Tag Archives: discipleship

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Maundy Thursday: You’ve Been Served”



Today I’m writing over at Conversations on the Fringe.

“We must not forget that as pastors and youth workers we, too, cannot give, serve, love, and care for our parishioners, youth, and their families without first being served… By Jesus and by so many of our siblings who are called to be Christ’s hands and feet to us.

Because when we do allow our feet to be washed, we just might be surprised at how much we really needed to be cleansed so that we might be better equipped to return this loving act.”

You can read the rest here.

“A Messy and Fishy Kind of Sermon” – Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20



I love how our Hebrew and Gospel stories are paired together this morning. Because I think these two stories share several similar themes.

First, we have two fish stories. We have Jonah, who many of us probably remember has something to do with a giant fish. And then we have four of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who happen to be fishermen. And when Jesus sees them fishing, he says to them: “I will make you fish for people.”

Secondly, these are two call stories. God has called the prophet Jonah to go into the city of Ninevah and cry out against the Ninevite’s wickedness. And in our Gospel, while Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God, he sees four fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he – a rabbi – calls out to them: “follow me,” asking them to become his disciples, or his students.

The third theme these stories seem to share is that when we look at the stories as given to us through our assigned lectionary readings this morning – without any additional context about the people involved – they both seem to be picture-perfect call stories.

When Jonah hears God calling him, he listens, immediately gets up, goes to Ninevah, and cries out to the Ninevites, proclaiming their impending destruction for the wickedness of their ways. And they repent.

And in our Gospel, when Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear Jesus calling them, they immediately get up, drop their fishing nets, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering. And they leave everything they have and know behind them without any knowledge of where they are going or what will come next.

You see, it looks as though this morning we have two neat and tidy call stories, with what appear to be confident, obedient, and qualified people of God who respond to God’s call to go and proclaim the good news of God’s love and to do God’s work in the world.

But if we look beyond the lectionary readings this morning, we will see that these calls stories are far from neat and tidy, and the people being called are far from perfect.

You see, when Jonah was first called by God to go and speak to Ninevah, instead of going, he jumps on the first ship he can find that will take him to Tarshish, a city that is in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah. And he goes down into the hold of the ship to hide out, hoping to escape God’s presence. But God sends a great storm upon the sea, and – as the winds strengthen and the sailors can’t seem to get the ship back to land – Jonah is eventually thrown overboard. So God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And while Jonah is sitting in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks to God for hearing his cries. And so God hears his prayers again, speaks to the fish, and the fish ends up vomiting him up onto dry land.

This is where we come to our lectionary passage this morning. God calls out to Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. And so this once very disobedient Jonah, who is now covered in sea water and fish puke, happily goes to Ninevah to tell them about their wicked ways and their impending destruction.

No, this is not a neat and tidy call story at all. This story is rather quite messy… and probably pretty smelly.

Now, when the people hear Jonah’s cries, the Ninevites – ALL of them – even the animals – begin to fast, cover themselves in sackcloths, and cry out to God, repenting of their evil ways. And when God sees they have turned from their old ways, God forgives them and decides to no longer bring about calamity upon them.

Now, you would have thought that Jonah would have been ecstatic about this news. And you would have thought that he would have learned his lesson by now and turned from his old ways.

But you would have thought wrong. And the messiness continues.

Jonah is extremely displeased with this news. How can God give those undeserving Ninevites a second chance?! And so out of anger he shouts at God: “Please take my life away from me. For it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he stomps off and finds a shaded place to sit just outside of the city where he can pout and wait and watch what will happen to the city, hoping he gets his way after all.

But (Spoiler alert): he doesn’t actually get his way.

So Jonah’s call story is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess. But God still sees the potential in Jonah, and God continues to show up for him and to call him to participate in God’s work.

And while our Gospel call story this morning isn’t quite as messy as Jonah’s, it still isn’t the picture-perfect scene with picture-perfect people it seems to be at first glance.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  There were several levels of religious education, beginning at age 4 or 5. Only the top students coming out of each level of education would continue onto the next level, and only the top of the top of the top would eventually be eligible to follow a rabbi (and even then, the rabbi would not necessarily choose to take him as a student). Since Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all in the fishing trade, they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen had not made a typical rabbi’s cut.  They were not the top students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or religious lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not qualified to become a rabbi’s disciple.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise. For some reason, Jesus sees a great potential in these average, ordinary men fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And so when he sees them fishing, he stops and he calls out to them: follow me.

And immediately, these average fishermen do just that. They drop their nets and – even though they most likely were covered in smelly fish guts – they follow him.

But even though these ordinary fishermen seem to be obedient at first, if we read on, we will see that they – too – continue to be far from perfect. The disciples often misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, question his authority, doubt his promises, hide out when they get scared, and some even betray and deny him.

