It is probably fading from memory, but in the generation passing there was a favorite hymn by lay people that was most despised by clergy – In the Garden. It is the proto-Jesus as my boyfriend song. But it is one that I’ve often thought there was a challenging and orthodox reworking available in its bones. What it expresses is the presence of Jesus with his people. It is expressing the power of the resurrection. Its verse “he walks with me and talks with me…” is the core of what could be. Because that is the core of this text. All resurrection texts speak to the historical reality of the event. They all also proclaim the power of the resurrection to bring us eternal things. What the Road to Emmaus does is show us how this kingdom comes in weakness. While we can’t see him, Jesus walks with us. For a long time, until our faith is strong enough, he walks with us. The reign of the living Christ is one that comes in weakness. Through preaching and teaching. In Word and Sacrament. Things that accompany us. As we are prepared for the full weight of the resurrection to come to us.
John intentionally uses and structures half his gospel around a different word than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those synoptics describe what we call miracles as works of power. John calls them signs and the first twelve chapters of John are structured around seven signs. And I think John tells us the difference at the end of Cana. To John the signs due two things: 1) they manifest glory and 2) they inspire belief. What this sermon attempts to do is three things: a) ponder that difference between works of power, both natural and supernatural, and signs, b) flesh out what specifically Cana as the first of the signs encourages us to believe and c) apply those encouraged beliefs to our lives.
I’d add here, something that the sermon doesn’t, that works of power can also inspire belief. They are just as much signs as the ones John picks out like Cana. The big difference is the emphasis between the two aspects. Is the primary purpose a manifestation of glory, or has that manifestation worked itself into our understanding of ourselves and our actions. Does seeing the glory change us in deeper ways.
I’d also add here a second note about this sermon. A better preacher could make this much better, but my reflection after delivery is that I rendered a very deep text in a meaningful way. It is one of the rare times preaching on John that I don’t feel defeated.
The collection of texts assigned for today stuck me this week as wanting to talk about preaching. Jesus confronts himself with a question, what is the chief purpose of his ministry? And his answer set the paradigm of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not one that is advanced as the kingdoms of this world. Instead it is preached; it is proclaimed.
So, this sermon is a basic statement of the power and purpose of preaching. And the source of all preaching which is never the preacher, but the one who commands the message.
Two of the traditional attributes of God are His Sovereignty and His Goodness. This sermon reflects on the conflict those appear to produce today. I can’t help but look at our culture and see a people who are, against what they actually say, aware of God’s sovereignty but don’t believe or trust in His Goodness. Take Christopher Hitchens for a second, his biggest applause line was always, “God’s a bloody tyrant”. His logic doesn’t work. Just because someone is a tyrant doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (Don’t even try, it’s an applause line appealing to felt emotion and not logic.) But, in almost every level of culture the same idea is expressed. Keanu Reeves calls God “a kid with an ant farm” in the B-movie Constantine. A little more heady, the Walking Dead, about a resurrection of sorts, keeps returning to themes of tyranny and tribalism. Only the tribes with a strong leader survive. The mantra of a generation appears to be “don’t judge me” and the noticing of something is taken as akin to tyranny. Nietzsche called Christianity a religion of slaves for a couple of reasons: a) the first reasons was the God used his power on the side of the slaves against the “supermen” but that leads to b) God is the only “superman” or the only tyrant allowed to stand. What these all share is an attribution of power to God, but not goodness. Hence my final line “zombie apocalypse of tyranny”. A God who was only powerful, who was just the resurrection, would do something like that. And that is our cultural bug-a-boo, we still have an idea or a feeling of the power of God, but we have lost faith in the Goodness. And we have lost faith with the Goodness because we have severed ourselves from Christ and the body of Christ.
It is only in the incarnation of Jesus that we can fully observe and take in the goodness of God. Unlike our power, God uses his power for good. And that includes the bestowing of life on all who believe. Jesus is the resurrection (power) and the life (goodness). And that life is not tyranny but “full of grace and truth”. But the only place you find both the resurrection and the life is connected to the body of Christ which is the church. Connected through Word and Sacrament, proclamation of forgiveness and incorporation in water, bread/body and wine/blood. Rejecting the church is rejecting Jesus. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the goodness of God. The power is still naturally know by looking out the window. But the power alone isn’t enough. We need law and gospel. We need power and goodness. We need the resurrection and the life.