John 19

The duplicity of the Jewish authorities is on display in this chapter. Their motivation for crucifixion is that he has “made himself God’s son.” When Pilate is adamant that there is nothing against him in terms of Roman law, the crowd makes explicit his political bind by resorting to a different accusation: he claims to be a king. This is a reciprocal situation, though, and Pilate can then ask, “You want me to crucify your king?” Their response is the terrible summation of the truth about these accusers throughout the story: “We have no king but the emperor.” For all John’s high christology, there is still a very Messianic sense to Jesus’ role. He is king, or someone else is. We must choose between Jesus and empire.

At the same time, the question that highlights the essence of John’s Gospel is found on Pilate’s lips: “Where are you from?” This is an interesting contrast from the Markan christology that drives at the question “Who are you?” and seeks to redefine the Messiah in terms of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation. For John, to see the real sense of this one who sets himself against the emperor, it is necessary to capture the revelation of the Word dwelling among us, the sent one, the one from above. And, of course, John’s distinct chronology highlights the emphatic point that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation (19:14, 31, 42; i.e., when the lambs were slaughtered for Passover), as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).

John 18

This is not Jesus meek and mild. The YHWH theme continues as Jesus comes to meet his betrayer’s entourage, asks who they seek, and volunteers himself with two words that, quite impressively, knock them to the ground. I AM. Revelation is getting rawer now.

The narrative seems to be spiraling into a rapid climax. Two fulfillments give the various intertwining scenes a momentous tenor (18:9, 32). Previous fulfillments were of scripture (12:38; 13:18; 15:25), as will be future ones (19:24, 28). Here, however, it is Jesus’ “word” that is fulfilled. A telling parallel. Moreover, Peter’s denial suggests a third fulfillment of Jesus’s word amid the other two.

John once again gives us an alternate vantage point for the story, filling in the meeting with Annas (the real Jewish political authority in town) as well as pieces of the discussion with Pilate that, as usual, make more explicit some of the implicit aspects of the Synoptics. Specifically, the accusation before the Roman official, if it is to stick, must be one of treason: he is a pretender to the throne. Thus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” While the answer is yes, John makes it clear that Jesus’ conception of the kingdom was non-threatening enough to Pilate to merit the ruling, “I find no case against him.” Jesus spells out why: his followers do not raise arms for his kingdom. As far as Pilate is concerned, that makes Jesus politically irrelevant and therefore innocent of offense against Rome’s sovereignty. A classic mistake.

To be slightly poetical, for Jesus, the real weapon is truth, something without a hilt to grasp, much to Pilate’s frustration. But the particular quality of this kingdom does not make it irrelevant, especially for those seeking liberation, for as Jesus has already stated, it is the truth that will make them free. “For this I was begotten and for this I have come into the world: that I might bear witness to the truth” (18:37). Revelation is salvation; truth is freedom.

John 17

A number of themes converge in Jesus’ prayer. Among them, five key ideas that have guided us throughout John now come together with a special intensity. They are glory, life, sending, word, and name. We might say that these are issues at the heart of Jesus’ view of what God is about. All of them are linked in one way or another with John’s essential idea of revelation as salvation.

Glory

. . . glorify your son, that the son may glorify you (17.1)

I glorified you on earth, having finished the work that you have given me to do; and now glorify me, Father, in your very presence with the glory I had with you before the existence of the world (17.4-5).

All mine are yours, and yours mine, and I have been glorified in them (17.10).

The strange glory of Jesus life and death, as well as the glory received through the followers who accept him, is of a piece with the eternal glory that corresponds to his being. This is the most unexpected revelation.

Eternal Life and Sending

And this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent (17.3).

Eternal life is that God is made known in the one he sent. Whatever other definition of eternal life we would prefer, this one must take precedence.

Word and Sending

For the words that you gave me I have given to them, and they received and truly knew that I came from you, and believed that you sent me (17.8).

I have given them your word, and the world hated them, because they are not of the the world, just as I am not of the world (17.14).

Make them holy by the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I also sent them into the world (17.17-18).

The message reveals that Jesus is the sent one. The message makes followers to be like Jesus. Like Jesus, followers sent ones.

Name

I revealed your name to the people you gave me from the world (17.6).

And I am no longer in the world, and they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, guard them in your name, which you have given to me, so that they may be one just as we are. For while I was with them I was guarding them in your name, which you have given me . . . (17.11-12).

