Scripture: John 8:12-30
Who is Jesus?
This is a question that all of us here, in one way or another, are probably trying to answer for ourselves. Some of us may think we already know. He is Lord, Savior, Teacher, Son of God. Of course, even if we can agree on certain titles, we might still disagree on what exactly they mean, and how much those differences matter.
This is also the question that each of the Gospel writers are trying to answer, and they all do so a little differently. To Matthew Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, to Luke the liberator of the poor and oppressed, to Mark the slayer of demons. Of course, even those descriptions are grossly oversimplified. It says something, I think, that instead of trying to answer the question directly, each of our Gospel writers chooses to tell us a story, to present Jesus as they understand him and let us make up our own mind.
The Gospel of John is sometimes called the Fourth Gospel, not just because it comes fourth in the New Testament lineup, but also as a way to distinguish it from the other three. Because for all that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present us with their different perspectives on Jesus, they actually have a lot in common in terms of the stories they tell and how they tell them. They’re in fact so similar that we call them synoptic Gospels – syn, same; optic, seeing: they see the same thing. John tends to tell us different stories about Jesus, and he tells them in a different style too. Compare John and Mark and you’ll see that John has a very poetic, almost ethereal quality that sometimes makes it hard to follow compared to Mark’s simplicity and earthiness.
John also attempts to answer the question of who Jesus is in a way that the others don’t, and that is – he lets Jesus tell us himself.
Repeatedly, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am” and then gives us an image of who he is: Bread. Light. Shepherd. Door. Vine. Life. Resurrection.
No one of these seven images, or “I am” sayings, can give us a complete picture of who Jesus is. Neither can all seven of them together sum Jesus up and give us a complete picture. But I happen to like this idea that we can maybe understand Jesus a little better one image, one glimpse at a time. That we can never truly have a handle on exactly who Jesus is, but that we can know him from different perspectives and keep getting to know him over the course of our lives. That is, after all, what it means to be in relationship with someone. So over the next six weeks we’re going to be looking at each of these “I am” images that Jesus gives us and asking ourselves again, who is Jesus? And what does getting to know him through that particular image mean for us?
Before we get to this week’s image, I have to set the scene for you.
Chapter 7 of John opens in conflict. Jesus has already kind of gotten into it with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and he’s decided to lay low for a while, focusing his ministry in the northern region of Galilee. When it comes time for the festival of Sukkoth, which was both a harvest celebration and remembrance of the years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go. But then he does go, in secret.
When he gets to Jerusalem there’s already murmuring among the crowd gathered at the Temple for the festival. People are whispering about him: is he a good man? A phony? In the middle of the festival, Jesus gets up to speak.
This is the beginning of a back-and-forth between Jesus, the leaders, and the people that will dominate chapters 7 and 8. Jesus accuses the leadership of trying to kill him. They say he’s possessed. The crowd says he can’t be the Messiah because they know where he comes from. He says you may know where I’m from but you clearly don’t know the one who sent me. The leaders try to arrest him, Jesus says he won’t be around for much longer. At times he waxes poetic: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.
What is the result of all this back-and-forth? Some people believe. Some are pushed even farther into their unbelief.
Does this sound familiar? To me it sounds almost like the political and cultural division we’re steeped in today – where any new information we get, any news report or study released, seems to mostly result in those who hear it doubling down on the opinions they already held, pro and con. Of course, there are those who refuse to pick sides altogether – like Nicodemus (remember him?) who enters the scene at the end of chapter 7 to argue weakly that at least Jesus should be given a fair trial. Refusing to pick a side does not necessarily make someone a good guy, in John’s book.
It’s after all of this that Jesus announces to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.” It’s almost apropos of nothing, except that light was an important part of the Sukkoth celebration, where people would parade with torches in remembrance of those years in the wilderness when God went before the Israelites in a pillar of fire by night. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
This light/dark imagery is not new in John. His Gospel opens with a passage we often read at Christmas: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This poem, which is John’s version of a nativity story, goes on to tell us that “the true light was coming into the world…yet the world did not know him.”
From the beginning of the Gospel, we have this picture of light, darkness, and perhaps the conflict between the two. And, in fact, this imagery isn’t new to John: we sometimes also hear the prophet Isaiah proclaiming around Christmastime that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
I’ve become increasingly aware in the past couple of years, especially as I’ve heard and read things that some of my friends and colleagues of color have to say on the subject, that this light and dark language can be problematic. I want to acknowledge that. When we always use dark to symbolize evil and despair and ignorance, and when we always use light to symbolize goodness and hope and knowledge, that can end up having some not-so-good implications for how we understand things such as race. I’m sure most of us would never intentionally equate the darkness of evil and despair with darker skin tones but – well, it’s been done, and it’s imagery that can shape how we think in the background even when we’re not aware of it. It does us good to hear a different perspective, such as this one from the black feminist theologian Wilda Gafney: “We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light. I like to think that light and dark are not in conflict, but in balance.”
