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Genesis 1.1-4

Exodus 3.13-14

John 18.1-9

Two Lies and a Truth

(The Gospel of John)

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Has any of you ever played the game “Two Truths and a Lie?”  It is often used as an icebreaker at meetings or conferences to help participants get to know each other a little better.  I’m not a big fan of icebreakers because it usually makes the meeting last longer than it should, and most of them strike me as silly, but I enjoyed this one.  For Two Truths and a Lie, each person makes three statements about themselves, two of them are true and one is a lie, and people have to guess which is which.  Here are the ones I used – and since you all know me pretty well, you’ll probably guess correctly.  Here is the first one:  I once participated in the Scotland’s Highland Games, you know, the ones where you toss the caber and throw the hammer and pitch a bale of hay and such.  Second, I have performed in orchestras in both Boston’s Symphony Hall and the Hatch Shell on the Charles.   And third, I will turn seventy years old next month.  We’ll see how well you did at the end of the sermon.

The writer of  John’s gospel was well north of seventy years old when he wrote his story of Jesus’ life.  Here is my mental image of him.  I picture an old man with a long beard, sitting comfortably in his retirement, perhaps pugging a pipe, ruminating and writing about the life of Jesus.  He’s had a long time to think about things – Jesus died between sixty-five and seventy years before John wrote, and he likely had the benefit of having read Matthew, Mark and Luke who wrote before him.  And he’s been able to process the meaning of Jesus’ life, he’s seen the growth of the church, witnessed the friction between Jewish and Christian factions, and has worked out some ideas about Jesus for himself.  While the Jesus of the first three gospels teaches in short, pithy parables, John’s Jesus gives lengthy speeches which sometimes go on for paragraphs, and once for an entire chapter.  Like John himself, Jesus comes across as a philosopher who wrestles with deep theological ideas, and at the end of the day the story of Jesus’ life reads more like a treatise than a gospel.  But the leisure of time that John enjoyed to work out all the threads of Jesus’ life led him down some paths that I think he would have been better off avoiding.  So this morning, rather than two truths and a lie, I want us together to face John’s two – well, not lies, but two considerable mistakes I believe he made that have reverberated and influenced the church for generations, and  not for the better, and then we’ll move to the one central truth that I think saves the story.

But first, one more review of the way each gospel begins, and please forgive the repetition, but I think you’ll see the progression clearly.  Mark’s gospel began with Jesus’ adult baptism.  Matthew’s began with a genealogy that traced Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham, and Luke’s began with a genealogy that traced Jesus; family tree back to Adam.  What does John have in store for us this morning?  Is it possible to trace a family tree back any further than the very first human beings?  Well, John finds a way.  What were the first words we heard from the book of Genesis this morning?  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  How does John start his story of Jesus’ life?  “In the beginning was the Word.”  With those first three words, in the beginning, John is telling us that his story of Jesus is going to start, not with his baptism, not with his Jewish heritage, not even with the family of humanity, but at the very beginning of creation.  To borrow a phrase, Jesus, according to John, was present at the creation.

I learned a couple days ago that there’s a part of this morning’s Call to Worship that gets under Karli’s skin, although I did modify it just a bit.  It comes from a passage that is often used in funerals, from John 14, “In my father’s house are many rooms,” which Jesus said to the disciples.   The passage concludes this way:  “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”  No, it’s not just the gender exclusive language that is the issue – well, maybe it is part of the issue – but more so it is the Jesus-exclusive path to heaven:  no one comes to the Father except through me.  Really?  I don’t think our Jewish cousins over on King’s Highway are going to find that very friendly.  Nor will our Muslim brothers and sisters.  Nor will anybody outside the Christian church, and even inside the Christian church; not everybody has the same idea of Jesus, the same relationship with, Jesus, and as I see it, it’s OK to approach him from different angles, with a different attitude from your neighbor.  You can read how I modified the verse in the last line of the Call to Worship this morning, “I am the way, the truth and the life, whoever would come to God may come through me.”  I think there are multiple ways of knowing God, not just one narrow pathway.  I agree with Karli, who also told me that to drive across the Midwest is to see billboards along the highway with that very verse on it, “No one comes to the Father but by me.”