The name revealed to be Jesus and the follower’s relation to the world are deeply connected.

Our Connection to All of It Together

And is it not on behalf of these alone that I ask, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, so that all might be one just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, so that they also might be in us, so that the world might believe that you sent me. And I have given to them the glory that you have given me, so that they might be one just as we are one; I in them and you in me, so that they might be made completely one, so that the world might know that you sent me and you love them just as you loved me. Father, I desire that where I am those also whom you have given me should be with me, that they might see my glory, which you have given to me because you loved me from the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world did not know you, but I knew you, and these came to know that you sent me. And I made known and will make known your name, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them (17.20-26).

John 15:18–16:33

Jesus’s words have a meandering quality at first glance. Though it seems we have now, starting with 15:18, left the fruitfulness discussion, there is a direct line running from 15:11 and 15:16 to 16:24. The disciples fruitful prayer and their abundant joy (a fruit of the Spirit according to Paul, to stretch the exegesis a bit), are still at issue as Jesus takes up the topic of the disciples’ coming hardship.

From 15:18 (“if the world hates you”) to 16:33 (“you will have tribulation”), that hardship is the point, which helps us put all the other bits in perspective. It is with good reason that the Spirit is called Advocate, Helper, or Comforter in this passage. His ministry is variously described: to testify (15:26); to convict (16:8–11), to guide into truth (16:13), and to glorify Jesus (16:14). But this all hangs tightly together around the logic of his advocate-comforter function. The disciples’ hardship will be on account of Jesus’s name (15:21), that is, on account of their testimony about him (15:27). If they keep their mouths shut, there won’t be a problem. If they don’t, the Spirit will be with them.

This testimony is actually an echo of, or better yet, symphonic with the Spirit’s testimony (15:26). This seems to be the first statement of an idea that will come to full expression in chapter 17. Jesus is the one sent by the Father (15:21; 16:5) and the Spirit is the one sent by Jesus (15:26; 16:7). Yet, in the same way, the disciples are sent to testify. In fact, if the Spirit’s testimony is that which convicts the world, guides the disciples, and glorifies Jesus—and I believe it is—then the disciples’ testimony may serve the same purposes! Their witness will convict the world, guide other disciples, and glorify Jesus, though always in symphony with the work of the Spirit. The “and you also” of 15:27 is just as significant as the “just as . . . I also” of 17:18 (and 20:21), which has been tremendously important in the last sixty years among theologians of mission.

As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends the Spirit and the disciples. The disciples will receive all that the Spirit possesses, which he received from Jesus, and which Jesus received from the Father (16:13-14). The world did not know the Father, so they hated Jesus; as they hated Jesus and did not know him, so they will hate the disciples. You can see the sense of it. There is deep relatedness, which will be expressed even more completely in chapter 17. That relatedness is the essence of the joy (16:24) and peace (16:33) that Jesus promises in the midst of their persecution and the sorrow of his absence. It is actually to the disciples’ benefit that he leave them, because it is better that the Spirit should be with them. The Spirit is who will accompany them in their witness and complete the relational dynamic that Jesus envisions for them.

Lastly, returning to the line running through 15 and 16, there are various statements about why Jesus is telling them “these things.”

15:11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

16:4 I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

16:33 I have said these things to you so that in me you may have peace.

Of course, we must decide the antecedent of “these things” in each case, but I find it likely that the cadence of the phrasing brings all three of them into synonymy regarding everything that he has said about their fruit, their witness, their prayer, their sorrow, and their tribulation. Joy, remembrance, and peace are the sustenance of the disciples’ prayerful, fruitful testimony in symphony with the Spirit amid sorrow and hardship.

John 15:1–17

These seventeen verses are for me some of the hardest in John. They circle back on themselves and defy every attempt to make them linear in meaning. We have here the final “I am” saying of John, repeated twice: “I am the true vine” and “I am the vine” (vv. 1, 5). The metaphor constitutes one of the most organic, relational images imaginable, a claim deepened by the total reciprocity of what Jesus claims in these statements.

The controlling concern is fruit (vv. 3, 4, 5, 8, 16). The means to fruitfulness is mutual abiding or remaining. We abide in Jesus (vv. 4, 5, 6, 7). He abides in us (vv. 4, 5). His words abide in us (v. 7). We abide in his love (vv. 9, 10).