And so, in some ways, like Jonah’s call story – this one, too, is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess.

But Jesus still sees the potential in and the gifts of these disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them. He continues to love them, to show up for them, and to walk alongside them in all of the beauty and the messiness of this difficult call.

I just love these two fishy and messy call stories.

Because they seem more like real life.

And just as God saw the potential in Jonah and continued to show up for him – even through all of his grumpiness, failures and mistakes – and just as Jesus saw the potential in those four ordinary fishermen and believed in them, so does God see and believe in each one of us – no matter how little qualified we may feel, no matter how grumpy we might get, and no matter how imperfect we may be.

In just a little while, we will celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace. And I think it’s quite appropriate to do so as we look at these two biblical call stories.

Because a baptism is a call story. And – as we have seen with Jonah and the early disciples, a baptismal call story is a life-long journey that is nothing close to neat and tidy.

 But in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our messiness and fishiness. Who loves us through all of our grumpiness, our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it.

When we celebrate the baptism of one of our own at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to see and affirm the image of God in one another and recognize the potential and the gifts of one another. We are called to share in each other’s joys, help carry one another’s burdens, and walk alongside one another in all of the messiness that takes place as we live out our call to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are all beloved children of God, and that by grace, God calls each one of us.

And even when we are covered in stinky fish puke and guts, Jesus will still see that we are – indeed worthy of this call – and he will continue to say to us, “follow me.”


“Let Go and Let God: A Call to Discipleship for all of us ‘Mess-ups'” – Lent 2 Sermon on Mark 8:31-38



Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38

Peter is a complete mess-up.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see his fear gets the best of him when Jesus asks him to walk on the water. In John, we see that Peter is the one who cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest. And in all four Gospels, we see that it is Peter who denies Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.

And so it’s probably no surprise to us that it is – indeed – this very same Peter who is the mess-up in our text for today in Mark. And as we watch this scene unfold, many of us may even roll our eyes at him, wondering whether or not Peter will ever learn.

But the thing is, I think that Peter tends to get a bad rap. Because – to be quite honest – I get Peter. I understand where he’s coming from.

You see, Peter is the first disciple to be called to follow Jesus. He is in the ultimate inner-circle. And he puts his complete trust in this rabbi, leaving behind everything he had and knew to become Jesus’ student and to follow him day in and day out.

And my guess is that it probably didn’t take Peter very long to realize that he put his trust in the right teacher, because in Mark’s Gospel, after he calls a few other fishermen to follow him, Jesus immediately begins to impress the crowds. He teaches on the streets and in the synagogues on the Sabbath day with great authority. He rebukes and commands unclean spirits, and they obey him. He performs many miracles, healing people with a wide variety of illnesses and ailments, casting out demons and forbidding them to speak, and even restoring a little girl on her death-bed back to life. While on a boat, he rebukes the winds and quiets a storm. He walks on water. He turns a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands. He gains quite the following of those without power and pushes the buttons of those in power.

This rabbi is not just like any other rabbi. This rabbi teaches, preaches, and acts with great authority and influence.

This must be the One the Jews had so long been waiting for. The One who would liberate God’s people from oppression and suffering. The One who would come to take on the worldly crown, claim victory over the powers that be, and turn the Roman Empire upside down, releasing God’s people from its captivity.

And it is this long expected Savior who chose Peter first! Peter can pat himself on the back a little bit, because that’s got to count for something!

And so, when Jesus stops the disciples on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and asks who they say he is: it is Peter – this first-chosen disciple, eye-witness to Jesus’ great acts, and Jesus’ close friend and student in the inner-most circle – who confidently and boldly blurts out the correct answer: “While some say you are John the Baptist or Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets, I say you are the long-expected Messiah!”

DING! DING! DING! And the prize deservedly goes to Peter, the first-chosen, most studious disciple who knows Jesus the best!

But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He explains that soon he is going to have to endure great suffering. He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And he will be killed. And after three days, he will rise again.


I can totally picture Peter in this scene. I can see his confidence in who he believed Jesus to be immediately get squashed, and I imagine his doubts starting to kick in about whether or not he was right about this guy. I can feel the fear creep in as he starts to think about his teacher undergoing such rejection, humiliation, and suffering, and I can feel the pain shoot through his body as he starts to think about losing his dear friend to death.

In this moment, as Jesus reveals the impending tragedy to his dear friends, I can imagine this first-chosen Peter, as he grabs Jesus’ arm and angrily pulls him aside from the other disciples before Jesus gets the chance to say anything more. I can hear his rebukes to Jesus, as if they were my own: “What are you doing, Jesus!? You have been teaching and preaching with authority! You’ve performed miraculous acts before our very own eyes! You are the MESSIAH! The One with divine power that can dominate over all worldly powers! Why on earth would you allow these things to happen? There must be another way! We put our complete faith in you and gave everything up to follow you! Why are you choosing to forsake us now?”

