John's gospel includes a number of rather lengthy discourses on different topics.
Some, like the discourse on the Good Shepherd, takes up most of John 10. The Farewell Discourses include all of John 14-17. These discourses differ from the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic gospels, which are often rather brief. Moreover, the Johannine discourses often have enigmatic elements that are difficult to interpret. The progression of thought in the discourses is not always easy to follow--and this in turn compounds the challenge for the preacher.
A place to begin is with the situation presupposed by the discourses that are read during the Lenten season. All of them address a situation in which the followers of Jesus face some kind of threat. The discourses envision a horizon that extends beyond Easter to life in the community of faith after Jesus is no longer visibly present with his followers. This is put most vividly in John 14:18, where Jesus says that he will not leave his disciples as orphans. What the disciples might feel is that they are orphaned or abandoned. But the words Jesus speaks assure them that this is not the case. The same is true of the good shepherd in John 10. Throughout that passage there are thieves and robbers who threaten the flock. Again, Jesus' words give assurance.
The placement of these passages during the Easter season can seem odd. If Easter is supposed to be a time of celebration, the passages from John candidly recognize that life after Easter is not all blissful. The risen Jesus has come to give life, yet death remains. The risen Jesus promises life with God, yet that can seem distant. These passages press for theological depth in preaching. The good news is not that the faithful no longer have issues. Rather, it that the gospel challenges the forces that threaten despair. The gift of life is given despite the presence of death. Relationship with Christ remains real despite the fact that his followers see him no longer.
Since the setting and themes of the discourses overlap, it can be helpful to identify a range of issues that can be addressed throughout the season. For example, the good shepherd discourse has themes of Christian community, the first half of John 14 focuses on hope of life in the Father's house, the last half of John 14 includes the promise of the Spirit, and the reading from John 17 considers what it means to belong to Jesus while living in the world.
The discourses do not necessarily follow a clear and logical progression. Jesus introduces a theme, moves on to another theme and then circles back to pick up an earlier point. For clarity in preaching it can be best to work with a small section of text. For example, the good shepherd passage in John 10 begins with a complex cast of characters. There are thieves and bandits, a shepherd, a gatekeeper, and the gate itself. Not all of these need to be worked into the sermon. Focus can be helpful. Similarly, John 14:1-3 focuses on the Father's house, 14:4-7 deals with Jesus as the way, 14:8-10 considers Jesus' relationship to the Father, and 14:11-14 takes up the theme of Jesus' works and the faith and works of his followers. One section of this complex passage may well be enough for a sermon.
The discourses often include one or more images. These can be developed in ways that make the sermon more vivid. For example, John 10 identifies Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold. A gate is something that can be pictured in words. A gate creates a boundary. Yet it is a permeable boundary. A gate is not a wall. A gate shows that there is a difference between belief and unbelief, between the community of faith and the world outside. Yet the gate also allows for movement. People come into the gathered community and out into the world. This is the rhythm of faith.
Similarly, Jesus speaks of life in his Father's house with its many rooms. That invites reflection on a spacious dwelling place. But then note the twist. There is a shift in emphasis from place to person. After picturing his Father's house, which is presumably in heaven, Jesus says that he comes to bring people to "himself" (14:3). Spatial imagery eventually points to the centrality of relationship.
The prayer in John 17 continually interweaves themes that readily lend themselves to abstraction. Glory, the world, knowing--all of these operate at an elevated conceptual level. Therefore, it can be helpful to use other parts of the gospel to show how what is said here takes compelling form. For example, Jesus says that he has glorified God by "finishing" the work God gave him to do (17:4). This recalls the signs that he performed, which revealed God's glory. It also anticipates his crucifixion. That is where he can say, "It is finished," for there he reveals the glory of divine love (19:30). One might also think about analogies with common practice. Glory is what we find in the winner's circle. It takes shape in medals, trophies, and photo opportunities. How is that similar to or different from the kind of glory that Jesus speaks about?
Finally, we might return to where we started. The discourses in John's gospel address issues of living the life of faith in a context where there are any number of things that threaten faith. These discourses are not academic exercises or armchair ruminations on obscure topics. Each discourse speaks to Christians in this world. The words are spoken to foster relationships with the Christ who is no longer visible in incarnate form, but who continues to claim and call people to faith and life.
This is the final in a series of three articles about Preaching the Gospel of John.