Some branches abide but still bear no fruit; these God prunes to bear fruit (v. 2). Some branches do not abide, leaving no potential for fruit; they are removed (v. 6). God is not messing around; he wants fruit. Fruit glorifies him (and makes us true disciples) (v. 8).

If I am right to read fruit as the controlling “so that” of the passage, some other “so that” phrases may clarify what fruit is (at least in part). So that we may receive what we ask (vv. 7, 16). So that we may be full of complete joy (v. 11). So that we may love one another (v. 17). What we ask for, our joy, and our love for one another are all bound up together with the glory of God and our status as true disciples.

The special emphasis should fall upon the repeated command to love one another (vv. 12, 17; cf. 13:34–35). This may be the primary referent of the “message” (logos) that has already pruned them (v. 3), the “words” (rhēma) that abide in them (v. 7), and the “commandments” (entolē) they must keep in order to abide in his love (v. 10). It is the message, the words, and the commands are the pruning shears. The fruit is love. Love is sacrificial death.

It is Jesus’s choice to “make known everything” for the purpose of fruitfulness (vv. 15-16) that constitutes them as his friends. They cannot simply “be friends” with Jesus. They must receive his death in order to receive his friendship and, in so receiving, take on the charge to do “as he did.” They are his friends, because they too will lay down their lives for love; they will lay down their lives for love, because they are his friends. They bear fruit.

Ready to be friends with Jesus?

John 14

Aside from pure busyness, I’ve been very hesitant to approach John 14 for a couple of reasons. It is one of the most personally moving pieces of Scripture for me, and I feel reticent about not doing it justice. I guess I should feel that way about the whole canon, but then I’d never post anything. Also, it is one of those Trinity passages, and I still just don’t know how to talk about that. I don’t feel bad on that count, since it took the church a few hundred years to get “settled” on the issue and even then couldn’t do much to explain it. Anyway, it’s a daunting subject. Nonetheless, in an important way, that very point makes these last words with the Apostles so special to me.

Recent experiences created fresh eyes for me as I reread ch. 14. I’ve been participating in a blog that I can’t link to, because it’s closed to the public in order to foster freedom from political repercussions and thus more openness among participants. There is quite a bit of skepticism and critical thinking going on there, and it’s healthy and challenging for me—the “conservative” voice. Dealing with difficult issues, though, requires a continual recourse to Jesus himself, to ask of him what to do and what to think. I don’t mind saying that there is a degree of worry and frustration that comes with thinking critically about reality. I believe Jesus experienced/experiences the same. John 14 has a beautiful bookend (14:1; 14:27): “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That is the intended effect of these words. Do you find consolation here? Is there comfort for your troubled heart? There should be, I believe, if we truly hear Jesus in this chapter.

In order to get at the real essence of the chapter as I see it, I want to consider the skandalon of Christianity again. It is amazing to consider that the early church made such a relatively huge deal of a bunch of OT texts to do with the word “stone.” Paul interposes Isa 28 with Isa 8, and Peter also puts the two together, adding Ps 118. Cf. Luke 20:17-18 (and pars.) where Jesus puts Ps 118 together with a form of Isa 8.

Rom 9:32 Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written, See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

1 Pet 2:6 For it stands in scripture: See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner, 8 and A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

Isa 28:16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: One who trusts will not panic.

Ps 118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Isa 8:14 He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

This identification of Jesus as the stone of stumbling was apparently very early and very widely accepted as essential for explaining Jesus. For those who believe, he is the foundation and the capstone. For those who do not, he is a cause for stumbling into destruction. The fact that he was a giant, “scandalous” problem for so many who heard the story became part of the story. To Jews blasphemy; to Greeks absurdity.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin made popular the phrase “the scandal of particularity” in discussions of modern and postmodern evangelism. His is a very enlightening contribution. I’ve come to think, though, that the real problem now, as always, is the scandal of exclusivity. “Exclusivism” has become a derisive word in postmodern discourse, on par with “pedophilia.” But the skandalon was never simply that God was to be found in this dead backwoods carpenter/upstart rabbi; it was always that God was to be found only in him. There are only two options: find God in this stone or be destroyed by it. There are certainly non-exclusivist interpretations of John 14:6, but I personally don’t think there is much disputing its original sense. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The other way that this is stated in the chapter is that those who believe, love, and obey will receive the Spirit, “whom the world cannot receive.” Given the theology of the Spirit in the NT (not least the present chapter), not receiving it is extremely problematic for universalism.

