Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on March 4, 2007.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in scenic Old Salem. Now that spring is in the air, you should plan a visit to Old Salem. I had the pleasure this week of spending time with Kevin Belmonte who wrote the biography of William Wilberforce that was the inspiration for the film Amazing Grace. Wilberforce was the person most responsible for ending the slave trade in the British Empire. He was motivated to intercede on behalf of the slaves because he took his Christian faith very seriously and had the courage to agitate for more than twenty years for this cause. Something as simple as the Golden Rule can change the world. Every justification for injustice and oppression crumbles under the weight of the question: “Is this what you would want others to do you?” The ability to see the world through the eyes of victims is one of the most important things that Christian spirituality teaches. During this Lenten season, we should focus less on giving up sweets and more on giving up those things that contribute to the suffering of others.
The Tomb of Jesus: This might be the appropriate place to say a few words about the discovery of a tomb containing the bones of a man named Jesus that is the subject of a new Hollywood film. You’ve probably heard about this on the news. Several ossuaries, or bone boxes, inscribed with the names of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, James, Judas, and another woman named Miryam were found nearly 30 years ago in Jerusalem. The film claims that these must be the remains of Jesus of Nazareth, his parents, his brothers, and his wife and son. The reason this was not news when it was discovered nearly 30 years ago is that most archaeologists disagree.
According to the statistician hired by the movie maker, there is a 1 in 600 chance that these names would appear together in a Palestinian tomb dating from the first century. That is really a high probability. Since archaeologists have found over 900 such tombs from the time of Jesus, it is not at all surprising that one of them would have ossuaries with this set of names. It would be like finding a family tomb from the 1950s in which the father and mother were John and Mary and the children were Susan and William and Robert. We also have to keep in mind that Jesus’ father Joseph was from Nazareth, not Jerusalem, and his tomb would have been there. Jesus was buried in Jerusalem only because he was crucified there. So, don’t get too worked up over a slick Hollywood movie trying to disprove the resurrection. Just take it as further proof that Jesus remains a controversial figure 2000 years after his death.
Controversy in John’s Gospel: This leads us into our Scripture lesson for this week, which focuses on the controversy surrounding Jesus during his ministry. It is only in John’s Gospel that the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem attempt to arrest Jesus before Holy Week. In the other three gospels, Jesus spends only one week in Jerusalem. He enters on Palm Sunday with crowds cheering and he leaves on Friday under the weight of a cross. This is the chronology we are familiar with and which is part of our liturgical calendar, but in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes several trips to Jerusalem over the course of about 3 years.
During one of those visits, the temple police were sent to arrest him, but failed to do so. Biblical scholars disagree over which is more historical, John’s version of multiple trips to Jerusalem with growing fear and hostility on the part of the authorities, or the Synoptic Gospel’s more dramatic version of a single triumphal entry followed quickly by his arrest and execution. (Brown, 309). I think John may be more reliable here, but the differences in the gospels may simply reflect a difference in perspective. The author of the Gospel of John may have focused more on Jerusalem because he was from Jerusalem. I will not be reading all of chapter 7 today. I’ll let you read most of it on your own. We’ll begin at the start of the chapter.
Tabernacles: The setting for this chapter is the Feast of Tabernacles, which is called Sukkot in Hebrew. This is an autumn festival in Judaism, and originally it was a time to celebrate the harvest and prepare for the winter, much like our Harvest Home festivals. Over the centuries it became a time to remember God’s protection of Israel during the wandering in the wilderness (O’Shay, 542). In the days of Jesus, Tabernacles was one of the three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews from the Diaspora would journey to the Holy City. One of the reasons for this change in focus was because many Jews had moved to cities throughout the Roman and Persian empires. Those Jews of the Diaspora were no longer connected to the rhythms of the agricultural season, and their rituals changed to reflect this. The same thing happened in America. Our Thanksgiving celebration has lost its connection to the harvest and has become a family dinner.
It remains customary for Jews to build temporary shelters, called Tabernacles or Booths, during the Sukkot festival as a reminder of the time when Israel dwelled in tents in the wilderness. For eight days, family meals and prayers are held in the tabernacles. It is important that these shelters are temporary. They are taken down and destroyed at the end of the festival. This is a reminder of the temporary nature of all things in world. We should not grow so attached to our material possessions that we cannot leave them behind. In many ways, Sukkot is a way to train people to be ready to go into exile at any time, trusting that God will provide. Moravians, who have a long history of exile, can resonate with this idea.
