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Interpretation
http://int.sagepub.com/content/43/1/58
The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/002096438904300106
1989 43: 58 Interpretation
Raymond E. Brown
The Johannine World for Preachers

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- Jan 1, 1989 Version of Record >>


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The Johannine World for Preachers
RAYMOND E. BROWN, S.S.
Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies
Union Theological Seminary in New York
The readers/hearers of the Fourth Gospel are not
meant simply to learn from its scenes; they must
encounter Jesus and be challenged by him, so they
are led to perceive God's ways rather than fitting
Jesus into their own preconceived needs.
D
URING 1989, the readers of INTERPRETATION are to be treated to a
series of expository articles on various passages in the Fourth Gospel.
I have been asked to offer some general preparatory remarks addressed to
those who will preach John, and perhaps through them to those who will
be instructed and exhorted. I add this second group, for in my own
preaching of John I have become convinced that the audience must be
brought into the overall Johanni ne thought world if they are to profit
from the exposition of individual passages. Gaining and communicating
an appreciation of the Johanni ne world is the most basic step I would urge
on all preachers.
A glance at Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment shows that those
who first acknowledged John as canonical Scripture already saw the issue:
John is very different from the other Gospels. They had their simplified
ways of explaining the differences: An aged companion of Jesus had
meditated spiritually on what Jesus had said and done, one who knew the
other Gospels but wanted to add to them in both content and depth, one
who consulted with other companions of Jesus and profited from their
addenda, and so forth. Modern scholars have less simplified explanations
of the differences, but one may reasonably doubt whether with all our
posited sources and/or redactions we shall ever offer a completely satisfac-
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tory account of all the important differences. That may have to wait until
"we shall see Him as He is" (I John 3:2), but fortunately parish audiences
need not be embroiled in ancient or modern theories. Not proposed
solutions but recognized differences are the entre to John' s presentation
of Jesus.
In order to draw people's attention to the uniqueness of this Jesus,
sometimes I list even the factual differences between John' s portrait and
that of the Synoptics, for example, a Jesus who never drives out the demon
and who is not described globally as curing many people (even though the
Evangelist knows of other signs not narrated) or a Jesus whose few
narrated miracles (seven in all?) often become the subject of long debate or
discussion, enabling questions that lie beyond the Synoptic ken. (What
happened to the people who ate the multiplied loaves and fish? Did the
miracle change their lives spiritually? Only John offers an answer: They
thought it was a nice way to get food and came back for more!) John
presents a Jesus who spends most of his time in Jerusalem rather than in
Galilee, a Jesus who does not habitually speak in parables or about the
Kingdom of God. Rather in long monologues or dialogues he speaks in a
solemn, abstract language where "I am . . ." replaces "The Kingdom of
God is like . . ."
A sampling of such factual differences should put the hearer on the
alert to recognize and understand the most fundamental of all differences
separating John from the Synoptics: The Jesus of John is a figure who
consciously and insistently speaks of a previous life with God before he
came below, a life in which he saw and heard what he now manifests. This
element is totally lacking in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yes, as strange as it
may seem to most churchgoers, among the Gospels only John explicitly
envisions an incarnation in which a prexistent divine being (the Word or
the Son) comes into the world. Early Christians who had read or heard one
of the other Gospels would know that Jesus had spoke and acted with
God's authority and power, that God had vindicated him through the
Resurrection, and that at the end of time he would come down from
heaven to promote visibly God's rule, to j udge, to give God's life to those
who accept God and his demands, making them God's children. It is no
accident that in the Synoptics (Mark 14:62 and par.) Jesus' final statement
to the highest authorities of his people as they demand to know his identity
before they pass j udgment on him is: "You will see the Son of Man sitting at
the right hand of the Power and coming with/on the clouds of heaven." In
John (1:51) a similar statement occurs at the beginning', "You will see the
heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon
the Son of Man." The Gospel sequence has been turned upside down by
having the all-important coming down from heaven before Jesus' public
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career rather than at the end of time. (John never denies a final coming,
but the Evangelist thinks of two comings and concentrates on the first.)
