Characters in John

John’s gospel gains much of its depth and power through the interactions that Jesus has with people.

In the Synoptic gospels we find that verbal exchanges are often fairly brief. People raise a problem, Jesus responds, and the story moves on to a new episode. But in John’s gospel there are often sustained encounters between Jesus and one or more people. Sometimes–as during the Lenten season–the episodes take an entire chapter. This can be a problem for preaching if the entire lesson is read (which takes time during the service), and then the preacher has to select a couple of points to comment on.

There are two good ways to vary the usual pattern of reading and then preaching. One good way is to use just a couple verses as the official “gospel” reading, then include additional readings from the chapter during the sermon. Reading is a form of proclamation, and weaving much of the text into the sermon allows it to function as proclamation. The second option is to present the gospel as mini-drama that is read by a small cast of readers. If this is done well, it can help make the reading much livelier and set the tone for the sermon. Sample scripts for John 4 and John 9 can be found at under NT3211, The Gospel and Epistles of John.

Turn the lengthy exchanges between Jesus and another person into a strength of the sermon. Tracing character development helps show how Jesus actually engages with people and makes a difference for them. Ask where a character is at the beginning of the encounter. How does the person see Jesus? Then ask where the person is at the end of the encounter. Has anything changed in their perception? If so, what was it? If nothing changed, why not? As you tell the story of the encounter in your sermon, accent the moments of change.

Let the peculiar aspects of the encounters be peculiar. There are often points where Jesus says something that is misunderstood by the person he is speaking with. This is by design. Jesus often says something ambiguous that forces the person to reveal something about his or her own perspective. This draws the person out so that we can see something about the person’s character. For example, the expression “born anew” in John 3:3 is odd. Don’t assume that Jesus is using something simple and familiar for Nicodemus. Jesus is saying something very odd. But when Jesus says this, Nicodemus must respond. And as he responds, he reveals the limits of his own understanding. We as readers or listeners come to know more about who Nicodemus is.

Recognize that there are unresolved tensions in the stories. In his the encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus seems to be completely baffled. Eventually he ceases speaking and fades off into the shadows. A natural tendency is to look ahead to later parts of the gospel, where Nicodemus shows up at the cross to claim the body of Jesus for burial. But in John 3 we can’t see that far. Similarly, the Samaritan woman’s final comment is actually a question that expects a negative answer: Jesus “cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29). In both passages we are left with tensions that are unresolved. Even in Jesus’ encounter with Martha after Lazarus’s death, things seem to be more resolved than they are. She confesses her faith–but then tells Jesus that opening up the tomb is a bad idea (11:27, 39). The unresolved points in the story invite the reader (or the listener) into the action. Faith comes despite unfaith. Knowing comes despite not knowing.

Make use of the different points of view in the story. The best example is the story of the man born blind. The action begins with a healing: Jesus enables the man born blind to see. Then the gospel allows us to hear several different points of view as to what this might mean. The neighbors are simply puzzled. The Pharisees are initially divided, but later come to a negative judgment since Jesus had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. The man born blind sees the action positively, but he must make the case for Jesus over alternative interpretations. Following the tug-and-pull of the narrative adds energy and clarity to the sermon’s witness.

Note that the main characters in the story often say several things that are true, even though they are different. The Samaritan woman first identifies Jesus as a Jewish man, which is true (4:9). Then she calls him a prophet, which is also true, at least to some extent (4:19). Later she wonders whether he might be the Messiah, and her townspeople finally call Jesus the Savior of the world (4:29, 42). Everything that has been said is true. Jesus is a Jewish man and he is the Savior of the world. A similar progression occurs in the story of the man born blind (9:11, 17, 33, 35-37). The point is not that one must reject the earlier insights. Rather, the gospel builds from one insight to the next, so that we can see a number of dimensions of who Jesus is.

This is the first in a series of three articles about Preaching the Gospel of John. Subsequent articles will be posted on Feb. 11 and Feb. 18.