Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Truth-Telling

Text used – John 18:12-27

  • He’s a good man. He’s a giving man. He’s a man who loves his family and his friends and is deeply loved by them in return. And he’s also a man who’s had a rough day – a really, really rough day. He’s a man who’s stressed and worried. He’s a man who’s feeling pulled in a lot of micro-directions – who’s feeling the weight and tensions of expectations: expectations from the past, expectations from those who love him, expectations from those who don’t love him, and expectations from himself. He’s a man who’s trying to do the right thing in the face of a mighty struggle but who feels like, no matter what he does, the only luck that keeps finding him is bad luck. At the end of the day, his business is threatened, his reputation is in jeopardy, his family is stressing him out, and George Bailey is at the end of his rope. → Wait … why are we talking about a Christmas movie 3 mos. after Christmas in the middle of Lent, esp. when we just a read a Scripture passage usually reserved for Holy Week?
    • One word: DICHOTOMY
      • Definition of a dichotomy: a literary technique that divides something into two equal and contradictory parts or between two opposing groups[1]
      • George Bailey – the main character in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic – is a time-honored example of a dichotomy one description online: Grumpy, disillusioned, dissatisfied George Bailey appears on our television screens every Christmas. He’s an unhappy and even unlikable man for much of the movie, but what we love—what we keep coming back to see year after year—is the inherent goodness, the unfailing selflessness hidden away beneath all that grumbling.[2]  That’s exactly what makes us love George Bailey – those glimpses of goodness and generosity, compassion and selflessness that we get even in the midst of his grouching and distress.
        • See it when he dances with Mary at the very beginning
        • See it when he takes over that old Building and Loan after his father’s stroke, indefinitely postponing his grand plans for a life of adventure and travel and grander things
        • See it reflected in all the faces and lives of the people who show up at the end of the movie to help George – the people who’s lives he’s made undeniably better by helping them out … even when he didn’t know it
        • Throughout his life – even in the times when he couldn’t see it … especially in the times when he couldn’t see it – George Bailey’s story was inextricably entwined with the stories of the people around him in Bedford Falls. His story lifted up other people’s stories. His story made space for other people’s stories. His story gave a spark and a shine to other people’s stories, even when he felt like is own story was dull and boring … even when he felt like his own stories was useless and unimportant, a story better left untold.
    • Today’s Scripture reading presents us with an interesting dichotomy in a story where we’re not used to finding one: story of Peter’s denial of Christ
  • FIRST: interesting point at which to compare Jn’s gospel to the synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)
    • Mt, Mk, Lk = “synoptic gospels” because they share so many similarities
      • Similar stories
        • Stories of Jesus’ life/travels
        • Stories that Jesus told – parables
      • Similar words of Jesus
      • Similar order of events
      • Long-accepted theory by Biblical scholars = Mk was written first Mk’s account was used as a template of sorts by Mt and Lk all 3 used some long-lost secondary source that included quotations of Jesus (called Q source by scholars)
    • Jn = somewhat separate thing all together – many of the stories in Jn aren’t found in the synoptic gospels Or, if we do find them, the way that the story is recounted in John is markedly different than the account in the other gospels. What’s interesting about comparing John’s gospel to the synoptic gospels at the point of today’s passage is that here, with the beginning of Jesus’ trial and through the story of his crucifixion, John’s gospel lines up with the other three gospels more than at any other point.
