The Gospel text for this week (John 15:1-8) contains another ‘I am’ statement of Jesus. It happens to be the last ‘I am’ statement in the Gospel according to John. And that is saying something significant.
It is significant, perhaps, because people have counted a total of seven ‘I am’ statements in this gospel account. That number should not surprise you. It might be helpful to see the progression within the statements, especially since last week I wrote about the structure of the gospel account’s connection to the Jewish liturgical year rather than to seven so-called ‘signs’.
I have the seven ‘I am’ statements to be as follows: In John 6:35, Jesus is ‘the bread of life’. In John 8:12 and 9:5, Jesus is ‘the light of the world’. In John 10:7 and 9, Jesus is ‘the door of the sheep’. In John 10:11 and 14, Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’. In John 11:25, Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the life’. In John 14:6, Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’. And, in part of our text for this Sunday, in John 15:1 and 5, Jesus is ‘the true vine’.
To support a coherent structure throughout the work, I think it is important to see, within these seven statements, a connection to the previously mentioned structure of the Jewish liturgical year. The festival of Passover included a special meal to remember Israel’s ‘exodus’ from Egypt, and Jesus talks about being the bread of life. The feast of Tabernacles or Booths reminded Israel of a time of wandering in the wilderness, when they were following Yahweh’s pillar of cloud/fire. And the comparison of Israel to wandering sheep during this time is not unreasonable, and so there is a connection to Jesus being the gate and good shepherd, as well as the light to lead them.
Starting in John 11, Jesus seems to take the ‘I am’ statements to a new level. And the connections to the Jewish year are at an end in the previous chapter (with the Feast of Dedication--of that special temple). So, as Jesus gets closer to his own death and resurrection, it is appropriate to see it in these statements.
So why is his last ‘I am’ statement about him being the true vine? This seems almost as if he takes a step back, that it is something less than him being the resurrection, way, truth, and life.
Reading through the whole of the ‘discourse’, from John 13 to 17, there is a significant emphasis on Jesus’ going away. How he goes away and how he comes back is critical to understanding this text and, I believe, the entire gospel account. And I think that this is at the heart of what this 'I am' statement is getting at.
Jesus' going away was a significant blow to his followers. But we do not remember that by going to church on Thursday, the day of his ascension. We celebrate what he did by usually going to church on Sunday. His death/resurrection was his most important task. And it is important that we not lose our focus.
Jesus as the vine, the true one, is as important a comparison as the rest. He is THAT close to his present-day followers, giving away his gifts to his branches. The giving out of those gifts is as important as the gifts being won.
Anyone who thinks that the Gospel according to John does not reference Holy Baptism or Holy Communion has not done a close reading of the text.
The theme for many on the Fourth Sunday in Easter is well-loved, that of the Good Shepherd. The Gospel reading for the three-year series is always some part of John 10. And it is certainly helpful to have a context for that chapter.
Sometimes in these writings I like to focus on a particular word. This time I am focusing on a particular account.
Like other sections of the bible that have duplication, many have suggested sources for such a unique perspective. One of the theoretical sources for the Gospel according to John is the so-called ‘Signs Gospel’. People have counted seven signs in the Gospel according to John.
Now I am certainly not against seeing the importance of that number in the scriptures. There are seven words in the first statement of the bible and fourteen in the next one. And the seven-day week was entirely God’s idea, not ours.
Given the literary evidence, I would like to make a slightly different emphasis. Taking into account the similarity of the first three accounts and the great difference of the fourth, I would like to suggest a sort of ‘blessing’ structure to that fourth account, similar to a benediction at the end of a church service. After the first three accounts are laid out before a person—all of them ultimately pointing to Christ, that person is (hopefully) ready to receive a blessing.
The typical position for blessing contains two basic parts: hands are raised and, then, words are given out. And so, as there are two signs clearly designated within the text (at 2:1-11 and 4:46-54), these may correspond to two hands being raised. And then, for most of the rest of the account, you have Jesus giving out his words of blessing.
As the figurative hands are raised, the blessings that are given out are that certain people now believe. This is emphasized at the end of both signs (2:11 and 4:53). And, at the very end of the entire account, the writer speaks to the reader and states that ‘these are written that YOU may believe….(20:31)’ In a way, the hands are still raised.
Certainly blessings are given out in the rest of the account, but it does not seem like the words of Jesus and the words of the writer point to signs as much as the writer did in the beginning. The writer seems to make a deliberate switch to focusing on a year of Jewish festivals.
He starts by mentioning a ‘feast’, without any specifics (5:1). And, at that festival, Jesus gets into serious trouble with ‘the Jews’, and they want to kill him (5:18). Then, in spring, there is Passover (6:4). In autumn, there is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (7:2), and, in the winter, there is the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukah; 10:22). Jesus continues to run into some serious (and, eventually, deadly) trouble.
The Jewish festivals are an opportunity for the Lord’s words to be spoken in a variety of settings, for further blessings to be given. Jesus obviously handles each festival—and each person he meets—differently. And, at each festival, there are those who go in another direction than the way of Jesus. And, then, there are those who continue to follow Jesus.
