Easter 4(C): Just Tell Us Already!
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
Each of the four Gospels sets out to do two basic things. First, they seek to tell of Jesus of Nazareth. Second, they seek to tell their respective audiences why they should care about this guy named Jesus from Nazareth. In the same way that writing Gospel has at its core these two interrelated tasks, so too does preaching Gospel.
In order to preach this text effectively, the preacher must be aware of John’s overarching program. Each of the Gospels have their idiosyncrasies and preconceptions, but John’s Gospel isn’t just different—it’s really different! John’s Gospel begins, not with a sequential narration of genealogy/incarnation (Matthew and Luke), nor with baptism (Mark). Rather, John begins with theology: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This central Christological claim serves as John’s thesis statement. From the opening words of the Gospel, John tells the reader who Jesus is: Word made flesh; and why the reader should care: this eternal Word is not simply in relationship with God; the Word is God. Every subsequent argument and claim about Jesus that the Fourth Gospel makes hinges on this crucial first claim.
This is especially true for interpreting John 10:22-30. Here, Jesus is asked for the first and only time in the Fourth Gospel, whether he is the Messiah. Instead of a simple “yes” or a simple “no,” Jesus restates his earlier claims, before rephrasing the most important claim of the Fourth Gospel: “The Father and I are one” (v. 30). Jesus then utilizes the question as an opportunity to expand the notion of Messiah from the simple notion of one sent or anointed by God, to a much broader and cosmic understanding of God made flesh.
“Tell us plainly!” Enough with the metaphors! You can keep your imagery! Just put an end to our wondering and tell us once and for all: are you the Messiah or not!? By chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ interrogators were desperate for clarity. The Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as a quasi-mystical figure who, at times, speaks in heavily coded theological idioms. In other words, clarity and concision are not Jesus’ style.
If Jesus responds to their statement, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” with a clear affirmation, then the Jewish establishment can label him a heretic and a blasphemer and begin the process under which one dealt with said offenses under Jewish religious law. By contrast, if Jesus answers in the negative, then the Jewish establishment can dismiss him out of hand. Instead, Jesus’ response confounds both possibilities, as it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus’ claim to Messiahship is at odds with the expectations of the Jewish establishment. In the same way that Jesus confounds expectations in his day, how might Jesus confound our expectations of God, and what it means to be God’s beloved?
Another possible avenue for preaching this text is to consider its implications for dispelling what is one of the most pervasive lies ever told about the Christian life: Namely, that it is easy or uncomplicated. The Christological and soteriological arguments at work in this passage are complicated enough, let alone the larger claims employed in the Fourth Gospel as a whole. And yet, while Jesus’ interrogators are focused upon understanding Jesus so they can figure out what to do next, Jesus is focused on those who believe in him and follow him. Although understanding and belief are interrelated, they are also distinct.
Understanding is a cognitive process. It implies perceiving the intended meaning of words and language and events. Belief, however, goes a step further. Belief requires an acceptance of something as true. Jesus encountered scores of people in his own day who understood his words and languages and events but did not believe them. Christians in our own day need not look far to find those who are more concerned with understanding religious arguments and theological claims than believing in the One who is the object of religion and theology: The God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Note well one final but important word of caution. Preachers and teachers must take care to unpack the way in which John pervasively and generically utilizes the word Ἰουδαῖος—the Jews. At various times in history, John’s use of this word has incorrectly and harmfully come to mean all Jews, and has served as a wholesale indictment of the Jewish people. Responsible preaching must be attentive to the ways in which the text has been misused to abuse and malign. One creative approach to this might be to consider utilizing John’s casual use of “the Jews” to invite our communities to explore how we too might be engaging in a similar practice of stereotyping.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.