      • Scholar: [Here], we find dramatic similarities with the Synoptics. Perhaps this is because the Passion Narratives are likely to be the first Jesus stories fixed in the Church’s oral tradition. John follows the same pattern as the other three while highlighting specific Johannine motifs.[3]
  • So let’s dig into our story for this morning. There are two particularly powerful dichotomies in our story that have a lot to teach us about faith and about testimony.
    • First dichotomy = Peter himself … and, more particularly, Peter’s testimony
      • Remember our encounter with Peter last week? When Jesus was washing the disciples feet – teaching them about hospitality and love and service?
        • First, Peter = so devoted he refuses to let Jesus, his revered and cherished rabbi, stoop to the degraded position of washing Peter’s own, humble feet
        • BUT after Jesus tells Peter that those who want a place with Jesus must have their feet washed by him, Peter = so devoted that he begs Jesus to wash “not only [his] feet but also [his] hands and [his] head!”[4]  Clearly, Peter is willing to do anything to prove his adamant and unwavering devotion to Jesus. Hmmm.
      • Btwn that reading and today = 5 more chs. of Jn’s gospel
        • Mostly Jesus’ final discourse (lesson/sermon) for his disciples
        • Includes Jesus’ prediction of today’s events: Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times![5]
        • Also includes confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is arrested Peter is so hungry to prove his undying devotion that he takes his sword and cuts of the ear of one of the high priest’s servants[6]
      • Clearly, there is a fire within Peter – a fire of dedication and loyalty. It’s an intense fire. It’s a zealous fire. It’s a fire that stirs him to great passion and fierce faithfulness. At least, it did … until today, when Peter finds himself gathered around a very different fire with a group of people trying to tie Peter’s own fate to the fate of The Accused – that rabblerouser and unrest-mongerer Jesus who was just inside being questioned at that very moment. Suddenly Peter’s zeal fizzles like a dud firecracker that snaps and sputters but refuses to ignite, and the dichotomy of Peter’s testimony is revealed.
        • Suddenly Peter’s words don’t match his actions
        • Suddenly Peter’s story takes an unexpected (and, some would argue, unflattering) twist
        • Suddenly Peter’s zeal and steadfastness are drowned out by his own voice – his own frantic and fearful denials that he even knows this seditious Jesus character
      • And yet as we sit here more than 2000 yrs. later – as we sit here in our comfortable pews and our lives of abundant safety and security – are we sitting here judging Peter too harshly? – Rev. Barbara J. Essex (both reminds us and convicts us): Peter’s denials are prudent, given the circumstances. He is afraid and with good reason. He is surrounded by a multitude of the enemy – Roman and temple police and officers – armed and prepare to shoot first and ask questions later. What would we do if we were in Peter’s situation? Likely keep our mouths shut and hope for the best. Peter’s actions are understandable.