The Jesus who stands before the disciples is the descended Son of Man on
whom God's angels wait. Indeed whoever sees him already sees God, for
he already has God's glory and the name that is above every name has
already been given to him. That is why this initial coming into the world
places whoever encounters Jesus in a state of j udgment (krisis), a crisis of
having to choose for light or for darkness. This encounter duri ng the
ministry (and thus seemingly even before the Crucifixion and the Resur-
rection), if it is in the context of belief, already gives God's life and makes
one God's child. To highlight the issue of constant self-judgment in
encounter with Jesus, elements that the other Gospels relate to a climactic
trial scene at the end of Jesus' life (e.g., the cleansing of the temple and a
statement about destroying it, and an acknowledgment of Jesus' being the
Christ, the Son of the Blessed God) are placed early in John (see 1:41,49;
2:13-22); and throughout there is a constant context of interrogation,
bearing witness, and decision. Everything that Jesus does and says points
to higher reality for those who can see or know.
PREACHI NG ON THE DEEDS OF JESUS IN J OHN
Against this background of a Jesus who comes from above, how should
one preach about his marvelous deeds that John insistently calls signs (e.g.,
the multiplication of the loaves, the opening of the eyes of a man born
blind, the raising of Lazarus)? Manifestly the characters in the Gospel
scenes (mis)understand these deeds on a this-worldly level, as in the
instance of seeking more multiplied bread. Occasionally modern hearers
of the stories would be more sophisticated spiritually; it might, for in-
stance, occur to us that people do not live by bread alone. Yet basically our
generation is just as much of this world (and not merely in it) as was the
generation that John describes. A figure today who could physically give
the blind sight and restore to life the recently dead would be hailed not
only medically but spiritually. John' s Jesus has a totally different outlook.
He does supply earthly bread to a crowd that hungers; but that is not the
real marvel, for they will hunger again and so are not permanently better.
The real marvel is that Jesus can give a bread from heaven that obviates
hunger: the true (althinos) bread of which the multiplied loaf was only a
sign. Jesus does give a blind man sight, but such a gift simply makes the
man no more disadvantaged than the rest of humanity that has sight but
cannot see God. The real marvel is that Jesus as the light come into the
world can lead the blind man to believing sight that will enable him to see
God. Jesus restores physical life to Lazarus, but does that make Lazarus
better off than he was before he died? Does it bring him closer to God than
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the life possessed by all those who walk the face of the earth? The real
marvel is not simply that Jesus can restore the dead to life but that he can
give a life impervious to death. Lazarus comes forth from the tomb in his
burial garments because he will need them again when he dies a second
time. His being raised is a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus who
will leave his burial garments behind in the tomb, never to be needed
again.
In preaching we must stress even for modern audiences that the Johan-
nine Jesus is not engaged in cosmetic improvement of the quality of life on
earth, offering more abundant water and food, with sharper vision and a
longer span of years. From another world come his gifts, even if confus-
ingly they bear the same names that our language gives to what we so
eagerly seek on earth: food, light, and life. In reality, however, his gifts go
beyond anything we could hope for, satisfying needs we scarcely knew we
had and doing so permanently.
PREACHI NG ON THE WORDS OF JESUS IN J OHN
The notions of the sign pointing to reality and of a complication because
the same names serve for both earthly and heavenly realities should be
kept in mind as we approach the Johanni ne discourses or dialogues. How
does Jesus, the alien from another world, the "stranger from above,"
communicate in this world? Let us distinguish between oratorical style and
vocabulary. The solemn, nay hieratic, style of the Johanni ne Jesus is a
partial indicator of his heavenly origins. Noteworthy is the tendency of
some modern English Bibles (Jerusalem, New American) to set off the
Johannine discourses in poetic format, the same format used in the Old
Testament for prophetic speech that transmits the Word of God and for
the speeches of personified divine Wisdom. Indeed, I have found it useful
to begin a sermon on one of Jesus' discourses by reading to the listeners the
discourse of Wisdom in Sirach 24. The style is much the same since each
speaker, Wisdom and Jesus the Word, is portrayed as being from the
mouth of God, as acting in creation, as coming to tent among God's people
Israel (particularly in Jerusalem), and as inviting people to eat and drink a
more enduring nourishment.