Scholars have raised serious questions about the organization of chapters 4-7, but I think it makes sense that the narrative progresses from the Feast of Passover to the Feast of Tabernacles, which recalls the years in the wilderness following the Exodus. There is a close connection between the Gospel of John and the Jewish liturgical calendar. The liturgical year provides the chronology for the teachings in the Gospel, and the author assumed that the listener would know the stories from the books of Moses that provide the backdrop for the festival and the actions and teachings of Jesus. The evangelist utilized the oral traditions about Jesus very subtly as he wove them into this liturgical tapestry.
Temptation: For instance, in the other three gospels Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan immediately after his baptism. This story is so familiar that most of us did not even notice that it does not appear in John’s Gospel at all. Jesus does not engage in a debate with Satan in this Gospel. Instead, John provides a story about the Feast of Tabernacles, the festival that focuses on Israel’s testing in the wilderness. The Synoptic Gospels place Jesus in the desert for 40 days and nights, recalling the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness. John’s Gospel gives the more plausible story that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles and engaged in a spiritual contest with flesh and blood people.
It seems plausible that chapters 6 and 7 are John’s version of the temptations Jesus faced. We saw a couple of weeks ago that the people asked Jesus to use his power to make bread. In the other gospels, the devil tempts Jesus to make bread out of stones. Previously we saw that the people intended to make Jesus a king, but in the other gospels it was Satan who tempted Jesus with that offer. And in our lesson for today, Jesus’ own brothers insist that he go to the Holy City and display his divine status by doing miracles during the festival. That certainly seems to parallel Satan telling Jesus to throw himself from the Temple to prove who he was. It is easy to picture Jesus’ brothers insisting that he proclaim his divinity to the crowds with a dramatic act of sacred power, but Jesus refuses to do their will. He will only do the will of the Father in heaven. In short, it is possible that the famous three temptations in the wilderness are found here in chapters 6 and 7. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus faces the hostility of unclean spirits and Satan himself, but in John’s gospel his opponents were humans.
Faith: Our lesson for today is a reminder that many people saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and even touched Jesus without becoming followers of him. In John’s gospel, faith is a matter of seeing with spiritual eyes. No miracle could prove the divinity of Jesus, not even the resurrection, because we can always doubt the evidence of our senses and the reports of others. No miracle can convince us to dedicate our lives to Jesus and dwell in the love of God. The historical fact remains that many people who saw Jesus did not follow him, and most who have believed in him through the centuries never saw a miracle.
There is bit of divine deception in chapter 7 that has bothered many commentators. In verse 8, Jesus tells his brothers that he is not going to Jerusalem, but once they had left Galilee, he “too went up” to Jerusalem secretly. We should not make too much of this change of plans and use it as a justification for the types of lies that are all too common in business, law, and government today. The focus on this passage is not on Jesus’ white lie; it is on the fact that Jesus chose to make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in quiet. As if to emphasize the point that faith comes quietly and that God works in his own time to perform his wonders, Jesus went to the festival alone and in secret. He was wise to do so because the crowds were looking for him, hoping that he would perform a miracle for their entertainment. The people were debating whether he was a good man or a deceiver. By the way, the question the people asked is the same one that we face today. Do we believe that Jesus is good or that he was a deceiver? We have no miracles to guide us; only the Scripture, our own hearts, and the mystery of faith.
Controversy over Healing: One of the reasons that many scholars think that this part of John’s Gospel has been rearranged is that verses 19-24 refer to Jesus healing on the Sabbath even though the healing story was in chapter 5. That shouldn’t bother us much. It is certainly possible that Jesus did another healing during this festival and the same controversy arose. We know that John carefully chose the seven signs that he narrated and did not repeat miracle stories. It is also possible that people raised the issue again once Jesus began to teach publicly in the Temple. We know that people like to stir up controversies from the past. Just think of how much the Vietnam War continues to play a role in political campaigns in America. It is also possible that John took this argument from the earlier story and placed in chapter 7 to highlight the theme of controversy over Jesus.