I can relate to Peter so well in this text because I have been there before.

Like him, I have found myself thinking at times that since I have dutifully sacrificed a lot in my life to follow Jesus, it is only fair that Jesus calls me to do only the things that I want to do. And when Jesus suddenly tells me I need to let go of my traditions or my insecurities or what feels comfortable and I need to make a few more sacrifices or do some things that are out of my comfort zone, I feel Jesus has abandoned me.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times thinking that I am a first-chosen disciple, one in the inner-most circle, who knows Jesus and Jesus’ mind more than anyone else. And therefore, when someone disagrees with me, it is I who has the authority. I am the one who has all the answers about faith, theology, politics, what changes should occur or traditions should remain in the church, how one should choose a particular lifestyle to live. I am the one who is right.

Like Peter, I have patted myself on the back a few times, thinking that this call to following Jesus was all about me. What accomplishments I’ve made. How many people I’ve gotten to come through the church doors. How many twitter and facebook followers have liked my blog posts. How many times I’ve volunteered at the food pantry, attended church worship or events, or participated in protests and marches for justice. And so when Jesus all of a sudden reminds me that following him is actually just that: about following him, I just want to grab his arm, pull him aside, and let him know he’s got another thing coming.

Like Peter, there have been times when I have stood confidently before God and before others, boldly proclaiming who I thought I knew Jesus to be, only to be completely thrown off-guard when Jesus shows me I have gotten him so wrong.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times to put trust and faith in God’s existence only if God proves to be all-powerful. To believe that God is with me when things are going well in my life, but when things take a down-hill turn, to believe God has suddenly failed me and disappeared.

It’s easy to believe that the Gospel is all about us. That it is about our willpower and our accomplishments… How we can hold it together on our own. That it is about how many followers we gain. (And by golly, look at how much more faithful we are compared to those folks who haven’t accomplished as much as we have. Who don’t do as much leading, volunteering, worshiping, or justice-making as we do.)

And it is easy to believe that the Gospel is just about an all-powerful, quick fix God. One who will immediately come to our rescue when things go wrong and make everything okay. One who only came in the flesh to authoritatively and magically calm storms, heal people’s ailments, drive out demons, and turn a few loaves of bread into thousands.

I want this to be the Gospel. I want the Gospel story to end right then and there.

But it doesn’t.


As we see in our text in Mark: Jesus tells the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi that the Gospel continues into Jerusalem and toward the cross.

I think we all have this tendency to want to avoid that dreadful journey and that horrific cross. To skip right over it and go from waving the Palm branches to singing the Halleluiah chorus.

But the thing is: we can’t have the resurrection without first going through the cross.

And Jesus knows this. So Jesus responds to Peter: “Get behind me, Accuser! Don’t try to get in the way of my journey toward the cross. For you are thinking, as humans do, on worldly things. You are not thinking on divine things, as God does.”

Then Jesus calls out to the crowds, gathering them in as he explains what it means to be his disciple: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Now, this statement has often been used to make a few particularly dangerous claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of herself or must give up her creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created her to be. And in this important statement, Jesus is not glorifying or condoning self-mutilation, abuse, injustice, or human suffering.  

Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.

He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us.

We must deny our constant desire to have power over others. We must stop trying to save our egos and pride by striving to always be first: to be the most successful, to have the biggest home, to be the smartest, to be the most faithful. We must give up our need to always be right.

We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.

But the hard reality is that we – as humans – were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.

To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross.

For the early disciples, the cross represented death. And as we now know… What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.

The old has gone, the new has come.

To follow Jesus, we must take up our own cross by following Jesus’ way of the cross.

As we saw while Jesus was wandering for those 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus, himself, had the ability to claim victory over worldly power and glory for his own benefit. But, despite Satan – the Accuser’s – strong persuasive skills, Jesus denied this temptation to have dominion over all. And we see later that as he continues toward the cross, he completely empties himself of all this glory and power, dedicating his life (and death) to one that was not for his own self-gain – but rather to one that was for others.


Our text in Mark for today often reminds me of someone who was really special to me. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.

The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.

And I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

We must follow Jesus toward the cross by walking with others who are suffering and helping them carry their cross when it is too hard to bear. We must – as Barbara Brown Taylor says in the book we are reading as a congregation this Lent – learn to “walk in the dark” and begin to see God’s presence in those times when we – too – feel lost in our own suffering, doubt, fear, and failure.

But the thing is, when we travel this journey with our crosses on our backs, like Peter, we will continue to be mess-ups… No matter how much we give up to follow Jesus; no matter how far on the inner-circle we may think we are; no matter how often we go to worship on Sundays, pray throughout the week, read Scripture, volunteer, stand up for justice: like Peter – we will mess up over and over and over again.

