For the Sake of the World: Mission and Ministry in John's Gospel
by Kevin E. Anderson (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
John's model for ministry leaves no room for "spiritualization" if that means disengagement from the world
The church's mission to the world forms the heart of any healthy and faithful ministry, whether in a parish, institution, campus, or other setting. Often that mission is understood in reference to Matthew 28:20 with its Great Commission, the mission of the 70 recorded in the synoptic gospels, or perhaps the travels of Paul.
John's Gospel also has its mission emphasis, often understood in terms of the witness of unity described in Jesus' prayer in chapter 17. But, in fact, the whole of John's theology has a mission and ministry emphasis, and we would do well to listen to John more closely, not as the "spiritual" Gospel but as the Gospel that drives us into the world in new and radical ways.
The Johannine idea of being "in but not of" the world is a refrain of Jesus' last discourse in John 13-17.1 Sometimes this idea has led Christians to quietism or to a cynical despairing of and detachment from the world. But this is not what John's Gospel really intends, and such attitudes and actions betray a serious misunderstanding of John's Gospel.
In John's scheme of things, Christians are to stand apart from the world, for the sake of the world. Living out the implications of John's Gospel involves a kind of tightrope act that balances a sectarian commitment to some exclusive claims about Jesus with an unflinching commitment to ministry in the world. Understanding and living out ministry in a Johannine way requires that we grasp both of these overarching realities.
A Sectarian Gospel
First, John's Gospel is sectarian. As odd as it may seem, this is one of its strengths as a missionary document. It makes bold claims and affirmations regarding Jesus that to an outsider are brash and unrealistic. Jesus is the light of the world — and all other lights are less.2 Jesus is the good shepherd, as opposed to those who are not good (John 10:11). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only legitimate and complete revelation of the Father (14:6). Jesus says that he and the Father are one (10:30). Jesus' opponents complain that he makes himself equal to God, and their complaint is not countermanded (5:18).
The "I am" sayings of Jesus in John's Gospel echo the voice from the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-14, LXX) as well as passages from Isaiah that emphasize God's saving power and that sometimes even use "I am" as a name.3 Thomas' confession of "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28) goes unchallenged by the risen Jesus.
All of this adds up to a very "high" Christology, and the unequivocal tenor of these claims makes for a very sectarian point of view. Such claims by and for Jesus are bound to create misunderstanding and move people to raise objections.
John's Gospel is in part the story of how people who hear this message react to such radical claims. Many of them misunderstand. Some of them move toward faith by degrees, such as the man healed of blindness in chapter 9. Others have a conflicted response, for example, the woman at the well (John 4:29: "This couldn't be the Messiah — could it?"). Some remain in their misunderstanding, such as the crowds (6:66) and (perhaps) Nicodemus (3:1-9; 7:50-52; 19:39). After the raising of Lazarus, some of the people come to believe in Jesus (11:45) and others plot his death (11:46-50). Some flatly oppose what they hear from and about Jesus, such as the opponents of Jesus in John 7-8.
Whatever the reaction might be of those who hear or read them, however, the claims made by and about Jesus stand uncompromised and undiluted in John's Gospel.4
So when the call to discipleship is made and heard, it is a call into a fellowship that both knows what it believes and understands, even assumes, that there will be others who do not share those beliefs. This fellowship has its own language, identity, and beliefs, grounded in the revelation of Jesus.
The church in John's mind is an "anti-society," a group that derives much of its own self-understanding from its minority position in the surrounding cultural milieu. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh have written that "the so-called community of the Beloved Disciple was in fact an anti-society. It was a hollowed-out social space within the larger society over against which it stood in opposition (in structure, not unlike big-city gangs)."5
More conventionally, Raymond Brown, commenting on John 15:18-21, notes that:
Jesus is taking [his disciples] out of the world, at least in the sense that while they will be in the world, they will not belong to it (17:15-16). The idea is not simply that the disciples should withdraw from the sinful elements of a pagan world...rather the fact that they have been called means that they shall be bearers of the word of God and thus stand in dualistic opposition to the world.6
The sectarianism of John's Gospel reflects the Johannine community's understanding of the message of John's Gospel and its experience of living it out. Called into existence by the radical and exclusive claims of Jesus and opposed by synagogue and Rome alike (broadly lumped together as "the world"), the faith experience of the Johannine Christians required a certain level of theological grit and moxie. They were, like the gospel around which they were formed, sectarian. It could not have been otherwise.