[7]  This is a good point at which to remind ourselves that Jesus knew was Peter was going to do. He’d already called it out. He had acknowledged it in front of everyone … but he also let Peter stay. Jesus could have condemned Peter, turned him away, and Peter’s thread in the Grand Story of Faith would had ended in a ragged, unresolved, fraying moment of shame. Instead, Jesus not only lets Peter stay. He continues to work through Peter and his ministry – through Peter’s own testimony – time and again throughout the early life of the church. Peter’s testimony even in this lowest moment is a truth-telling testimony in that it speaks only to Peter’s own life … Peter’s own heart … Peter’s own story. In his denial, he doesn’t denigrate those who do claim to be followers of Jesus. He doesn’t deflect by pointing an accusing finger at the disciples (presumably the beloved disciple) who came with him and accompanied Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. He doesn’t trample the significance and truth of Jesus’ own story by denying that Jesus is important or that his ministry was the life-changing experience that it was. Peter only speaks to his own story.
        • Encounter that reminds us that even when we don’t have “the perfect words” for our own testimonies, there is power in them still
        • Rev. Essex speaks to this: In the midst of failure, disappointment, and shame, however, this is not the end of Peter or his story. His failure sets the stage for a marvelous comeback. Peter emerges from the passion story with more fire and passion than ever – rightly directed, channeled, and empowered. Peter never gives up in the face of failure or shame. Peter always comes back for more. The next time may be his opportunity to embody true discipleship – hearing and doing the word, and engaging in acts of compassion and justice.[8]
    • Other dichotomy in the midst of today’s text speaks to the power and efficacy of the good news of the gospel in the face of all the muck and trouble the world can throw at it You see, in the middle of Peter’s story of denial – truly, even in between denials themselves – we get Jesus’ words of radical and elemental truth in the face of the high priest’s questioning: Meanwhile, the chief priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered, “I’ve spoken openly to the world. I’ve always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews gather. I’ve said nothing in private. Why ask me? Ask those who heard what I told them. They know what I said.” After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. “Is that how you would answer the high priest?” he asked. Jesus replied, “If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?”[9]  In the midst of Peter’s denials (could Jesus hear those denials even as he was in the courtyard being questioned?), Jesus testifies to the power of truth, to the freedom of truth, to the ultimate and unbreakable nature of truth. Even in the face of everything that has already happened – Judas’ betrayal, his rough and merciless arrest in the garden, Peter’s own denials even as they were happening in that moment – Jesus’ truth remained unchanging. The good news of Jesus’ life and teaching – the presence of God among the people and God’s unmatchable and unrelenting love for them (for us!) – remained unchanging. No matter what the world tries to throw at it, the ultimate testimony of the gospel remains: God loves you. God hopes for you. God wants to be a part of your life.
      • Rev. Essex: It is a fact that we deny Jesus in our daily walk. … We all have moments when we fall short of what we confess and what we say we believe. Like Peter, though, beneath the surface there is the faith and the will to do the right thing. There will be things to test our faith, commitment, and resolve. In any given moment, we may deny that we know Jesus and that we are his disciples. We do not love all the time or love completely; we pick and choose when and how we follow Jesus. We give in to the pressures of the culture: consumerism, justice for some but not all. We rely on electronics and social media for community, instead of being with people. Peter denies his connection with Jesus while surrounded by enemies. It is a life-and-death situation. Our situations may not be as dramatic, but they are just as crucial. The challenge and invitation is to determine how we will handle ourselves in a world that lulls us into complacency and compromise.[10] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://literarydevices.net/dichotomy/.

