This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 7, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of an ongoing series running through Easter exploring the Gospel of John.
Today’s sermon is based on John 7-8.
This season, I invite you to make faith commitments using “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit.” You can find it here.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday, in case there’s any like me for whom this event snuck up unknowingly. But here’s what I think that means, in a mostly playful way: today is a day steeped in conflict. Of course there’s the gridiron, football, conflict between two teams vying for the championship trophy. Then, there’s the conflict between family and friends who will don different team jerseys today, or none at all. Perhaps some people will argue about which commercial was the best, or the worst, and there might even be some heated discussions about the halftime entertainment. All this conflict happens every year, to varying degrees, but once in a while, it goes a little too far. A friend of mine who’s a teacher complained last month that some of his students were actively wishing for the Chiefs’ quarterback to be seriously, even gravely injured, after he’d left a game early due to an injury. He asked me, and them, “What is wrong with us, and the world, that we would wish someone to be hurt?” There’s some serious conflict brewing in our hearts, it seems.
This week, the Annual Conference’s clergy gathered for our annual learning event and heard presentations about preaching and leadership in the midst of conflict. The presentations reaffirmed two things for me: 1) conflict is part of our lives, and 2) our faith calls us to be people and communities that can talk about issues, circumstances, and ideas about which there is conflict, because our faith is meant to be lived together with others.
Now, I’m speaking of conflict in the way we might if we thought about our lives as stories: conflict is the rising events, the challenges, of our lives, that in some way threatens who’ve been and are becoming. This side of God’s new kingdom, conflict exists in our lives. Sometimes conflict is direct, intense, and driven by specific events: a loved one dies; we lose or change a job; we move; a relationship ends or changes dramatically; people challenge who we are and what we believe; or we or someone close to us messes up.
At other times, we might live with a sort of growing but indefinite conflict. Those who are parents might not say we’re experiencing any conflict with our kids, but we surely know the challenges, hopes, dreams, and fears of parenting. We know the sustained conflict of trying to raise our kids according to our convictions, so that they’ll grow into successful, faithful, contributing adults. There’s conflict there. As we live into the long span of life called adulthood, we know conflict even when life’s events are going well. We question our callings. We worry about how we’ll manage being sandwiched between young adult children and aging parents. We seek to put one foot in front of the other, hoping that we’re living in ways that reflect our faith in Jesus, but also wondering if we’ve missed something somehow. And in the twilight years of life, we reflect on how we’ve lived with mixtures hope, grief, confidence, and doubt. These are the plot points of our lives, through which our identities and our futures are challenged. And, in the face of these many and varied conflicts, the question is simply this: “How does Jesus call us to live in the face of conflict?”
As we’ve discovered by now, John the Evangelist has an interesting way of telling the story of Jesus’s life. Here’s the brief summary of Jesus’s life through John: in Jesus, the Word, the wisdom and character of God, dwelt among us, revealing God’s will and way, and inviting all the world to be filled with God’s eternal life in this life; but Jesus was rejected, betrayed, and crucified; yet, even the grave couldn’t hold him, and in his resurrection, he draws all of humanity to Godself by grace through faith.
If this is the brief summary, then in John 7-8, we’re witnessing the rising action of the story: we’re seeing the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities grow and fester. John 7-8 are interesting because they don’t include any of the signs we’ve become accustomed to seeing in John thus far. Jesus doesn’t cover any new ground or present any new ideas. Instead, he reiterates and deepens a few central ideas from earlier chapters: Jesus is the living water that forever satisfies our thirst (seen first in Jn 3); Jesus is the light of the world casting out all darkness (seen first in Jn 1); and Jesus and God the Father share a uniquely close relationship. But these are all points of conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment. They simply cannot accept that Jesus would have the audacity to disrupt the business of the Temple, heal on the Sabbath, or claim such a connection with God. As they say, the plot, in John 7-8 thickens. Jesus knows what it’s like to experience conflict from without and from within – direct and indirect.
Because Jesus experiences growing conflict in John 7-8, he also shows us how to live in the face of our own various conflicts. When faced with growing conflict, Jesus consistently reiterates his identity, in speech and in actions: he is Jesus, Son of the Father. Over and over and over again, he repeats the message of who he knows himself to be. He says in multiple ways this message: I am from the Father. I know what God knows. I speak what God gives me to speak. I act as God’s agent. If you want to know God and do God’s will, believe in me, and you’ll be able to see who I really am.
At only one instance does he shout, and in this, it seems more likely that he’s shouting to be heard, not out of anger or argumentation. And here, he is, again, on message: “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water will flow out from within him” (7:37-38).
Then, when people seek to arrest him, he doesn’t fight or flee. He speaks the truth of his identity and his message. And what’s the response? Some people like him, know him, and believe in him. Other people question, wondering if he might be the Messiah they’ve gathered in Jerusalem to look forward to. Some are resolute in their violent hatred. But in all this, Jesus remains truly himself. Jesus shows us how to live with Godliness in the midst of conflict: he stands firm in his identity in relation to God.
Herein lies the takeaway for today from John 7-8: when we experience conflict – either situational conflict because of something we’ve done, left undone, or something someone else has done, or we’re just challenged by life in general – Jesus’s inspires and empowers our responses to conflict. Jesus inspires us to remember that, regardless of the conflict we’re experiencing, we are, through Jesus, beloved, forgiven children of God. Moreover, if we’re in conflict with someone, Jesus reminds us that they too are beloved children of God. Remembering these realities changes how we see ourselves and others in the midst of conflict. It inspires us. It means that none of our striving or struggling will change the fact that, by grace, we are God’s children. And it means that we don’t have to treat others with whom we’re in conflict as enemies to be defeated or won over – we just have to treat them as fellow beloved children of God.
Certainly, that’s easier said than done. And yet, Jesus, fully human, models its possibility. Further, Jesus proclaims that he is, indeed, a river of living water quenching our souls, and light of the world casting out the darkness of our hearts. In seeing, believing, and giving ourselves to Jesus, Jesus fills us with his living water and light, with the very presence of God’s eternal life, so that we can resolutely live as the beloved, children of God we are in him.
- Obviously, John 7-8 is a large chunk of text, perhaps too much to engage with in one sermon. What other things stand out for you in these chapters? What is God saying to you through them?
- In an attempt to focus, I focused on one element that developed throughout these chapters: the growing conflict around Jesus. Why do you think there was so much conflict surrounding Jesus? Would Jesus encounter conflict, and for the same or different reasons, if he took on flesh today, in our church, family, or community?
- The main message of this sermon might be summarized as, “When Jesus experienced conflict, he stood firm on his identity and his relationship with God; and so can we.” Perhaps that’s clunky. Did God speak something else to you through this passage or sermon? Is this too easy of an answer to our own experiences of conflict?
- Think about a particular conflict in your life, either with someone else, or just a situation in general without a face or opponent. In what ways could remembering that you are beloved child of God through faith in Jesus change your view of that conflict? Does it change your actions or thoughts? Does it give you hope and courage?