But it would be a gross misinterpretation of John's Gospel if we were to use it to justify a separation from the world or a self-righteous abolition of all things worldly. John's Gospel is the Gospel of the Incarnation, and it is God's radical, loving investment of the Son in the world that both justifies the radical claims outlined above and impels us as followers of Jesus into the world in mission and ministry. With the foundational claims of Jesus, we are prepared to follow him into the world to do the work he has given us to do.
The second overarching reality of John's Gospel is this: Jesus is radically involved with the world.
This can be seen in several ways. In the first place, the range of people encountered by Jesus in John is sweeping, whereas in the synoptic gospels, the nation of Israel has pride of place. Israel is perhaps the only focus of Jesus' ministry (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 10:5-6), or at least Israel comes first and then the nations (Matthew 28:19-20; and note the promised expansion of the apostles' witness from Jerusalem to ever-further nations in Luke 24:52; Acts 1:4-5, 8).
In John's Gospel, Jesus encounters and engages the disciples of John the Baptist (1:25-40), Nicodemus (3:1-10), the woman at the well (4:1-26), the royal official (4:46-50), the lame man at Solomon's portico (5:2-9), the crowds at the miraculous feeding (6:1-15), the would-be disciples who were attracted by that miracle (6:25-40), his opponents (especially chapters 7-8, but throughout), the man born blind (9:1-41), the family and friends mourning Lazarus (11:1-44), some Greeks (12:20-26), and a Roman Procurator (18:28-38).
Thus the range of Jesus' ministry includes seekers, generic pagans, Jews, Romans, and potential disciples with a bewildering array of allegiances and commitments. Jesus is John 3:16 in action. God so loves the world–and that fact is more than amply demonstrated in the breadth of Jesus' ministry. There is simply no one beyond the pale for him.
Furthermore, Jesus' involvement with the world can be seen clearly in his inexorable progress toward the cross.7 From the start, Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), and with that introduction the reader of John's Gospel anticipates the sacrificial death of Jesus that reveals the glory and love of God for the world. The cross and resurrection of Jesus reveal him as the new temple, the visible sign and locus of God's presence on the earth (2:19-22).
The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that all who believe can have eternal life (3:19). Jesus is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11), and he does so at the express command of the Father (10:18). His opponents reflect ironically on the advantage of one man dying for the nation (12:50). When "the hour" arrives it is interpreted as a seed falling into the earth to die and as one losing his life in order to gain it (12:23-25). Great love is demonstrated in one's willingness to give up one's life for one's friends (15:13). Jesus calls us friends (15:15), and indeed in his lifting up Jesus draws all people to himself (12:32).
The cross, then, is the culmination of the Incarnation. In the Prologue (John 1:1-18), we read a theological poem-hymn that celebrates and announces the enfleshment of the Word in Jesus. For a time Jesus dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory (1:14). In the cross we see Jesus' loving his own who were in the world (13:1) and just how deeply Jesus has entered human life: He loved them to the end (13:1).8 Jesus is not a demigod who walks lightly for a time on the earth but the Word Incarnate who lives human life and participates even in our death.
In the end, John's Gospel presents us with the exclusive and unique christological claims of Jesus upon a fallen and benighted humanity. These claims may or may not be accepted by others, and indeed, they will elicit a multitude of reactions and responses. Who is the Son of Man (9:35-36; 12:34)? John's Gospel is at pains to articulate the answer to that question, because nothing less than the truth is at stake: Jesus is the one sent by the Father who is uniquely qualified to reveal the depth and power of God's love for the world and all people.
These christological claims also form the basis of our experience of God's love and the template for our proclamation of God's love in Christ for the whole world and all people. "For God so loved the world that God gave...." The mission and ministry of Jesus revealed in John's Gospel happen because of who Jesus is — the One sent by the Father. His ministry is ultimately and profoundly engaged with the world.
The implications for our mission and ministry are significant. Disciples of Jesus are called to engage the world no less vigorously than Jesus has. Indeed, he invites our participation in his ministry. The fields white with the Samaritan harvest are sown first by Jesus; then, as the Samaritan village responds to Jesus, the disciples are invited to enter into his labor and rejoice with him at the harvest (John 4:35-38).
Later, when Jesus encounters the man born blind, he tells his disciples that "we must be doing the works of the One who sent me" (9:2). Giving sight to the blind is a work he shares with those who follow him. When Jesus prays for his followers, he asks not that they be taken out of the world but that they be protected from the evil one so that they may bear witness in and to the world (17:11-18). Jesus' radical involvement with the world is the expression of God's love for the world. It is the disciples' vocation and privilege to share in that radical involvement.
