|Certifying John's Gospel (John 21:24-25)
[Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly.]
John York: “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son of God . . . . No one has ever seen God, but now God the only Son has made him known.”
We draw our series in the Gospel of John to a close this morning, one that we began on September 23 of last year. Rubel, when you suggested we preach through John, I never imagined it would have the kind of impact on my own spiritual journey that it has had.
Rubel Shelly: John, I knew you needed this! I had this wonderfully perceptive insight that working through the Gospel of John would touch you, enchant you, deepen your faith, and encourage you! And me. And the people who would read it along with us.
More seriously, I have tried to preach through one of the Gospels – or a major section such as the Sermon on the Mount – at least every second year for quite a while now. I believe the core Christian message is Jesus. A church must know its reason for being, and the reason for our existence is not in our doctrines, our worship experiences, and our programs. We exist because we have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who “became flesh and lived among us.” And the place to visit again and again to confirm and deepen faith in him is the canonical Gospels.
I’ve been changed by these thirty-three weeks too! I’ll never be the same again. And I can point to specific texts and insights from John that have been “highlight moments” for me. What about you? Do you have specific texts in mind?
John: There are so many “highlight moments” for me, things in the Gospel I never really understood before. For example, I’ve read and taught that story in John 4 dozens of times and gotten to the woman’s question about worship — should we worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem? This was the first time I fully realized that Jesus wasn’t just interested in teaching us that worship is about right attitude and right thinking. “Worship in Spirit and Truth” is about a change in the location of God. God’s people will no longer go to a special location at a particular time to meet God because God has come to us! So by the time we got through all of those promises in chapters 14-16 about the coming of the Spirit of Truth, it was clear that worship is now about God making us his “abiding place.”
Rubel: One of several texts that really came alive for me for the first time in this series is John 7. At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus played off the symbolic action of a water ceremony to promise “living water” that would flow out of a believer’s heart (v.38). According to John, that was a reference to the Holy Spirit. In reading this Gospel previously, I had never picked up on the constant thematic references to the Spirit. Jesus was “from above,” and those who follow him must be born from above, receive light and life from above, experience eternal life from above, get soul-encouragement from above, look to guidance from above, and so on. John is certain that so long as we live in this world – the world below where Satan holds sway (cf. 8:44-47) – we cannot overcome its evils without belonging to God and to the realm that is from above. The presence of the Holy Spirit marks, empowers, and delivers those who have faith in Jesus.
John: Whether it was the series of lessons in chapters 13-17 or the unique way in which John tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection or the particular “signs” or all of those double-meaning texts, the dramatic words of the prologue have been authenticated: “Now God the only Son has made him known.” By seeing the Son, we have seen the Father. I especially appreciated what you said a couple of weeks ago about the testimony of the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:22-23).
Rubel: See? Another of those Holy Spirit references in John! I think the point I made about it put it in parallel to the Genesis creation story. Just as God breathed into Adam and made him alive, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into that first band of his followers to give them a vibrant and dynamic presence in the world. If the original church hadn’t had his supernatural presence, it would have never turned its world upside down. And if today’s church doesn’t learn to live in Spirit-presence rather than by business models for marketing religion, it is dead. It is just another from-below imitation of a from-above possibility!
John: That also fits with your comments last week about the ending of John’s Gospel with this “extra” chapter that points to the testimony of Peter — and to our own witness as well. Life beyond the resurrection meant Peter and the rest could try to go back to fishing, but that really wasn’t going to be possible. And it wasn’t just that Peter and the rest had become bad fisherman because of a three-year lay-off. It was because there was ministry to be accomplished.
Rubel: Absolutely! The resurrection had changed everything. It would never again be “business as usual” for those men.
John: Clearly John wants us to know that Peter is fully restored to ministry and that he’s not called to worry about anyone else’s calling — what God chooses to do with that other disciple is God’s business.
I also wonder if John isn’t trying to tell his audience then and us now that more than Peter’s rehabilitation is at stake in this chapter. I have a hunch that these last two verses are another example of John’s love for multiple meanings.
Rubel: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:24-25).
Eusebius of Caesarea was a church historian who claimed in the early fourth century that the apostle John wrote his Gospel only at the insistence of his disciples and fellow presbyters at Ephesus. If that is correct, these last two verses may be from a hand other than John’s own. Perhaps the first-person plural “we” here is a certification from the elders of that church. That would have them saying: “We know this eyewitness, attest to the authenticity of his upright and truthful character, and attach our own certification to this document. As men who have received and are living eternal life that comes from above, we commend the story of Jesus to you who read it.”
John: Well, maybe. But I’m not convinced. I think John makes it very difficult for us to know much of anything based on singular or plural or first-, second-, or third-person address. After all, he never makes a self-reference in this Gospel, calling himself instead “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Back in chapter 19, there was that third-person comment in verse 35: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.”
In 1 John, this same writer starts out speaking in first-person plural: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4). Then later he switches to first-person singular and writes to “my little children” or says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). In the next verse he goes back to first-person plural to talk about prayer — “when we ask anything in his name.
I know that’s a bit of overkill on something quite insignificant! But there are other double meanings here that are significant. What if the testimony that is true, that to which “we” bear witness does goes beyond John to his original audience — and even to us? What if the many other things done by Jesus not written in this book are to be heard as the ongoing activity of Jesus in the life of those Spirit-filled followers?
I know this will seem like a stretch, but that’s not new for John. Remember what Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12). What immediately followed in John 14 was the first of his statements about “asking anything in my name.” Jesus had to go away so that the Advocate could come, the Spirit of truth that would teach them all things and empower them to do these greater deeds, because God the Father and God the Son would come and make their home in the believers (14:23).
