Scripture: John 4: 46-54 Nigel Bunce
The question ‘Are we really ready to follow Jesus?’ is hard. We instinctively look for a domesticated Jesus, who is compassionate and inclusive. But we shy away from the Jesus who asks us to be prepared to give up our lives for his sake or the sake of the Gospels.
Advent is about waiting for Jesus’ birth, not his baptism
The next two weeks’ lectionary Gospels make no sense in Advent. They are about John the Baptist’s prediction that the one to come would be greater than he. But we’re waiting for Jesus’ birth. His public ministry didn’t begin for another thirty years.
So today and next week we will read two pieces from John’ Gospel. Neither of them occur in the regular lectionary. They continue the theme that Jan introduced last week. What kind of Messiah did Jews expect two thousand years ago? What kind of Messiah do we expect today?
Not “just another healing miracle”
At first glance, you might dismiss today’s Gospel passage as “just anther healing miracle”. After all, many Gospel stories show Jesus as a faith healer. Moreover, this story is similar to the healing of the centurion’s son, which Matthew and Luke describe.
In each case, Jesus reached out to someone beyond Judaism. The centurion represented the Roman occupying force. The royal official presumably held an important post with the Herodian royal family. We tend to think of Jesus as concerned mainly with the poor and oppressed. However, these stories show Jesus as open to all who believe in him, regardless of societal rank.
But John puts his own twists on the story. The wording turns from sickness and death in the first part of the reading towards life in the later part. This is typical of John’s Gospel. Life vs death; light vs darkness; etc. Also, John tells us that the event happened in Cana in Galilee. That’s where Jesus had performed the water-into-wine miracle.
In between the official’s entreaties to Jesus to come and heal his son, Jesus makes a strange comment. “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” In the water-into-wine story, John stated explicitly that this was why his disciples first believed in him.
Does our faith depends on “signs and wonders”?
I wonder. Is Jesus challenging us here, along with the royal official? Does our faith depend on what amount to divine party tricks? Because that’s certainly the way that I – in my heretical perception – view the water-into-wine story.
Notice that the royal official’s motivation was all too often our own. Why did he come to ask Jesus for help? 1. He had heard of Jesus’ reputation. 2. He was desperate. In other words, he exemplified the old saying. “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we all want God to save us from the time of trial. But no matter how desperate our situation or how fervently we pray, how can we realistically expect God to answer our prayers? Like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who got her to the ball? No. For me, the answer to our prayers happens when God stirs us to act on them.
Earthly life or spiritual life?
In the present case, Jesus said, “Go. Your son will live.” That stirred the official to faith. Also, this is John’s Gospel. Over and over, John focussed on spiritual life, what he called eternal life. He wasn’t really interested in earthly life. That’s what Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was about – two chapters earlier in the Gospel.
Indeed, John was completely upfront that his agenda was to make his readers ready to follow Jesus. He wrote his Gospel, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name [John 20: 30].
So the story is about the official coming to faith as much as the boy’s recovery from illness. For John, overcoming physical illness takes a person from death back to physical life. Lack of faith means being spiritually dead. Therefore, coming to faith meant gaining spiritual life, i.e., eternal life.
The analogy of Charles Blondin crossing Niagara Falls: a high-wire act
But what does that mean? Lora Copley offers this analogy. Charles Blondin was a French tightrope walker who famously crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire in the 19th century. He undertook increasingly bizarre exploits. Copley re-imagined them as all happening on the same day.
Thousands of people showed up to watch Blondin attempt to cross the Niagara Falls on his tightrope. It was 1,100 feet across, and 160 feet above the raging waters. Copley imagined Blondin asking the crowd if they believe he could cross. Just a few shouted, “Yes, we believe!”
But Blondin succeeded. It seemed impossible. So when Blondin asked if they believed he could cross blindfolded, more people shouted, “Yes, we believe!” And when he succeeded again, he asked, “Do you believe I can cross pushing a wheelbarrow?” Even more people shouted. And he did it again.
Finally, Blondin asked this. “Do you believe the Great Blondin can cross Niagara Falls, pushing a wheelbarrow with a man in it?” The crowd in a fervour chanted, “We believe! We believe! We believe!”
“And now… could I have a volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” Dead silence. Not one in the crowd of tens of thousands who had just shouted, “We believe, we believe!”– offered to get into the wheelbarrow. No-one wanted to be part of a high-wire act.
So, are we really ready to follow Jesus?
Belief, wrote Copley, is more than stirred-up emotions. More than intellectual assent. Belief is trust, putting our life on the line and getting into Jesus’ wheelbarrow. It’s easy to join Blondin’s crowd and yell “we believe!” Churches put it on mission statements, in publicity brochures. We recite it in creeds and affirmations week after week.
Dietrich Bonhöffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” But not many people risk dying to self, and even risking their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Because that might be what being ready to follow Jesus might entail.
I began by asking what kind of Messiah we are each waiting for. That’s just another way of saying, “Who is Jesus for you?” Most of us look for a domesticated Jesus. Great teacher and healer. Inclusive, compassionate. We think, “I’d like to be like that.” But, “give up my life for the sake of the Gospel”? [Mark 8: 35] You mean, like Dietrich Bonhöffer or Oscar Romero did? Not so much. That’s a high-wire act. And I’m afraid of heights. Amen.