But this is exactly why we cannot skip over the cross. Because we need the cross. Because we cannot save ourselves. Because we need our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer to rescue us.

So, no matter how much we may relate to Peter as we hear this difficult call to discipleship… No matter how much we may want this whole Gospel to be about us… How much we may want God to be in our own image… Or how much we may want to save ourselves and avoid the cross…

Let us deny our old selves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on this way.

Let us learn to let go. And to let God.

“The Parable of the Generous Sower” – A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“The Sower: Outskirts of Arles in the Background” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888 (The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles)

“The Sower: Outskirts of Arles in the Background” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888 (The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles)

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

When I was a sophomore in college, my friend, Stephanie, and I decided we wanted to be the fill-in Sunday School teachers for two months for the 4-6 year old Sunday School class at the church we attended. When the regular teacher asked us to do this, I was really excited. I had been leading a Bible study for several college students who were very involved in my campus ministry, but I wanted to branch out and lead faith discussions in a different setting – where the audience would not necessarily be as biblically literate and well-versed as those who were in my Bible study. Teaching children seemed like a great opportunity to branch out. Although most of my experience had been working with kids in kindergarten through 5th grade, I knew a few of the 5-6 year olds at my church and I figured that teaching these kids would be a piece of cake…

Was I ever wrong…

This group of 18 4-6 year olds (and a few 3 year olds) was the rowdiest bunch of kids I had yet encountered. Our first day was pure chaos… The minute Stephanie and I opened the door to allow the kids to enter the classroom, kids swarmed the room, chasing, tagging, and kicking each other, crawling under and on top of tables, and screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs. Just as Stephanie and I were able to calm the kids down and began teaching our lesson – a few boys held their hands up to their mouths and made loud gas noises, creating a wave of laughter… and more gas noises. And after about 5 minutes of trying to quiet this hysteria, when we were finally ready to get back to our Bible lesson, a boy shouted out, “I have to go to the bathroom!” And immediately, 2 other hands shot up: “Me, too! Me, too!” As I began to take these three boys down the hallway – feeling badly I left Stephanie to begin teaching the lesson alone, and yet also feeling quite relieved to get a short break from the chaos – a group of 4 more boys from our classroom came running up behind us, shouting to the boys I was with: “come on!” and the 7 little hell-raisers went flying down the hallway to the bathroom, leaving me to run after them, while hopelessly pleading with them to “Walk, please!”

And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, as I arrived outside the boy’s bathroom, I heard the most terrifying sounds a new, 20-year-old Sunday School teacher could hear coming from the other side of the door: the voices of my Sunday School boys chanting: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

You’d have thought this was a scene on some kind of 90’s tv special.

By the end of that Sunday, when I finally arrived in my dorm room, I exhaustedly threw up my hands, and decided I was ready to give up. I was ready to just quit trying to teach these kids about God and faith when they obviously didn’t seem to care about it at all. I was ready to just go back to planting seeds in the places that seemed comfortable and easy to me, in my campus ministry Bible study – where I knew all of the college students who attended came voluntarily because they were eager to participate and would readily hear and receive the words that were being taught.

I was ready to stop wasting my time planting seeds in places that just seemed too unlikely to take root and grow.


This makes me think of the situation Jesus is speaking to in our Gospel text for today.

Jesus is sitting by the Sea of Galilee, when large crowds gather around him, so large that he gets into his boat and begins to tell a story.

A parable.

And in his parable, Jesus tells about a man who has a profession that his mostly rural audience would have been very familiar with: a sower.  And – as did many sowers of his day – this sower is spreading seeds everywhere: on a dirt path, on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, in the midst of thorns, and on good fertile soil. And yet, as any of us who are gardeners might suspect: the seeds on the dirt path get eaten by birds; the seeds that are thrown on rocky ground spring up quickly but since they have no root, they wither away as soon as the sun rises; and the seeds that fall among the thorns grow up, only to be immediately choked by the thorns, themselves. It is only the seeds that are thrown on good, fertile soil that bring forth grain.

Now, to Matthew’s audience these images of the sower and the unfruitful seeds would have been all too familiar and real in their experiences as early Christ-followers. As Jesus soon reveals in our text, it is he (and his followers) who represent the sower, and it is the good news of the Kingdom of God that represents the seeds in the parable. And these early Christ-followers in Palestine know quite well that this good news Jesus (and his earliest followers) is spreading all over the place is not taking root or producing crop in many places and circles.

