August 9, 2015
Who is Jesus?
“I Am” sayings in John: John 6:35; 8:12;10:9; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1
I know that most of you aren’t the street-preaching, Gospel tract-distributing type. Like Jeff mentioned last week, most Mennonites are more interested in living out our faith in acts of love and service; less interested in thrusting the Bible in people’s faces. But if you were interested in thrusting the Bible in people’s faces, you might know that you can buy little booklets of the Gospel of John in bulk to hand out to unsuspecting passersby.
Can you imagine?
“I am the gate for the sheep.”
“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener . . . If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
The Gospel of John is what some people find appropriate to hand out to non-believers in an effort to convert them to Christianity. What in the world is someone unfamiliar with the Bible and the Christian faith supposed to do with the Gospel of John?
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” . . . What?
I’ve grown up in the church with two clergy parents and been to seminary—twice . . . and I hardly know what to make of John’s Gospel. So I’ve often wondered why this is the Gospel that is so often given out as an introduction to the faith.
I think it has something to do with our summer sermon topic: Who is Jesus? Just as each of us may answer this question in slightly different ways, just as different branches of the Christian tradition have somewhat differing understandings of who Jesus is, so also each of the four canonical Gospels present Jesus in a slightly different light.
Now, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke do have some distinct nuances in the ways they present Jesus, John’s narrative is significantly different in many respects. And I imagine that John is often the gospel of choice for evangelism tracts because it presents what theologians call a “high Christology.”
“Christology” is simply an academic word for how we view Jesus Christ. A low Christology would be, for example, an understanding of Jesus as a human being who was an important spiritual teacher with deep wisdom. And you know those pictures of the crowned Jesus on a throne in the clouds? That’s a high Christology—Jesus as the Divine Son of God, savior of the world, co-eternal with God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s how John starts. No unwed mother. No birth in a stable. “In the beginning.” This very elevated vision of Jesus makes John’s Gospel an appealing one to the people most likely to hand out tracts on street corners.
And the “I am” sayings in John that we heard this morning are part of the high Christology. These are phrases you are likely familiar with: “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the true vine.” You may not have realized that they only show up in John. And you also may not have realized that First Century Jews would have recognized the phrase “I am” as the holy name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. “Who shall I say has sent me?” Moses wants to know. “Tell them, I AM has sent you.”
With our 21st-century ears, we simply hear Jesus as poet, using metaphor after metaphor to articulate his identity. But for Jesus’ original listeners, for John’s original readers, every “I am” intimates Jesus’ divine status and identifies him with the holy God of Israel.
There are other things we miss in these metaphors as well. I won’t examine all seven of the “I am” sayings in John this morning—I assume some of you have plans to eat lunch. But I would like to highlight three of these passages where I think our contemporary understandings tend to obscure the original sense of Jesus’ words.
First, Jesus’ claim that he is the “true vine.” Laying aside the fact that most of us are relatively unfamiliar with growing and tending vineyards, there is one key thing a lot of us don’t realize: the vine was a primary symbol of Israel, used in the Temple and on coins. By identifying himself as the vine and his listeners as the branches, Jesus is placing himself at the center of Israel’s spiritual and political identity.
And then we have Jesus as the good shepherd. You know those pictures of Jesus with a sheep draped lovingly over his shoulders? Anyone who has worked with sheep will tell you that there is no way your messiah robe stays lily-white while you wrestle a sheep onto your shoulders. Being a shepherd is hard, physical, dirty work.
But maybe the most significant aspect of this metaphor that we miss is its political overtones. The image of the shepherd was used for rulers as far back as the Pharaohs—the implication being that rulers have a responsibility to protect and care for their people. The biographers of King David took this beyond metaphor and created, or possibly highlighted, a back-story for the king that involves him being an actual shepherd.
By describing himself as the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus is at once establishing himself as a political authority figure over Israel while at the same time criticizing current political leaders who are, by implication, bad shepherds. This is what we would call, in English class, a loaded metaphor.
Finally, there is the “I am” saying that we used as our call to worship—the one that might have made some of you a little . . . uncomfortable. The one that you may have seen on placards or billboards. The one I think is probably most responsible for the misuse of John as an introductory Gospel: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Many Christians use this verse to argue that only Christians—only people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah—have access to God. Now, while I personally do believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, I do not believe that those who disagree with me on this particular theological point are necessarily cut off from God for all eternity. And I’m happy to sit down and discuss my personal beliefs on this issue any time. Particularly if there are baked goods involved.
But this morning I’m more interested in what John thinks. Or at least, I’m interested in thinking about what John’s intent might have been in including this “I am” saying in his Gospel. It is important to note that Jesus does not speak these words out of the blue; it is a response to a direct question. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way.”
Just as Christianity has many versions and varieties today, first century Judaism also included many different groups with differing practices and teachings. The followers of Jesus—or “the way”–were simply one of many groups within first century Judaism.
As we know from Jesus’ ministry and teaching, some of the religious groups proposed complicated sets of rules and rituals they claimed were necessary for true faith. For example, when Jesus talked about straining out gnats, he was referring to an extreme practice by some Jews who took following Jewish dietary restrictions very very seriously. The Gospels also reveal strict rules for keeping the Sabbath. And more fringe Jewish sects demanded lifestyles of poverty and/or celibacy for those who sought true faith.
Jesus was not the only religious teacher of the day to teach about the way one could access God. The difference was that, while most teachings revolved around what one had to do and not do to get to God, Jesus’ teaching was simply about relationship: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus is speaking here to his closest friends and followers. He is not telling the heathen masses that they have to accept him as their personal Lord and Savior. He is telling his dear friends that their relationship with him is enough—all of the rules and regulations and deprivations they think they have to endure to get to God, it’s not true. Their relationship with Jesus is enough.
That, my friends, is a message of Good News. Indeed, the Good News is all over John’s Gospel. Despite how it may have sounded at the beginning of my sermon, I don’t really object to encouraging non-Christians and new Christians to read the Gospel of John. It’s just that John’s portrait of Jesus is rooted in the community to which he is writing, and John plays with the language in which he is fluent—and we are not. So handing someone the Gospel of John and then walking away is a theologically dangerous act. John’s Gospel is worth reading and studying and wrestling with together. Then, together, we can grow in our understanding of who Jesus is and how we can follow him more faithfully.