If the oratorical style of the Johanni ne Jesus is that of the heavenly
revealer, all the more striking is that his vocabulary is of this world. One
can explain this as reflecting the necessity of communication: those who
hear him speak and understand only earthly language. Yet the answer
may be more profound: Since men and women were created in God's
image, their language is not inappropriate for expressing heavenly reali-
ties, once they detect its sign value. The eternal life that Jesus has come to
give is not unrelated to what we already know as life. Even as we receive life
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from an earthly parent, so God's child is begotten through divine seed (see
I John 3:9) and born of water and spirit. Just as earthly life, received
through begetting and birth, must be nourished through water and food,
so Jesus offers a water springing up to eternal life and a bread of life
without which even God's child will perish, namely, divine revelation.
Space limitations do not allow a discussion of how this imagery is related to
the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, even though this relationship
might well be important for preaching. But there is no way to preach John
without a wider sense of sacramentality in which the earthly is a primary
means of communicating the heavenly.
The Synoptic Gospels describe a failure to understand Jesus' parables of
the Kingdom of God; in John this motif becomes more pervasive as a
universal misunderstanding of an alien Jesus who employs both signs and
polyvalent vocabulary to reveal the world from which he comes. The way
the expositor responds to this can make the difference between humdr um
preaching of John and great preaching of Johna preaching that lets the
Evangelist accomplish what he set out to do. Although he describes Jesus
as acting on and speaking to a set of characters who traverse the Gospel
pages, the Evangelist is not primarily interested in those characters as
such. He is not concerned with what will happen to the Samaritan woman
or the blind man, for he is not writing the Gospel to them. Rather he is
writing to a "you," the readers/hearers of all times and places: "These
things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and believing have life in his name." The Gospel charac-
ters, real though they may have been in history, function as representative
figures, variations of Everyman (and Everywoman) who illustrate encoun-
ters with Jesus. On the Gospel stage they listen to Jesus speaking of what he
is ("I am. . .") as a manifestation of God's love for the world; and in various
ways they misunderstand, fitting him into the preconceived needs of their
ordinary life. This misunderstanding causes Jesus to speak more clearly to
his dialogue partners until gradually they begin to glimpse that heavenly
realities are involved. The readers/hearers of the Fourth Gospel are not
meant simply to learn from such scenes: They must encounter Jesus too
and be challenged by him; they will misunderstand by fitting him into their
own preconceived needs, and they will have to be led to perceive God's
ways.
How can this be done? By having the readers/hearers drawn into the
scenes that are being described and made participants. In any serious play
the actors are not speaking merely to each other; the drama is meant to
involve the audience as a dialogue partner. John' s technique for involve-
ment begins by presenting the misunderstanding by the Gospel characters
as relatively nave. The readers/hearers are meant to grasp before Nico-
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demus that Jesus is not talking about birth from the womb, to perceive
before the Samaritan woman that Jesus is not talking about well-water. In
figuring this out, the readers/hearers become involved and begin to pay
attention to see if it will t urn out that their interpretation of Jesus is
correctand so they are caught! Soon they will find out that their basic
insight was correct, but as Jesus continues to talk they too will become
puzzled. He is not talking about physical birth as Nicodemus thought, but
what does he mean when he says in John 3:8, "The wind blows at will; you
hear the sound it makes but do not know where it comes from or where it
goes. So it is with everyone begotten of the Spirit"? Different ongoing
statements of Jesus will puzzle different readers/hearers, but sooner or
later all must be puzzled; for by his very nature the stranger from above
cannot be fully understood by anyone from a world that is not his own. In
John 16:29-32 the disciples at the Supper make the final mistake of
thinking that at last they have grasped him: "There, at last you are
speaking plainly, without figures of speech! Now we k n o w. . . . We believe
that you came forth from God!" But Jesus replies, "So now you believe?
