This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the first in a series running through Easter on the Gospel of John.
Today’s sermon is based on John 1.
At the beginning, I reference “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit.” You can find it here.
Today, I want to keep these two questions churning in the background as we begin a journey through the Gospel of John, which we’ll end on Easter. And here’s the challenge or invitation for us all. I firmly believe that following Jesus makes all the difference in our everyday lives, and I know no better way for Jesus to give us courage, hope, and life than getting to know him better through scripture reading. So, I invite us to begin a journey with Jesus through the Gospel of John this week. There’s a weekly reading plan in the newsletter and online.
Today, I’d like to speak more like I might in a Bible study in order to set a foundation for this journey. For the most part, much of this foundation could be found in the introductory notes in any standard study bible. My hope is that this foundation will help us read the gospel well, and hopefully, encounter Jesus anew in ways that bring us closer to him and closer to the life he’s created and called us for.
One of the first things we notice about the Gospel of John is that it’s significantly different than the other three gospels. Having read the Gospel of Mark throughout the fall, this should be fairly obvious. Here are some of the ways John is different:
- It begins with this grand, poetic, theological prologue celebration of the Incarnation. Other gospels let this idea develop to varying degrees, but John starts there. Starting like this sets the tone for the entire book.
- While the other gospels have more of a narrative structure, John is organized around seven signs in the first half of the book, and then a long focus on the glory of Christ revealed in his crucifixion. These signs carry most of the weight of the book, and from them, we have many memorable images of Jesus.
- In John, Jesus teaches much more in long monologues, as opposed to parables. This can make John challenging.
Second, while all the gospels on their own, and together, seek to introduce us to Jesus – to help us know and follow Jesus – John seems to be the most explicit in this.
- It wasn’t written for the purpose of keeping an orderly account of Jesus’ life and bring the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth as Luke writes (Lu 1:1-4).
- It wasn’t written to demonstrate to a Jewish audience that Jesus is the Messiah like Matthew.
- It wasn’t written to tell the story of Jesus to a Roman, secular audience like Mark’s gospel.
- John’s gospel is written to offer us eternal life, which he says explicitly:
- “Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30-31)
Third, while John is crystal clear in his purpose for writing the gospel, the identity of the author, his context, and his audience are not quite as clear.
- Christian tradition dating to the 2nd Century suggests John the son of Zebedee as the author. However, John 21:20-25 makes this a little doubtful. This passage makes it sound like John the disciple did write down an account of Jesus’ life, but that the gospel writer used this as the main resource for the gospel. Therefore, I’ll talk about the author of the gospel as “John the Evangelist,” which most biblical scholarship does.
- Biblical scholarship has typically agreed that the Gospel of John is the last gospel to be written: no earlier than 70CE and perhaps as late as 110CE. Both tradition and biblical scholarship suggest it was written in or around Ephesus, likely among a Christian group that was seeking to figure out what it believed since they didn’t fit within the synagogue tradition.
For now, I think that’s enough, perhaps more than enough, to get us started on our journey with Jesus through the Gospel of John. But, here’s the main thing. As Paul writes to Timothy, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16-17). So, we believe fully that God inspired the Evangelist to write this gospel to that we’d see the fullness of God in Jesus and be equipped to live as his followers.
So, how do the people surrounding Jesus respond to him in John 1?
John the Baptizer repeatedly claims that he is called to point the way to Jesus, to proclaim that he is coming. “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” he proclaimed when he saw Jesus walking toward him (v. 29). He admitted that he hadn’t recognized Jesus at first, but that his whole baptism ministry was so that Jesus would be revealed to Israel (v. 31). And he was assured of Jesus’s identity – he was “God’s Son” – after he saw the Spirit come down and rest upon him (v. 33-34). Interestingly, John, and none of the other gospels, include anything about John the Baptizer actually leaving his baptizing and prophetic ministry and following Jesus.
The next day, Andrew and another of John’s disciples take off after Jesus, after John points him out saying again, “Look! The Lamb of God!” (v. 36). Asking where he was staying, Jesus replies to them, “Come and see,” and they followed him (v. 38-40). Of these two disciples, we’re told only that Andrew told others about Jesus: he went to his brother Simon and led him to Jesus saying, “We’ve found the Messiah” (v. 41). We’re familiar with Simon, though more so when we refer to him by the name that Jesus gives him, “Cephas” or “Peter,” which means “Rock” (v. 42). Obviously, he kept following Jesus.
