; the crucified God who stands up to give live to a world that is always perishing, the Good Shepherd who will not permit even one of his own (and all of us are his own) to be snatched out of his loving embrace. These works are worth the attention because they are the very works of God.

“Faith arises from the personal experience of Jesus as Lord,” Manning writes. “Hope is reliance on the promise of Jesus, accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Trust,” he continues, “is the winsome wedding of faith and hope” (page 86). This trust is the believing about which the Johannine author writes over and over in his gospel account. “For me and many others,” Manning declares, “Jesus is the revelation of the only God worthy of trust” (page 89).

Maybe this is the thing today. Jesus’ opponents had the works and wanted them without Jesus. I have Jesus, but I’m not so sure these days that I have much in the way of his “works.” But that can’t be right. If I put myself in the arms of the loving Good Shepherd, I will see the works of the Father where others might only see darkness and destruction. And if I have that vision, I must then testify to the works.

Things look dark and deadly in many ways, but our God has not ceased to give light and life to the world. Easter isn’t over. It’s just beginning.

References and Resources

DENNERT, BRIAN C. “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 431–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488021.

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust. HarperCollins, 2000.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 10: 22-42 (Part Two)

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The gospel text for this Sunday is placed between two notices that Jesus is causing debate and division among “the Jews.” In John 10:19-21, Jesus’ Judean listeners are torn (the word for “division” is the Greek word “schisma”) by his claim that he has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again (John 10:18). This power over death and life is and should be reserved for God.

Jesus makes an audacious and potentially blasphemous claim, and it stirs up controversy once again. The Johannine author makes a point of reminding the reader that this is not the first such division and confrontation in the story. Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that such divisions have taken place at John 7:12, 25-27, 40-41, and 9:16 (page 183). This has been a debate building toward a boiling over.

On the one side of the debate were those who declared that Jesus was demon-possessed and therefore mentally unstable. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this sort of charge as “Deviance Labeling.” They write that in ancient Mediterranean society, people were not known as unique individuals. Rather, people were known by the categories into which they might be placed by others – place of origin, residence, family, gender, age, and stereotypical features assumed by the larger culture.

Identity was not something an individual created or claimed. Instead, “One’s identity was always the stereotyped identity of the group,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. “This meant that the social information considered important,” they continue, “was encoded in labels such groups acquired” (page 149). These stereotypes could be positive or negative. The stereotypical accusation of demon possession was a negative assessment of the character of an individual.

“Negative labeling,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “what anthropologists call ‘deviance accusations,’ could, if made to stick, seriously undermine a person’s place and role in the community” (page 150). When the Judeans accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon, they sought to undercut his authority and destroy his reputation.

“Such labels not only marked one as deviant (outside accepted norms or states”, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “but once acquired could be nearly impossible to shake” (page 150). They note that if the charge could be fixed to Jesus in the opinion of the community, Jesus’ honor would be destroyed, and he would be ostracized from that community (page 183).

This isn’t the first time in the Johannine account that Jesus’ opponents seek to label him as a demon-possessed deviant (see, for example, John 8:49ff.). When Jesus is confronted by this accusation, he points to the work he is doing. He notes that it is “good” (noble, honorable) work. He appeals to God’s word for support and legitimacy. And he turns the accusation back on his accusers. “In this way,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, “Jesus rejects the deviance label his opponents are trying to pin on him, and the crowd (or the reader of the story) must judge if the label has been made to stick (page 150).

“In antiquity all persons who acted contrary to the expectations of their inherited social status or role,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “were suspect and had to be evaluated” (pages 185-186). Jesus had claimed to lay down his life and pick it up again on his own power and authority. But only God (or a demon) could do such things in the ancient Mediterranean view. Therefore, either Jesus was acting on God’s behalf, or he was in the thrall of demonic forces.

This is the debate in John 10:19-21. If Jesus is demon-possessed and mentally unstable, how can he do the things that he does? How, in particular, can such a person open the eyes of the man who was born blind? In the ancient Mediterranean worldview, such a combination of a demon and a healing verges on the impossible.

This is the debate that leads into our text for Sunday. Perhaps this was a debate that raged in the community over a period of months rather than moments. After all, the Johannine author takes us from the Feast of Booths in the fall to the Feast of Dedication in the winter.