As we see throughout Matthew, Jesus has been spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God everywhere he goes, and he is calling his followers to do the same. Yet, while Jesus gains a large following, this good news of the Kingdom of God doesn’t seem to be good news to everyone. We see this in the chapter that precedes our text: where many of the religious leaders are already plotting to destroy Jesus, and we see this at the end of chapter 13 – not long after todays text – where Jesus will be rejected even by his own hometown.

As Jesus explains later in our Gospel text – this good news is being misunderstood by some and therefore eaten up or snatched away by the evil one; it is being received by others quickly with great joy, but since those individuals have no root, when persecution arises because of this good news, they immediately fall away; and this good news is being heard by even others, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth is getting in the way and choking it, yielding nothing.

And so many of those early Christ-followers were likely starting to get pretty frustrated that this good news was not taking root and growing as they had hoped it would. And with this kind of tension and opposition that would soon intensify, it would not be too long before these Christ-followers would begin to feel ready to just throw up their hands and give up trying to spread the good news in places where it seemed least likely to be received and most likely to be adamantly resisted.


But we can’t really blame these early Christ-followers, can we? Aren’t there many times in our lives when we feel that our efforts in sharing this good news of the Kingdom of God through our actions or our words are done so in vain?

Don’t we know what it’s like to feel ready to just give up when we try to talk about important faith and justice issues with our friends and colleagues with differing political opinions or faith traditions, and those conversations only bring about confrontation?

…Or when we spend so much time planning and advertising our church programs and services, and yet, we still struggle to see growth in program or worship participation?

…Or when we invest so much in individuals through mentoring or volunteer programs or in our personal lives, but these individuals just don’t seem to be very interested in learning from us, receiving our compassion, or responding to our concerns?

In these times, don’t we want to just throw up our hands and give up? To quit wasting our time throwing seeds in places where people seem to be the least likely to accept them? And instead to spend our time and energy planting seeds and investing in the people we know will be eager to hear and receive this good news or whom we know will quickly agree with us?


But this is where the end of Jesus’ parable comes in.

While much of the sower’s seeds fall on the dirt path, rocky ground, or in the midst of thorns, several seeds fall on good, fertile soil.

And those seeds will not only take root and grow, bringing forth a sevenfold of grain, the amount a farmer would harvest on a good year, but some seeds will produce a thirtyfold, which would have been enough to feed a village for an entire year.   Other seeds will produce a sixtyfold, which would have been unheard of.   And even other seeds will have produced a hundredfold, which would have been a complete miracle.

I recently had a conversation with a progressive evangelical Christian friend of mine who often writes blog posts and articles on deconstructing literal interpretations of the Bible, women’s rights, and marriage equality, among other controversial topics within the evangelical world. His blog, articles, and personal conversations on these subjects are specifically geared toward evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, and because of this, he is frequently criticized and said to be “unbiblical” or a “heretic” by some people in that world.  When asked why he continued to target that particular audience when it continued to create confrontation, he said: “I will never give up trying to reach this audience because I was the one pointing fingers at progressives and liberals not too long ago, and yet, someone in my life chose to never give up on me.”

In Jesus’ parable of the sower is a message ringing loud and clear to both his earliest followers and to all of us who attempt to follow him today.  As followers of Jesus, who are called to spread the good news of God’s love everywhere and to everyone we can, in doing so, we will experience rejection, opposition, and confrontation. And yet, in these times: when we feel discouraged, frustrated, and ready to give up, we can have hope.

Because while ¾ of our seeds may get eaten up, wither away, or be choked by thorns, there will be seeds that will fall on fertile soil.

Because some of those seeds may even take root and grow a thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or hundredfold – even in and through those people and places we least expect.

Because Jesus does not give up on his disciples – who later desert Jesus when he is arrested for fear of their own persecution… And no matter how much we may allow the seeds sown in our lives to be snatched up by others, to wither away when persecution comes, or to be choked by the thorns of the lures of wealth, success, and the cares of this world, Jesus doesn’t give up on us, either.


Though it took a lot of convincing by Stephanie to get me back into that 4-6 year old Sunday School classroom, I did end up going back the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that. And I even ended up finishing my two month commitment. And while most of my Sundays were quite exhausting, I started to find that the work I was doing was not done so in vain. Sure, the kids mostly wanted to skip out of Sunday school by trying to take bathroom breaks and making gas noises with their mouths, and there were others who continued to begin class by screaming, kicking, and chasing each other around the room. But as I developed relationships with these children over those two months, I began to realize that a big part of planting seeds was to just pray with and listen to these children and to show them what love and grace looks like in the flesh.  And as I began to realize this, I actually was pleasantly surprised at how much these children began to plant seeds in my life.


Brothers and sisters, Jesus is a generous sower, throwing and planting seeds everywhere he goes. And he calls each one of us to do the same. While this work will be frustrating and difficult, causing us to want to give up at times, we must not forget that some of our seeds will –indeed – fall on fertile soil. And it may take time – and in some cases we may never even see or know it occurred – but those seeds will reap a great harvest – sometimes, even a hundredfold.

