A True Story (John 20:30-31; 3:9-15)

John was Jesus’ closest disciple. For him, Jesus was a teacher, a leader, a best friend. But most significantly, Jesus was the Son of God. The Roman postal system was highly advanced, allowing early Christians to distribute information with surprising speed—what one scholar calls the “Holy internet.” This meant that stories of Jesus had spread rapidly, though their meaning had yet to catch up. Peter and Paul had tended Christianity’s fragile soil, but both men would die before seeing it blossom. In John’s own city of Ephesus, Christians were limited to the traditions of John the Baptist (Acts 18:25). Caught between a fading past and an uncertain future, the need arose to record not only the facts of history, but also their significance.

“Jesus performed other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples…But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

John’s message is therefore uniquely suited to a culture like our own. For the first time in recent memory, Western society has re-emerged as a mission field. In the modern world, scholars sought to reconcile a Biblical “Christ of faith” with the so-called “Christ of history.” The gospels’ supernatural elements proved too much to accept, and so scholars such as Gotthold Lessing found themselves standing at the edge of an “ugly broad ditch,” unable to make a “leap” of faith. But today’s postmodern world is vastly different. We’ve crossed Lessing’s ditch only to find ourselves standing in a hall of mirrors. If the modern world was asking: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?” the postmodern world asks: “What kind of Jesus should I believe in?”

John’s purpose, therefore, doesn’t leave this question up to the individual, but anchors it in objective history. To read the Bible, therefore, is to surrender our expectations of who we think Jesus is, and to worship him as he actually was.

A STORYTELLING GOD

In John 3, we see this through the eyes of an elderly preacher. Earlier, Jesus had attracted attention by overturning the tables in the Jewish temple, a symbolic gesture that rang out with a singular message: The Messiah is here. Jesus’ arrival had been less an act of worship than an act of arson. Yet Nicodemus had yet to sift the gospel’s brilliance from the ashes of dead tradition. He comes to Jesus expecting another Rabbi, another scholarly debate. Jesus’ response lays him flat. You must be born again.

Yet Nicodemus fails to comprehend this message. His teeth chip on the stark literalness of it; he can’t digest the underlying meaning.

Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:9-15)

In 2005’s V for Vendetta, Stephen Rea portrays a government inspector seeking to unravel a massive conspiracy. As he closes the gap between himself and the truth, he connects with a mysterious informant. “I believe you have some information for me,” he says. “No inspector,” the informant replies. “You have all the information already. All the facts are inside your head. What you want—what you really need—is a story.” Nicodemus didn’t need another sermon or debate. His head already contained more Sunday School lessons than anyone else in Israel. No; what he needed was a story, some means of bringing these plot points into a cohesive whole.

Jesus tells him the story of the snakes in the wilderness. Israel, during her years of wandering, fell victim to a plague of poisonous snakes. To deepen the nation’s trust, God has Moses craft a bronze serpent and attach it to his staff. If you were bitten, you had only to look at this staff and be cured. What is Jesus saying? He’s saying that there’s something deep within us—something dark and venomous—that can’t be cured by altering our behavior. In other words, Jesus says, You’ve been thinking of sin all wrong. Origen, a writer from the earliest days of the church, said that “everyone who enters the world may be said to be affected by a kind of contamination.” Our hearts are darkly flawed and profoundly selfish—just ask anyone who’s ever worked retail. Altering behavior may serve to bandage sin’s wounds, but it’s the poison that’ll kill us.

Do you see now the necessity of rebirth? Like wine stains on carpet, you don’t need spot remover; you need a time machine. Religion may conceal my past, but only the gospel promises forgiveness and transformation.

With all the wildness of the wind, the gospel takes the human heart by storm. When Jesus is “lifted up”—that is, exalted in his death and resurrection—he draws the poison from our hearts and replaces it with the pure “water” of his Spirit. And into man’s heart, God speaks a wisdom unsearchable, a love unthinkable, a grace incalculable, and a mercy unending. It’s no wonder, then, that Luther once wrote that “the cross alone is our theology.” For there is no other answer, no other remedy for the human condition, save for the cross of Christ. In the first exodus, Moses lifted up his staff. In Jesus’ new exodus, he lifts up himself. In his humiliation, he is exalted. In his death, life flows free.