The debate had, perhaps, come to a head by this time. As Jesus walked in Solomon’s Porch to escape the cold wind and rain from the west, he was surrounded by opponents. The word which the NRSV translates as “gathered around” in John 10:24 has a much more threatening tone and import. It is the Greek verb “kuklo,” which means to encircle or surround in order to restrict or even to capture. This is not a gathering of students or even a curious crowd. This scene has the makings of a lynching.

“The question posed in this section,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah” (page 184). As readers of the Johannine account, we know the answer to that question. In fact, the very purpose of the gospel, as described in John 20:30-31, is to show that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. It is putting our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God that gives us “life in his name.”

Jesus has not answered his opponents “plainly” on this matter. That is, he has not declared himself publicly, for all to see and hear. He has not staked his honor on the answer. This uncertainty and ambiguity are taking a toll on the Jews who are surrounding him. The NRSV translates their complaint as, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” But that may not be the most helpful or accurate translation of that complaint.

The Greek construction is difficult to render in a way that makes sense. As Malina and Rohrbaugh note, the literal translation would be something like, “How long are you taking our life?” The word for “life” here is “psyche,” which is a different word than Jesus will use in talking about “eternal life” in verse 28. Ancient evidence for the NRSV translation, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “is scarce” (page 184).

They do note that in modern Greek the idiom means something like “to provoke us.” That would certainly make more sense of the conversation and its threatening nature. How much longer are you going to stir up trouble, Jesus, with your “will he, won’t he” strategy and tactics? Let’s get this out in the open so we can be done with it one way or another!

“It should be noted,” Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us, “that questions posed in public are always an honor challenge” (page 185). This is a very public honor challenge in the midst of a crowd primed and ready for violence. We see that preparation for violence in the follow-up to our appointed reading, where the encircling crowd pick up stones in order to kill Jesus for giving what they consider to be the “wrong” answer.

Those who have surrounded Jesus for this showdown on Solomon’s Porch demand to know why he keeps the Judean populace stirred up with his veiled claims of oneness with God. “Jesus’ riposte to this challenge,” Malina and Rohrbaugh state, “is to avoid any direct answer to the question” (page 186). Instead, he urges them to look at what he’s doing if they want evidence. The reason they can’t accept the evidence of their own senses and experience, Jesus argues, is because they are not “of Jesus’ sheep” (John 10:26). This is the argument that takes us back to the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, contained in John 10:11-18. That metaphor shows an intimate connection between Jesus and the Father, and between Jesus and the flock.

The punch line that describes this intimacy is in John 10:30 – “I and the Father,” Jesus says, “we are one” (my translation). In response, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones again. In this description, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, Jesus “is speaking of the close, interpersonal relationship of loyalty and trust that John consistently claims exists between himself, God, and his followers” (page 187). His opponents regard such an overt statement of identity (even though it is functional here and not ontological) as a blasphemous claim that no human being can make without suffering the consequences.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note, however, that “the overquick resort to violence in a challenge-response situation was not only dangerous, it was frequently an unintended public admission of failure in the game of wits” (page 191). When one is losing an argument, a violent and bullying response may silence the opponent. But it may also indicate that one’s opponent was right and couldn’t be allowed to continue to speak.

Jesus has “insulted” the crowd, Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, perhaps by noting that they are outsiders (not of Jesus’ sheep), rather than insiders. As a result, they seek to silence him. “Their resort to violence,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “is a tacit admission that their tactics have failed. Their resort to violence,” the authors conclude, “indicates that Jesus has won the exchange” (page 191). These stories of violence, culminating in the Crucifixion, would make it clear to ancient listeners that Jesus was the honorable victor in the exchange.

The stage is now set for the penultimate sign in the Johannine account – Jesus’ unwillingness to lose Lazarus and his preview of his power over Death itself. Whether any of today’s post makes it into the body of one’s sermon for Sunday, I think it is important to have the proper framing for our text and not to wedge it into the box of the first half of John 10 simply because it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

References and Resources

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 10:22-42 (Part One)

For those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and its predecessors, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This Sunday in the calendar takes on the status of an unofficial mini-festival, at least for lectionary preachers. The appointed Psalm is always Psalm 23. The gospel text is always a section of John 10 – verses 1-10 in year A, verses 11-18 in year B, and verses 22-30 in year C. The common image in all three of these readings is Jesus as the “Good” (or “Noble, at least if one is working with an honor/shame hermeneutic) Shepherd.

