Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jesus said “I am the Gate” (John 10:9)

A salutary lesson against religious movements that try to control the believer’s access to God.

John’s Gospel continues to delight and intrigue me. Having got my teeth stuck into the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, I’m reading it in a different light.

It seems that everything in John's Gospel has meaning, including the apparently incidental details. The story-line and Jesus' dialog both move together such that Jesus’ various encounters are not simply random opportunities that he capitalizes to say something profound. Rather, both the physical action and the dialog advance in a unified procession with the sense that God is ordering them both (which would be the logical trajectory for John’s opening comments about Jesus being the Word of God made flesh). The Logos of God not only permeates the dialog; it drives the action.

So, we come to a rather peculiar claim of Jesus; that he is the Gate in John 10:7-10:
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
To understand what Jesus is saying, one has look back into the preceding narrative. It’s not an isolated grandiose statement, but an explanation, or reason, for Jesus’ prior actions.

In the preceding chapter, John recounts the story of the man born blind. In brief, Jesus comes across a (Jewish) man born blind and heals him. The miracle is remarkable enough, but it sparks a hostile verbal exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. In fact, John writes more about this exchange than the miracle.

The Pharisees have a hard time believing the miracle because it does not fit into their theology. This, I believe, is the issue Jesus returns to in his claim to be the gate. Why else put this statement here? Why not somewhere else? Although it looks like a break in the narrative, John intends it to be a natural extension of the preceding story.

With this in mind, it is possible to build up a satisfying explanation, and it’s got everything to do with the Pharisees’ attitude to religion and Jesus’ bold-faced rebuttal of it.

To the Pharisees, the man was born blind because of some sin, or failing, on his own part or the part of his parents (which would have prompted the Disciples’ initial query in John 9:2). We ought to understand that in the ancient world, the blessing of the God/gods was typically manifested in a person’s health and wealth. If they saw a blind beggar, the Pharisees would have thought that he had been put beyond the reach of God. The Pharisees might also have reciprocated by limiting the blind beggar’s access to the Temple, inferring that there was something unworthy about him that would keep him from making any proper contact with God. In other words, the Pharisees considered themselves to be the gate-keepers, and they were the ones who controlled who went in, and who went out. That was why they thought they could throw him out in John 10:34.

Their irritation at Jesus comes about because he simply circumvents them. He disenfranchises them from their position as judges in Moses’ seat (see Matt 23:2). In a beautiful enactment of Grace, Jesus takes the initiative and heals the blind man, thus removing his stigma, and equipping him for entry into the presence of God. The Pharisees see this, and they are incensed that Jesus would do this without their permission.

It is against the Pharisees’ assertion that they are the gate-keepers, that Jesus stakes his claim to be the gate. He calls them thieves and robbers, who had only come to steal and destroy, even though they believed they were justified to act on God’s behalf through his chosen prophet, Moses.

It is Jesus, not the Pharisees, who determines who goes in and who goes out. However, Jesus will not dance to the Pharisees’ tune (Matt 11:16-17) and he seems to have this habit of bringing in people who are at least undesirable failures, and at most, cursed.

Are there equivalents of the Pharisees around today? Most certainly, there are. If John’s account of the man born blind is a reliable guide, then anyone who puts himself in a position of saying to one “you can come in”, and to another “wait outside” is standing in their shoes. John’s Gospel warns us to respect the competency and authority of Jesus in determining who comes in and who goes out.

Earlier this week, I read the stories of some ex-Mormons and the trouble they had to go through to get their names removed from the rolls (see Vidar’s closing comment here). People who voluntarily leave commonly complain that they have to traverse an emotional assault course. The LDS community refuses to acknowledge that there might be a problem with it, so the problem must be some hidden sin in the person who is leaving. Guided by this unmovable dogma, the community and its leadership react to a person’s desire to leave by trying to find some sexual transgression so that the person’s departure can be written off as a formal excommunication (it’s a shame that they don’t apply the same ethic to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, but that’s another story).

