On Sunday we heard John 7:25-44. In some ways this is a slightly odd passage, because it doesn’t have the same narrative quality as previous chapters, by which I mean there’s not so much of a story to take hold of and get into. To be honest, it’s mostly people arguing. Some important themes do emerge though, so I want to start with a few observations on the text, before coming to the big question I think this passage poses. As we go on, I will make reference to some verses which come before the reading, so you may want to have the entire chapter open in front of you open so you can look back a little.
At this point in the gospel, it seems to be an open secret that the authorities are trying to kill Jesus. We learn at the start of the chapter (verses 1-10) that he fears them enough to lie to his brothers and go to Jerusalem in secret, and at least some of the crowds appear to have heard rumour of a plot. It might seem strange to say that Jesus feared the authorities given that he willingly goes to his death when the time comes, but the gospel writer tells us that “his hour had not yet come”, echoing Jesus’ own words (verses 6-8). This idea of a set hour appears a number of times in the gospel, starting at the wedding in Cana in chapter two, where Jesus tells his mother not to push him to interfere because his hour has not yet come, and concluding with the prayer which ends the farewell discourses in chapter seventeen, when Jesus declares that the hour has now come.
So what is this hour? At several points it is associated with the glorification of the Son, so it seems to have something to do with the revelation of Christ’s true nature and purpose. And at another point Jesus speaks of the hour to depart and return to the Father, so it also seems to be tied up with his death. However, we must remember that despite Jesus’ protestations at the wedding, his mother still volunteers his services and he does perform the first sign which reveals his glory, so this hour seems not to be a fixed point in time or a once for all moment, and there’s a sense of flexibility and gradual unfolding in this chapter (verse 8) when Jesus says his time has not yet fully come. It seems then that Jesus anticipates his death as the moment at which he will be fully revealed and glorified, but at the same time there is a process of revelation and glorification that leads to that moment. That’s important because it reminds us to look to Jesus’ life as well as his death, avoiding the tendency to focus on the three days of the cross and the tomb at the expense of the thirty three years of the incarnation.
So that’s my first observation. Now for a few briefer notes on the text. First, we see again that sending and authority are key themes in the fourth gospel. This kind of language comes up every time Jesus is challenged, and elsewhere he declares that he only does what he sees the Father doing and only says what he hears the Father saying. He is constantly pointing beyond himself, because as the incarnation of the divine it is not his human appearance but the fullness of God that he reveals and calls us to worship. Second, I think the suspicion that he will go into the diaspora and teach the Greeks is interesting, not because it allows us to point the finger at the mean and exclusionary Pharisees, but because it has the potential to hold up a mirror to the church, which has so often been guilty of the same kind of gatekeeping, of wanting to give the good news only to those who are like us, or else demanding that those who receive it become like us. We ought to remember that such behaviour is not of Christ but of those who do not understand him. And finally, there is something slightly jarring in the claim that the Spirit had not yet been given, because it had been given throughout the Old Testament. I think the difference that is being hinted at here is that the Spirit had previously been given to certain people and for specific purposes, but soon it was to be poured out on all.
So now we start to get to the main theme. The dominant tone of this chapter is one of confusion and division. In verse 27, the crowds say that no one knows where the Messiah will come from, but in verse 42 they say he will come from Bethlehem. I think we can assume that these are different crowds, or different parts of the same crowd, rather than the same individuals that can’t make their minds up, but that in itself is a reminder not to read groups of people as entirely homogeneous. Perhaps more significantly, no one can agree on who Jesus is. Is he a good man or a deceiver (verse 12)? Is he the Prophet (verse 40) or the Messiah (verse 41)? Or is he a dangerous revolutionary as the authorities seem to fear? Jesus himself is not terribly forthcoming with an answer at this point, apparently refusing to take on any of the labels the crowds try to pin on him. He seems to prefer not to be backed into a corner when it comes to his identity, but he does litter clues throughout the gospel - we’ve already heard him accept the title of Messiah from the Samaritan woman at the well, and use the titles Son of Man and Son of God, and we’ll come to more of his self-declarations next week.
