Preaching John

The Gospel of John is the capstone of the fourfold Gospel canon. Different in character and content from the prior three synoptic Gospels, it supplements and complements them, presenting (in accord with its traditional iconography) an “eagle-eye” view of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word, the God who strides upon the earth, bringing divine revelation into a hostile world. In preaching John it may be useful to note its position as the final Gospel, making plain the significance of Jesus in a spiritual or theological way. St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-211) said, “As for John, the last [evangelist], upon seeing that in the Gospels they [i.e., the synoptic evangelists] had told of the corporeal matters, supported by his disciples and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wrote a spiritual Gospel.” (Quis dives salvabitur 42,1). St. Augustine similarly said:

These three evangelists, however, were for the most part engaged with those things which Christ did through the vehicle of the flesh of man, and after the temporal fashion. But John, on the other hand, had in view that true divinity of the Lord in which He is the Father’s equal, and directed his efforts above all to the setting forth of the divine nature in his Gospel in such a way as he believed to be adequate to men’s needs and notions…[John] is like one who has drunk in the secret of His divinity more richly and somehow more familiarly than others, as if he drew it from the very bosom of his Lord on which it was his wont to recline when He sat at meat. (De cons. ev. 1.4[7])

Much could be said about the multifold theological themes and literary dynamics of the Johannine Gospel; good commentaries will deal with the standard background issues and themes like light, darkness, life, the world, glory, and so on. (Perhaps the best crash course or refresher on John is the late Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the Gospel of John, intended to be a revised opening chapter to his magisterial commentary on John in the Anchor Yale commentary series, but now published as a separate book.) I wish to focus on John’s overarching story, in which God invades a hostile world in the Incarnation to establish the divine presence in the world in the Church and its sacraments.

I. The World

Astute observers have noted that the Gospel of John is dark indeed, for the “World” (kosmos) is hostile to Jesus Christ and his disciples because it is hostile to God, being under the dominion of Satan. The world does not recognize Jesus (John 1:9); it is sinful (1:29); it stands in need of salvation (3:16); the people of the world prefer darkness to light because their deeds are evil (3:19); it stands under judgment because it stands under satan’s power (12:31); it rejects the Spirit (14:17). Indeed, the world hates both Jesus and his disciples (15:18-19). All is ultimately well, however, for Jesus reminds his disciples, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

What significance might this have for preaching? Jesus Christ and his Church do not hate the World, even if the world hates them. Rather, Jesus (and his Church) loves the world, for God loves the world (cf. John 3:16). But John’s dark description of the enmity that the world has towards us is a stark challenge to much Christian thinking and practice today; sent out as sheep among wolves, we’re often innocent as doves but not wise as serpents (cf. Matt 10:16). True, much good is found in our world, and all its goodness, beauty, and truth is ultimately the Lord’s. Nevertheless, those who know their history (and who pay attention to contemporary events) know that the Church often finds itself in a pitched battle with the world, conquering hate with love, overcoming evil with good, fighting a spiritual battle with implements suited to that task (cf. Eph. 6).

II. Incarnation

In John’s perspective, the World is enemy-occupied territory. God himself thus invades the world in a vulnerable offensive of love in the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in Jesus Christ, in which God becomes meat (in-carnem). John 1, of course, presents the most profound reflection on the Incarnation. We are told in John 1:1-3 that the Word (logos), the second person of the Trinity, was with God, was God, and was an agent of creation. I would emphasize here two items:

(A) The rationality of God: In contemporary culture, many people assume that there exists a broad, ugly ditch between faith and reason, so that religion must be irrational. But this is not the case, and the preacher does well to challenge this point. (Indeed, effective preaching often involves challenging basic assumptions imbibed from the culture with Christian truths.) Logos is the rational principle of creation; it may be translated simply “reason.” Thus, John 1:1 may be paraphrased, “In the beginning was reason, and reason was with God, and God was reason.”

(1) From here the preacher may delve into the relationship between faith and reason, which often overlap (e.g., one can ask, Is “Thou shalt not kill” a truth of faith and revelation or a truth of reason?).

(2) He or she may also discuss the intelligibility of the created order.

(3) Another avenue concerns the Imago Dei, the image of God in humans, especially appropriate as John 1 alludes to Gen 1:1 (“In the beginning God created…”; In the beginning was the Word…”). In Christian history the Imago has been understood in three chief ways:

(a) Rationality: Since God is rational, so are humans, and this rationality separates us from animals (for instance, in St. Augustine’s Letter 120, he writes, “God forbid Christians should denigrate reason, which separates us from animals”). Here the preacher might reflect on humanity’s lofty position in the created order, especially in light of contemporary worldviews and technological processes that challenge that position.

(b) Relationality: As the persons of the Trinity relate to one another, so to do man and woman in marriage related to one another, and indeed the whole human family.

(c) Stewardship: Man and woman have loving dominion over the earth.

(B) That the Word, the logos, the second person of the Trinity is an agent of creation (“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made,” John 1:3), has profound implications. Many people think of the Father as the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sustainer or Sanctifier of creation. But this understanding is fundamentally modalist and thus heretical, and attempts to avoid the masculine Name of the Holy Trinity usually run into this heresy. All three persons of the Trinity are involved in all operations of creation, redemption, and sanctification.  Why is modalism a problem? It imperils revelation. For if we only know God in his modes – as one actor wearing three different masks in a play – we don’t know God himself, but just the masks.