Anyway, all that to say, I think exclusivism is a natural implication of this text. Yet, the way we talk about this fact and the way we frame it theologically is of just as much importance as the point itself. Jesus is scandal enough. The statement from the 1989 ecumenical world mission conference sums up my view: “We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits on the saving power of God.” That said, I think focusing on the exclusivist implication of the chapter obscures the perspective from which we should hear Jesus’s words. These are words that bring comfort and peace. But we must place ourselves in the pathos of the twelve. Do not read blithely over their words. Hear their anguish, and you will see that Jesus is not chastising them, he is comforting them. Thomas cries in dismay: Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Philip pleads: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied! Judas asks in disorientation: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus, we don’t understand what is going on here! It’s utterly confusing. Show us God, because for God’s sake we’re not finding him anywhere else!

As it has been for all of John, revelation is salvation. At issue here is not forgiveness of sin and escape from punishment, however badly we may need that. Rather, salvation here is at last to know God, to see God, to be with him, and to receive the peace that presence gives. And of course the implication is still that you can find God only in Jesus, but it is much more important to see that you can actually find God in Jesus. In this light, the argument over universalism is almost nonsensical, because the fact is that we don’t find him anywhere else. Nothing compares, however mystical and sublime. “If you know me, you will know my Father also, and from now on you do know him and have seen him.” And my heart cries out in such indescribable relief and worship. But that is not all. The Spirit is the continuation of revelation, the ongoing presence and intimate relationship: “we will come to them and make our home with them.” This is an experience, to be lived, without which there is no peace. This is salvation.

Review of The Body Broken

Reese, Jack R. The Body Broken: Embracing the Preaching of Christ in a Fragmented Church. Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2005.

“My thesis is simple: Christians ought to be able to talk to one another,” writes the author (3).  Jack Reese is the Dean of the ACU Graduate School of Theology.  Contrary to the expectation that his title might engender, this is a pastoral book, not an academic one.  Reese is clear about this in the introduction and says, in fact, that his intention is “to write as I talk, or at least as I preach” (4).  Though it may pain homileticians to say so, it is true that in the US, at least, style counts as much as content, if not much more.  As an introductory remark to this review, that statement requires two clarifications.  Style may, in some sense, count for just as much in academic writing, though it seems true that academic works must be judged by their content, whereas sermons often are not.  The difference appears to lie in the author’s intent, which gets to the heart of my comments below.  Secondly, to start this way is not to say that the present work lacks content.  Rather, it is to say that Reese seems to have given equal or greater importance to the presentation of his thoughts, even if the content of his work is significant.  The purpose in making this observation is to introduce my basic assessment of the book: its primary contribution may be found not in what it says but in what it teaches us about how to say what must be said.

Reese effectively begins by describing five specific stylistic goals: (1) tender language; (2) a confessional posture; (3) a playful tone; (4) candid speech; and (5) balance (5-6).  These seem to embody the communication he envisions for the church.  Chapter one employs two wise moves.  After briefly laying out the context from which he writes, he highlights four factors that are “not the causes” of division but rather that make dialogue difficult.  By considering these meta-factors of discord, he quickly opens the reader to the complexity of church conflict.  It is not as simple as two mutually exclusive doctrinal opinions.  Two, writing from a university associated with the “liberal” side of Churches of Christ, Reese is also wise to preface the rest of the book with his very positive childhood experience of “conservative” church.  His candid lack of resentment or disappointment is equally as disarming for conservatives grown weary of facile caricatures of “legalism” and “sectarianism” as for “liberals” expecting empathy with their own past experiences.  Balance indeed.  Chapter two also makes two basic moves.  Reese considers first the cultural shifts that form the context of the discussion, which allows him to claim that “What is most distressing is how we are responding to the current unrest, at a level of maturity that, in many cases, does not reflect grown-up faith” (35).  Then, he lists four reasons that young people are leaving the Churches of Christ.  The fourth he describes as “one that prompts the writing of this book,” listing a variety of mean-spirited, childish, and divisive attitudes and behaviors.  “A generation is growing up,” he asserts, “that doesn’t believe this is what church should be about” (45).