Why, an hour is comingindeed, has already comefor you to be
scattered each on his own, leaving me all alone. Yet I am never alone
because the Father is always with me." Puzzlement is the way in which the
readers/hearers are brought to recognize, however incompletely, who this
Jesus is whom they have been brought to encounter through the Gospel
drama; and they will always find one who is fully at home only with his
Father.
Preachers must not block the Evangelist from challenging and puzzling
the "you" whom he has addressed. If they turn the scenes and dialogues
into explained lessons, they interfere with his goal of bringing people to
believe in Jesus and to have life in his name. In preaching, when I reach
lines I consider puzzling, I help the hearers to be puzzled. (Since I wrote a
long commentary on John, I am vain enough to protect myself: "I don' t
fully understand this, but I don' t think anyone else does either.") In
preaching on Lazarus, I may lay out the seemingly contrary views repre-
sented by "I am the resurrection" and "I am the life," but then I shall
wonder aloud whether that contrariety does not probe the form of life we
hope for. Martha' s expression of faith in Jesus as Messiah, Son of God
(11:27), seems technically perfect; in another Gospel it won Peter the keys
of the kingdom. Why then does Jesus rebuke her in 11:40: "Didn' t I tell
you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" Why does Jesus
shudder with violent emotions, seemingly in anger, when he sees Mary
weeping (11:33)? Challenging churchgoers with these puzzles may cause
some (including the preacher) who have long since thought they under-
stood Jesus and eternal life to recognize that words similar to those spoken
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to the Samaritan woman are still valid for them (4:10): "If only you
recognized . . . who it is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him
instead, and he would have given you living water."
##*
My task was to elucidate for preachers the Johanni ne thought world. Let
me close with three exhortations that stem from many years of attempting
to remain faithful to the one whom I regard as the most adventuresome
writer in the New Testament.
(1) Do not be afraid to use ingenuity in rendering this dramatic Gospel
dramatically. For instance, do not hesitate to stage stories like the Samari-
tan woman, the blind man, and Lazarus, assigning roles and having them
played by parishioners. The way in which the Evangelist writes makes that
easy; he even supplies stage directions (4:28, 31). By enrolling people on a
Johanni ne stage, you are facilitating the Evangelist's efforts to get his
readers/hearers involved. The sermon usually follows the Gospel reading.
In preaching on a Johanni ne story, why not give the sermon first, pointing
out what the Evangelist is "up to." Then when you read the Gospel after
the sermon, people will pay more attention to it (in part to see if you have
told the truth); and you will have allowed the Gospel writer to be an
evangelist, as he clearly desires. In many scenes this Gospel preaches itself
if you permit.
(2) Do not domesticate the Johanni ne Jesus. It is his style to say things
that border on the offensive. I know a distinguished cleric who loved the
first half of 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life," but refused to
read the second half, "No one comes to the Father except through me."
Similarly some who are consoled by the first line of 17:1, where Jesus prays
for his disciples, are angered by the second line: "I do not pray for the
world." I know full well the awkwardness of a Jesus who speaks as if he
were not a Jew (15:25): "This is to fulfill the text in their Law, ' They hated
me without cause.' " By all means wrestle with such verses; ask yourself and
your hearers what Jesus can possibly mean by such words; be puzzled and
even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not
have said and what your hearers should not hear.
(3) Do not be too sophisticated or abstract in preaching the Jesus of
John. For the Evangelist, Jesus is not the founder of Christianity who lived
"way back then." He is alive and well, giving life to every branch on the
vine, calling his sheep by name and expecting them to recognize his voice.
He knows those who believe in him and he loves them; and he expects love
in return, not faith alone. The sophisticated preacher who has written off
"Jesus loves me" as appropriate to another style of Christianity is not going
to do justice to John. The last chapter of this Gospel (21:15-17) offers its
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own qualifying exam for pastoral ministry. To a man who by the end of the
first century was being revered as the model pastor able to teach other
pastors how to act (I Peter 5:14), the Johanni ne Jesus repeats thrice a
question that must be answered before that man will be allowed to care for
Jesus' sheep. The Evangelist would probably insist that the same test be
passed by those who would preach this Gospel to Jesus' flock.
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