Since Good Shepherd Sunday functions as this unofficial mini-festival at the midpoint of the Easter season, we need to ask the homiletical question we pose at every festival. Shall we “preach the day,” or shall we “preach the text”? If you follow my blog, you know that I always prefer preaching the text. That will lend itself to some allusions to the day. But we can “observe the day” in other ways during our worship as well –through other liturgical texts, decorations, commemorations, rituals, etc.

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The preaching problem is compounded somewhat by the fact that our text for Year C is not really in a direct narrative chain with the texts in the other two years. As Karoline Lewis and others remind us, the narrative from John 9:1-10:21 is a set piece. The healing of the blind man in John 9 is the sign that receives its explication and explanation in John 10.

Our text for year C happens two months later on the calendar of Jewish feasts. If it is related to anything, it really looks ahead to the Raising of Lazarus in John 11. John 10:22-30 serves as the bridge and transition from the healing of the blind man to the raising at Bethany. The text takes themes from the previous section and uses them as preparation and scaffolding for the next section. In fact, it is the raising of Lazarus that makes good on the promise that no one shall ever snatch one of the sheep out of Jesus’ (and the Father’s) hand.

Not even death can steal one of the sheep for which the Good Shepherd gives his life. “The focus here,” Lewis writes, “that no one will snatch them out of Jesus’ hand, that they will never perish, can also be viewed through the lens of the last sign that follows, the raising of Lazarus. Not even death will be able to separate the shepherd from his sheep,” Lewis continues, “That they will never perish is made abundantly clear in chapter 11.”

The allusions to the Raising of Lazarus continue. As we know from earlier in John 10, the sheep hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond by following that voice. Here we note that it is only by hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd that the sheep are able to put their faith in him and to have life.

Remember some of the details of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus calls out to him with “a great voice” (see John 11:43, my translation), ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Lazarus hears the voice of the Good Shepherd. The result is that Lazarus has “life” and is so closely identified with Jesus that his life is soon also in danger.

Our text, therefore, is an Easter text, par excellence. Yes, we have moved “backward” in the Johannine narrative. But “forward” and “backward” are somewhat arbitrary distinctions when we interact with the Johannine account. The themes and images of the Johannine work interweave, turn back on themselves, build up layers of meaning by repetition. The text is much more like a rising spiral than it is a straight line. When we take that seriously, we can have a better sense of what the Johannine author seeks to accomplish.

John 10:28 is an example of this intentional interweaving. “And I am giving them eternal life,” Jesus declares, “and they shall certainly under no circumstances perish, and there is not anyone who can snatch them out of my hands” (my translation).

The NRSV and other translations use the word “never” to render this verse – “and they will never perish.” The construction in the Greek is an emphatic negation. This is, according to Wallace, the strongest possible negation available in Greek syntax (page 468).

While the English word “never” can be used to communicate a similar sense, it also has a more temporal flavor to it. Most often, I think we would tend to hear “never” as “at no time” or as “such a time will never come.” The emphatic negative here has more of the sense, I think, that such a thing – someone snatching the sheep from Jesus’ hand – is no longer possible.

The grammar of negation is found as well in the assurance that no one can snatch the sheep out of the Father’s (or Jesus’) hand. The language of “snatching” here takes us back to the earlier sections of John 10. It is thieves who snatch, who kill and destroy. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, comes that we have may life and have it in abundance. God is never a taker. God is always The Giver. Eternal life, again, is that quality of life where it is no longer possible for us to be snatched and stolen away from Life.

This is a reminder of the way in which the Johannine author wants us to think about “eternal life.” This is not merely biological existence that has no expiration date. Instead, this “life of the ages” (as it is translated literally) is a qualitatively different kind of life. It’s not that death has merely been put off indefinitely. Instead, this is the life where death is no longer in charge. This is the life where a time will come when death is not delayed. Instead, it will be impossible.

As a result, that life is already available and impactful in the here and now. “The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses,” Elizabeth Johnson writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It does not say, ‘Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.’ It says, ‘You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.’ Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).”

