In my previous blog on the Gospel of John I reflected on John chapters 5 and 6. I suggested that these chapters begin what is a 5 chapter “exposition” on the theme of work, or more specifically the idea of God’s work in our lives and in the world, which structurally speaking brings to a close the first section of John (The Book of Signs) and transitions us to towards the next section (The Book of Exaltation).
At the heart of this exposition is the idea of coming to see or know this work as the person and ministry of Jesus. Jesus after all, as John has made abundantly clear, is God’s light piercing through the pervasive and all too familiar darkness, the same darkness that existed at the beginning of time and that continues to persist today. A darkness that exposes that central and pleading question of faith that the Gospel of John holds in tension:
Is God actually working in the world? And if so, How is He working the world?
As John methodically uncovers the light in the first 5 chapters, the insistence that, “the darkness has not overcome” becomes harder and harder to accept. When the darkness looms so large and suffering is so apparent, the idea that God is at work in the world feels unsettling and even unconvincing.
And the deeper we go into these stories the more offensive the idea becomes for the characters we meet in John’s Gospel. To say that God’s light still shines, that God is still working is “a hard teaching” (6:60), and indeed “offensive” (6:61).
All of this exposes an important part of John’s exposition, which is the immediacy of this Gospel message. The problem for the characters we encounter in John is a question of the present, our need to see and know God is working in the here and now. The people who meet Jesus In John’s Gospel need food to feed their hunger and healing for a persisting physical ailment. For many they need to know they belong in a world that has rejected them because of their impoverished position. And Jesus meets them where they are at. He feeds them, he heals them and He offers them acceptance.
But John doesn’t begin with the immediate. He doesn’t simply offer concrete proof or evidence of God’s work. Instead he starts “in the beginning”, and then offers us glimpses of Jesus, a taste of Jesus in the present. He gives us characters who only see and know Jesus in part. He gives us 7 signs or signposts that point us in a direction, leaving what lies on the horizon demonstrably foggy. We see Jesus “passing them by”. We are given stories where one is healed while the suffering of the many persists. In one of these stories, the healing story of chapter 5, the man doesn’t even know who Jesus is. All he knows is that he was blind and now he sees. In the determination of the religious leaders to “prove” who Jesus is in the midst of this need to see and know in the here and now (which ironically in John comes through this pattern of everyone determining to see and know Jesus through second hand witness), Jesus remains frustratingly allusive and distant.
The Immediacy of the Gospel and Reshaping Our Expectation
John begins in the pages of history. He begins “in the beginning” with the Word who was God, and He ends with a promise, the promise that there is a purpose to God’s working. But it is the middle ground, the struggle of making sense of this in our present reality, that is the most challenging.
This is just my perception, but I feel like John does this because He understands the God we encounter in Jesus is not the God we would ever expect. And a God that pushes back against the demands of our expectation will always be offensive, hard to understand, and even unacceptable in the moment.
I also think John also does this to emphasize the idea that even though we struggle with seeing God at work in our world and in our lives in the here and now, God does indeed still see us and love us in our places of need. And in emphasizing this truth John is able to subtly (and not so subtly) reshape our expectation of the ways in which God is in fact working in our lives and in the world.
The light still shines, but that doesn’t mean the darkness ceases to persist. The storm still rages but that doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t there “passing us by”. The man is healed, but that doesn’t mean that suffering and struggle is no longer prevalent and persistent. Which is precisely why spending time fleshing out the nature of God’s “work” is so important to John. To simply do away with the questions by offering easy and pat answers is not the best way to deal with the reality of the darkness. Instead John invites us to follow Jesus into the darkness so as to allow Him to show us the way forward. He invites us to become seekers of something we cannot and do not fully understand.
Seeking Jesus Demands a Response
All of the characters we meet in John’s Gospel are seekers. They get a glimpse or a taste of Jesus and they can’t turn away. They are chasing after the questions, who is Jesus and what is He doing in our midst. And the the answers, or non-answers to this question inevitably set their idea of God and the world in conflict.