It is interesting that the topic of Jesus as the shepherd appears, in the seasonal year, right before winter. That is when you can tell that a shepherd is serious about his work. It is easy to stay with the flock during the warm summer months. But sticking it out during the cold winter months shows some commitment.
Jesus, therefore, speaks about laying down his life, not once, but twice within the text (v. 11 and 15). He is a serious shepherd for us, an EXTREMELY good shepherd.
The Gospel text for this week in Easter comes from the Gospel according to Luke (24:36-49). I enjoy this account because it connects so closely to the things in Acts. Matthew looks to the past; Mark looks to the present, and Luke looks to the future.
So one of the reasons I like looking at Acts is its close similarities to the life of the Christian Church today. And one of the special characteristics of both Luke and Acts is the comparatively large number of interruptions that happen throughout the texts.
You can read about this in other places, but, in general, ‘interruption science’ has declared that interruptions are, almost always, bad. And the fact that they are frequent within this gospel account, as well as within Acts, is, in my opinion, good.
This is an imperfect world. We all have interruptions, and we can call them ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but, if they are connected to Jesus, there WILL be some good in the end. So an interruption is basically a hidden miracle.
At the beginning of this text, Jesus’ followers who were going to Emmaus had come back and were talking to the other disciples, but the word for ‘talking’ here can also mean just making sounds (BDAG, p. 582). Now I certainly do not think that is what they were doing, but I do think that what they said could have been better.
So Jesus shows up. He interrupts what is going on. And things get significantly better. This gets much clearer when the text that says that he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. When he does that, he goes all the way back to Moses, saying that the fulfilment all points toward him.
Now even a short summary of that would be too big to cover at this point in time, but I hope you can see at the end of some of the books which end some of the sections in the Old Testament—Genesis, Deuteronomy, 2 Chronicles, and, of course, Malachi—these leave the reader hanging in some way. The story of Israel is not finished until it comes to Jesus.
Jesus interrupted the history of the world. Some people took it badly. Many were significantly changed because of it. Jesus is a hidden miracle, even in the ways that he shows up today.
At the end of the text Jesus promises to send a promise to them, a promise that his Father made. This interrupts their lives even more, but, of course, there is a purpose behind this.
One thing I had not noticed before is that they were to be sitting in Jerusalem, waiting for this promise. Now did you know that was exactly their position in Acts 2? Good job guys! It is also interesting to note that the tongues of fire are described as sitting on them.
So to focus on the disciples at any time would be missing the point. At this point, they become like a chair for someone much more important.
One of my teachers used to say, ‘To be ordained is to be rendered irrelevant.’
The Gospel text for this Sunday is the familiar ‘doubting Thomas’ episode from John 20. And, while looking at the text again, I was reminded that sometimes it is an important thing for the reader to try to figure out what would be normal for the writer to write, and then the reader should take note of what actually appears within the text. By the way, this is not always an easy task!
Having four different gospel accounts can give you some ideas of what could have been written. But this account in John 20 is unique. And the style of the writing is also slightly different. In the Gospel according to John, the smallest words can have the biggest significance. As I have said before, it is like drinking out of a firehose.
When Jesus calls the disciples ‘brothers’ in verse 17, that is a significant designation. And if you keep looking at those designations of that particular group of people, there are more surprises to come.
In verse 24 Thomas is called ‘one of the Twelve’. Now that is a rarity. The only other time this happens in this account is in John 6, in the small section of verses 67-71.
At the start of that text, many of Jesus’ disciples did not want to follow him anymore. Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to go as well. Peter has the good confession that Jesus has the words of eternal life. And Jesus responds that one of the twelve is a devil.
Now the order of the last few words of the text is interesting—and different from the typical translations: In a very literal order, the text of verse 71 goes this way: ‘Now he spoke of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, for ‘this’ was about to betray him, one of the twelve.’ (By the way, it is interesting to note that, in this account, there is a very positive connotation to the word ‘that’.)
The next time the twelve are mentioned is in John 20. And it is also interesting that it is used this one last time, especially since Judas is basically nowhere to be found. He did his job of betraying Jesus, and now he fades into the background … and dies.
I would think that this is not too favorable of a perspective with some people, but I see a definite connection between Judas and Thomas.
Judas betrayed Jesus to his enemies. And Thomas betrayed Jesus to his friends, his brothers. He let down his friends, not believing their words. He let down his Savior, not believing his promise to rise again.
Obviously Jesus could have been much harsher with Thomas that next Sunday. Jesus comes across as being very patient with Thomas—and with us!
Jesus lets Thomas do exactly what he wanted to do—see, touch, perhaps even poke! (If you have never seen Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas painting regarding this, I would highly recommend it.) The followers of Christ do not always get that option of getting what they want. For something as important as the proof of the resurrection of our Savior, exceptions can be made. And, as a result, we are blessed. (See John 20:29)