That we are only at the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide and are already out of traditional resurrection stories from John’s gospel reflects either poor planning on the lectionary organizers’ part, or simply a lack of post-Easter narratives. Or perhaps it suggests that the pre-Easter passages assigned for this week serve as reminders that signs of resurrection are found in others sources in addition to the empty tomb and sightings of the risen One.
Following John’s Good Shepherd narrative, Jesus walks through the Temple, the national conflation of religious, economic and political power. Specifically He passes through the portico where the king’s judgments were announced, and does so during the holiday commemorating its rededication.
In this symbolic setting comes the challenge from the religious leaders to “tell us plainly” if He is the Messiah– a politically and religiously potent title.
Jesus answers, “I have told you,” though the only record of Him saying anything about Messiah to this point in John is to a woman in Samaria. Instead, Jesus contends that “the works I do in my Father’s name” are the answers to their question. These works– water to wine, feeding the multitude, raising the dead–aren’t simply the razzle-dazzle of impressive displays of power. In John, these miracles are signs more than proof of power. They are the witnesses to a new life being born. (I refrain from adding “from the death of the old,” to avoid supersessionism, but there is, clearly, the raising up of something radically new here.)
“I have told you, but you do not believe.” Why is it that some hear Christ, while others don’t? Why is it that some embrace the transformation of the Christ-way in both its metaphorical and materialistic senses, while others simply do not hear it? It’s not so much that they reject it; it simply doesn’t register with them. It holds no sway.
A familiar answer is the doctrine of election, explained in its baldest, most mechanical form as “some are chosen, others are not.” A god could be this capricious, but not the God revealed in Jesus.
In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haight examines why people hear and respond to the same information in such vastly different ways. His conclusion, based on considerable experiments, surveys and research, is that we do not make decisions based solely on reason (“tell us plainly”). What takes precedence, he says, is a primal intuition which seems to correspond to our cultural setting that, though we aren’t aware of it, determines what we “hear” and what we ignore. This is not merely a “nature versus nurture” argument, but it does suggest that we are affected by our context and acculturation in making our moral and ethical choices more than we are by rational arguments.
Perhaps Jesus’ refusal to engage the religious leaders on their terms (“tell us plainly”) is a loving recognition that there are few converts in the battles for the minds. Apologetics tend to justify our judgments and solidify the sides.
What changes hearts and reshapes the landscape is the sacred, slow work of love.
Each of the “works that I do in my Father’s name (that) testify to me” are signs pointing to this sacred way. They lubricate (if that’s what wine does), they feed, they restore. This way leads hearers to eternal life– life oriented by God-love that transcends the bounds of our usual existence. As Paul would later attest, “Love never fails.”
What if, in response to the Jewish leaders’ demand for a plain answer, we hear Jesus’ tone as empathetic and patient rather than frustrated and curt? What if his observation is heard as invitation rather than challenge? Wouldn’t this be consistent with the One who embodies God’s love, who with confidence makes the claim “the Father and I are one”?
As one who has done more than his share of arguing the moral and political logic of various positions through 30+ years of ministry I must report a failing score on my LCR (Logic Conversion Rate). As a progressive Baptist I’ve tried arguing from my views to affect change on various moral, political, and theological fronts. Though I’m still a fan of logic and the careful use of words, I’ve come to recognize that what changes hearts are “the works I do in my Father’s name.” Love, not logic, never fails.
So too the story of Tabitha in Acts 9. What was eternal was her “good works and acts of charity.” Her body failed. Even her resuscitated body at the gracious hand of Peter eventually died again, and the tunics and other clothing she made for others are lost to history. But we celebrate and impersonate her story because the eternal is seen in her works of love.
The most political theology is incarnational. To affect the politics of our day, the faithful, like Jesus, must embody the sacred love before we can effectively argue our points.
Joe Phelps has been the Pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky since 1997. Highland is a progressive voice of faith for the Louisville area and is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Joe graduated from Southern Seminary (in the old days) and Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Louisville magazine did a story about him last year.