We just need to be willing to take the chance on others.

Just as Jesus – in and through someone else – took the chance on us.

Let anyone with ears listen!

Jesus as the “Way of Life”: Deconstructing John 14:6



{Thoughts on the Lectionary Gospel text for the 5th Sunday of Easter: John 14:1-14}


“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

This declaration by Jesus in John 14:6 has traditionally been singled out, quoted, and interpreted to mean that believing and confessing in Jesus Christ is the only exclusive way to God and to salvation in life after death. Consequently, we often use this passage to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited understanding, I believe we miss out on a much deeper meaning of Jesus’ statement that comes with a lot more responsibility for followers of Jesus. With a careful study of the passage’s historical and literary backgrounds, we can gain a much more profound interpretation of what Jesus is saying and why the author of John includes it in his gospel.


Audience of the Gospel of John

The authorship and date of the gospel of John have been highly debated. Some scholars argue the author was the “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the gospel itself; others claim it was written by a school under the discipleship of the “Beloved Disciple;” others assert it was written by a Jewish Essene community living in Qumran; and still others argue that it was written first by one individual or group of individuals and was later edited by redactors.

While the authorship and date of John’s composition are debated, there are a few factors that suggest the gospel was not formulated until around the end of the first century and therefore was not written by an eyewitness.

  1. Many scholars claim that the latest the gospel could have been written was sometime in the early second century. This is because the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 – which contains parts of the earliest preserved manuscript of John’s gospel – is believed to have been in circulation around Cairo, Egypt by at least the middle of the second century. Accordingly, if the gospel was written in Ephesus, which is suggested by many scholars, it would have taken several years to get to Egypt, thereby dating it no later than around 100-110 AD.
  2. The similarities between John and the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) indicate John’s author may have been familiar with one or more of the Synoptics. While scholars have debated whether or not John’s author used the other gospels as sources for his own work, most agree that he had known at least Mark’s – and possibly Luke’s – oral traditions and may have seen some of their pre-gospel manuscripts. For that reason, the majority of scholars claim that the earliest John could have been composed was after Mark’s composition date: around 68-73 AD.
  3. Since the gospel does not allude to the fall of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD), some scholars argue that it was either written before or much later than the fall (when the fall of the Temple was no longer a topic to emphasize in writings).
  4. There are three places in John (9:22, 12:42, and 16:2) that mention the Christians feared “expulsion of the synagogue.”[1] If the author was alluding to the official expulsion that had already taken place, an event dated around 80-90 AD, then we must surmise the gospel of John was composed at around 85-100 AD.

Location of the Audience

The task of determining the location of John’s authorship is also difficult, as there are no specific references in the text that state where it was written. Yet, many scholars believe it was written in Ephesus or another multicultural city context for the following reasons.

  1. Several Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius, claimed the gospel was written in Ephesus.
  2. While these Church Fathers are not considered authentic sources by many contemporary scholars, Ephesus is still considered a plausible city for the gospel’s authorship because the gospel includes Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish terms, names, and concepts, suggesting the author was writing to a multicultural inner-city audience.[2]
  3. Ephesus fits this multicultural profile, as it was considered the “Metropolis of Asia” and served as the central “meeting place” between the east and west because of its location and travel access.[3] Due to its location, Ephesus was a highly populated and diverse city containing numerous religions, such as Judaism, polytheism, practices of magic, and the Artemis cult. Ephesus had also been the home to many Greek philosophers during the Hellenistic era and was one of the largest and most influential Roman cities by the beginning of the first century, therefore making the use of Greek philosophy and Roman imperial language popular writing techniques in late first century literature.

While Ephesus is a likely location of the composition of John, Antioch and Alexandria are other suggested possibilities. However, in any case, we can conclude that John was likely written in Asia Minor to an audience in a late first century multicultural city context.

Literary Genre and Establishing a Rule of Life:

Although we might assume Christianity would be accepted in such a diverse society, this was not the case. Around the end of the first century, Christians were officially banned from the synagogues, spied on during worship gatherings, criticized for their worship practices that were not customary to Greco-Roman society, and accused of being associated with pagan temple prostitutes and female promiscuity.

Consequently, as the Church began to deal with persecution by outsiders, it developed the need to establish an identity that would define the group without the physical presence and guidance of Jesus Christ, give it hope, and provide a rule of life in which its members were to treat one another and their oppressors. If we look at the literary form of the unit which encompasses John 14:1-14, as well as the main themes within that unit, we can see that John’s author was doing just that.