In this context, the LDS community is acting as if it were the gatekeeper. I would like to remind it that Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

However, this is not the only context in which the LDS priesthood act as gatekeepers. The LDS religion orbits the Temple, entry into which is strictly controlled by the priesthood. If the Temple is the means through which believers connect to God, then the priesthood is acting if it were the gatekeeper. Again, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” There are other examples in other religions. There may be some in my own, and if there are, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

Dear reader, you may find yourself in a position in which another person is controlling your access to God. To you, and to me, Jesus says, “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Sacred Cows of New Evangelicalism

I’m posting this because, at first glance, I strongly agree with it. I hope to actually buy the book. I particularly like the summary of the “Sacred Cows”, which Cary (and I) consider harmful to the Christian experience, and the list at the bottom is the main reason why I’m posting this.

The following is reproduced from the review of Good News for Anxious Christians; Ten Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.

In Good News for Anxious Christians, Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University, challenges what he calls "the new evangelical theology," which is "a set of supposedly practical ideas about transforming your life that gets in the way of believing the gospel" (p. x). The techniques that he covers "all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek God in your heart, your life, your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself" (p. xi).

With this premise in mind, Cary goes on to attack ten "sacred cows" of the new evangelicalism. As a college professor he constantly sees these faulty ways of Christian living and thinking in his students. These young people have grown up in an evangelical environment that has perpetuated these myths for the entirety of their lives. They are unaware that the matters Cary discusses are recent distortions of the truth and not part of historical Christianity. Cary is writing primarily for these students and his writing style reflects that. It is colloquial, repetitive, and relatively simple. Such a writing style might be irritating to older or more astute readers, but the content of the book is excellent.

The sacred cows of the new evangelicalism include:

*God is speaking in your heart
*Your intuitions are the voice of the Holy Spirit
*Finding God’s individual will for your life
*You must examine your motivations
*Heart and head are different
*You have to be transformed all the time
*You always have to experience joy
*Sermons must be practical
*Experience is foundational to the Christian life

Saturday, August 13, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 9

Here is the final cut of my sermon notes.

An Ordinary Message

If you think that your last week was ordinary; if you think your next week will be ordinary; if you think that ordinary is a word that sums you up, this message is for you. You are important. It’s not your ordinariness, or your extra-ordinariness that makes you important. Rather it is the presence of Christ in your life. He comes into ordinary lives, like yours, and transforms them into something special.

An Ordinary Samaritan

We are doing a series on the people that Jesus met. This week, it’s the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42). If there is one word to describe her, it is ordinary. Yet, she has an extraordinary encounter with Jesus that changes everything.

An Extraordinary Conversation

I believe that the best way to make sense of the conversation is to understand that both Jesus and the woman are talking metaphorically. They both use things in the immediate situation (the well, the water, the husbands, the Temple) as metaphors for something bigger. Without this metaphorical view, the conversation looks disjointed and Jesus and the woman appear to the talking over each other’s heads.

So much of what we think is evangelism involves us saying what we want to say without actually engaging in the concerns of the other person. That is not evangelism, according to the Biblical model.

Jacob’s Well

Time prohibits us from looking at more than one of these metaphors, so we will only look at Jacob’s Well, and the woman’s reference to it in John 4:11-12
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
To understand what the woman is saying, we need to understand the history of the Samaritans and the Jews, and how they viewed each other at the time of this encounter;

• The Jews thought the Samaritans were “half-bloods”, who had been faithless to God by inter-marrying with the surrounding nations. The Samaritans thought the Jews were apostates, and that they (the Samaritans), not the Jews, were the true inheritors of the “well” that was dug by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

• The Jews had their Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had had their own Temple on Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by throwing dead men’s bones all over it. The Jews had marched over the border and had destroyed the Samaritan Temple in about 110BC. To the Samaritans, the Jew’s destruction of their Temple would have felt like someone ripping the heart out of their community.

• The Jews had been sending missionaries into Samaria to convert the Samaritans to their religion.

The Woman’s Expectations of Jesus

I believe this woman would have thought that Jesus was another missionary. She expected him to say something like;
You need to become like one of us, so that we can prepare you for entry into the Temple, where you can make the connection to God. Your well is no good, and you need to come to ours
They were saying that she could find God in the Temple. However, God was already standing next to her at her well.

