The English Major

A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota December 30, 2012

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”

The tender, evocative prologue to John’s Gospel is the favorite section of the Bible for many people, myself included. We may not be able to explain why, but its words wash over us and comfort us, answering questions we didn’t know we had and providing comfort we didn’t know we needed.

The fact is that John’s Gospel is different. It is not grouped with the three synoptic or “similar” gospels that precede it, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is called the last gospel, probably written 70 years after Jesus died.

The author is a mystery, but it is not one of the disciples. And unlike Matthew who quotes Jewish Scripture, Mark who emphasizes miracles, and Luke who reels off parables, John has another agenda. John loves words and images, metaphors and soaring prose. John is the English major of the Bible. And I think John helps us understand Jesus as no one else.

John stirs things up. Instead of starting with the birth of Jesus, John’s first words almost arrogantly repeat the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning…” There are no infancy stories in John, no baptism in the Jordan, no quarreling Pharisees, no parables, nothing about how Jesus told people to use bread and wine to remember him. Of course, there is a crucifixion and a resurrection, but the first words to the disciples in the other gospels are the final words to the disciples in John: ”Follow me.”

John is astoundingly concise. The whole Bible is summarized in one verse: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Prologue is a lyrical poem that presents the whole biography of Jesus in a few verses and does not demand we believe certain things or keep specific commandments, only that we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts.

John is realistic: “No one has ever seen God,” John acknowledges. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus exists apart from the Creator, and through Jesus we learn what God is like. Jesus is God’s word of revelation to us.

In John, Jesus is a poet, speaking of himself in similes, metaphors, and symbols. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the good shepherd.” John gives us one of the tenderest images in the Bible: “And God will wipe away all tears from our eyes.”

John knew that statements of doctrine, creeds, theology, and even fact are important, but they do not serve us well at the really big moments. When my first child was born, I remember feeling that for the first time, the language wasn’t big enough to express what I was feeling. And at times of death, the reliable words we use every day can fail and render us nearly speechless. Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Jack Miles says: “A nation cannot mourn in chat. The language resources used by commentators for economic and political matters fail when the subject is death. . . For the subject becomes not who he was or who she was but who we all are. We are mortal, and to speak of that, only poets have remotely adequate language.”

Miles says that in American public life he has never heard words used to greater effect than on Good Friday, 1968, when Bobby Kennedy, campaigning for the presidential nomination in Indiana, first heard of the death of Martin Luther King, and addressed a largely black audience from the bed of a truck. He said: “I, too, had a member of my family killed, and he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort to go beyond these difficult times. My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote, ‘    Miles observes that “the personal reference to Kennedy’s assasinated brother cut deep, but Aeschylus cut deeper still.”1

Beautiful as his poetry is, John’s Gospel also contains what many call “the most problematic verse in the Bible” — John 14:6. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.”

Since few of us who have fundamentalist friends will be exempt from having to explain an inclusive faith in light of this last verse, let me give you several ideas about this Bible verse which one person observes “has caused the followers of Jesus to launch attacks, crusades, and inquisitions to put down, abuse or kill people from other religious traditions.”2

First, note that this problematic verse does not appear in any of the other three Gospels, nor is it consistent with anything else Jesus says or does. Jesus is nothing if not inclusive, to Samaritans, to women, to lepers, to outcasts. Can we seriously imagine Jesus saying that – no matter what culture or background you come from, no matter if you were born before I lived, the only way to save your soul is “through” (whatever that means) me?

Secondly, consider the audience. Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that “Jesus is not addressing some interfaith conference here with Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims present. He is talking to his closest friends at a tender farewell moment the night before he died. This is love language, like we use in our tender and teary moments. You’re the best mother in the whole world. You are the only man in the world for me.” 3“Follow the path I have shown you, and you’ll be all right.”

Another thought comes from Mel Williams of Watts Baptist Church in L.A.” He says, “I think Jesus was not offering here some narrow ‘Come to Jesus or you’re doomed’ ultimatum. I think he was saying ‘No one comes to the Father except by the same way I come to the father.” That is, by a life of prayer, faithfulness and obedience. .. We all come to God by the way of love and compassion that Jesus has shown us.” 4

Willliams continues: “If we take this intimate language and try to use it as a club to browbeat people into seeing Jesus as the ONLY way, the superior way, then we turn this love language into polemical talk, debate talk. Then we use it to assert our dominance. Then we turn God’s presence into a fixed truth that is only available to certain persons who call it by the right name.”

Finally, my personal view is that it all comes back to words, and John’s interpretation of Jesus as God’s word to us. The thing with words is that the same word means different things to different people. Meaning is tied to specific times and places. The same word can be translated into many languages. Perhaps God’s Word – God’s expression of himself – is translated into a different form for a Buddhist or Muslim that it is for me. I’ve never been comfortable with a hardine, Bible-thumping Christianity that dismisses as wrong the religious beliefs of two thirds or more of the world’s population. I believe that we all see the same light but through different panes of glass, that we all hear the same message but in very different languages. We cannot let one Biblical verse hijack the faith.

While there is tremendous comfort in the idea of a universal God that is bigger than any specific faith, there is also the need for a personal God that we know and understand. A rabbi I know tells the story of a five-year-old boy who got separated from his family at the State Fair. He stood in the middle of the Midway and called, ”Sarah, Sarah, Sarah!” When his mother ran up to him she put her arms around him and asked, “Why didn’t you just call for Mommy?” He replied, “I don’t want any mommy. I want mine.”

And I have realized that although I honor their vision, I don’t want any religion. I want mine. I have come to accept Christianity as a gift that has been given to me. It is my family heritage, my birthright, my tradition, and I claim it as my own. I am amazed at the way the Church has pulled me back, again and again, after the inevitable periods of skepticism and frustration that have made me throw up my hands. I am daunted by amount of comfort and strength I have found here. I am grateful for the sturdy framework the faith provides to explore the big question of life, the ones that present the biggest challenges and provide the biggest pay-offs and the most breathtaking aha’s!

It is over twenty years that I have been in the pulpit, trying to explain the faith to congregations and to myself. There has never been a time when the Word—or the words that are my tools, my prayers, and my life-giving resources have let me down, if I have sought diligently and persistently and not given up. My job – our job—is to keep awake, keep searching, take very good notes, and share them with each other. To keep a language vital and not lose it, you have to practice it; you have to use it.

Finally, let me remind you that the Gospel of John has a realism that is pure balm to those of us who struggle with the more doctrinaire approaches of the synoptic Gospels, who know that there must have been more to Jesus’s life than what we read in Scripture, and why doesn’t someone at least acknowledge this?

Well, the mysterious author of John does. We’ve begun with the Prologue, and here is his (or her) last word:

“There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written.”


[1]  Jack Miles, “There’s a time when only poetry will do,” LA Times.

[2] Melvin Williams, sermon at Watts Street Baptist Church, June 23, 2002.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in #2 above.

[4] Mel Williams, cited above.

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