The controversy was two fold. One was the fact that Jesus asserted that it was right to heal on the Sabbath regardless of what the religious rules were. The other was the fact that Jesus was not educated as a rabbi but still presumed to teach. Many commentators through the centuries have misunderstood verse 15: “How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught” as an indication that Jesus was illiterate. There have been many sermons on the topic of Jesus quoting the Old Testament without being able to read and write. This idea has been a source of encouragement for great preachers like Sojourner Truth, and it has been used by many lesser preachers as an excuse not to go to school and study. We should distinguish between being uneducated and being willfully ignorant.
The truth is that this verse is not about Jesus’ education. It is quite likely that he could read the Scriptures, perhaps in Aramaic translation, and that he pondered them deeply for years before he began preaching. We know that he read from the scrolls in the Synagogue and was sought out by those wanting to know the meaning of the Torah. His opponents were not questioning his basic education; they were pointing out that he did not have a proper academic pedigree. Even to this day, rabbis can identify their place in the line of succession of teachers of the law. Jesus’ opponents were asking who the rabbi was who trained this wandering preacher in ragged clothes who dared to teach in the Temple during one of the great festivals of the year. On what authority was Jesus teaching? And the only answer that Jesus would give is that his authority came from God. He was preaching, teaching, and healing for the glory of God, not to draw attention to himself. In other words, Jesus himself was a sign of the kingdom of God.
Is this the Christ? When Jesus engaged in public dispute with the Jewish authorities, their hostility increased. When the seekers of truth challenge oppressive authority, debate moves quickly toward violence. The same thing happened to John Hus, of course. If Hus had simply accepted the authority of the archbishop and humbly submitted to the Council of Constance, his life would have been spared. Those who cannot silence an opponent through reason often decide to kill the one opposing them. Keep in mind that at this point in John’s Gospel, the only illegal thing that Jesus has done is to heal someone on the Sabbath. But Jesus posed a threat to governing council, the Sanhedrin, because their right to rule Judea was based on their knowledge of the law. The fact that Jesus had the courage to publicly defend himself during one of the great pilgrimage festivals was crime enough for the authorities.
The crowds perceived the growing hostility of those with power toward this Galilean healer and preacher. They also recognized Jesus’ courage and defiance. They began to ask if this wandering preacher from Nazareth was really the Messiah. Worse, they began to ask if the authorities knew he was the Messiah and that was why they wanted to silence him. The crowd understood that those who are at the top of the economic and political ladder do not want the kingdom of God to come. Those in power tend to resist those who call for justice.
Quickly the dispute moved from healing on the Sabbath to an arcane theological debate. There was a popular belief in Judaism that the Messiah is on earth but is hiding until the proper hour. It is a bit like the Arthur legend. The Messiah will appear suddenly –without a pedigree or hometown. So, during the debate over the true identity of Jesus, some pointed out that everyone knew where Jesus was from. He was Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus the Christ. He cannot be the chosen one, they said – we know who his mother is and who his brothers are. But Jesus told the people that they only thought they knew where he was from. Sure, he was from Nazareth, but really he was sent by God. The sign of his identity was that he was doing the work of God. He was a Sojourner for Truth; a prophet of justice; a healer who would overturn the tables of spiritual oppression.
Silencing the Messiah: That was not the answer the priests wanted to hear, so they sent the Temple police to arrest this rabble rouser and put an end to this disturbance. That is what we would do in their place. We would call out the guards to say: Take your criticisms outside and leave the people to their prayers. Take your protest signs down the road where they won’t bother anyone. Take your kingdom of God and lock it up for Sunday morning prayers. Take your Messiah and put him in stained glass on the windows of your church, but don’t let him heal this world. Don’t let him bring attention to the fact that people are dying in America and Africa who could be saved. Don’t let him challenge our complacency and complicity. Arrest him.
Conclusion: Our lesson for today ends with Jesus’ cryptic remarks that people will search for him but will not find him. On one level this simply means that there is no ossuary with his bones in it, but there is more to this statement than that. The apostles would indeed take the message of Jesus to the Jews of the Diaspora and to the Greeks. Because of apostles and evangelists, a billion people alive today claim to believe in Jesus as the Christ, but do we really know him and believe him? Perhaps you and I are among those who search and do not find him. Next week we will continue with the drama of chapter 7.