Fairwell Discource:

John 14:1-14’s literary genre is that of the Farewell Discourse common in Jewish antiquity, which includes chapters 14-17 in the gospel of John. The Farewell Discourse genre was typically in the form of a speech and was given by a teacher or leader to his students. The speaker often encouraged the immediate audience regarding their fears or tribulations, prepared them for the “immediate future… which includes being established by God as God’s chosen people,”[4] discussed how the group should behave and treat others, particularly toward one another, and usually concluded with a hymn or prayer.

John 14-17 contains almost all of the determining factors: Jesus tells the disciples not to let their “hearts be troubled” (14:10), warns them that he will soon go to the Father (16:25-28), implores them to keep his commandment (15:12), and closes with a prayer to God (17).


Interpreting John 14:1-14

It is critical to note the important elements of this genre when interpreting the meaning of John 14:1-14. As mentioned above, Farewell Discourses strongly emphasized the ways in which a community should live and treat others once their leader left them on their own. This emphasis on the community’s delegated rule of life is especially noticeable in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses gives the longest Old Testament Farewell Discourse to the Israelites before his death. What is significant is that almost the entire book focuses on the commandments to the people: out of thirty-four chapters, eight designate how the community should live as a “people of God” (chapters 4-11) and nine report laws dealing with how the community should treat others justly (chapters 12-26).

Toward the end of the speech, Moses concludes,

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (30:16)

In other words, the “way to God was through the practice of and meditation on God’s law,”[5] a belief that was endorsed by Judaism. This has significant theological meaning for John’s Farewell Discourse because – as many scholars argue – it was specifically modeled after Deuteronomy in order to make Jesus’ message resemble Moses’. Therefore, since Moses’ central message claimed the way to God was loving God by “walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (30:16), then Jesus’ message in John would have emphasized this same “way” of life as well.

The difference in John is that he redefines what this way of life should look like, to the later first century Christians, and how they ought to love God, walk in God’s ways, and observe God’s commandments. In fact, John’s Gospel provides a “new commandment” to his audience: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” According to Walter Harrelson in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “the commandment to love is not new,” for it is found in Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:4. “What is new is the shaping of that love according to the life and death of Jesus.”[6]


ή όδὸς: “The Way”

When we look at the Greek text of John 14:6, we will notice that Jesus’ statement could be interpreted in two different ways, one of which supports Harrelson’s conclusion. According to Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, the word ή όδὸς (“the way”) could either mean “a way for traveling or moving from one place to another” or the “course of behavior, way, or way of life.”[7]  If Jesus’ statement refers to the first definition, it would likely suggest Jesus is the pathway to the Father, but if it refers to the second definition, Jesus would be declaring he is the “way of behavior” in which one should follow.

The second definition is the more plausible definition for a few reasons.

  1. As mentioned above, the author of John was writing to a diverse Christian community, including both Greeks and Jews. The Church had already been dealing with an internal conflict between the two groups, who debated over which group was truly Christian. Many Jewish-Christians believed the Gentiles needed to be “Judaized” before they could become Christian, and many Gentile-Christians assumed they were superior to the Jews because they were “free” in Christ and did not need to follow the strict “works of the law.”[8] Paul had already been teaching that Jesus was the new “identity symbol”[9] who did not exclude others (as did the Jewish “works of the law”), but rather included all people into the community of God. It is likely that John’s audience was dealing with the same issues Paul did, particularly after the Jews banned the Christians from the Jewish synagogues, which created more tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Therefore, it is unlikely John would center his gospel on an exclusive Jesus. Rather, his message would have presumably claimed Jesus was the way in which the diverse group of Christians could unite – by following in Christ’s footsteps of loving and serving one another.
  2. It would make sense in this mixed group of Christians that John used ή όδὸς to describe Jesus’ life as the example one should follow. This concept and behavioral interpretation of “the way” was common to both Jews and Gentiles, and thus, would have been an easy analogy for everyone to understand. In Judaism, “the way” was used to describe how one should live in biblical texts (such as Isa. 55:7-9, 56:11, 59:8, or the seventy references in Proverbs, to name a few), “early Jewish sources” (like Tob. 1:3 and Jub. 20:2), and “in the rabbinic use of halakot.” Additionally, Isaiah 40 in the Dead Sea Scrolls[10] described “the way” as “study of the law.”[11] Greek philosophy emphasized that “the way” in which one should live was finding “truth” in proper thought. For example, Epictetus commends Chrysippus for his “philosophical reasoning [which] ‘shows the way’ to correct thinking” and Marcus Aurelius states that “those who do not think properly have wandered astray and ‘do not know the road.’”[12]
  3. John also uses this Greek concept of “way of life” in another form: through the Greek word, ό λόγος. This term, which is often translated as “the word,” was understood as either “a certain type of function (such as reasoning, judging, or knowing)” or “a norm: the ‘right’ or ‘reasonable’ way to act, feel, or think.”[13]  This is significant because Jesus is described as ό λόγος in the very first verse of the entire Gospel. Since the author of John was extremely particular about his style of writing, language, and use and placement of words in his text in order to emphasize critical messages, it would be likely that his gospel’s very first verse would be one of – if not the most – important theological points of the Gospel, thereby serving as a type of thesis statement. If this is the case, it would be logical to assume that John 14:6 was a repetition, as well as another way to accentuate the thesis statement laid out in John 1:1 that Jesus’ life was “the way” in which to live.
  4. Besides the preeminent use of the λόγος way of life, John also stresses that Jesus is the “way of life” in his narratives. One that particularly displays this theme is John’s account of the Last Supper, which radically differs from the Synoptic account. In the three Synoptic gospels, the climactic moment in the Last Supper is when Jesus shares the Eucharist meal with the disciples. However, in John, the focal point in the Last Supper is when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet (13:1-30): an action of complete humility, love and servanthood toward others. Just after Jesus had finished washing the others’ feet in John’s narrative, he declares, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (13:14-15).  Another narrative that displays this theme is in John 10 where Jesus states that he is the “Good Shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” or God’s children, (10:11) and loves and protects them (as the “gate” in 10:9). He goes on to explain in verse 17 that the reason the Father loves him is because of what Jesus was doing for the people. Then in chapter 21, John ends his gospel with Jesus passing on this responsibility of laying down one’s life for others to Peter: each time Peter states He loves Jesus, Jesus answers with “Feed my lambs” (21:15), “Tend my sheep” (21:16), and “Feed my sheep” (21:17).