Indeed, the Incarnation is the chief instance of divine revelation, for God has made himself fully known in Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Now many people have what amounts to an Islamic view of God and Jesus; God remains a monad, a unity (not a Trinity) in the heavens, while Jesus is his human prophet. (The legacy of Schleiermacher looms large still today.) And thus often in pastoral practice one encounters people who have a hard time with God and his love for them but feel close to Jesus. But this ought to be gently corrected, as a right understanding of God is requisite for spiritual health: When one sees Jesus, one sees God, and if someone wants to know what God is like, one ought to look at Jesus. The revelation of God in Jesus thus makes possible real relationship, for it is simply easier for a human to relate to another human than to an impersonal divinity (say, like the Deist God, or Plato’s One) or even a personal divinity unmediated by the humanity of the Incarnation.

But the Jesus to which Christians relate is not only the literary figure of the Gospels, a mere character in a story played out long ago. Indeed, John tells us that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14), and dwells with us still. Literally, that verse says that he “pitched his tent” among us – his tabernacle, an allusion to the tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites in their sojourns, the tabernacle which sheltered the Ark in which the very Presence of God resided. Jesus is thus a new tabernacle, a new temple (as the tabernacle was the forerunner of the two temples, Solomon’s temple and the second temple). Indeed, the narrator makes clear that Jesus’ body is the new temple (“But he spoke of the temple of his body,” 2:21), and as such is the sacrament of God’s presence with us. Where might his body and thus God’s presence be found today?

III. Sacrament

John is a sacramental Gospel, for the Incarnation is the sacrament par excellence. And while the Eucharistic import of John 6 is long contested among interpreters, a subtle triple typology found therein suggests a rather high view of Holy Communion, along the lines of what St. Ignatius of Antioch had in mind when he called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Eph. 20:2). (Of course, preachers may follow their own informed judgment and traditions on this point.)

In John 6, we have the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which both looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness and also forward to the Eucharist. Challenging Jesus for a sign, Jesus’ interlocutors remind him that Moses gave their fathers “bread from heaven,” manna in the wilderness (John 6:31). Jesus tells them that it is his Father who gives the true bread from heaven, Jesus himself, the bread of life (6:32-35). After some grumbling, Jesus reiterates his words:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (6:48-51)

After a dispute arises concerning just how one might eat Jesus’ flesh, Jesus states:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (6:53-58)

What, then, are the parallels? (1) In the Old Testament, God gives miraculous manna to the people through Moses, and the people eventually die. (2) In the feeding of the five thousand, the Father gives miraculous bread and fish to the people through Jesus (who gave thanks, 6:11, thus involving his Father), and the people eventually die. In each case the food provided sustains the people in their biological life, but it is powerless to provide eternal life; in each case the people ultimately die. But (3) in the case of the Eucharist, the Father has sent the Son, Jesus, in the Incarnation, and then in the Eucharist, a token of the Incarnation, gives the people the bread of life, and the people will live forever.

This is good news: Not just that God sent his Son in the Incarnation to invade a hostile world two millennia ago, but that God is present in the body and blood of his Son who gives his Eucharistic flesh for the life of that world in the present moment. The Eucharist feeds those living in a world where most are starved both of transcendence and immanence, and good preaching will bring congregants to a profound experience of this reality.

IV. Church

John also presents a robust, if subtle, picture of the Church. Just as the Father sent the Son into the world in the Incarnation, Jesus the Son sends forth the disciples into the world, sent forth to spread the divine presence not only in the Church’s Eucharistic celebrations but also through the ministry of reconciliation.

John 13 presents a crucial hermeneutical test case for an issue significant for all the Gospels and Acts: Are the disciples representative of all Christians, serving as examples good and bad for Christian discipleship? Or are the disciples different in kind from other Christians? Put another way, is what is addressed to Jesus’ disciples always addressed also to us?

The answer depends on one’s ecclesiology; the “lower” one’s ecclesiology, the more the disciples are understood as representative of all Christians, the “higher” one’s ecclesiology, the more the disciples are regarded as apostles, bishops and priests and different from us in kind.

Now obviously many things said to the disciples are intended to be heeded by all Christians. On the other hand, certain things are not meant for all Christians; the prime example that comes to mind is Jesus’ giving Peter the keys in Matthew 16. However one interprets the passage, something special and particular is going on with Peter.

These decisions affect how preachers interpret John 13, the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. On one hand, what Jesus teaches the disciples by this example seems incumbent upon all Christians:

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (13:12-15)

On the other hand, the footwashing scene in John 13 traditionally bears on the institution of the priesthood, as the ordination rite for priests under the old covenant involved washing (Ex 29:1-8; Lev 8:1ff). (This is why in the optional Holy Thursday service in many Catholic parishes involves the washing of the feet of males alone, as the rubrics for the service technically specify viri selecti – “chosen males.”)

A second crucial passage concerns the ministry of reconciliation. The risen Jesus appears among the disciples and says:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (20:19-23)

Here we have the traditional institution of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). Protestants, of course, will understand the passage to concern the ministerial declaration of the forgiveness of sins.

However one understands these passages, whether in a more Catholic or more Protestant way, they teach that the Church is sent into the world by Jesus as God sent Jesus into the world, that the Church is to be God’s alternative community of love in the world, ever more the City of God within the City of Man, marked by humble service and the spirit of reconciliation.

Dr. Leroy Huizenga is the Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.