How this might be lived out is expressed beautifully in a 1943 letter from the imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancée:
When I also think about the situation in the world, and complete darkness over our personal fate and my present imprisonment, then I believe that our union can only be a sign of God's grace and kindness, which calls us to faith. We would be blind if we did not see it. Jeremiah says at the moment of his people's great need "still one shall buy houses and acres on this land" as a sign of trust in the future. This is where faith belongs. May God give it to us daily. And I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world and which loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the suffering which it contains for us. Our marriage shall be a yes to God's earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth. I fear that Christians who stand with only one leg upon earth also stand with only one leg in heaven.9
So it is with John's Gospel. The dualism of John's worldview (light/darkness, truth/falsehood, spiritual/worldly) is not a warrant for Christians to disengage from the world, to choose life in a kingdom not of this world or in a spiritual individualism.
Rather, the dualism of John's Gospel insists that we choose between two options: to live profoundly in the world with Jesus, or to live in the world without Jesus. If we are going to follow Jesus, it will be to follow him into the world in mission and ministry.
John's Gospel offers a working template for mission. The evangelist forcefully presents the person of Jesus, the Word of God and the Son sent by the Father, through whom God is fully present in and for the world. This evangelist also shows that those who follow Jesus must be prepared to engage the world, and the people in it, deeply and lovingly. The radical claims and confessions of John's Gospel regarding Jesus impel us to love the world that God loves, and to love people because God loves them.
Whether we serve in a congregation, an institution, a campus, or another setting, John's Gospel gives us a mission and a ministry and the theological impetus to do it. The particular tools will depend on the needs of the people around us and on the talents and calling of each minister. But because of who Jesus is, we as his disciples must move through whatever separates us from those who are loved by God and out into the world for the sake of the world — wherever we are.
Kevin E. Anderson is pastor of Forks-Zion Lutheran Church, Leechburg, Pennsylvania.
1. The disciples have a place prepared for them even as they remain in the world (John 14:1-2). The disciples, in the world, receive the Advocate, whom the world cannot receive because unlike the disciples it does not see or know the Advocate (14:16-17). The world will hate the disciples because they do not belong to the world even though they are in it (15:18-19). In the world disciples will face persecution, but they can rejoice in the fact that Jesus has been victorious over the world (16:33). Jesus is no longer in the world, but the disciples are in the world (17:11), even though they do not belong to the world (17:16).
2. "[T]he way the [Fourth] Gospel focuses light on the person of Jesus tacitly displaces the claims of other sources of illumination. Jesus remains the light, the true light whose radiance must be seen in and through the cross." Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 152.
3. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 536-37.
4. In fact, in chapters 7-8 we find that the opposition to Jesus and the clarity of Jesus' christological claims are intensified together. The revelation of Jesus in John's Gospel is distilled by the opposition — and ultimately so in the cross.
5. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 59.
6. Ibid., Brown, The Gospel According to John, 2:696.
7. In John's Gospel the theme of Jesus' "hour" functions to hold the cross before the reader's eyes long before the passion narrative in John 18-19. The passages in which Jesus' hour is "not yet" (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20) serve to hold the passion at arm's length but also to impress the passion on the reader's mind so that when the "now" of the passion finally arrives (12:23; 13:1; 17:2) it is clearly the intentional end of a process.
8. The Greek word for "end" here is telos and connotes perfection, completion, and wholeness. This same word is used in John 19:28, "when Jesus knew that all was now finished," and in 19:30, "It is finished."
9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Collier Books, 1971), 415. Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer writes, "Ethical thinking in terms of spheres...is invalidated by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ, and this means that there is no real possibility of being a Christian outside the reality of the world and that there is no real worldly existence outside of Jesus Christ. There is no place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world, whether it be outwardly or in the sphere of the inner life. Any attempt to escape from the world must sooner or later be paid for with a sinful surrender to the world....Whoever professes to believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, must in the same breath profess his faith in both the reality of God and the reality of the world; for in Christ he finds God and the world reconciled" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith [New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1965], 200-201).
For Further Reading
- Ben Witherington III, John's Wisdom: a Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). Accessible, and written from the premise that the Fourth Gospel was written as a missionary manual.
- Francis J. Moloney, A Body Broken for a Broken People: Eucharist in the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997). Argues persuasively that the church's eucharist is a ministry to those outside its membership.