[2] K.M. Weiland. “11 Dichotomous Characters – and Why You Should be Copying Them” from https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/12-dichotomous-characters-and-why-they/.

[3] Ginger Barfield. ”Commentary on John 18L12-27” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/peters-denial-2/commentary-on-john-1812-27-3.

[4] Jn 13:9.

[5] Jn 13:36-38.

[6] Jn 18:10.

[7] Barbara J. Essex. “John 18:25-27 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 263.

[8] Essex, 265.

[9] Jn 18:19-23.

[10] Essex, 265.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Hospitable

Text used – John 13:1-17

  • “Come on in. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Diet Coke? I’ve got some crackers and cheese … some Rice Krispie bars … some freshly-baked cookies … lunch … dinner. The weather’s nice. Let’s sit out on the deck and enjoy the sunshine. OR It’s so chilly today. Can I get you a blanket?” And so, so many more ways we try to extend hospitality. So many ways that we welcome people into our homes – into our most intimate and familiar spaces.
    • We understand the cues that we receive from people here because they’re the cues that we grew up with … but that’s not always the case for others
      • Lots of varied hospitality customs around the world → some counter to each other![1]
        • E.g. – tipping in many industries here in the U.S. (esp. the hospitality industry – restaurants, hotels, transportation services, etc.) is not only expected but those wages are relied upon by those working in those industries BUT in other countries – South Korea, for example – tipping is considered an insult
        • Even more widespread e.g. – pointing → We don’t worry too much about pointing here (as long as you’re not pointing at someone for some obnoxious or disrespectful reason). But in many other places around the world, pointing in some form or another is considered distinctly more rude if not downright offensive.
          • Malaysia and Indonesia: pointing with your finger = incredibly offensive
          • Many countries in Africa: pointing is only done when what you’re trying to indicate is an inanimate object, never used for people
        • Not just actions and gestures that can be difficult to navigate from one culture to the next → Is anyone familiar with Howard Mohr’s book How to Talk Minnesotan[2]? It’s a tongue-in-cheek cultural guide to all things Minnesotan written by one of the original writers and guest voices on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” One of my favorite explanations in it is Mohr’s description of waving at someone when you pass them on the road. You don’t wave with your whole hand and definitely not emphatically! That’s far too emotive for us Minnesotans. You keep your hands on the steering wheel and raise your pointer finger … maybe your pointer and middle finger together, but never more than that. And if you happen to pass the same person on the road later that same day, you definitely don’t need to wave again. That’s excessive. And we laugh at things like that, but I have to tell you that when my mom moved to Minnesota from New York more than 40 yrs. ago, many of these cultural standards were completely foreign to her.
          • Funny story: one of Mom and Dad’s first dates → Dad showing up at the wrong time → “dinner” lunch vs. “dinner” supper
    • Sure, we can laugh at crossed wires when it comes to hospitality customs because at least these ones weren’t serious breaches of cultural expectations. But in our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus crosses the wires of a much more serious hospitality custom … but he does so with a definite purpose, a holy intention.
  • Today’s story = probably one of many people’s favorites → There’s both a tenderness and a comforting insistence in Jesus’ words and actions in this passage.
    • Gives us some poignant and essential context at the beginning
      • Gives us the time: just before Passover – the last Passover that Jesus would celebrate with his disciples in that upper room
      • Even more powerful – gives us insight into Jesus’ mind and heart: Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.[3]
        • Gr. “love” = agape love, love of goodwill and compassion, unselfishness and humanitarianism[4] → This is the love that does for the other – does whatever for the other – not because you have to but because they are human and you are human and that common ground stirs you to action.
          • Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: It is God’s divine love or human love that mirrors God’s love. → And in Jesus’ case – in the case of the Son of God who was both fully human and fully divine – maybe it was even both: God’s divine love and the human mirroring of that love.
        • Gr. “he loved them fully” = lit. “to the end, he loved them” → There is a sense of purpose and completion to this phrase. It tells us that, at least in Jesus’ own mind (as much as the gospel writer could know or guess of it, anyway), Jesus felt that there was no more he could give … no greater he could love … nothing left undone in his relationship with those closest to him.
    • Also provides some dark foreshadowing for us – text: The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus.[5] → Even before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday … even before that Last Supper when Jesus would call out the truth that one would deny him and one would betray him … even before Judas’ fatal deal with the chief priest and ill-fated kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane that would point Jesus out to those sent to arrest him … even before all that, here in this sacred moment, betrayal was already stirring in Judas’ mind and heart.
  • Central action of today’s text: [Jesus] got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.[6]