This is a valuable and necessary perspective. But it also seems to me that in John in particular there is a conflict, and I want to be able to think about what this image meant to him and those he wrote for, and how it can help us know Jesus better today. Let’s keep in mind the fact that the olive-skinned authors of the Bible, when they write in the poetry of light and darkness, aren’t talking about colors or shades. They’re talking about illumination, the light of sun and stars and lamps and fire. And what is the basic function of light? It helps us see. We can see what’s around us, we can see the way ahead of us, we can see things – at least to some degree – as they really are. There is something physically powerful in this kind of imagery, too. It’s something we might even be feeling in our bodies these days as the days begin to grow just a little bit longer. There is a time for every season in the rhythm of God’s creation – but it tends to be easier to wake up when it’s light outside in the morning, and in this way light is a source of life, though of course the darkness with the rest and growth it provides is necessary for life as well. But when in the prologue John writes that “the life was the light for all people,” we can understand the connection.
So what, then, does it mean for Jesus to be light of the world?
It means he’s the one who lets us see the world as it really is and ourselves as we really are. It means that he’s the one who allows us to perceive both the beauty and the brokenness in all of it. It means he’s the one who makes the way in front of us clear, so that we know which way we’re supposed to go, where we’re supposed to put our feet next, even if the final destination isn’t always clear.
If Jesus is the light of the world, that also means that we have a choice – the choice presented to us from the very beginning of John’s Gospel. We can choose darkness, or we can choose light. Which one will it be? And if the imagery is problematic, we can change it. Will it be hot or cold? Yankees or Red Sox? The important thing is that there is a choice, and it’s ours, and only one of our options is the one that leads to life.
And even for those of us who have been going to church for a very long time, that choice is not always an easy one to make. You all have chosen to be here this morning, and that’s a good start. You didn’t have to. You had plenty of other options. And yet sometimes we do the things we think we’re supposed to out of duty or habit – without ever really having made a choice.
On the other hand maybe some of you remember the exact day and place and time you made that choice, to call Jesus Lord, but I’ll caution you too, because this is not a choice we have to make just once in our lives. The choice to follow Jesus is one we get to make every day, as we decide whether to forgive or get revenge, who to stand up for, how much we can give away, how far to go out of our way to help someone, whether we decide to learn someone’s story before judging them, whether we put up our defenses or let people in. It’s a choice we make every day to love and to be a neighbor. And it’s not always an easy choice, even when the way is clear before us.
There’s another Gospel where Jesus says something similar, but a little different. In Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds – not I am the light of the world – but “You are the light of the world.”
I somehow think these two lines, in these two different Gospels, are meant to be read together. We are the light of the world. We show the world life as it is meant to be, life lived in love. But we can only do that when we know where our own light comes from. We can only be the light of the world when we choose the light of the world.
I bet if I asked you to name someone who was an example of shining the light of Christ in the world – at least if I asked you to name someone famous – one of the first answers we might hear is Martin Luther King, Jr. And, in fact, while he worked and spoke and marched and went to jail fighting for his dream of a world where all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, he always pointed beyond himself, to the fact that this was not just his dream. He did that as he quoted from the prophet Amos in that very speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He did that in the last speech he made before his death: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
It’s easy to forget at this point in history that Martin Luther King Jr. was a controversial figure in his day. That was not the image of him I learned in elementary school. But he had some things to say that not only made white people uncomfortable, or overtly hostile, then, but should still make (us) white people uncomfortable today. He had plenty to say about white moderates, those who professed to agree with his goals but just wished he would wait for a more opportune time to try to achieve them. He had some words for the white church and its failure to stand up for justice.  He had some strong words about capitalism and the connection between economic and racial inequality. When it comes to the ongoing struggle for racial equality, those of us who are white especially still have a choice to make – probably, again, a lot of daily choices to make. It’s not enough to simply be glad that bathrooms and swimming pools were desegregated 50 years ago.
As you heard in today’s Scripture reading, the religious leadership at the Temple that day during the festival of Sukkoth are not persuaded to suddenly leave their old lives behind and choose Jesus. Yet there are those in the crowd who do hear him and believe. The choice is there, in front of them.
And in front of us.
I hope this week you make the choice to stand on the side of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. I hope you make the choice to forgive instead of seek revenge. I hope you make the choice to give away a little more than before and go a little farther out of your way to help, to set judgment aside in favor of love, to tear down the walls that separate us from each other, little by little. I hope you choose Jesus. I’m trying to choose him too.
The Light of the World is life for all people, and nothing – nothing – can overcome it.