 

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Faith Seeking Understanding (John 20:11-31)

Growing up faith seemed so easy.  It was about saying a “sinner’s prayer,” about “asking Jesus into your heart.”  It was the kind of faith that offered simple answers, but shattered on the rocks of modern complexity.  In John, faith is an organic thing.    For Jesus’ followers, faith is something that grows and develops as we are scraped raw by time and experience.  What starts as a faint mist eventually crescendos into waves of vivid understanding.

This is what happened when Jesus’ followers met the risen Christ.  Confusion precedes confession.  Faith develops as we grow in our understanding of Jesus.  The resurrection especially helps us understand that the gospel is indeed true.  Yes; Jesus is more than a historical figure.  But He’s not less.  For me, the resurrection holds the key to understanding just how much we can trust that the gospel story is true.

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

John 20:11-31   11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”–and that he had said these things to her.

First, Mary was an unlikely witness to the resurrection.  In the ancient world, women weren’t considered trustworthy witnesses.  So if John was fabricating this story, why wouldn’t he have invented some more credible witnesses?  Second, the Jewish understanding of resurrection was that it would be all people at the end of time—not one man in the middle.  Stories about the resurrection were unprecedented.  John would simply never make up a story this outlandish.

The resurrection changes the relationship of Jesus to His followers.  Though Mary clings to Jesus, it is not right that she does.  Everything has changed now.  Jesus is returning soon, and His followers have a mission to carry out.

A NEW MISSION

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

First of all: whoa.  The doors are locked.  How did Jesus get in?  On the one hand, Jesus’ body seems to be recognizable—it even bears the scars of His death. But at the same time, Jesus doesn’t seem limited by the laws of physics.  We have no way of knowing what this resurrected body must have been like, other than it is something radically different than the dust of which we’re currently made.

Jesus gives His followers their mission.  “As the Father has sent me…so I am sending you.”  New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that a lifetime could be spent meditating on just the words as and so.  In the same, humiliating manner that Jesus was sent to earth, so too are we sent into the world.  When Jesus steps from earth to heaven it is called the incarnation.  So, too, must we exercise an incarnational presence in the world that we inhabit—literally becoming God with skin to a world that would see no God otherwise.

SEEING IS BELIEVING

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In his defense, the text never uses the phrase “Doubting Thomas.”  Still, Thomas has become the patron saint of skepticism.  I think we should instead recognize him as the patron saint of a faith that seeks understanding.  And in this short exchange, we catch a glimpse of what faith truly means.

I used to feel frustrated by Jesus’ cryptic answer: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  To me it always sounded like a convenient way to justify faith in the absence of evidence.  In fact, if you ask the average person, they’d probably define faith as something along the lines of “believing in something you can’t prove.”  In the church world, we’ve come to admire “blind faith,” particularly potent in an age where feeling is believing.

But that simply won’t do.  Of course, relatively few people actually saw the risen Savior.  You won’t find a Youtube clip of Jesus eating broiled fish.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t follow a trail, a chain of evidence to reveal the reality of Jesus and His claims.

You see, Christianity is the only religion that can be proven wrong.  Let me explain.  Every other major religion is based around a founder’s personal experience.  Muhammad had a vision and created the Qur’an.  Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and crafted the book of Mormon.  Siddhartha Gautama achieved inner enlightenment and became the Buddha.   Did these experiences ever really happen?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But I can’t prove to you either way whether Buddha really achieved enlightenment.  It’s subjective.  It’s personal.  The resurrection is entirely different.  A risen body, an empty grave—these things aren’t personal.  They can be proven or disproven in the pages of history.  Imagine I say to you, “My dead uncle appeared to me in a dream, and told me to start a religion.”  You can’t prove to me that my dream wasn’t real.  But if I say instead, “My dead uncle rose from the dead,” that changes everything.  Now, if you want to shut me up, all you need to do is show me my uncle’s remains, still lying in the casket.  If the Romans wanted to silence this early movement of “Christians,” all they needed to do was produce Jesus’ body.  The most shocking thing about Christianity is not that it makes claims that are open to being proven wrong.  The mist shocking thing is that no one ever has.

And yet at the end of it, we recognize that like Thomas, faith is more than merely intellectual agreement.  If we see God up close, it isn’t because we were smart enough to figure Him out; it’s because He cares enough to show us.  And that’s faith.  It is both a gift from God and a response to God.  It is what enables us to join Thomas in exclaiming with wide-eyed wonder: “My Lord and my God!”