Chapters three through six form the substance of Reese’s corrective.  Each chapter begins by discussing a dynamic (“tyranny of the proximate,” dividing walls, perceptions of baptism, table fellowship) and then transitions to a Pauline text (Phillipians, Ephesians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians respectively) in order to connect the introductory point with Scripture.  Adopting baptism and the supper as points of departure strikes me as particularly wise and legitimate contextualization.  Chapter seven concludes the book’s argument by critiquing a posture of fear and offering three alternative “attitudes and commitments”—an apt summary of the book’s concern.  The section on fear yields one of the most quotable quotes I’ve read in a while: “While perfect love casts out fear, fear unrestrained by love casts out people” (160).  Lastly, Reese includes a prologue that offers another anecdote and a lamentably redundant call to be accountable for the present.  A study guide by Jeanene Reese and Gary Holloway is appended.

Personal stories and anecdotes constitute much of the body text.  Though there is a good deal of biblical reference as well, paraphrasing is the primary means of communicating various passages’ relevance to Reese’s argument.  This is one of the most bothersome aspects of the book, for the assumption seems to be that merely repeating a text “in other words” leaps the theological gap between the biblical context and our own.  Furthermore, as paraphrasing so often encourages, Reese takes a good deal of liberty in order to make texts especially relevant.  He claims to have done his spadework (4), and there is no reason to doubt that he has.  There are even some instances of exegetical backgrounds deftly presented for a general audience (e.g. the discussion of the Claudian edict, 109-10; or the symposium meal, 142-43).  Yet, application of Scripture seems forced at times, awkwardly hitched to the earthy truth of this anecdote or that at others.  Of course, this is to be expected when four entire books of the NT are presented as pertinent to Reese’s single, tradition-specific, admittedly simple thesis.  Another feature I disliked was the sustained reference to race issues.  In part, it was necessary and appropriate to consider both the role and dynamic of racial division.  At times, though, I felt as though I was reading a preacher’s ploy to gain emotional traction.  That is not wrong, per se, but it is irritating for my taste and arguably distracting.

Returning to my basic assessment, all of the storytelling and paraphrasing that makes up The Body Broken amounts to a single, sustained argument that Christians should be nice to each other (which I believe more elementally describes Reese’s argument than “ought to be able to talk” does).  To put it that way may seem trite, but that is truly what the book effected for me.  We might pick other words—sweet-spirited, gracious, forgiving, generous—but “nice” strikes me as adequate.  And the reality of our situation is that neither elaborate conflict-management strategies nor profound theological exposition can compensate for the baseline niceness deficiency that plagues Churches of Christ.  Reese states clearly, “I have not set out to write a systematic or comprehensive theology of unity,” (4) and “I have been determined not to offer simple steps for becoming peacemakers” (161).  Well into the book, I was doubtful of the need for an extended, published plea to be nice.  By the end, however, I was convinced that the best parts of Reese’s book serve as a necessary preface to the comprehensive work he did not write.  While it may gloss the legitimate hard-nosed style to which Paul himself resorted at times, there is much greater need in our context to advocate the Spirit’s fruit (peace, patience, kindness . . . niceness), which is prerequisite to whatever path we may take to unity.  Congregations will gain much by reading The Body Broken and working through the study guide, especially if they pay attention to how Reese himself communicates.

What’s In A Name?

Perhaps one of the most elemental contradictions that the Restoration Movement produced was the way that concern about denominationalism turned into a petty contentiousness about names.  The issue was not, as I understand it, initially about names.  Alexander Campbell himself would frequently reel off a list of names and labels, proclaiming loudly that he cared not what a Christian was called, so long as he would unite on the common ground of a literal and logical reading of Scripture.  That plea, with Scripture at its foundation, naturally pushed its subscribers toward the use of names found only in the NT.  The name of the Church therefore became one of the many forms that the RM attempted to restore, once the historical turn toward patternism was fully effected.

Names are among the most immediate issues between any two groups, so the Church of Christ of my youth often led with the quite insubstantial argument that a given church was clearly not a biblical church on the grounds that they didn’t use a biblical name.  That accusation was implicitly double-edged for insiders.  It claimed, on one hand, that such a church was condemnable because it did not subscribe to the patternism that constituted the truly “biblical,” and it claimed, on the other, that such a church was engaged in the blasphemous rebellion of denominationalism, that is, name-ism.  Denominationalism shifted conceptually, then, from the “party spirit” decried by the earliest RM leaders to mean simply the use of a scripturally unapproved name; from substance to patternism.

