I find the Gospel of John to be particularly difficult to preach on, not because of any lack of details, themes or stories to work with, but rather because there is quite often so much going on that it is difficult to know just where to “dive in” and how far to go!
John’s gospel is driven by a series of signs and discourses. Jesus “does” something which is recognized as a sign that is to reveal something about who Jesus is.
Then in the wake of the sign done, “who Jesus is” becomes the subject of a conversation or a “discourse” around that particular sign.
Practically, what this means is that it is very difficult to react to just one story in John isolation; as the stories are all inter-connected, one to another by the discourses, each one giving you a sharper picture of who Jesus is.
So for instance today we start what will be five weeks of looking at the “Bread of Life Discourse”, John 6:1-71.
What we get in the reading today is just the “sign” part of it, the feeding of the 5000 and the story of Jesus walking on the water which ends at verse 21.
But the whole “discourse” runs through verse 71 and it will culminate in Jesus’ declaring, “I am the bread of life.”
Once that declaration is made, “I am the bread of life” you are then forced to look back over the whole series of events and conversations to make sense of the whole discourse. All of the details of the story end up depending upon you knowing that this is where we are heading, and that this is what the “sign” you experienced was meant to reveal.
There are marked differences between how John tells the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on water event, as opposed to and how Matthew, Mark or Luke tell them, and at this point in the sermon on several drafts I wandered into those differences. It seemed somehow important to show John’s take on the stories, and detail what was different in order to point out how John was lifting up this particular “sign” that pointed to Jesus as the Bread of Life.
But, in each and every attempt to do that, what I found was that in wandering into the details, Jesus was getting lost amongst them. The sermon became more of a thesis paper on the differences and similarities of the gospels and less of a point of proclamation. The sermon said a lot, but it didn’t say anything directly to you.
I will be celebrating 30 years of ordained ministry today between services, and so a few folks have asked if I could sum up my years of service. You know, give a quick snapshot of where I’ve served, what I’ve done, the kinds of places I’ve been at and what happened there. It’s fairly easy for me to wax nostalgic about all of that. Easy to remember back to Emmanuel in rural Nebraska, Our Saviour’s in Lincoln, doing a mission start, adventuring off to upstate New York, and finding myself back here in the Midwest doing interims.
I have no shortage of stories, and I could wander there.
But like wandering into the details of John’s gospel, I find that the more I do that, the more Jesus seems to get lost amongst the details. The stories I tell seem to become more and more about “me” and less and less about what God was up to, and is still up to in this world. I could say a lot, but not really say anything at all directly to you.
That’s the tricky thing about signs, and that’s really what we’re talking about, they are meant to point somewhere.
John spins out the story of the feeding of the 5000 with all the details in order to point to Jesus, but in our quest to understand and figure it all out, or in the hunger for the next meal we end up missing the very thing the story is meant to drive home.
In the same way, when you ask me to talk about where I have served and what I have seen or done these past 30 years, you might find that to be interesting, but what you are probably more interested in are the signs.
You want to know where God has been moving.
You want to see what God has been up to in those 30 years, where I have seen God’s action and activity, in all those years, the signs of hope for the future.
Signs of a life well lived, and signs of what God does when Jesus is around.
So let me take a little different tact that I think is in keeping with John’s gospel, an observation from it.
If you just look at this sign of feeding the 5000, and walking on water, you can conclude a couple things about Jesus that I have found to be true in my 30 years of doing this.
One is that Jesus works pretty well with little or nothing.
And two, is that Jesus just seems to delight in surprising people.
I think that pretty well sums up what I have learned and experienced in the past 30 years of ministry.
It’s really rather ironic if you think about it, because in the call process we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take those very uncertainties out of the equation for the church.
We want to know what we have to work with, and we don’t much like surprises.
Congregations want to know what the Pastor will be like, what is his or her experience? What is the pastor good at? What are his or her competencies? Accomplishments? Weaknesses? Growth areas? Etc.