    • Rev. Dr. Ginger Barfield, Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies and Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina, helps us understand the cultural context of this a bit more: The foot washing as an Ancient Near Eastern rite of hospitality is not an unexpected thing to encounter in a scene such as this. In fact, foot washing was customary. John’s portrayal is not typical, though, because of several factors: the person of lower status should wash the feet of the higher-status guest. Jesus flips this; the foot washing should happen as guests arrive. As the guests are already at the table, another routine is disrupted; this should be a simple and unobtrusive act. Jesus’ washes feet at the table and converses during and after about the act.[7]
      • Let me ask you a question. Does this idea make you feel uncomfortable? Not in the abstract sense, but if you close your eyes and imagine yourself in this midst of this story … imagine yourself sitting there with the disciples … imagine Jesus moving slowly and purposefully from one person to the next, gently and carefully washing and drying their feet before moving on to the next … imagine Jesus finally moving in front of you, kneeling before you, washing your feet, drying your I want you to picture it for a moment. I want you to hunker down in this story for a moment. Feel the water on your feet. Feel Jesus’ hands, steady and earnest. Feel the rough towel. As you sit with that image … with that feeling … let’s venture into a little foot theology.
        • Rev. Kathleen Long Bostrom, prolific author of both adult and children’s books and honorably retired PC(USA) pastor gets right down to it for us with this passage: With very few exceptions, we do not consider feet to be the most attractive parts of our bodies. … Because we use feet every day, all the time, they take quite a beating. … Feet are usually not a very pretty sight. Yet feet are the object of wonder when a baby is born. “Look at that tiny foot!” we say, “Those tiny toenails!” … Barefoot babies are adorable; barefoot adults, not so much. … [Yet] how wonderful it is to have one’s feet washed, after all that those feet have been through. Because the footwashing comes at an unexpected time, the disciples know immediately that this is something out of the ordinary. It is a remarkable act of tenderness at a point in time when the disciples need a little TLC. Like the woman who anoints and washes Jesus’ feet, Jesus pauses at the cusp of his own anguish and tends to his flock. They will not soon forget what he does for them on that dark night.[8] → In this action that to us seems both intimate and strange, both loving and disquieting, Jesus in literally putting hands and feet to his faith. He is embodying his love for his disciples in the most incarnate way possible: by washing the road dust and weariness off their travel-worn feet. It’s not his job. It’s not his place. But it is his testimony. It’s his witness to how great and all-encompassing the love of God is – a love big enough to kneel down and wash even the dirtiest, most bedraggled feet. No matter who they are … no matter where they’ve been … no matter what they brought with them – what dust they carried, what muck they walked through, what callouses they bore … through his actions, Jesus tells them God’s love story for them.
  • But Jesus’ testimony doesn’t stop at his actions in our passage this morning.
    • First = Peter’s reaction → You see, by his very nature, Peter is dramatic enough, bombastic enough to point out in no uncertain terms just how counter-cultural Jesus’ act is. Peter objects. : When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”[9]
      • Peter = trying to be humble (as loudly and ostentatiously as possible)
      • Peter = trying to be a servant
      • Peter = trying to do things “the right way”
      • But as so often is the case throughout the gospels, Jesus has other plans – plans that Peter can’t even begin to understand … yet. Not for lack of trying, though.
        • Peter’s attempt to understand after Jesus tries to explain = both amusing and endearing: Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” → All we can do is shake our heads. Oh, Peter.
        • Jesus’ response makes it clear that Jesus’ actions are enough
  • Passage concludes with Jesus giving the disciples their own charge → Jesus is speaking to his own story but also intertwining his story with that of the disciples. He’s instructing them to carry on his thread of love and humility – text: After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.[10]
    • Rev. Trygve David Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Michigan: In the foot washing, like the incarnation, the method is the message. In the washing of the disciples’ feet Jesus chooses to empty himself rather than to promote himself. This act of humble service and submission is the church’s model of mission into the world, the means by which God’s “glory” will be experienced by all who will follow after Jesus has gone to the Father. The genius of this strategy is that everyone can do it – whatever rank, title, gender, or race – all can serve another. If we did, this strategy would allow God’s glory to shine into every life. Hence this foot washing is more than a humble act of deference; it is a sermon to the world about how to love.[11] → Jesus’ testimony in this moment – the faith story that he tells both in his words and his actions – is a story of humility, a story of servanthood, a story of love, a story of grace. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Lily Cichanowicz. “11 Surprising Customs from Around the World” from Culture Trip, https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/12-surprising-customs-from-around-the-world/.

