These central chapters of John’s gospel aren’t popular in the American church. In fact, except for the first two verses that I read (7:37-39), nothing of these chapters is even included in the lectionary.
Perhaps that’s because Jesus’ message in these chapters is, in many ways, very contrary to the message of the American church. For many of us in this country, bigger is better when it comes to the church—or almost anything else. We look with envy at churches with sanctuaries that seat thousands, that have staffed nurseries and coffee shops, sometimes even a café. Churches that offer multiple services over the course of a weekend, services that often include special effects and a really good band.
Churches that have preachers—but not pastors. Another reason that we don’t like to talk about this part of Jesus’ gospel. Because Jesus didn’t call His apostles to be preachers—He called them to be pastors. To be shepherds—and no one can shepherd thousands of people. No one can shepherd people whose names they don’t know. Whose faces they may not even recognize.
But when we read John’s gospel, especially these chapters, we discover that Jesus’ model of ministry looks very different from our American model. We discover that the One who calls us to follow Him, the One who tells us to do what He did, spent the majority of his ministry with twelve men. After three years of full-time ministry, the Son of God, when He left this earth, had only about 120 people who were actually following Him, who were actually doing what He told them to do.
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that congregations of about this size are often the healthiest and most effective.
So while we dream of churches filled with thousands of people, our greatest example in ministry was known for turning away thousands of people. Whenever the crowd got really big, He’d say something like, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Not exactly the greatest church-growth plan. It was at the end of that speech, that John tells us that all the crowds were gone and only twelve men remained. Was Jesus discouraged? Did He call a meeting to figure out what went wrong? How to get those people back? No. Because clearly Jesus wasn’t interested in just increasing attendance. He was calling people to new life, to a life that was totally contrary to the first century Jewish Dream and that is totally contrary to the 21st century American Dream. A life that would involved up our cross and following Him—following Him even when everyone else told us we were crazy to do so. Even when others threatened to kill us for doing so. He was asking far more than the vast majority of people listening to Him were willing to accept, and He seemed to be perfectly OK with that.
David Platt, once hailed as “the youngest megachurch pastor in history,” wrote his book Radical in response to this problem. Because when He studied the gospels, and especially this part of John’s gospel, he says that “I realized I was on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets, and bigger buildings. I was now confronted with a startling reality: Jesus actually spurned the things that my church culture said were most important.”
He goes on to write: “You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed Him and really obeyed Him.”
Because this is what Jesus is telling us: We need to believe in Him and then we need to obey Him.
“Jesus said to the Jews, ‘You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins’” (John 8:23-24).
John 8:51 “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
John 8:53-55 “’… Who do you make yourself out to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘if I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.’”
Jesus makes no effort to soften His message. “I’m the Son of God. Unless you believe in me, you’re going to die. I know God—you don’t. And if I agreed with what you’re saying, I’d be a liar like you.”
The Jews thought they knew God. They were, after all, the chosen people. But over the centuries, they’d turned God into a list of rules. A list of rules that allowed those who kept them to believe that they were better than those who didn’t. That allowed them to believe that if they had a better life than others, if they had better robes and better homes and better food, that was because God was happy with them.
Of course, the flip side was also true. If they were sick or struggling, that could only mean that God wasn’t happy with them.
The had created a fake God—a god who allowed them to live the way they wanted to live, a god who looked just like them.
The European church in the middle ages did the same thing, creating their own fake god—it was Martin Luther’s call to the church to turn back to the God of the Bible that caused the beginning of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
So it’s not really so strange that the American church began to create its own fake god; while the movement away from the God of the Bible actually began about 200 years ago in this country, it really picked up steam in the middle of the last century. Following World War II, soldiers came home and got married and had children. Churches everywhere grew; families moved to the new suburban communities that were popping up everywhere and new churches were built. The 1950’s were the heyday of the American church. Virtually all of church growth came by way of the baby boom of that era.
But the God that people were hearing about on Sunday morning was often not the God of the Bible—He was often a god who looked a lot more like the Jewish God, a god who often was mostly about keeping his rules.
When people talked about God, rarely did anyone ask, “Which God?” Because, unlike our culture today, it was simply assumed that we all knew who God was—the question was did you or didn’t you believe in that God? We didn’t all know the one true God—in fact, it’s likely that most of us didn’t—but we all understood God pretty much in the same way. And for many of us, that God was a distant, remote God who created the world, a God who may have occasionally looked down to see what a mess we were making of it. Looked down with a frown on His face—but He never got too involved in the world, except occasionally to punish bad people and eventually to take good people away to be with Him forever in a place called heaven.
That God wanted us to be good—He was more interested in making good law-abiding citizens than He was in calling us to believe in Him and to obey Him. He wanted us to obey our leaders. And sadly, many of us never even recognized what had happened.
I know I didn’t. When I look back on my education in a Catholic school and on my children’s Sunday School lessons, I realize that there was a lot of teaching on ethics and little teaching on Scripture. Bibles were handed out but we almost never opened them; we were never encouraged to actually read them.