For the moment though, this confusion and division leaves us with a question - who do we say Jesus is? It is tempting to want a nice easily packaged answer - that’s what the crowds seem to be looking for - but the truth is that none of us are one thing only, and none of us are the same thing to everyone we are connected to, and Jesus is more wonderful and mysterious than any of us, so there can be no neat answer. There are things we can reasonably expect Christians to agree on. For example, that Jesus was related to God in a unique way, that he was a teacher and a miracle worker, and that he died and rose again. Likewise, there are ideas we should probably agree to reject. He did not have blue eyes and flowing golden locks, as some artistic depictions would have us believe, and neither was he a muscle bound superhero, as certain American preachers would have it. But beyond that, there is our own experience and our own understanding, which will be rich and varied, and that is so much better than doctrine anyway, because it invites us into a relationship of discovery.
I can’t tell you what you already think, and neither should I tell you what you ought to think, so I’m not going to tell you who Jesus is. But I will say a few words about who Jesus is for me. I said before Christmas that the incarnation is the epicentre of my faith, the starting point and the force. That God would take on flesh like mine in order to show my flesh how to live never ceases to amaze and humble and move me. Around this time last year I preached on the incarnation, and then I offered the house groups some reflections on that theme, from scripture and poets and theologians. I still love this one from Catherine McNeil, “Jesus delivered the good news in a rough, messy, hands-on package of donkeys and dusty roads, bleeding women and lepers, water from the well, and wine from the water. Holy work in the world has always been like this: messy, earthy, physical, touchable.” It reminds me that Jesus came not as an unattainable holiness but to make of us a holy mess, and it says that because I am messy and earthy and physical and touchable, I too can engage in such holy work.
So incarnation is the headline for me, but there are other words that have held great meaning in terms of my understanding of Jesus. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook, but one of the things I most enjoy is the ‘On This Day’ feature, which reminds me of events and photos and posts I would otherwise have forgotten. Courtesy of this feature, every year I get a reminder that one morning during my first theology degree, I was struggling through some pretty hefty reading when I came across this from Ian Barbour - “[in Christ] the character of God as persuasive and vulnerable love is evident”. Those words hit me like a shaft of light, and I have carried that idea of Jesus as the persuasive and vulnerable love of God made manifest ever since. God could have clicked the divine fingers and brought us into line, but instead God chose to take on the fragility of human life in order to win us over. It is a beautiful and awesome and miraculous truth. No wonder it has caused so much trouble.
I’m going to end there for the moment, but we’ll pick up on some of this again next week, when I also want to give you some space to think about who Jesus is for you.
***BONUS EXTRA CONTENT***
As an added extra this week, here is my introduction to yesterday's communion, picking up on some of our conversation on John 6:
Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus’ words from John 6, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. I know many of us found that passage difficult to hear, and so as we gather at the communion table, where we are invited to eat the bread that is for us Christ’s body and drink the cup that is for us Christ’s blood, it seems right that we return to it again, in the hope that here it may trouble us less, or at least disturb us in the right way.
Because it seems to me that these words are part of a pattern of shocking language used by Jesus to make his listeners sit up and pay attention, to disturb them by stirring something up. I think they are still intended to stir something up and make us pay attention. It’s so easy for communion to become another habit, something we do almost without thinking about it, but this table is something quite extraordinary. Here we remember that Jesus allowed his flesh to be torn and his blood to be spilled for our sake, but we ought also to remember that he gave his flesh and blood in our service throughout his earthly life and ministry, not only dying that we may never truly die but also living that we might better know how to live.
I think part of the reason Jesus’ words in John 6 seem so stark and graphic is that they are separated from the bread and the cup of this table, but that reminds us that these gifts are not complete in themselves, but rather they are a symbol and a taste of something far greater. They point to something beyond themselves, something which is not limited to this time or space.
So what might it mean to eat and drink of Christ if it is more than to share in the bread and the cup of the communion table? I think it might mean seeking to be nourished by him, recognising that it is his words and his example and his love that bring life. And so I think it might mean that we are to consume Christ not just in our bodies, but in our minds and our hearts and our spirits, intentionally dwelling on his life and dwelling in his presence.
Or look at it another way. Paul writes in Phillipians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.” We might also add “whatever is just, whatever is loving, whatever is merciful”. These are the things of Christ, the things his flesh and blood embodied, and so they should be our food and drink - what we surround ourselves with, what we take in, what we look to for energy and strength. We can do that here at this table, where the bread and the cup focus our attention on Christ, but we can also do that in every moment and in every place, by seeking his presence in the world.
So let us prepare ourselves for communion by taking a moment to think on whatever is true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and praiseworthy and just and loving and merciful, to eat and drink of Christ in mind and heart and spirit, knowing that in these provisions we find life.