Yes, Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book. But John wants us to be convinced that the work of Jesus is still going on. Books can’t contain all that Jesus did, because he is still doing things! That is the power of the Spirit at work. That is the “ask anything in my name” at work. We are now the witnesses, those who attest to the truth of these words, those who not only tell the story but also live the story.
Rubel: If I follow your point here, it is similar to the one Paul made in a document he sent to Christians at Corinth. Man, was that a troubled church in a raunchy setting! And one of the problems seems to have involved some vagrant false teachers who had come there with “letters of recommendation” – perhaps forgeries alleging to give them official recognition from the apostles at Jerusalem – only to confuse further and to divide more deeply that unsettled body. Here was Paul’s response to all that:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:1-3).Isn’t his point rather obvious? As the certification of what he had preached at Corinth four or five years before, Paul offered that church as an existential letter of recommendation. And what would that be? The very fact that his message had made a difference in Corinth! There was a church in that city whose very existence was a powerful witness to the fact that the gospel of the living Christ changes people’s lives. Former drunks were not only sober but happy! Former prostitutes – both male and female – were living chaste lives! Former thieves and swindlers were chairing benevolence committees! “And that is what some of you were,” he insisted. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Listen closely to what I am about to say: A changed behavior doesn’t prove that somebody knows Jesus as Lord and is filled with the Holy Spirit, but nobody who does know Jesus and in whom the Spirit lives will be unchanged. So Paul was appealing to the marvelous life transformations among those believers as living, breathing attestations that the message he had brought to Corinth on his second missionary tour was from God.
This church must present the same certification of the gospel to our neighbors. They will never take our message seriously if we are the same old greedy, lecherous, racist, stoned, sexually impure, dishonest, sexist, drug-dealing, bar-fighting, cussing, wife-beating people some of us were a few months or years ago! They will never believe this Church of Christ is healthy if we are the same sorry legalistic, self-righteous, finger-pointing, judgmental, everybody-else-is-going-to-hell Church of Christ they have encountered somewhere before!
As individuals, I believe we must err on the side of extreme generosity, purity, modesty, sobriety, and so on for the sake of faithful witness – without appearing sanctimonious and smug about our Christianity. As a church, I believe we must err on the side of extreme mercy, broadmindedness, grace, and appreciation of other Christ-confessors – turn our collective back on the narrowness and focus on pharisaic minutiae for which our brotherhood has been known.
We certify the gospel to the world by looking like Christ. We authenticate the message by demonstrating moral integrity and spiritual sensitivity. We make Christ attractive to unbelievers by exhibiting his beauty in our imitative discipleship.
John: I have to confess that for a long time — perhaps due to my graduate-school training or more likely that self-righteous have-all-the-answers mentality that I assumed made me better than others — I thought that the goal of reading John was to figure out how to make his story harmonize with the other three stories. How do I reconcile the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of John’s story with the fact that cleansing the temple takes place at the end of the other Gospels? How do I make sense of Jesus going back and forth, back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem in John’s account when he never goes to Jerusalem in Matthew, Mark, and Luke until the very end of his ministry?
But that’s not the witness, the testimony John wants me to confirm. What I am called to affirm with the witness of my own life is that authenticating Spirit-presence that reveals itself when I keep heaven’s commandments here on earth, live the from-above life in my down-below setting.
In John’s Gospel, those divine commands are all reduced to loving God and loving one another. I am called to love others because God has so loved me and the rest of the world that he gave his only Son. No, it’s really bigger than a quick quotation of John 3:16. God the Father did give God the Son. God the Son did become flesh and make known to us humans God the Father. And through his human death and then his resurrection, God the Son revealed the Father’s love and invited us into relationship with that love by sending the Advocate. It is the Spirit that now testifies with our spirit, Paul would say (cf. Rom. 8:16). We can bear witness to the story by letting God’s love empower our love for one another. Failing that obedience, we not only fail God but fail those we are meant to draw to him by the fragrant aroma of Christ’s Spirit-presence at work in us.
Rubel: John, I’m going to suggest we close this series on “The Path to Faith” by referring to today’s newspaper instead of reading more verses from Scripture. It may be a bit tricky, but I think it is very, very important.
Has anyone read the unfolding stories in today’s newspaper about sexual abuse, pedophilia, and child molestation by priests? What I am about to say is not Catholic-bashing. Southern Baptists in convention this past week made a statement on the same subject. And John and I know people whose experience of these horrible evils has been in Church of Christ settings. Rather than anybody-bashing, it is simply saying the obvious that too often goes unsaid among religious people.
Roman Catholic friends of mine are distressed over polls that show around twenty-two percent of their members – at least in some parts of the United States – so distraught over the revelations of the past few weeks that they are questioning their faith. Last Tuesday in a city in Massachusetts, a group of Catholic lay persons met in a room under a banner that read “Keep the Faith, Change the Church.”
Are we listening? They aren’t questioning the veneration of Mary, the doctrine of the Mass, or papal authority. They are questioning the horrible inconsistency of collar and robe with depraved behavior and devastated innocence. This is the bane of Christianity across the centuries. This is the reason for unbelief in countless hearts. This is what we must counter, if we want to attest the gospel message to our world.
An elderly apostle did his Spirit-appointed job of writing down these wonderful insights for distant readers such as us. Now we must attest and certify those insights to our time and place by displaying them in our lives – Spirit-authored new lives that positively abound with love, purity, joy, self-control, gentleness, kindness, and the other virtues which make people know that all who live such lives surely know God and can point the way to salvation for them as well.
The path to genuine Christian faith not only leads to heaven at the end but to an incredibly exciting partnership with Christ every step along the way.
Eusebius, Church History, 6. 14. 7.
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