Monday, March 23, 2009

March 29 - 5th Sunday of Lent

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." John 12:24-25.

I am not preaching this week; however, I do have a few illustrations to offer up in regards to this scripture passage. A few weeks ago, I preached on Matthew's version of this statement. In that sermon I said:
Keeping the church alive is not our mission. That’s not our primary focus. If we put all our efforts into keeping the doors open, the lights on, and keeping enough people in the pews to keep the bills paid, then we’ve become like a sports team that has all but forgotten about the game it is supposed to be playing. If all our efforts go into saving our church’s life, then we will surely lose it, because we’ve already lost our focus. But those who lose their life, those who are willing to give their life away, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, will find that their life has been restored.
(The full sermon is here.)

Likewise I remember hearing a chaplain at a boy scout camp use an apple to illustrate this scripture: He took the apple and cut it in half. I believe he cut it in half sideways, so that the hidden star was revealed. Then he took out the seeds and asked, "how many seeds are there?" The scouts counted the seeds. Then he said, "If you plant these seeds in the ground, how many apples will they produce?" Of course there is no way of knowing, although it is likely that many, many apples will come from these few seeds. It was a simple, yet effective, object lesson.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

For God So Loved the World

On the way to understanding this text, I think it helps to remember the situation of John’s community, living in the aftermath of the Roman-Jewish war. As Jewish life in this time begins being reconstructed around the synagogue rather than the Temple, John’s community finds itself outside the newly-drawn Jewish social boundaries. Rejected by their fellow Jews as well as the Romans, they begin to see the world as hostile and alien. In their understanding, the world persecutes them just as it persecuted Jesus.

The writer of the gospel senses the angst of his community and fears they are falling apart and that some, if not all, may be tempted to return to their old ways. He illustrates this crisis in the gospel as a crisis of faith: “Do you believe Jesus is the way? Do you trust the things that he taught?” The “I am” statements in John (I am the way, the truth, the life, the gate, the vine, etc) are likely responses to those members of John’s community who are asking “Did we make the right choice? Was Jesus really the one?” John preaches a “realized eschatology” which urges the listener to make a decision for Christ now -- not in the future. Judgement day is an existential experience -- it occurs the moment you meet Christ. Those who step into the light of this moment and choose to ignore it or reject it are already, then, living under the consequences of that decision.

And yet, notice that the real focus of the text is God's love, not God's judgement. Maybe it is our own guilt or knowledge of ourselves that makes us see the words "judgement" and "condemn" and "evil" in big bold letters when what we really need to see is the words "love," "live," and "saved" in this passage. Those are the words that lead to transformation, that lead us out of the darkness, that open our beings to be able to meet and receive Christ in our midst.

Some questions I would consider when reflecting on this text:

1) What do you make of John’s Jesus and his view of the world in this text?
2) How do you react to the counterbalance between judgment and mercy in the text?
3) Think of biblical stories where God’s judgment ultimately resolves into God’s love for the world. What are the theological implications for this motif which repeats itself throughout the biblical texts?
4) The verb pisteuo meaning"to believe/trust" repeats seven times in the text. Five times are present tense (vv. 12, 15, 16, 18, 18). The present tense suggests continual action: "don't stop trusting," "keep on believing." How do you understand the difference between belief and trust? Does such a distinction change the way we read this passage? What do you see as the implications, for John’s community and ours, of belief/trust not as a one time event but as a process leading into the future?