More important than the details of grammar is the reference being made here. Perhaps you hear an echo of John 3:16 in John 10:28. In the earlier verse, God saves the world in this manner – by sending the only-begotten Son into the world. God does this in order that no one may “perish.” It is the same verb as we have in 10:28. The result of this saving is God’s gift of “eternal life” – that which Jesus gives to the sheep in 10:28.

Therefore, what was attributed to the Father in John 3 is now equally attributed to (and claimed by) Jesus in John 10. His statement in John 10:30 – “I and the Father: we are one” (my translation) – is not a new addition to the discussion. It is, rather, a summary of what Jesus has declared in the previous verses.

Jesus is not entering into the theological debates of later centuries regarding the ontological relationships between the Father and the Son – issued addressed at the Council of Nicea and Constantinople. Instead, the oneness Jesus notes here is the oneness of the “work.”

O’Day and Hylen point out that the Greek for “one” is not constructed to indicate that Jesus and the Father are “one person.” That assertion would require a masculine form. Instead, the word for one is grammatically neuter. Therefore, O’Day and Hylen continue, “Jesus’ work and God’s work cannot be distinguished, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work” (Kindle Location 2349).

Our friends on the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast note this week that at least some of our Good Shepherd Sunday texts are favorite texts for the Service of the Burial of the Dead. That is especially true for Psalm 23. But I have used John 10:22-30 as a funeral text on several occasions as well. It is especially poignant and appropriate in response to deaths that were sudden and/or unexpected, times when the loved one was literally “snatched away” from the bereaved.

It may be helpful to keep that context in mind as we are preaching on Sunday – that some folks may connect this text to a funeral service for a loved one or friend. Even if that connection isn’t made, perhaps we ought to make it for our listeners.

A simple rationale for this is that often even the most active of Christians have very little notion of what might make for a “good” funeral text. I have found over the years that when I make suggestions of “good” funeral (or wedding or baptism or confirmation) texts during my regular weekly messages, people take notice and sometimes even remember the suggestion when the time comes.

More than that, we might use this sermon at the midpoint of Easter to give our listeners some additional framework for experience and interpreting the losses in their lives. Even when it seems that a life is stolen from us, the Good Shepherd assures us that this is not the case. “Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice,” Johnson writes, “the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise—a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.”

References and Resources

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Six)

You may not have known that April 2022 was “Second Chance Month.” I only knew this because of the “Second Chance” emphasis at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I regularly take in the worship and preaching at OSLC (online) and have recommended Pastor Tobi White’s sermons here on more than one occasion.

Second Chance Month was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The purpose of the observance was “to help individuals, communities, and agencies across the country recognize the importance of reentry and their role in supporting safe and successful reentry – building second chances!”

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The “reentry” under discussion here is the transition from incarcerated offender to law-abiding citizen. The official resources offered for this transition are paltry in amount and pathetic in impact. Just imagine being released from a state prison after months or years inside. Your family and friends may have decided to end their relationships with you. Corrections officers deposit you at a local bus station with your clothing, personal effects, and a hundred dollars. And they wish you good luck.

It may be that you have accumulated some funds if you were fortunate enough to participate in the Community Corrections part of the state carceral system. Perhaps you have a job waiting for you because you made connections during that time and demonstrated your value as an employee. Those things do happen – but they are very much the exception to the rule. For the most part, the official approach to reentry historically has been the YOYO rule – “You’re On Your Own.”

In recent years, governing bodies have begun to recognize that the YOYO rule creates a closed loop from prison to the streets and soon back to prison. The difference in recidivism rates for those with reentry support and those without is astonishing. Those with support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between five and twenty-five percent, depending on the jurisdiction. Those without such support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between sixty and ninety-five percent. Thus, financial support, such as grants through the “Second Chance Act” has been created to dismantle the closed loop.

Essential to reentry support are community efforts that provide structure, resources, community, accountability, and friendship to those who are seeking a second chance. The FEAST ministry at OSLC is one such community effort, now fifteen-plus years in operation. This is a ministry of friendship, food, study, serving, singing, and support – and all of it as partners in Christ. If you are interested in second chance stories, take some time to get better acquainted with the FEAST ministry and its related activities.