To a degree, I understand where John is coming from.  Not only were there multiple religions in the region in John’s day, there were also multiple expressions of the church, and each one believed something different.  Remember the church was still in its formative stages and there were some serious growing pains.  One church said Jesus is the only way to heaven.  Another church believed Jesus already inaugurated heaven on earth.  Some believed Jesus’ resurrection was the second coming, others continued to await it fervently.  Some replaced Jesus with the Holy Spirit while others still clung to the teachings of John the Baptist.  Some believed you had to be Jewish before you could become Christian, others were suspicious of the Jews.  And lately Gnosticism had begun to take hold, the idea that true believers possessed a secret knowledge that nobody else knew.  So John, who placed Jesus squarely at the beginning of creation, also placed him squarely in the essential center of the church.  Which is the right place for him, but without the exclusion of everybody else in creation.

To be fair, there are many who would disagree with me, who would insist that the only pathway to God is through Jesus.  It is quite clear that this is what John means, even if he meant it as a hedge against other competing ideas of Christianity.  But to take the 36,000 foot view of the bible, I’m quite confident God provides multiple pathways, and far be it from me, or anyone, including the writer of the fourth gospel, to shut people out of the presence and grace and love of God.

The second lie, or huge mistake, is an offshoot of this.  John’s exclusivism not only shut the door on the Jews, it cast suspicion on them as the crucifers of Jesus.  In just one example, John writes in chapter 5, “The Jews started persecuting Jesus because he was doing such things [like healing and working] on the sabbath.”  In other places John calls out the Jews for their opposition to Jesus, providing a kind of cover for those who truck in antisemitism.  Over the years John has carried the reputation of being hard on the Jews.  But a closer look reveals it isn’t Jews as a race John inveighs against, but rather the leaders of the temple community, the very same scribes and elders and priests Jesus himself called out.  While John appears to lump them all together, readers of his own day recognized the excesses of the temple leaders and knew John’s criticisms were leveled against them and not the entire Jewish community.

Because, let’s face it, Jesus himself took issue with the temple leaders just as they took issue with him.  And we know how the story ends; Barbara Jan read the story of Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  And it is in this story, among so many others, that we find the one big truth in John.  Let’s go back to the Call to Worship.  Only John has this collection of Jesus’ “I am” sayings.  “I am the bread of life.  I am the light of the world.  I am the true vine.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the light of the world.  I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We get what Jesus is saying, but in John he is also saying more.  We heard from Exodus this morning that when Moses asked God the divine name, God replied, “I am who I am… you shall say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.”  Remember how John began his story of Jesus by placing him at the creation?  Jesus’ repetitive “I am” sayings place God’s divine name upon Jesus.  This Jesus, John is telling us, is equal with God.  When Jesus was arrested, and was told his captors are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he replied, “I am he.”  This is why they stepped back and fell on the ground, because Jesus is revealed as the God who spoke to Moses.  Jesus is the human face of God.  Remember John’s opening lines, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This is John’s big truth, that God is present in Jesus and Jesus in God.  In the same passage where Jesus said “I am the good shepherd,” he said just a little later, “I and the Father are one.”  This unity between Jesus and God is at the heart of John’s story about Jesus.  When we look at Jesus, John is telling us, we see the face of God.  The God who is light and life, the God who is the true vine, the good shepherd, the God who is truth.  I never did like the negative language of No one comes to the Father except by me, but revealing the God in Jesus, John gives us the space to turn the negative positive and say that whoever would come to God, may come through Jesus.  Now am I giving John too much cover,  too much space?  Perhaps.  But by putting Jesus’ human face on God, perhaps John is helping us to see God in every human face, which allows me to see the God in you.  And you.  And you.  And maybe, just maybe, you can see the God in me.

In me.  The one who participated in Scotland’s Highland Games, not by tossing the caber or throwing the hammer or pitching the bale, but by running in the ten mile race this particular set of games included.  In me.  The one who played in two different orchestras that performed in Symphony Hall, and in a third that performed in the Hatch Shell by the Charles River.  In me.  The one who will not turn seventy until a year from next month.  And it is the spirit of the God in me who greets and welcomes the spirit of the God in you.  And if we can see the face of God in one another, then John’s story of Jesus lives in each of us.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

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