In response, she says something like
I don’t believe that you can draw from the True Well that was dug by our father Jacob, from which we draw our water, and I’m not interested in coming to yours

Jesus’ Remarkable Response

If Jesus’ mission was to set up a new religion, or Temple, we would expect him to launch into a sermon about how much better his new “well” was than hers. But, he doesn’t.

So much of what we think is evangelism involves us trying to persuade people to come to our well. So often, we are concerned with telling people that they are going to the wrong well. Again, that is not evangelism, according to the Biblical model.

Jesus hits the nail square on the head. He observes that even when the woman is drawing from a good well, she does not get “living” water from it. She has to keep coming back, and the water she drinks requires continuous upkeep. The well does not sustain her; she sustains the well. Only Jesus can offer her the “living water” that will ultimately sustain her.

Change the Message

There are good wells, dry wells and poisoned wells. It is important to try to explain why some wells are poisoned, and why people should not draw from them. However, good well or bad well, only Jesus can offer the living water that we seek. In other words, what people truly seek in their wells is truly found in Jesus. The basis for our evangelism is not simply “stop going to the wrong well and come to ours”, but “what you are looking for in your well can truly be found in Jesus”.

Change your perspective, not your circumstance

When Jesus comes into a person's life, it will change. He will deal with sin. Notice, though, in this story, that she starts out a Samaritan Woman, and ends up a Samaritan Woman. Her external circumstances have not changed (at least, not to start with). Even so, Jesus transforms them. The most insignificant person in the community becomes its first apostle, and the whole town comes out and walks towards Jesus (John 4:30). At the end of the story, they do something that they were not doing at the start; they talk to each other.

Christ beings salvation to individuals, and he reconciles communities to themselves. This is His work, to work with people in the circumstances that they are in, to bring the best out of them. He is interested in redeeming real people in real situations; and so should we be.

The Importance of Being Ordinary

Too often, we weigh our importance on how extraordinary we try to be. We might mistake our commitment to the church, or our “spiritual” achievements, as a way to qualify for God’s attention. We might think that the super-heroes of faith are more important than us. We might think that our Christian brothers and sisters might be falling short of the mark unless they become super-heroes.

The Bible teaches something different. James 1:9 says
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.
Why? Because He is the Lord of all; the ordinary and the extraordinary. If He can bring life into an ordinary person’s life, that's good news indeed for the rest of us ordinary people.

Thank God for the extraordinary people and the high-achievers in His Kingdom. Most of us, though, are ordinary. Being ordinary is living proof that God loves to come into our ordinary world, and transform it into something special. That is why being ordinary is so important.

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Saturday, August 6, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 8

Next week I’m up.

I’ll be preaching on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman in John 4:1-42, and I have to gather my thoughts and settle on a core message.

I believe that a sermon is not simply an intellectual exercise, or an entertaining presentation; it’s about feeding Christians so that they are stronger and better equipped to deal with life, with all its joys and tragedies. So, I’m now I need to force myself to think about what “food” I am going to serve up. What is more, I will have to limit myself to what is important, rather than those things that I have found of particular interest to me. I’ll have to kill most of my babies, so to speak.

What’s the message that they will take with them? Here’s my first cut of the final edition.

The Importance of Being Ordinary.

The Australian language has done a great disservice to the word ordinary. If you were to ask me, How was your week?, and I replied Pretty ordinary, we would both know that what I meant was that my week had been pretty crap. In the local lingo, ordinary is a synonym for crap.

The dictionary definition of ordinary is quite different, meaning with no special or distinctive features, normal, commonplace, standard.

Most of us are ordinary. The Samaritan Woman was ordinary. Like her, most of us are not spiritual super-heroes. What makes us special, or valuable, or worthwhile human beings is neither our ordinariness nor our extra-ordinariness, but the presence of Christ in our lives.

That’s not to say that we should not attempt the extraordinary. We rejoice in the many heroes of faith who have done extraordinary things; John Wycliffe, William Wilberforce, and Mother Teresa, to name a few. There is a danger in focusing on super-heroes, though, which is that we can begin to evaluate our lives in terms of achievements, commitment, or work-rate. We can find ourselves inadvertently headed towards works-based justification, even if our official statements of faith and doctrine deny it. Do we really believe in a Gospel of Grace? If we do, should we not celebrate and rejoice in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary? What do we want our Christianity to be about?