With the passage of time, denominational names came to denote particular (if generalized) sets of doctrinal positions.  Thus, in regular usage, the accusation of denominationalism became shorthand for doctrinal error in general.  “That church is a denomination” communicated “That church is unbiblical by any number of doctrinal standards” simply by virtue of being a particular group that is not us.

The fact that “denomination” in common American English meant something very similar to “a particular church group” meant that RM churches had an increasingly difficult time maintaining that they were not a denomination.  Sociologically and, more simply, semantically, they were.  The claim that they were not continued to signify that they intended to be a NT pattern church over against a denomination, but only to insiders (ironically confirming the sociological particularity of the group).

This side of a decades-long scholarly and grassroots critique of the RM’s rather myopic claims, it is less and less common to hear anti-denominational language in Churches of Christ (I can’t speak for other groups).  Yet, the issue of self-definition is still with us, as we are no less awash in a great many sets of particular doctrinal positions.  In a world where an array of very distinct options presents itself—everything from Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness to Catholics to Methodists and Presbyterians to Evangelicals and Baptists to Charismatics and Pentecostals—we must still answer the question, “Who are you?”

I believe the best starting point is to return to the firm conviction that names are irrelevant.  At the same time, we can never ignore that, linguistically, a name continues to function as a symbol that broadly and quickly designates the identity of a group.  I believe we are now, as much as ever, at a time when Christians must be very intentional about communicating their identity in terms of Jesus.  Neither apathy toward the message that identity in any other terms sends nor fixation on the issue of “denominationalism” will do, because both distract us from the points of our identity that are most important.  Neo-restoration includes a plea to find historical party names to be inconsequential just as much as did the early Restorationists.  There is a vital difference, though.  Where the RM called Christians to stand on the common ground of a particular hermeneutic, NR calls calls us to the common ground that is discipleship to Jesus.  I say “discipleship to Jesus” rather than just “Jesus,” because while we need Jesus as the center of our unity, objectifying him and pretending that at last he is what we all agree upon is the kind of reductionism that deposits us right back where we started.  It is the journey, the road, the way that we share in its variation, a dynamic common struggle to follow behind him, understand him, and imitate him.  This must always bring us back to the biblical text, as the story that gives us access to Jesus.

In the context of my own mission work, it has become more and more evident that the only answer to the identity question that does justice to our mission and our God is to say that we’re simply followers of Jesus.  The purpose is not to obscure our own tradition or baggage or social particularity.  Indeed, since names work the way they do, that response usually produces a clarification of the question: “Yes, but what is the name of your church; what group are you with?”  This is the reality of post-Christendom.  The first answer is no less true for the need of clarification, yet there is a need, so how should we respond?  That depends on the question we’re actually trying to answer.  Sociologically, we are missionaries of the Churches of Christ (of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement).  Those who know that name can identify the niche and move on with the conversation.  For those who do not, the name still means little.  I usually answer, “La Iglesia de Cristo” (The Church of Christ).  We are totally unknown here, and most people are trying to determine who we’re not and then establish a general niche for who we are.  So, to meet those communicative demands, the conversation usually goes:  “Are you Mormons?”  “No.”  “Jehovah’s Witnesses?”  “No, we’re kind of like evangelicals.”   “Oh, okay.”  Why answer that way?  Because those are the categories they’re working with, and it satisfies the need.  But what if that’s not the question we want to answer?  What if challenging that question’s assumptions is important enough to bother complicating the conversation?  I believe that it is, so my answer goes something like this: “We’re known as the Church of Christ, but names aren’t really very important.  We’re just trying to be followers of Jesus.”  I answer this way because I’m a restorationist, and I think restorationism should be about calling all Christians to understand themselves in terms of following him far before anything else.  Launching into an explanation of why our name is important or defensible because it’s found in Scripture or because it expresses “who the Church belongs to” or because we’re “not a denomination” or anything else whatsoever miscommunicates what really defines us.