As we look at these historical and literary contexts, we can see that one of the themes that is most emphasized in John’s gospel was to follow Jesus’ example of serving and loving others. Since John’s author stressed this message throughout his gospel, and because the concept of “the way” was commonly used by John’s Jewish and Greek audience to describe a “way of life,” John 14:6 also seems to portray the message that Jesus is the way or example to follow. For that reason, we might consider that John’s author did not intend to make belief in Jesus the exclusive “way” to reach the Father, but rather he stressed that the “way” to experiencing the full love and grace of the Father is by emulating Jesus’ actions. For Jesus commanded this as well:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

With this in mind, rather than using this John 14:6 verse to condemn others for not “believing” in Jesus, maybe we need to ask ourselves and our Church how we are not following Jesus? Maybe we – ourselves – need to be looking more closely at the teachings and actions throughout the gospel of John of this radical Jesus that we are called to follow…

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we follow this radical Jesus today? How might we feed and tend Jesus’ sheep? How might we serve others with humility, love today’s sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, and care for one another in the Church (even when we – like the first century Jewish and Greek Christians – have so many differences and disagreements?)

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we turn over tables in the Temple when it is taking advantage of the outcasts and boldly advocate for the sick, the oppressed, and the poor?  How might we challenge the unjust systems that oppress and marginalize many?

Maybe it is when we stop judging and condemning others for not “believing” what we think they should believe and actually start following this way of life Jesus laid out for us, others will, indeed, start seeing who God truly is: a loving and compassionate parent, accept the new life God offers us, and begin moving in this “way” to the Father – of loving others as Jesus did – as well.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”



[1] Kysar, Robert, Augsbury Commentary on the New Testament John, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 1986), 14-15.

[2] Tilborg, Sjef van, John in Ephesus, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 4.

[3] Gritz, Sharon Hodgin, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of The Religious and Cultural Milieu of the The First Century (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1991), 11.

[4] O’Day, Gail R., Hylen, Susan E., John, (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 142.

[5] O’Day, Hylen, 142.

[6] Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Version with the Apocrypha, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1936.

[7] Danker, Frederick William, A Greek-Enlish Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Ed. 3,(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 691.

[8] Yeo, Khiok-Khng, What has Jerusalem to do with Beijing? (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998), 25-32.

[9] Yeo, 26.

[10] The Manual of Discipline in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS) also discusses the “way” in terms of behavior in 9.16-21: “there must be admonition of true knowledge and righteous judgment for those who choose the way; each according to his spirit, according to the regulation of the time, to guide them in knowledge and so to give them understanding in the marvellous mysteries and truth among men of the community, that they may conduct themselves blame-lessly, each with his neighbor, in all that has been revealed to them- that is the time of clearing the way to the wilderness– to give them understanding of all that has been found to be done at this time; and to be separated from every man, and not to pervert his way because of any error.” McCasland, S. Vernon, “The Way,” Journal of Biblical Literature v. 77 n. 3 (September 1958): 225.

[11] Keener, Craig, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 941.

[12] Keener, 941. Quotes from Marcus Aurelius 6.22

[13] Gill, Christopher, Greek Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.