Another danger in hero-worship is that it breeds elitism. This plainly runs against our creeds, in which we say We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church(1). What we mean by catholic is all-embracing. In other words our church embraces the ordinary people with the extraordinary, so it should celebrate and welcome the ordinary person together with the extraordinary.

This all sounds quite mystical, theological, religious and philosophical, so I’ll explain it in the way that the Bible explains it’s theology – through story. In this case, it’s the story of the Samaritan Woman.

The story of the Samaritan Woman

Several weeks ago, I started off looking at context and history, which I found absolutely fascinating. From this I developed a “work in progress” hermeneutic for reading John’s Gospel. Both of these lines of inquiry have brought much detail to light, and they have challenged my preconceptions of this story.


• The Samaritan Woman is a simple rustic, who can’t see beyond the drudgery of her chores.

• She brings up the subject of the Temple to deflect the conversation away from the issue of her men.

• She is stunned into believing by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her circumstances.

However, if we apply these misconceptions to the encounter, what we get is;

• Neither Jesus nor the woman, actually engage in each other’s concerns; the conversation is disjointed and they talk over each other’s heads.

• Her strategy for deflecting Jesus actually pays out

• Bad evangelism, which attempts to stun people into believing

Rebooting the way we read John’s Gospel

We need a reboot in the way that we read John’s Gospel. I believe that what we need to do is;

• Start with the presumption that everything that John writes is deliberate and carefully considered; everything is there for a reason.

• So, pay attention to the details, especially the incidental details

• Because all this apparent detail points to, or illustrates, an underlying truth.

• The ultimate underlying truth is Jesus Christ himself – the Divine Logos from whom all things come into being, or become visible – see the prologue to John’s Gospel in John 1:1-18

The challenge in reading John’s Gospel, then, is to try to understand the meaning behind what John shows us. John sees various incidental details but he writes them down because they point to an underlying truth that he wants us to understand. Here are some examples;

Jacob's well was there...(John 4:6) Jacob’s Well is both a thing and a metaphor. The Samaritans based their religion on the Books of Moses. Metaphorically, they drew their religion from Jacob’s well, from which they watered their sons and flocks (4:12). They thought the Jews were apostates, so when the woman states that Jesus has nothing to draw from the well (4:11), she is criticizing his Jewish religion as being too shallow. The problem, of which they were both well aware, was that her well no longer yielded living water.(2)

It was about noon...(John 4:6) The woman was drawing her water at the wrong time of day. Most likely, she is avoiding the other women in her community. She was shunned, a social outcast. The reason her neighbors shunned her was her faithless relationships with the men in her life.

I have no husband...(John 4:17) The statement sums up the woman’s existence, but it also points to the legendary faithlessness of the Samaritan nation. The Samaritans had flirted with one God after another, and what they were left with was a loose, unreliable relationship that was nothing like the covenantal life-long bond of a marriage that God binds himself to his people with

…this mountain...(John 4:20) The mountain in question is undoubtedly Mount Gerizim, on which the Samaritans had built a Temple to rival the one in Jerusalem. The Jews, under John Hyrcanus, one of the Maccabbeean Kings of Judah, had razed it to the ground in 128 BC. The Samaritans and Jews found good reason in their shared history to hate each other.

…you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem(John 4:20) She is expecting Jesus to try to convert her to Judaism, which would give her access to the Jerusalem Temple, and hence to God. This is the big agenda item of the day. She can’t get into the temple in Jerusalem because, to put it bluntly, she is the wrong sort of person. She is beyond God’s reach (or so the Jews implied). She implies that she is not interested in going to his party.

…Christ is coming…(John 4:25) She, like all the Samaritans, is looking forward to someone who will resolve the issues and problems that have precipitated from her religion. In response, Jesus states, “I am” (4:26). The end-goal of her religion, and that of the Jewish religion is not a Temple, but God Himself, and here he was, presenting Himself to her in the person of Jesus Christ.

…leaving her water jar…(John 4:28) She leaves the symbol of her empty life at the feet of Jesus and goes into the community that shunned her. Having been pointed in the direction of Jesus by the woman, her neighbors embrace Jesus for themselves.

The fruit of the reboot

So, what do we get from this reboot?

• The Samaritan woman is not ignorant of her circumstances, but is acutely aware of her situation, and the situation of her community. She uses the banality of her workaday life to explain and illustrate the situation. She and Jesus engage directly in each other’s concerns. Perhaps this is the first time that anyone has actually done this to her; the first time that someone has openly acknowledged her actual circumstances and taken her seriously. However, though she accurately sums up the situation, she cannot see a way out and she has no way of releasing herself from her bondage

• Turning the conversation to the Temple is not a successful attempt to deflect Jesus (3). This issue is at the heart of the conflict between Jew and Samaritan, and it is the root cause of the problems in her life. Jesus’ response is well worth pondering – he does not attempt to recruit her from one Temple to another, but rather he holds himself up as the end-goal of all the Temples in the world. Effectively, he says to her All you are looking for in a temple is truly found in me (4)

• Good evangelism. The woman’s conversion is aided by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her feckless men, but it is underpinned by her conscious understanding of Jesus. Basically, she trusted him because he knew everything about her, and he didn’t abuse the privilege. (Jesus does not sermonize on her questionable morality, probably because she already knew her sins). The New Testament (and Old) is full of evangelism that’s based on argument and reason, not emotional ambush, and it fully engages with the concerns that ordinary people actually have. I’m not saying that we need to be dry, heartless automatons with no emotional sense of value or worth; rather, I think we need to steer clear of the kind of emotional manipulation that has no reference to reason or truth.

An ordinary story…

The Samaritan Woman is very ordinary. The paradox of this story is that the most ordinary, least important outcast from the community becomes its first apostle. Her faith in Christ spreads to her neighbors, and they embrace him too. Remarkably, the Samaritans of this town end up doing something they had not been doing for some time; they talk to each other. Christ brings salvation to the individual, and reconciles the community to itself.

Quite how Christ does this is a bit of a mystery, but I think there’s a big clue in his description of himself.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
(Matt 11:29). I think humility is the Christian’s greatest weapon in his or her fight against the Evil One (5), and that’s why we need to create a culture of humility in the church.

Is this what people see in our church? Do they find a place of rest here, or do they uncover a message that says, in effect, You have to work harder to jump through all these hoops, and you have to obliterate your culture and self-identity before we will let you into our temple. You must become clones of us, because we are the right sort of people, and you’re not.

… for ordinary people

The woman’s story is remarkable because she is ordinary. She does not shine as a super-hero, but we remember her. She is special because Christ came to her; he came into her dead world and brought it to life. My point is this; if Christ only concerned himself with super-heroes, what hope is there for the rest of us?

If you think I’m stretching it consider what James has to say;
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.
(James 1:9-10).

If you find yourself in ordinary circumstances, thank God for putting you there. Your mission is to transform those circumstances by bringing Christ into them. He is the Lord of all creation; the humdrum and the ordinary, not just the spectacular.


Don’t try and get God’s attention by trying to be a super-hero. Christ comes to you in the circumstances that you find yourself, whether you think you deserve it or not. It is his presence that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, and he will change both you and your circumstances. This is what the Gospel of Grace is all about, and that is why I believe it.

Occasionally, we come across Christian super-heroes and high achievers, and we thank God for them. They are beautiful, and they stand out, like the wild flower that you might chance upon on your travels. But, they will go the way of the rest of us.

If you are ordinary, thank God. He sent His Son for you as much as for the high-achieving super-heroes. He is the God of the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary, and you are the living proof.

That is why, in being ordinary, you are important.

(1) See the Nicene Creed

(2) Incidentally, neither did the “well” of the Jews, as Jesus’ previous encounter, with the Jewish Nicodemus, demonstrates, though the problem and its solution are described using different metaphors.

(3) The Jesus of the Gospels is never deflected from his mission. See Jesus' determination in Luke 9:51; the Greek emphasizes his resolve on the matter and, of course, he succeeds.

(4) See Revelation 21:22

(5) Because, to put it as simply as possible, he is the antithesis of humble