There are no few aspects of the Churches of Christ that lend themselves to this disposition, because the earliest versions of the restoration plea were far closer to a call to Christ-centeredness.  The emphases that subsequently emerged were in many ways a corruption of that plea that left forms without substance, as I discussed briefly above, with the upshot that the forms can still be very practical.  For example, the facts that we have no grand denominational structure; that we regard creeds, canons, statutes, or any kind of organizing document with suspicion; and that we use the most generic name imaginable all lend themselves to the attempt to define ourselves in terms of something else, something basic: the way of Jesus.  Those rather helpful forms can never constitute neo-restoration, however, because its substance is a call to discipleship, not a call to reject things that can convolute our identity.  The rejection of such things is merely incidental to neo-restoration’s proper plea and not to be confused for an essential.

John 13

Thirteen is a chapter famous for the unique version of “the supper” and Jesus’s paradigmatic act of service. Once again, John gives us a different version of a Synoptic teaching. Where Mark would say “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” John gives us an otherwise unknown scene with a rather explicit point:

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (13:14-16).

But it’s even more emphatic. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (13:3)—knowing he was all of that—acted the lowly servant. It doesn’t get more obvious! That’s the power of the moment. There is no arguing with this. There is no one more important, authoritative, powerful, entitled, or deserving of servitude. So who of us is exempt from service? Who could possibly read blithely over this story and not feel bound to humility? Perhaps it is difficult to be like Jesus, but there should be no uncertainty about how we should be.

One of the most well known quotes in the NT follows and, we may be sure, takes its meaning from the the example of service. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:34–35). Of course, one might argue that the way he had loved (and would love) them must include much more than washing their dirty feet. Fine. But it is easy to see that even with the foot washing framing the “new command,” we are very prone to excise it and “love one another” on our own terms and our own time, without recognizing that Jesus’s kind of love must express itself in terms of service and humility. Have you ever considered that loving from a position of power and wealth may not fulfill Jesus’ commandment?

John 12

Jesus’s interpretation of Mary’s anointing dramatically sets the stage for the subsequent chapters. Now six days before the passover, death looms large. The extravagance of the gift surely has its basis in the resurrection of Lazarus, as an expression of gratitude for the life of a loved one. Just as Jesus saw the act as more than was intended, we may also note that expense was worthy of royalty and so quite fitting.

The importance of Lazarus’s resurrection as a “sign” was apparent in ch. 11, but now we see that the walking, talking Lazarus is a spectacle that continues to generate faith in Jesus. “So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jew were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (12:10-11). Then after the so-called triumphal entry, John notes, “So the crowed that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowed went to meet him” (12:17-18). The situation looks grim for the Pharisees, who, in a moment of despair, say, “Look, the world has gone after him” (12:19)!

Again, there is a kind of accidental foreshadowing in the word choice. The following verses point toward the future world-wide implications of Jesus, as John informs us that some Greek believers were present and looking for Jesus. Jesus’s peculiar answer to being told this only heightens the sense that coming to this moment, with gentiles seeking him out, is in some way a culmination of his purpose. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). Jesus quickly gives the followers another teaching on the cost of discipleship, as we have come to call it. These words are very reminiscent of the more well-known discourse on taking up one’s cross, with the added flavor of the agricultural metaphor Jesus so often employs.

The glorification language is important for the rest of the chapter. The inner conflict that Jesus shares is one of the most moving moments in the Gospels, parallel to the Gethsemane scene. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I sayFather, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12:27-28a). The resonance with the concern for the glory of God’s name throughout the OT rounds out the “not my will but yours” idea found in the Synoptics with a very biblical notion of God’s will. God’s response, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again,” is explained to have been for the benefit of the listeners (12:30). Those who heard it, and we who read it, may take comfort in God’s faithfulness to his purpose, which is stated in shorthand as “the glory of his name.”

12:32 is one of my favorite quotations of Jesus, for both its evocative poetic beauty and its promise. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John explains that this referred to the kind of death he would die. In the midst of so much glorification language, I tend to read the statement as a double entendre, for both his death and his glorification are the essence of the message that draws people to him.

In the face of such a bold claim, the irony of the crowd’s response is obvious. More questions (12:34), the insinuation of blindness (12:35), lack of belief (12:37), prophetic condemnation (12:40), and belief overwhelmed by fear (12:42) all overshadow the “triumphal entry.” The chapter ends with Jesus “crying out” rather than just speaking, suggesting strong emotion. Once more, he proclaims the continuity between himself and “the one who sent” him, with the primary implication being the condemnation of those who do not listen to him.