I mention all of this, because I wonder about the lens of the “second chance” as a way into our text in John 21:1-19. One of the things I learned early on in my association with the FEAST ministry was that “you can’t get a new past.” For the ex-offenders in the program, there was no going back and starting over. There was, instead, going forward and starting new. Of course, that’s true not only for ex-offenders, but for all of us who continue to be offenders – since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

One of the most difficult parts of the reentry process for these ex-offenders was the completion of a job application. If you do not have a felony criminal record, you have not had this experience. You have come to a certain question on the application, marked it without a second thought and moved one. That certain question is something like, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony offense?” For the ex-offender, this question creates an intolerable dilemma.

In my experience, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of employers who got a “yes” answer to that question simply discarded the application on the spot. That “yes” was a deal-breaker. Therefore, the ex-offender could tell the truth and be fairly certain of frequent rejections. Or the ex-offender could lie on the application and risk being found out and fired later. I discovered that I was in no position to give advice on how to respond to that question.

It was another demonstration that in very practical ways, you can’t get a new past. Life doesn’t offer “second chances.” There is no going back and starting over. There is only going forward and starting new. I can start new by denying my past and living a lie. Or I can start new by dealing with my past and risking rejection. Those are the options in a universe where the arrow of time points relentlessly to the future.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” The details of the inquiry vary from question to question. But the import is clear. Peter, how will you go forward after denying your discipleship three times in the courtyard of the High Priest? Will you deny that past and tend to your nets? Or will you deal with your past and take on a new identity?

Jesus doesn’t confront Peter in order to condemn him. He confronts Peter in order to free him for the life of loving service Jesus wants to give him. The French proverb tells us that to forgive is first of all to condemn. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to forgive. The converse is that to repent is first of all to admit. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to repent. Any conversation about setting things right means that at some point things were wrong. That’s not being judgmental. That’s just acknowledging the facts.

In John 21, Peter doesn’t get a second chance. Instead, he gets a new life. That’s what I really learned in my association with the FEAST ministry. If it is possible to offer apologies and make repairs to past damage done, without doing more harm than good, then we should do that. If I need to suffer the just consequences for my actions, then I should do that. But none of that past-oriented behavior determines how I will live in the future. That’s where the new life is located. And that’s where Jesus invites Peter to do his best work.

“If you love me, Peter, feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Love the people I love in the way that I love them. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus told his disciples in John 10. We learned there that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In the Johannine account, the crucifixion takes place at the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered for the sacrifice. Jesus loves his flock (including us) and loves them to the uttermost. Now, he invites Peter to be a partner in that life-giving mission.

One of the choices we made early on in the FEAST ministry was how to refer to our new friends from the Community Corrections Center. We settled on the title of “partners.” We didn’t minister “to” our new friends, as if we were doing one-way “charity work” – although sometimes we did respond to specific and concrete needs they had. We didn’t minister “for” our friends, as if we were their saviors or rescuers – although sometimes we did engage in individual and systemic advocacy for them. We ministered together as partners in the reentry project. And we in the “outside church” benefitted at least as much from the ministry as did our partners in the “inside church.”

Jesus doesn’t, I think, merely offer Peter a second chance. I don’t want to denigrate the language of second chances or the experience of those who get them. I just want to think and see further. Jesus offered Peter a new life, a first chance to become what God had created Peter always to be.

Repentance and repair are important and necessary parts of dealing with our past (and present). But repentance and repair are not the end of the journey. They are stations along the way. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, “there is a New Creation.” It’s not merely that the person in Christ is made new. Instead, all of Creation is renewed every time new life in Christ is given. That’s a second chance, but more than a second chance as well. That’s a first chance to become what God has created us always to be.

And the ministry of that new life, as Paul reminds us, is the ministry of “reconciliation.” That doesn’t mean putting things back together the way they were. That won’t do. Instead, reconciliation is the making right of all Creation just as God intended from the beginning. When Jesus calls Peter to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to die as Jesus died – Jesus calls Peter into his part of that ministry of reconciliation.

I can’t get a new past. But I can live into a new future. I can be part of the ministry of reconciliation that sets things right in Creation. That will likely cost me something. It may well cost me everything, as it did Peter. But what it costs me is a past that is passing away. Jesus is loving you and me into the world where He makes all Creation new, always beginning right here and right now.

P. S. I hope you might consider a gift of support to the FEAST ministry or some similar ministry of reentry and reconciliation. Thanks!

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.