And Synods end up trying to “match” congregations with Pastors with the right competencies as determined by the paperwork filled out, the needs of the congregation, and the ability to afford the leader, taking out the uncertainties to give the relationship a smooth start.
Pastors sometimes look at congregations as if they were buying a used car. How much wear and tear is on the place? How many miles on it, left on it? What’s their benevolence like? What is their generational makeup? Are they open to change, or resistant to change, or desperate or….
We play this game you see, of trying to eliminate as many uncertainties and surprises as we can.
We’re right there with Philip in this Gospel lesson, when Jesus asks him how we are going to feed all these people. Philip does the calculation quickly, the measurement is taken, “6 months wages wouldn’t get them more than a morsel….”
Like the despondent disciples in the story, congregations and pastors alike sometimes take stock of what they have, what they have to work with, what they think is possible, and like Andrew, or maybe more like Eyore in “Winnie the Pooh”, they give their assessment.
“There is a boy here who has five dried out loaves and a couple of fish, but what is that among so many?”
And this is where Jesus smirks. I can see him! Smirking, snarky Jesus as we sometimes call him in our coffee gatherings.
I used to be really annoyed with John’s Gospel whenever Jesus was portrayed like this of having foreknowledge. “He said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.” John says. I always heard that as a Jesus who was never surprised, always knew what was going to happen before it happened.
But I hear that differently today. Today I hear that phrase as, “of course he knew..” for we are so predictable, we disciples! We never think God is up for the challenge, or that God can do more than we can possibly imagine, and it just delights the daylights out of Jesus to have a chance to do that, to give a sign that God is a God of abundance, and of care, and of love, and of provision.
Here is the truth of the matter that I’ve learned in 30 years of doing this. I never felt like I had enough of whatever it is I needed to do the job properly.
Here is the truth of the matter in 30 years of doing this. I have never served a congregation that believed they had all the resources they needed RIGHT NOW to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do in their community.
There has always been a tight budget.
There has always been a hand wringing treasurer, or nervous council, or a controlling finance committee. “What is this (whatever ‘this’ might be,) among so many needs?”
And in 30 years what I’ve seen is a lot of Jesus smirking.
If you want to see a sign of God at work in your midst, it never comes from outside. It always comes as you surprise yourself, as Jesus does something in your very midst that surprises you, catches you off guard, and leaves you wondering what it is that you have just seen and experienced.
Ministry never goes the way you think it will, no matter how carefully planned or executed.
Here is the truth of ministry, and you can argue with me if you want to about this, but it’s just been my observation through the years.
Jesus works pretty well with little or nothing. In fact, he seems to prefer it that way, because then what happens is really of God, and not our own doing.
That’s what makes me see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he asks Philip this question. I hear the question now as Jesus just delighting in showing those who would follow him some surprises about what is possible when he takes, breaks, blesses and is in the midst of us.
You want me to sum up 30 years in ministry? It is found in this gospel, in a Jesus who smirks when he asks us what we think, and who then goes ahead and works things in our midst that we could never have imagined.
It is found in our constant under-estimation of what we have been given, and how God can transformed dried up old loaves and smelly fish into a banquet fit for a king with abundance overflowing, if we but sit down, trust, and deliver what we have into his hands.
Here is the truth of ministry. We all just end up making it up as we go along, but we go along with Jesus. We go along with smirking, smiling, snarky Jesus, who is ever ready to show us a surprise or two, about ourselves, about our own capabilities, and about what God has in mind for us.
In 30 years of ministry, I still don’t like that much. I’d prefer the assurance of certainties over signs!
But God prefers the enigmatic use of signs, and seems to like it that way. And if you think about it, you can see why.
Certainties always become about me, about what I can do.
Signs are always about what God is doing, with us, in us, despite us sometimes, and through us.
So, in 30 years of doing this, I’ve grown used to looking for that smirking, smiling Jesus, and introducing you to him. It is a Jesus who always seems ready to launch in and show us something, and usually something unexpected, even and especially by me.