JOHN’S EXPLICIT PURPOSE

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John concludes the main part of his gospel by telling his readers why he wrote.  Every gospel writer had his own unique way of showing how Jesus fit into God’s overarching story.  John was the most unique.  Other writers described history; John reflected on its meaning.  If we follow John’s careful series of clues, we too can see God up close.

“Everything sad comes untrue” (John 20:1-10)

Winter has come upon us.  Autumn’s trees now stretch their bony fingers to the sky; the whole world seems stretched and thin.  Before long the joyous lights of the season will give way to endless weeks of dark nights, disruptions, and deep cold.  But as the last of the leaves lie beneath winter’s blankets, we must remember that winter speaks not so much of death, as dormancy.  Life is always there, silently waiting for spring to rouse it from its slumber, when beauty exchanges her sheathe of ice for morning’s fresh dew.

The gospel’s most shocking claim is that all death is only a form of dormancy.  When Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies, Jesus says that he “has fallen asleep….I go to awaken him” (John 11:11).  What Lazarus experienced in part, Jesus now reveals in full.

THE NEXT FIRST DAY

Jesus had previously vowed that his body would be raised “in three days” (John 2:19).  But when his resurrection is described, it is the “first day of the week.”

John 20:1-10  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early…

The gospel of John begins with an echo of Genesis: “In the beginning…”  In the Genesis story, God created the heavens and earth.  And each day he concludes the same way: “there was morning and there was night.” This happened for six days, up until God created man and woman.  On the seventh day, he rested—but the text never tells us that there was morning and night.  God’s original vision was a world of spectacular and unceasing intimacy between God and man.  But sin changed all that.  Sin brought death’s looming shadow into the world, resulting in alienation and estrangement.  Something had to happen to change all that.  There had to be a new “first day.”

On the cross, Jesus irrevocably solves the problem of sin.  In the empty tomb, Jesus conquers death itself.  The world, as we know it, is being made new.  It is in a state of dormancy; the risen Christ reminds us of the beauty that lies beneath its surface.

MARY DID YOU KNOW?

John’s text focuses on Mary Magdalene.

John 20:1-10  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

If you are a careful reader of scripture, you notice that John’s facts don’t line up with the other writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The others mention multiple women arriving at the empty tomb, but John gives them no mention.   Could Mary have made multiple visits?   Could John simply have neglected to mention the others?   Let’s remember to judge John’s gospel by the standards of ancient narrative—not our own.  Ancient biographies weren’t as devoted to chronological sequence and details.  Besides, if the story of the resurrection were merely a myth or legend, why didn’t the writers go to greater length to get their story straight?  The lack of perfect agreement doesn’t detract from John’s reliability; it enhances it.

STILL DARK

Finally, we see the reactions of the other disciples:

John 20:1-10  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.  4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,  7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.  8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

Note that it was “still dark.”  John loves wordplay—could it be that he intended this setting to symbolize the disciples’ growing understanding?  Perhaps.  The disciples race to get to the empty tomb, but when they arrive they are dumbfounded.  Don’t miss verses 8-9.  John is actually present at this point.  He “saw and believed,” but “they did not understand.”   Faith and understanding aren’t always on the same page.  Some days we trust in God while it is “still dark,” trusting that His light will guide us to greater faith.

HOPE’S ETERNAL SPRING

Lazarus had woken from death’s slumber only to stagger from the tomb with his grave clothes still on.   It must have been horrifying, really.  A strip of cloth would have held his jaw closed—he couldn’t even ask for help.  Lazarus would die again.  This wouldn’t be the first time he’d wear those strips of cloth.  But Jesus leaves His grave clothes behind.  He’d never need them again.

And so Jesus’ resurrection assures us that the winter of our discontent is followed by a hope that springs eternal.  Death doesn’t have the final word, nor is decay man’s true destiny.  In J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings series, we meet a group of characters who endure much in the face of evil.  Two of the lead characters—Frodo and Sam—can only watch in horror as Gandalf, their leader and mentor, sacrifices himself to ensure their safety.

Following the climax of the third book, Frodo and Sam are surprised to be reunited with Gandalf.  “I thought you were dead!” Sam cried.  “But then I thought I was dead myself!  Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The resurrection of Jesus tells us that the answer is essentially yes.  There will be a new “first day.”  The pain of death will be over.  The fears, the sorrow, the shame, the bitterness of the present life will pass like a fever, ebbing into spring’s eternal season.