Seeking Jesus demands a response in one way or another. Which is precisely what shapes the growing conflict that we see coming more and more to the surface in this collection of festival chapters in 5-10
This is the work of God, “to believe in the one He has sent” (6:26). But it feels offensive when our belief in God’s work is measured against our need to make sense of the struggle and the suffering in this world in the here and now. It is hard to accept because it strips us of our ability to control the way we believe God should be working and the way we believe things should be happening in this world. And it is in these moments that the notion of a God who is in control feels the most wrong. Because how can a God simply ignore the way things are? Why is He not simply changing things to work in the way that we believe they should? It feels better to simply go our own way and do things ourselves.
Learning to Give Up Control
For John, “believing in the one He has sent” first means giving up our need for control. It means allowing Him to take the oars out of our hands (the storm passage of chapter 6) in those moments when we can’t see where we are going. It means submitting our questions to a reality we do not fully understand. As Jesus says in 6:65, “no one can come to Jesus unless it is granted by the Father”, and this means that no matter how hard we convince ourselves that we are, we are not in control. And this is not an easy thing to accept. John tells us that when they came face to face with this reality, many of the disciples turned back from their seeking and the conflict between Jesus and the world around Him begins to grow.
This is something to which I far too easily relate. Far too often I find myself following in the way of those disciples, and the reason I turn away from Jesus and the reason I refuse to give Him the oars is because in a world where so much suffering exists, making sense of a God who is still working just doesn’t make much sense most of the time. It makes much more sense to simply take the oars into my own hands and row harder.
But as I read through John I find myself being reminded once again that I need Jesus in my life, and in oder to see God working in the person and ministry of Jesus and to know that He is there walking alongside me in the midst of my own darkness, I must be wiling to let Him challenge perception of the ways things must be in the here and now. I must let Him push back against my need to be in control.
And the truth is, it is the midst of the storm, in the midst of the darkness that we have the greatest opportunity (and potential) to do this. And when we do, the fear and determination that forms our need to try and go our own way and do it ourselves can give way to a much needed and much welcome sense of peace. For the disciples in the boat in the storm passage of chapter 6, they did not want to give Jesus the oars because they were afraid of what giving up control might mean (6:19), but when they eventually did they discovered they were “glad” to take Him into the boat. The welcomed it. They needed Jesus. And it is significant that John does not say the storm ceases when they finally recognize this need. It simply indicates that they found a much needed sense of relief that they no longer had to try and do it by themselves.
The Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross
John tells me the light still shines and it shines in the person and ministry of Jesus. And as he brings this 5 chapter arc to a close, this exposition, this study of God’s work in our lives transitions in chapters 10-12 towards a definitive picture of what this work looks like in the person and ministry of Jesus. The time that is not yet here, the glory that has not yet been revealed, the spirit that has been promised is all about to come to fruition. And in doing so a path is revealed, and it is the path to the cross and all that the cross looks to accomplish.
Which brings us to a real moment of truth when it comes to considering the work of God in our world and in our lives. The glimpses, the taste of Jesus that we have been getting in John’s Gospel have been pushing us in a direction. In a more accurate picture, it is the glimpse we get along the way that enable us to walk “with Jesus” in the direction He is moving (6:66). It awakens us to the direction in which are to turn or to keep moving in the midst of the darkness. It becomes a beacon of light peeking through on the horizon, giving us hope for the promise of the future.
And it is in the light that the shadow of the Cross now looms. This is how God is choosing to work in the midst of the darkness. This is how He is choosing walk with us in the here and now.
And this is what the shadow tells us. Yes, the light shines and has not been overcome, but, at least for the moment the darkness remains, and this is why the way of the Cross is necessary. It teaches us what it means to give up control.
And so we are called to believe in the one He has sent by putting one foot in front of the other and moving in the direction of Jesus, walking with Jesus down the path in the direction He is heading. Learning to trust in what we cannot always see in its fullness. Learning what it looks like to let our questions move us to give up control, to give up the oars in order to find our peace in the one who sees us and loves us in the midst of the darkness.
We learn what it looks like to believe in a world where God is still at work.