History’s First Courtroom Drama: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

Lawyers have gotten a bad rap ever since wisecracking bad guy Dick the Butcher uttered his famous line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Most of us must admit, however, that we appreciate a good courtroom saga. Did you know the Gospel of John might be histories’ first legal drama?

Writing five or so decades after Jesus, John sought to answer an obvious question: Why should folk place their faith in a religious leader who made astounding self-claims, was executed as an enemy of the state, and whose followers, (with claims Jesus rose from the grave) seemed unhinged? John provides Jesus a gripping defense:

The Prosecution

Jesus had been nabbed by Jewish religious authorities and tried at night for blasphemy (John 10:33). He was then turned over to the governor of the occupying Romans and killed on a different charge (John 18:29-31), insurrection, a charge that allowed the Romans to keep the peace by eliminating Jesus.

The Accused Pleas? Guilty.

John’s Gospel opens with “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten of the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). John opens his book by equating Jesus with God at the creation of the universe. That is a pretty tall claim. In fact, it is such a stunning claim John can’t really have been serious. Surely, we must have misheard him.

Just to make sure we are picking up what Jesus is laying down, John tells us that Jesus made a habit of equating himself with deity by referring to himself using God’s covenant check-signing name, a name given when God told Moses, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). And this isn’t a one-off. Jesus repeats it at least seven times:

  • I am the bread of life. (6:35)
  • I am the light of the world. (8:12)
  • I am the gate for the sheep. (10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd. (10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. (14:6)
  • I am the true vine. (15:1)

For Jews, monotheistic then and now, were so serious about the holiness of God they substitute the generic “God” for “Yahweh” even to this day. Jesus’ “I am” statements were an unmistakable gauntlet thrown. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, playing their own version of C.S. Lewis’ classic, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument, vacillated between questioning Jesus’ sanity (“He has a demon, and is insane…” 10:19), and trying to kill him for blasphemous lies (10:33) before they finally grabbed him in a garden and had him executed.

The Defense 

But what of Jesus’ astounding self-claims? John never tries to shrink from the statements or lesson their blow. Instead he seeks to prove Jesus’ claim of divinity with 7 miraculous signs recorded in escalating levels of difficulty:

  • Changing water into wine (2:1-11) – “the first of the signs.”
  • Healing an official’s sick son remotely (4:46-54)
  • Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)
  • Feeding 5000 (6:5-14)
  • Walking on water (6:16-24)
  • Healing a man blind from birth (9:1-7)
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45)

Jesus makes 7 Claims to be God. John provides 7 Signs to support Jesus’ claim.

The Witness List: A legal showdown occurs in John chapter 5. Again attacked for his claims to be God in human form (5:18), Jesus lays out his witness list to corroborate his identity: Jesus himself (5:31), John the Baptist (5:33), Jesus’ miracles (5:36), God the Father (5:37), and the Old Testament scriptures (5:39). Jesus calls two more witnesses in later chapters: the Holy Spirit (15:26), and his followers (15:27), giving us a witness list numbering…wait for it…seven.

An airtight Case

 Seven is the number of divine completeness: Seven claims to deity. Seven miracles to support his claim. Seven witnesses. Jesus’ case is perfect. John is arguing that the case for the deity of Jesus is airtight.

A Star Witness

3/4 of the times the verb “witness” (the Greek martureo) occurs in the NT it occurs in the Gospel of John (28 of 39 occurrences). In all its’ forms (witness, witnessing, bearing witness), the word “witness” occurs 90 times in the New Testament. Half of them are in John. This legal emphasis in the Gospel of John gives us different perspectives on biblical characters from the other Gospels. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is a good example. In the other Gospels John appears as a preacher of repentance and baptizer of multitudes. In John he is witness for the defense. John 1:6-8 introduces John saying, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.He came as a witness, tobear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”  In the Gospel of John, baptizing is mentioned, but barely. His important role is witness. And not any witness, but a key witness, a star character witness. Appearing more frequently in the Gospel of John than in the other Gospels, John the Baptizer shows up in four places in John (ch. 1, 3, 5, 10), each time specifically labelled a “witness.”

