Today, I want to talk about two things: Reading John. And Believing in Jesus.
When you read the four Gospels, you quickly see ‘one of these things is not like the others’.
We believe Mark wrote the first Gospel, and Luke and Matthew used Mark as a basis for their Gospels. We call them the ‘Synoptic Gospels’, synoptic meaning they see things together, they have a similar viewpoint. Yet when you come to John, he does see things a bit, well, differently.
The Synoptic Gospels are mainly composed of short episodes of teaching, parables and miracles. Until you come to the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where there is a fuller narrative.
John has a series of longer episodes like the woman at the well (chapter 4) or the man born blind (chapter 9), which are followed by some quite detailed, sometimes almost rambling, teaching.
Chapter 6 is another very good example. Jesus walks on water, but before he does so he feeds a multitude with a few scraps of bread and fish — this miracle is the only one included in all four Gospels, by the way. And then the rest of chapter 6 is taken up by a long reflection on Jesus as the Bread of Life.
These episodes in John portray people who just don’t get Jesus. When Jesus tells him he must be born anew, Nicodemus says ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
When Jesus tells the woman at the well he can give her living water, she says ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?’
In chapter 6, the people who were fed by five loaves and two fish in the wilderness don’t understand either. They want Jesus to give them a daily supply of bread, something we take for granted. They ask what they have to do to ‘get’ Jesus. In their words: ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’
Jesus answers: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom God has sent.’ [John 6.28–29]
Not much of a work, is it? Open your heart to what is already true: God loves you, God has shown this love in Christ who lived a fully human life among us who have only scratched the surface of what it means to be human — among us, who are barely alive. And more, God pours divine love into us through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.
Embrace it. Live it. Breathe it. Let your thinking be formed by what is already true. God loves you.
Believe it. Believe in Jesus.
‘Belief’ is a word that has some misleading meanings. I remember one Sunday morning while I was still at school. After church, I was talking to an older person about what I may do at uni. I was musing about doing a BD, a Bachelor of Divinity course.
She warned me off it, saying I’d lose my faith. For her, ‘faith’ contained a series of ‘facts’ you had to believe including — for example — Adam and Eve being literal people who spoke to a snake, a Flood that covered the whole Earth, and an eternal hell.
If you didn’t believe these ‘facts’, she thought, you could’t have true Christian faith. Going to uni and doing a Bachelor of Divinity would make me doubt these things. It scared me at the time. I certainly didn’t want to lose my faith.
Jesus says ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom God has sent.’ Does that mean believing a series of facts?
In time, I came to accept that this approach to belief can stop us believing in the One whom God sent.
I started to look again at what believing in Jesus might mean. I found that believing in Jesus is a relational thing. What does that mean? To believe in Jesus is to relate to him, to trust him, even if we’re not sure about everything. Even if we’re in doubt about something.
I believed in my dad, who died over thirty years ago. After he died, we realised there were two stories about just which town he was born in. Which was true? We didn’t know for sure, and anyone who could have told us had already died. It was quite disorientating to realise we weren’t sure where he’d been born. Did that stop me believing in my dad? No, of course it didn’t. Believing in my dad meant loving him, trusting him, remembering him, being thankful for him, forgiving him. It didn’t mean getting all my facts right, not even the one about where he was born.
So: believing in Jesus is not reciting a set of facts about him, but being grateful for him, trusting him, following him, being fed by him.
Remember the four Gospels — One of these things is not like the others? So, what about these episodes in John, featuring people like Nicodemus, the man born blind, and today’s crowd in the wilderness?
And what about all those long speeches? Did Jesus really give them? He doesn’t do it at all in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Scholars have been trying for years to determine which Gospel stories and words of Jesus actually come from the time of ‘the historical Jesus’. Personally, I prefer to read the Gospels as they are, as stories handed down to us. But when we look at John’s Gospel, many people feel we’re really at quite the distance from the so-called historical Jesus. Can we trust what John says?
So who is speaking in these long speeches, if not the Jesus who was born, taught and healed and went to the cross?
I think that the writer of the Fourth Gospel would say the words of these speeches come from the mouth of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. They are the result of decades of prayer and reflection on the meaning of the risen crucified One.
This is how one commentator puts it:
It is the resurrected Jesus with wounds in hands and side who declares, ‘I AM the Bread of Life.’ — Robert H Smith, Wounded Lord
John isn’t trying to pass off the Jesus of his Gospel as the historical Jesus. He probably knew at least one of the other Gospels. John is doing something else: he is sharing the result of decades of prayer and reflection on the meaning of the risen crucified One.
When we believe in Jesus, John says, we are connected to living Bread, to the Bread of Life. We are given life through the living Jesus Christ, with us here and now. Jesus is our sustenance, our spiritual food, now and for ever.
That is what he is for us, right now. Jesus calls us to follow him, and he gives us bread for the journey. He is Bread for the journey.
The words of Jesus sustain us. The stories of Jesus sustain us. Jesus sustains us through his Spirit in many ways, including his Spirit’s working in this Meal we are about to share.
One of the ways Jesus gives us bread for the journey is through this holy Meal, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We’ll speak more about that in the next week or so.
West End Uniting Church, 1 August 2021