The day after that, Jesus goes to the Galilee and meets Philip, who’s from the same hometown as Peter and Andrew. We’re not told if Peter and Andrew were with Jesus. But Jesus invites Philip, “Follow me,” and apparently Philip does, but not before also going to tell a friend named Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth” (v. 45).
Now, Nathanael doesn’t come up again in John’s Gospel, or any of the other gospels, so he’s a little interesting. His first response to Philip is less positive: “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” (v. 46). Rather than try to convince Nathanael, Philip simply says, “Come and see” (v. 46). When Jesus sees Nathanael coming, he praises him saying, “Here’s a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (v. 47). Nathanael is perplexed, wondering, “How do you know me?” (v. 48). Jesus tells him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree” (v. 48). At this, Nathanael professes belief that Jesus is “God’s Son” and the “king of Israel” (v. 49). But Jesus says to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” (v. 50-51).
This last scene is especially interesting in the way it ties back into the beginning of the chapter. John writes this grand, sweeping poetry about God’s creative acts echoing the creation poem of Genesis 1, proclaiming that, from the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God. Then, Jesus references one of the other peak stories of the Old Testament, when Jacob sees in a dream a ladder or stairway to the heavens upon which angels are ascending and descending (Gen 28:10-15). And Jesus says, you’ll see greater things than what Jacob saw, implying that in him, in Jesus, we all see the fullness of God – a greater thing than messengers – coming down into human life and later, ascending into the heavens. It’s a grand, mystical conclusion to a chapter filled with wonder, mystery, and awe at the experience of Jesus. And all that’s left, for each of these people, is to follow Jesus, to come and see, as he says.
In all this, from the opening chapter, we see the Evangelist’s intent. John writes this gospel so that all who read it will encounter Jesus, the Living Word and full presence of God, in whom we receive abundant life in this life and the life to come by grace through faith. Then, the Evangelist moves quickly to how some people responded to Jesus. And this is where my questions from the start are important: 1) If following Jesus is supposed to give us courage and hope and life in the face of all that life throws at us, what does that following Jesus look like today? 2) What difference does following Jesus make in our everyday lives?
In chapter 1, some made proclamations: he’s the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the King of Israel, or God’s Son. Some followed him. Some pointed to him. Some questioned him. Some saw the light, while others were content to remain in the darkness.
And here’s where we see ourselves in this text. Having heard John’s introduction – indeed, having celebrated Christmas together – how will we choose to respond? And for me, with my failed discipleship card, how will I start this next week? Are we willing to risk getting to know Jesus more through the Gospel of John, willing to risk that he’ll change our minds, our hearts, and our lives, filling us with hope, courage, and life? Because, at the very least, following Jesus truly does make all the difference. I saw this clearly this week as I had the honor to preside at a service of death and resurrection for Lance Jones. What difference does following Jesus make? Lance’s wife, Sherrill talked about how assurance of God’s presence was something she and Lance Jones have always experienced. God’s presence is just part of their lives, and it’s made all the difference. God has guided them through 65 years of marriage, through their professional lives, and their family lives. And this week, God was present sustaining Sherrill and their children as they gave Lance into God’s eternal care in the life to come. And through them, I have been inspired in my faith and life, as many others have been as well. May we discover Jesus in John, so that he may make all the difference in our lives.
- In your own words, what difference has following Jesus made in your life?
- How did you come to know Jesus? Through what practices did God reveal Godself to you in Jesus? Are you still committed to those practices? Why or why not?
- In the face of what you’re struggling with, how does following Jesus make a difference?
- If you’ve read the Gospel of John before, what impressions has it made upon you? Has it been a favorite, or one you try to avoid? In either case, why?
Reading Plan for the Gospel of John for this series:
- Jan 10 – John 1
- Jan 17 – John 2-3
- Jan 24 – John 4-5
- Jan 31 – John 6
- Feb 7 – John 7-8
- Feb 14 – John 9-10
- Feb 21 (Lent begins) – John 11
- Feb 28 – John 12
- Mar 7 – John 13
- Mar 14 – John 14-16
- Mar 21 – John 17
- Mar 28 – John 18-19
- Apr 4 (Easter) – John 20