Jesus’ well-born cousin makes a particularly credible witness. A big-city kid from an influential priestly family. While Jesus preached to the ordinary, his cousin garnered audiences with the king. And what does this highly regarded witness say? Look at the first chapter of John:

v20 “I’m not the Messiah.” v21 “I’m not Elijah.” And “I’m not Moses.”

v22 Exasperated the religious leaders ask, “Enough of who you aren’t. Who the heck are you?” John answers with scripture, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘get ready for God!’”

In v26 the religious leaders follow up, “Why then are you baptizing?”  John goes from talking about who he is not, to talking about the one who is, “I am”: “Someone so great, so glorious, is coming that I hesitate even to be his foot-washing servant.”

In v. 29 and 30, John literally points to Jesus: “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about.”  John the Baptist provides our case with unambiguous testimony.

Will the real John the Baptist please stand up?

John the Baptist has a very different emphasis in John’s Gospel. He is not the bug-eater in a hair-suit. Nor the man of influence speaking truth to power. Nor the powerful preacher waist deep in the waters of baptism immersing an adoring public. Nor the prophet whose end gave us the expression, “getting your head served on a platter.” This John is a simple witness.

-Not the light, but bearing witness to the one who enlightens the world.

-Not the promised deliverer, but crying out to the one who is.

-Not the lamb of God, sacrificed for the world, but pointing to one who would be.

John’s job might have been preaching and baptizing. But John’s vocation was witness. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, “Call.” John’s paying gig was one thing, his call was to witness. That makes John a great model for Advent. While the world follows Santa to the mall and bows at the altar of Amazon Prime, the church follows Advent: a time of preparation, of listening, of remembering that what we need isn’t socks or a sweater, but a savior.

We may have a lot of different jobs: Lawyer or landman, teacher or tradespeople, parent or pediatric nurse, student or stockbroker. But followers of Jesus have a higher calling: Witness. We are sent to testify, as John writes in another place, to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands.”

You Have Been Summoned to Appear

Regardless our business, our true calling is to witness to God’s visitation and redemption of the world in Jesus. In our various roles we are but witnesses, cleverly disguised as lawyers and nurses, stockbrokers and students. We have a high and holy calling: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:27)

John bore witness not to his own gifts and abilities, but God’s. He cried out not of his own power, but God’s. He pointed not to himself, but to the Lamb of God already among them.

That is our call, friends: To bear witness, to cry out, to point others to the savior. We are the final witness Jesus spoke of in John, the ones who believe without seeing (John 20:29). Our task is to continue to bear witness, “thatJesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Like John in his fractured time, we too live in fractured days – days desperate for the hope of God…desperate for a witness to the light, a cry of hope, to be pointed to Jesus.

Can I get a witness?

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Real Worship: A summons to the feet of Jesus

 

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Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

Scientists tell us of the powerful ability of the sense of smell to trigger memories—that the olfactory bulb in our brain links scent to event. That is why walking into a home with cookies baking in the oven can carry you back to the security of grandma’s house decades earlier. Scent, somehow, unifies and cements all 5 senses and places us, momentarily, in the experiences of our past. One suspects the story of the anointing by the woman at Bethany provided just such a fragrant link in the disciples’ minds between burial perfume and Jesus’ looming Passion.

The story of the woman of Bethany was obviously an important one in the early church, as all four Gospel writers record it (Matthew 26:6-12, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7:36-49, John 12:1-8). As a whole, the Gospel writers tell us three things in this story: Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. That is why it is so odd that in this fragrant Gospel narrative, the memory of the eyewitnesses seems fuzzy… There is a woman. There is an anointing. There is expensive, perfumed oil. There is the objection to using it on Jesus. But then the details start getting jumbled.

Are these four accounts one event? Two? Three? Scholars have wondered for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the Gospel writers here. They carefully name and give character to the Twelve, yet they blur the details of this woman and her story.

Who was this woman? Both Matthew and Mark have Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of her…but then her name conspicuously escapes them. Luke tells us she was a “a sinner.” John alone tells us that her name was “Mary.” But Mary was the most common women’s name in first Century Palestine. There were three women named Mary present at the crucifixion that we know of. Which Mary is this?