And the people who were in charge of putting together the Scripture passages that would make up what we call the Lectionary, the passages that many churches read and focus their preaching on every Sunday, began to remove the difficult and challenging parts. The parts like these central passages in John’s gospel. Because our American lifestyle was more and more about affluence and comfort, about consuming all the great things that were filling all the new shopping malls, about enjoying life.
And nobody wanted to stand in the pulpit and quote Jesus saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Nobody wanted to say, “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” After all, isn’t that a little harsh? Can’t we just stick with the good shepherd Jesus, the Jesus who promises to come back for us, the Jesus who loves us?
About 25 years ago, a new reformation movement began in this country, a movement that 18 years ago, led a small group of churches to begin a new association, the association that we joined 11 years ago, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. An association with the goal of turning back to Scripture, of becoming the church that Jesus calls us to be, a church that is committed to living the way He called us to live. A group that at its very first meeting, with only 24 congregations, asked the question: “Do we believe in Jesus enough to obey Him and to follow Him wherever He leads, even when the crowds in our culture—and maybe even in our churches—turn the other way?’
And those 24 congregations voted “yes”—unanimously. Criticism from the rest of the church was strong. They called us stupid, they said that we were destroying our congregations, that the world had changed too much to think that people would really be willing to follow Jesus in the way that He calls us to do in the gospels. The church, they said, was about social justice—if we could make people’s lives better by taking care of them, shouldn’t we do that? And if they were offended by hearing about Jesus, surely it was OK to just not talk about Him.
But in the gospels, the main issue with Jesus was always God. John 7:16-18 “Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.”
Jesus had compassion, He loved those who were downtrodden, those who were sick, those who were suffering—but always, He did what He did for the glory of God. When we make other things our main focus—abortion, sex slavery, racism, persecution, sexual immorality, whatever, we remove the focus on God.
And Jesus didn’t come to make the world a little better. He came to bring a new creation—He came to bring the Kingdom of God. He came to say, “Come with me, get on board. Right here and right now. Follow me and you can have new life, not someday when you die but right now—today!”
Jesus’ message was that believing in the living God, the God who has fulfilled His promises in Jesus, has done what we needed, finding us, saving us, giving us new life in His Son, Jesus. With Jesus, a great door has swung open in the cosmos that can never again be shut.
It’s the door to the prison where we have been chained up in our sin.
And in the story of the woman caught up in adultery, we see this God in action. We see who He really is and what He really cares about. The woman makes no effort to deny her crime—she has clearly broken God’s commandments. But what Jesus focuses on isn’t her sin; He wants every single person there to recognize that they’re all sinners. That it’s not just the woman who needs a Savior—every one of them needs salvation.
At the same time, He’s not saying that sin is OK—He tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He tells the woman “go and sin no more.” Sin isn’t OK with God, but He knows that every single one of us is guilty of sin. And it is for this reason that He sent Jesus. Jesus who said to them, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The hot button issues of Jesus’ day were adultery, breaking the Sabbath laws, racism, tithing. But Jesus didn’t focus on these issues—He focused on glorifying God. The gospel doesn’t just confront social issues, it actually creates confrontation with the culture around us. But Jesus knew that if we would just believe in Him and follow Him, these issues would begin to fade away.
How would we act if we fixed our gaze on that light: on the holiness, love, goodness, truth, justice, authority, and mercy of God revealed in the gospel—revealed in the words and the actions of Jesus in John?
Like the first century Jews, much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly. We insisted on trying to modify Him and bring Him nearer to our own image. We convinced ourselves that He was happy to accept our pet sins, that He just wanted us to be happy. But it is only by accepting God as He is and learning to love Him for what He is that we discover that He is our source of unspeakable joy. Some of the best moments we ever experience will be those spend in reverent admiration of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Every soul belongs to God and exists by His pleasure. God being who and what He is, and we being who and what we are, the only thinkable relation between us is one of full Lordship on His part and complete submission on ours. We owe Him every honor that is in our power to give Him. Our everlasting grief lies in giving Him anything less.
And yet the moment we make up our minds to go on with this determination to exalt God above all, we step out of the world’s parade. Because the closer we draw to God, the more we will separate ourselves from the world. We acquire a new viewpoint, a new power begins to surprise us with its upsurgings and outgoings.
The break with the world will become obvious, for the world of fallen men does not honor God. Millions call themselves by His name and pay some token respect to Him, but a simple test will show how little He is really honored among them. Simply let the average man be forced into making a choice between God and money, between God and men, between God and personal ambition, God and self, God and human love, and God will take second place every time.
But let the seeking man reach a place where life and lips join to say continually, “Be thou exalted”—and mean it—and a thousand minor problems will be solved at once.
Jesus on Calvary brought the pain and tears of all the years together. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God’s future was poured out into the present, the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship and beauty, drew themselves together into a final scream of desolation.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the King of the Jews, the bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns.
Who do you say that He is? And are you living according to what you say?
As we continue our congregational discussion on who we are and where we are going as a congregation, let’s not get caught up in things that matter not at all in the light of eternity. What we really need to decide if whether we’re willing to follow Jesus wherever He calls us—if we’re willing to listen when He says, “Crucify yourself. Put aside all self-preservation in order to live for the glory of God, no matter what that means for you in the world around you.”