[2] Howard Mohr. How to Talk Minnesotan. (New York: Penguin Group), 1987.

[3] Jn 13:1.

[4] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-131-17//

[5] Jn 13:2.

[6] Jn 13:4-5.

[7] Ginger Barfield. “Commentary on John 13:1-17” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jesus-washes-feet/commentary-on-john-131-17-3.

[8] Kathleen Long Bostrom. “John 13:1-11 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 110, 112.

[9] Jn 13:6-8a.

[10] Jn 13:12-17.

[11] Trygve David Johnson. “Holy Thursday: John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Homiletical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 275.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Personal

Text used – John 11:1-44

  • Stories make up the realm of who we are – our past, our present, and even our future. Stories build meaning. Stories construct our shared experiences. Stories connect us to one another and to the world around us. And it’s been this way as long as humans have been communicating with one another.
    • Oldest known form of written language from ancient Mesopotamia[1] (northern edge of the Persian Gulf → modern day Kuwait/Iraq/Iran) dates back to around 3400 B.C.E. → But long before that, people were telling stories.
    • Oldest known cave painting recently found in limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are at least 45,500 yrs. old[2] → But even before that, people were telling stories.
    • People told stories to explain natural phenomena. They told stories to remember and pass on their history. They told stories to teach and entertain their children. And, of course, they told stories that connected them to the Divine – to whatever god or set of gods they worshiped.
      • Stories of their understandings of the Divine
      • Stories of their worship of the Divine
      • Stories of the actions of the Divine that either they had seen or perceived themselves or stories of those in the past who had seen and perceived the Divine
      • Yes, friends, stories and faith have gone hand-in-hand for millennia – as long as human beings have been worshiping.
    • And as Christians, we are no different. Every Sunday, we read a part of our Story of faith. We try to glean knowledge and insight and understanding from the stories of others’ experiences with God and apply it to our own lives and actions. We base our actions in worship – both corporate worship and our own individual prayer times – on the stories passed down to us in the Scriptures, especially those pertaining to our sacraments. And we share our own experiences of God in our lives and in the world around us – the glimpses and whispers and nudges (sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle) of God moving and working in us, guiding and protecting us. In short, we share our testimonies – our own stories of faith. → 2 reasons we do this according to Thomas Long
      • FIRST, it’s about speaking Truth – Long: Christians believe that we cannot tell the truth, not the whole truth, without talking about God, and if we cannot tell the whole truth, we cannot be fully alive as human beings.[3] → Telling our stories – particularly those parts of our stories when we experience God’s presence in our own lives, those places where the threads of our own stories are so interwoven with the threads of God’s story that we cannot tell them apart … telling particularly those parts of our stories is an integral part of who we are. A part that we cannot ignore if we’re going to live fully into our identity as Christians.
        • Important to notice that this has nothing to do with converting others → If someone else hears your story and chooses or feels led to embark on their own journey of faith or, even more dramatically, to become a Christian, then that’s incredible! But we don’t share our testimonies for the sole purpose of bringing about change in someone else. We share our testimonies because we can’t not share them.
          • Long: Even if every person in the world were already a Christian, we would still need to talk about God in the same way that a mariner needs to talk about the sea. We would need to talk about God to be truthful, to be whole, for life to be full.[4]
      • SECOND, it’s about continually discerning what we believe – Long: We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is a part of how we come to believe. We talk our way toward belief, talk our way from tentative belief through doubt to firmer belief, talk our way toward believing more fully, more clearly, and more deeply. Putting things into words is one of the ways we acquire knowledge, passion, and conviction.[5] → Our faith journeys are just that – journeys, ongoing and in process, always changing and developing and becoming. And talking through our faith in terms of the ways we see God moving and working in our own lives is a huge part of that journey.
  • In their essence, this is what the gospels do. They are the written accounts of people trying to work through their faith – people coming to believe – as they work through experiences of the Living God in Christ Jesus. → particularly the case for John because it was written so late
    • Already some established faith practices and early theology about Jesus as the Son of God by the time John wrote his gospel roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ death and resurrection
    • And it’s because John is such a testifying gospel – because John’s gospel is such an inextricable mix of experience/story on one hand and theology/belief system on the other hand … it’s because of this particular combination that we’re focusing so much on testimony throughout Lent this year.
  • Today’s gospel story = what I think is the most powerful story of Jesus’ own testimony, his own, personal experience and expression of faith in one of life’s rawest and most difficult moments: a moment of grief