Luke places the story early in his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John place it in Bethany, the day before the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the mob in the garden. Here are a few more details: Several days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they recline at the table, a woman, whom John, the last Gospel writer by decades, identifies as Mary of Bethany approaches Jesus. We don’t know how long she had followed Jesus. What we do know is that Mary knew that worship has an object: Real worship is about Jesus.

Mary has an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages. These jars, we are told, were permanently sealed. To let the perfumed oil out one had to break the neck off. Once opened, like a jar of mayonnaise, it had to be used. Mary broke her jar, and emptied the perfume on Jesus. Real worship is costly.

In another fuzzy detail, John has the woman anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions flower with symbolism. In the ancient Near East, anointing the head signified Kingship – Kings were anointed at their coronation by the high priest or prophet. The word “Christ,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “Christos,” itself a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  As Rachel Held Evans says, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet.” Only in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, does this make sense.”  Because real worship DOESN’T make sense.

Anointing feet, on the other hand, models humility, service…love. John’s account is more intimate. Awkward even.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair was unthinkable. This is most likely the oil for her own burial she has poured out. Mary breaks her treasured bottle of burial perfume and empties it on Jesus. She spares no expense. She is fully committed. She is “all in” –  sacrificing her own future. The self-emptying of this action foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples feet to come the next day on Maundy Thursday. And just as we see the male disciples discomfort at that event, the disciple’s unease at her display of affection is palatable. Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

In the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus interprets this event for us: It is an act of worship in preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus returns the rebuke saying, “Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a good while, but the Twelve kept missing it. The idea of a kingdom ushered in with the death of their friend rather than the death of their enemies was unthinkable. It is no wonder they complained about the “waste” of money the anointing represented – they assumed they would need to finance their ministry with Jesus for years to come. Mary alone seems to get it. She is the first of Jesus’ disciples to acknowledge his impending death… the one who anoints “the anointed one.” For this, Jesus gives her his highest praise. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a remarkable thought—that from open air revival to cathedral, Europe to Uruguay, Israel to Africa, this woman’s story would be told.

Jesus wanted us to remember. Yet we aren’t even sure of the woman’s name. How is it that, unlike other Gospel stories in which details drop out as we get to the later Gospels, her name does not appear until very late? I suspect it is because this good lady did not want it to appear. The beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry joined the early church after his resurrection. They shared their stories to encourage one another. Later, when it became obvious that Jesus was tarrying in his expected return, writers gathered and recorded those stories. In the early stories of blind Bartimaeus, for example, we know Bart’s name, his dad’s name, and even that a blind friend was beside him in the early Gospels. But by the time (and distance) that Luke writes, Bartimaeus is presumably gone and his name is dropped. Bart’s story had been told so often that it does not even make John’s Gospel, the last one written. So why is this woman not named by the early authors? The obvious guess is that it was specifically because she was still around. And SHE did not want it named.

We know that Mary was a worshipper. My guess, knowing a few Mary types, is that, for Mary, worship was, first and foremost not about her, but about Jesus. And she didn’t want folks to get distracted in admiring her. My guess is that Mary is named by John specifically because she is no longer around to keep a witness from recording her name.

But what of you? Where is your focus? What is your perfume? What do you guard and value above all else? Is it material possessions? Is your perfume your reputation? Friends? Career? Take a moment and name that which you value most, because you cannot pour out that which you cannot name.

The challenge of Mary this Holy Week is that we would dare break open that which we value most and pour it out as a fragrant offering upon our Lord. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the scent might trigger a memory… like the comfort of grandma’s house, bought through decades of difficult labor during hard times, we would be reminded that our comfort from God was bought at a high price. Because Real worship is about Jesus. It DOESN’T make sense. And it IS costly.

*This was the message from “Dinner Church,” our Wednesday Holy Week liturgy for families. The service is based on one done at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. It has a contemplative feeling (with Taize-esque music.) It is based on 1 Corinthians and what is thought to be the earliest non-canonical Christian literature, a teaching tool called The Didache. It is essentially the biblical “love feast” (Jude 1:12, 1 Cor. 11). The candle lit room set in a circle and contemplative music work well for our rowdy urban kids. The people prepare the meal together, light the worship/dinner space, pray and sing, and eat over candle light. It also gives us a chance to give folks an overview of the upcoming Triduum of holy week and pass out devotionals for families to use at home.