Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 14, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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JOHN IS DIFFERENT
If John’s gospel were the only one we knew, if we studied it and dedicated our lives to it, then read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would be shocked. It’s all lies, we would think! That’s not the truth about Jesus! Likewise, if we had only ever studied the synoptic gospels, synoptic meaning same, we would be baffled by John. It is that different.
John’s gospel does have Jesus traveling and teaching, he does endure trial, death, and resurrection. But John’s chronology is different than in the other three. There is no Eucharist, no Last Supper, in John. Jesus shows no concern for the Kingdom of God in John, only for his own special identity. Jesus talks more in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels, with great long dialogues, but never in all of that does he share any parables, those stories of mustard seeds and buried treasure.
And John is the most anti-Semitic of all the gospels. Maybe not universally so, maybe not condemning of all of Judaism, only of specific strains or communities of Judaism at the time. But I am guessing that not many 21st century Christians are all that familiar with the differences between contemporary streams in Judaism, let alone those of the ancient near east, so reading the subtleties of critique in John can be dangerously misleading.
I decided, as a result of that, and this era’s resurgence of overt hatred of and aggression toward people who are Jewish, to modify our readings of John to avoid easy misunderstandings and make clear where we are as a church. Rather than “the Jews” it will read as “the authorities” or whatever the appropriate target of Jesus’ concern may be.
But the difference I really want to focus on today is an omission in John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the inclusion of the story today.
In the synoptic gospels (again, a title for Matthew, Mark, and Luke that highlights their sameness), Jesus’ baptism is immediately followed by a 40-day period alone in a wilderness. In that time of retreat and fasting, the forces of nonbeing goad Jesus and try to bribe him. Oh, Jesus, they say, if you’re the son of God, why don’t you make these stones into bread? Say, Jesus, why don’t you jump off the top of the temple and prove to us that God loves you enough to send angels to rescue you? Hey, Jesus, look at this world: we can give you all of the kingdoms, all of the riches, all of the power!
In response to each taunt, each challenge to his identity and work, Jesus quotes from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus holds fast to his commitment to God through the words of the prophets and faithful that have gone before him. In the wilderness Jesus refuses to make his ministry about himself, but always about God and the people of God.
John’s gospel does not include this story. Not after Jesus’ baptism, not ever. In John, Jesus goes from cosmos to baptism to calling disciples to the wedding at Cana—a story none of the other gospels tell.
So, what happens in this unique tale? Jesus has been invited to a party. His mom, too.
Mary’s name is never revealed in John, she’s only referred to as “the mother of Jesus.” That, paired with Jesus calling her, “Woman” when he responds to her comment about the lack of wine, may lead us to hear misogyny in Jesus’ tone. I don’t think we need to.
Some scholars suggest that speaking to Mary in this unusual way serves an important purpose: It illustrates that it is a female whose relationship with Jesus initiated this first sign of his ministry, just as a female will be the first to receive the last sign of his ministry at Easter. So women play an important role in John, named or not.
And, unlike the forces of nonbeing in the temptation story, Jesus actually acts on Mary’s request. He does direct the servants to fill the handwashing jars with water, water that becomes wine. The wine is sent out to the party. The caterer complains to the groom for withholding such good wine for so long. Neither of them know where it come from: it is a revelation intended only for Mary and the disciples and the servants.
The story is dripping with symbolism and foreshadowing.
Having the wedding “on the third day” points to resurrection morning. The empty handwashing jars stand in for the empty ritual and false piety Jesus is so critical of. The waters of Jesus’ baptism poured into the jars reveal him to be the rich, fruitful, and faithful vine of God. Just as God is so often described in scripture as groom to Israel the bride, the one who brings the good wine to the guests, Jesus, is the groom to those who would drink it.
And the volume! So much wine! So much grace! All so that a woman and a few disciples and a servant would believe who Jesus is.
Gorgeous! Gorgeous storytelling! And present only in John.
Maybe the temptation story was so widely known that there was no need for John’s people to include it. Conversely, maybe the John community didn’t know the story of the temptation. Or maybe they didn’t think it told a truth about Jesus. All of the same reasons could apply for why the synoptic gospels don’t have the wedding at Cana.
And so we are left with conflicting accounts that cannot be harmonized.
The synoptic Jesus needs refinement, testing. The Johannine Jesus is ready to go. The synoptic Jesus tells people not to reveal his true identity. The Johannine Jesus tells everyone for himself.
The message of the synoptic gospel Jesus seems to be that if you look to the gifts of faith you already have, God will be there. John’s Jesus seems to be saying that the people are lost in familiar tradition and need a new sign to point toward God: himself.
We have no unified portrait of Jesus, his personality or his understanding of his work. And yet we are invited to stake our lives on his stories.
Fortunately, those stories which include more characters than just him, characters who help to reveal some consistency.
In the wilderness, Jesus reacts to the forces of nonbeing. At the wedding, Jesus reacts to his mom. In the first, Jesus rejects the hasatans of deception and avarice. In the second, Jesus accommodates the presence of hope and love found in his mother.
And in those, Jesus is the same, across all gospels.
In all gospels, Jesus rebukes easy routes and those who would crown him a human king. In all gospels, Jesus responds to people’s needs for sustenance, both literal and spiritual.
Those temptations and those needs persist.
Not only are we in a moment of renewed overt anti-Semitism, but racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, as well. A neighborhood in Iowa City1 was just fliered by the strongest white nationalist group in the U.S.
The forces of nonbeing have grown powerful again.
They will tempt us, particularly those of us who are white and have jobs, to take the easy routes of silence, or of diminishing the seriousness of what is happening, or even accommodating them. They will tempt those of us who are Christian us to come to the table of God in this hour but not take the opportunities we have to set it wider still at our workplaces and library and gym and schools.
We will never really get a handle on Jesus. And that’s okay. Because what we need to get a handle on, what we really need clarity about, is ourselves.
We can be people of snark and gotchas who isolate in like-mindedness or who do not see the suffering of people different than us as our responsibility. On this MLK weekend, we can feel good about ourselves by sharing quotes, for having a holiday celebrating his birth, but do nothing in response to his words or his work or his murder.
Or we can be servants of incarnate love in community.
We can accept Jesus’s offer to pour into our hollow lives the world-redeeming words of the prophets and the soul-quenching love of God. And then, like a mere woman or a called disciple or a surprised servant, respond with our whole lives.
We are never going to resolve the conflicts in the Bible. But if we are going to be faithful to the Bible and to the holiness it represents, we must work to resolve the conflicts between each other.
1I mistakenly named the city as Des Moines when I delivered this sermon. –Pr. Eileen