    • Today’s story begins by explaining Lazarus is ill → his sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus → At this point in the gospel, Jesus and the disciples has been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Dedication – what we know more commonly as Hanukkah. After leaving Jerusalem, they had headed “back across the Jordan [River] to the place where John had baptized at first.”[6] This is where those sent by Mary and Martha find Jesus and relay their message: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[7]
    • Then we come to what is probably the most challenging section of today’s text – this portion where Jesus chooses to linger at the Jordan River for two more days before heading to Bethany. Initially, he tells the messengers and the disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not be fatal, but as they prepare to set out, Jesus reveals to the disciples that Lazarus has, in fact died.
      • Difficult because we all know the worry and desperation that Mary and Martha are sitting in as they wait for Jesus … even as Jesus, himself, chooses to wait a couple more days
        • Sat by the bed of loved ones who have been ill
        • Received news of diagnoses in doctors’ offices and over the phone that has brought our world to a screeching halt
        • Prayed for healing and wholeness with every ounce of our being
        • Wept tears of grief and even anger at funerals of those who have died because of their illnesses
        • We’ve been in those places – in those moments – because of our deep love for the people we were with – a love that spans miles, a love that endures treatments, a love that sparks hope even into the darkest moments of diagnosis and side effects and illness and pain. And because we know just how hard those moments are, we can be frustrated with Jesus in this part of the story – because the “Why, Jesus?” on our minds and our lips in this moment is a “Why, Jesus?” we’ve voiced before. The waiting part of this story makes us uncomfortable … because the waiting part of life makes us uncomfortable.
    • But it’s also in this moment and in the rest of the story as it unfolds that we see Jesus at his most vulnerable, at his most human, at his most personal in John’s gospel. When Jesus and the disciples finally reach Bethany and Jesus is confronted with the grief of Mary, Martha, and all the others who had come to mourn Lazarus, Jesus grieves as well. – text: When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!”[8]
  • And it’s in this moment – this moment when Jesus allows the grief of the community to overcome him, this moment when Jesus is fully personal and fully present and fully human, this moment when the Son of God, indeed when God Incarnate!, weeps in response to the shock and pain and grief of illness and death … it’s in this moment that we witness Jesus’ own, personal testimony in his actions.
    • Plenty of places throughout the gospel – and even plenty of places just in today’s reading – when Jesus testifies with his words
      • Jesus’ conversation with Martha before they go find Mary: Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[9]
    • But when Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend – when Jesus grieves in and with the community that surrounded Mary and Martha – we see Jesus’ testimony in his actions. We see him embodying the tender blessing of love and kinship as well as the stinging pain of loss. We see him embodying the reality that steadfast faith doesn’t always mean a life of ease and joy, a life without hardship or suffering. To the contrary, we see him embracing suffering and pain as an unavoidable part of a life of faith as is experiencing that suffering and pain within the loving embrace of community.
      • Rev. Erica Schemper (who led worship here back in January) wrote a daily devotional piece for the These Days publication on this passage: It’s easy to move quickly to the miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But here, right in the absolute center of John’s Gospel, is this beautiful story of Jesus grieving with a community. He weeps when he realizes his friend is dead. He weeps when he sees the depth of sadness in those around him. We all need the space to sit with our sadness. John 11 reminds us that God came among us not just to raise us from the dead but also to stop for a moment and weep with us.[10]
    • Yes, at the end of today’s story, Lazarus is miraculously raised from the dead – a powerful foreshadowing testimony to what is to come for Jesus himself, especially since this is John’s last account of any kind of lengthy encounter for Jesus before he turns to the Passion Narrative that will lead Jesus to the cross … to the tomb … to his own death and resurrection. And when Jesus resurrects Lazarus – when he instructs those with him to remove the stone from the mouth of Lazarus’ tomb and calls Lazarus forth, when he lifts up a prayer of thanks to God and give the final command to “Untie [Lazarus] and let him go” – Jesus is completing the testimony of his actions. With his own tears and his grief, Jesus testifies to faith in the struggle – in the “valley of the shadow of death.” And with his own act of resurrecting Lazarus, Jesus testifies to the eternal hope and truth that even death cannot defeat the power and presence of God’s love. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Aisling Serrant. “The World’s Five Oldest Written Languages” from DigVentures, https://digventures.com/2013/10/friday-five-five-oldest-written-languages/.

[2] Sarah Cascone, “Archaeologists Have Discovered a Pristine 45,000-Year-Old Cave Painting of a Pig That May Be the Oldest Artwork in the World” from ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/indonesia-pig-art-oldest-painting-1937110.

[3] Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 5.

[4] Long, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jn 10:40.

[7] Jn 11:3.

[8] Jn 11:32-36.

[9] Jn 11:21-26.

[10] Erica Schemper. “Sunday, October 31, 2021: Good Grief” in These Days, Oct-Dec 2021. (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation).