Sunday, January 26, 2014
David Lose of Luther Seminary in Minnesota observes “that the primary challenge facing the Christian Church in North America in the 21st century is that for most of our people, God is no longer a primary actor in the story of their lives. … It’s not that people don’t believe in God, it’s just that apart from church they don’t think about God all that much. … The biblical story – the narrative, that is, that teaches us to recognize God’s activity in the world – is relatively and increasingly unfamiliar to them and certainly not a source of the kinds of stories we regularly tell and share as we seek to make sense of our lives.”[i]
I agree with his observation, which is why our church wide emphasis is on understanding the Bible, getting into the Bible and getting the Bible into us. Church-goers are by and large Biblically illiterate. This lament fills seminary halls, the pages of Christian literature, and the conversations of pastors when they get together. A lot of people claim the Bible is important. Few actually know what it says. Fewer still understand what a rigorous, lifelong endeavor it is to read and live in the Bible.
If upon hearing this, your reaction is, oh no! I don’t know the Bible! He’s talking about me. Relax. There will be no quiz this morning. When I observe that people generally, even church goers, are unfamiliar with the Bible, I do not say it as an accusation. I intend it as an invitation. If someone said to me, I don’t know the Bible; my response is “You can.”
The Bible is not intended as an inaccessible holy book only the experts and the initiated can understand. It is not easy. It is often challenging. But the challenge is there to be met. Difficulties that come up in reading, understanding, and applying the Bible to life are invitations from God. God is challenging because God is holy and sin blocks our view of him. God reaches to us and invites us to look past whatever is blocking the way. As we overcome the obstacles sin lays down, we get to where we have a real, dynamic, life-making relationship with God.
The 20th chapter of John’s Gospel ends with a statement of purpose. “Jesus did many signs … not written in this book.” John acknowledges this without hesitation or apology. John wasn’t trying to write an exhaustive biography. The Gospel has qualities of a biography, but the goal of the final composition was not to simply tell Jesus’ story. Was the author of John’s gospel aware of Matthew, Mark, and Luke when he wrote John? That question inspires much debate. I tend to think, yes, he knew of the traditions that went into those other gospels. I doubt he had copies of them in front of him when he wrote John. I am not fully convinced that John was the last one written.
Nor am I at all convinced that the Apostle John, one of the 12 disciples, is the author of the Gospel of John. I don’t know if there is any way of being certain of the identity of the original author and compilers. The Gospel itself only says that the author was the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20, 24). In John chapter 11, Lazarus was described as the one Jesus loved (11:3b). Certainly, there were more disciples than just the 12. I think a compelling, though not convincing, case can be made that the author of the 4th gospel was Lazarus.
At any rate, this Gospel was written with a purpose, and that purpose was not to exhaustively catalogue Jesus words and actions. Much was included that is not in Matthew, Mark, & Luke. Much in those gospels is not in John. And the material in all four is arranged and presented uniquely in each.
The Gospels of John wants to be read. The Gospel of John wants the reader to see Jesus within the pages. The Gospel of John wants the reader to meet Jesus and believe in him, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, God in human flesh. The Gospel of John wants this because if one believes in Jesus, that person will have life. There are plenty of people in the world, billions, who eat, grow, procreate, work – they are alive. They don’t know Jesus at all and yet a biologist would define them as living. No, says, the Gospel of John. Life, life as God intends it, can only be had by the one who knows Jesus.
Thus the problem as observed by David Lose. People in our day, place, and time, don’t think much about God outside of Sunday morning, and they don’t look to God’s word to make sense of their lives. People are alive but not living. We immediately see what this means for us, a church family. Before us sits the fourth gospel saying – read! Read and believe! Believe and have life – life as God intends it.
Have we read?
Are we living the life we’re invited by God to live?
What about people around us who don’t have this? Either they have not read the Gospel or they have no access to it or they aren’t interested in it. Whatever the cause, we are surrounded by people who do not have the life God wants people to have.
John is the Gospel that records Jesus saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). John is the abundant life Gospel. John is the Gospel where Jesus says to a Pharisee, Nicodemus, “God so loved the world, he gave his only son so that whoever believes may not perish but have eternal life.” In John, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me though they die will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). John is an open book – open for everyone, every person. We read, meet Jesus, believe, and have eternal life; abundant life.
Before us sits the fourth Gospel, the word of God. Are we into the life God wants for us? Are we inviting the world around us into that life?
I have been recommending pathways into the Bible. Some readers will be blessed memorizing verses of scripture like John 3:16, or one my favorites, John 14:6. “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the father except through Him.” Memorization helps us feel the wholeness of God’s word encapsulated in a verse or 2.
Others feel blessing in the walking through the Bible in a deliberate fashion reading a few chapters each day all the way through in a year’s time.
I suggested reading as a way of meeting God; keep a God notebook in which you record your encounters with the Creator of all that is as you meet him in the pages of the book He had given.
I suggested reading the Bible and the newspaper together each talking to the other so that our journey in scripture relates the world around us and we see the world in light of scripture.
A fifth pathway into the Bible involves deep introspection. Write your own life story. We heard Matthew share his last week. Chris and Nelson shared theirs two weeks ago. Imagine you were to be recruited to share your faith story, your testimony. Next Sunday you would tell who you are. Surely the journey would include season, maybe long stretches, in which you felt very far from God. And maybe stretches felt like you walked hand-in-hand with God. Everyone has his or her own story. Imagine yours. I recommend writing it out if you never have. Doing so requires you to deal with details you might be tempted to sweep under the rug. Imagine your life story, including all the hardest of hard places.
Now, take your life story with you every time you step into the Bible. And as you review your life story, see the story of God in the scriptures alongside it.
Some people recommend having a life verse. I think this can be helpful. In your reading of scripture, find verse that sums up your life as you have walked with God, fallen away, and come back again. This is the fifth pathway into the word, I propose. Review your life story with scripture in view and identify a Biblical story or a verse or two that is your life verse. And by the way, as life changes, your understanding of your life verse does too and you might even find a new life verse when you enter a new season. That’s OK.
The 4th Gospel testifies that the Bible is intended to draw us to God and to have life in Jesus’ name. In John 20, Jesus appeared to the disciples. Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus. Thomas missed seeing Jesus. He heard of the resurrection from those who had seen Jesus, but he refused to believe. The Gospel that invites the reader to faith also recognizes the potential for doubt, unbelief. Some will hear the stories of resurrection and flat-out refuse to accept that it could be true.
This commission of Jesus, including the forgiving and retaining of sins prompts New Testament professor Susan Hylen to ask, "What is expected of later followers of Jesus?"[ii] The fourth gospel expects to be read by believers, not just pastors, but everyone in the church. The fourth gospel expects us to trust the witness offered. The fourth gospel expects us to, upon hearing the testimony, to believe in Jesus and have life in his name. Beyond, that, we are to become the inviting voice that draws in others, doubters, skeptics, sinners, you name it.
Jesus grants his followers the authority to forgive or retain sins. The weight of this commission can only be shouldered by Christ-followers who know their own weakness. When we realize that we are receiving this commission because at our lowest point we were lifted up by Jesus and He is our only hope, only then, in full view of our weakness, can we receive the commission to forgive or retain sins. Professor Hylen reminds us that in John’s Gospel, ‘sin,’ means failing to see Jesus as the Son of God and believe in him.
If we are in Christ, then we are never inclined to want to retain anyone’s sin. Our bent is to see people outside the faith, or those in the church, who are not walking with Jesus, turn to Him, see Him, believe, and come to life. That’s what has happened to us and now it is what we want for others. In Christ, having seen, we do not want to see anyone’s sin retained. We want for others the abundant life Jesus has given to us. We become the invitation we have answered.
This week, read the Bible. And review your life. Read your own autobiography as you read the Bible. Remember who you were and who you are, where you have been and where you are today. Let God’s word prod you to deeper faith and abundant, eternal life. Along the way, make your life an invitation, inviting a nonbeliever to see Jesus, believe in Him, and have life in His name.
The Bible is your entry point to life.
Your invitation is a wake-up letting your friend know that he too is invited to enter the story of the with-God life.