Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Was Left Out of the Bible

What Was Left Out of the Bible
John 21:24-25
May 9, 2010
William G. Carter

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

I can’t think of a stranger ending for a book in the Bible. The writer says, “There is a lot more to the story than what I have written down.” That’s a crazy way to end the story. He is saying: “Here is my tale; and there’s a lot more to it, but I’m not going to tell you what it is . . .” Nobody ends a story like that.

After all, John has already ended his Gospel once. Everybody agrees the story of Jesus ends with chapter 20. Old Doubting Thomas blurts out his affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” It’s where the whole Gospel of John has been headed. Then, as a pastoral note, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” It’s a beatitude for those after Easter, for those like us who live centuries after Thomas and the others. We were not there, we did not see, but there is a blessing in our believing.

Then John says, “There were a lot of other things that Jesus did, a lot of other things that Jesus said. I didn’t write them down. But I wrote these things down, so that all of you will believe, so that you will be brought to life through your believing.” That’s the conclusion of chapter 20. The end. The finale. The curtain comes down. The story is over. The postlude begins. We are done. It is finished.

But for some reason, John can’t keep it there. He won’t shut it down. He picks up his pen and adds another chapter. We’ve heard it over the last two weeks: a surprising catch of fish, the rehabilitation of Simon Peter, the probing three-fold question of “Do you love me,” and the prediction of Simon Peter’s death.

Then we come to this text: the author signs off. His church stands around him and says, “What he says, we know to be true.” With that comes the final line: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Now, that’s just crazy.

John has already told us there are stories that didn’t make it into his book. That is always the author’s prerogative. John is writing to cultivate our faith. He spares us the stories that really don’t matter. We never discover Jesus’ favorite meal. We do not know if he snored when he slept. We have absolutely no description of how he looked, whether he was short or tall, bald or clean-shaven, whether or not he had every broken his arm or gotten a splinter in the wood cutter’s shop. We never learn if he was married. Apparently those details were not important.

What we do know is that Jesus comes to reveal God to the world. Through a carefully crafted narrative, John tells one important story after another, aiming us toward that final confession with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” He transforms water into wine, the mundane into the sacramental. He points Nicodemus, the religious insider, and the Samaritan woman at the well, the ultimate outsider, toward a God who moves freely to bring us alive. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath, because God can act whenever he wants. He feeds a huge crowd with real food – and refuses the ensuing popularity contest. One event after another, spiced with long speeches that push us beyond our calculated views of God – this is what the Only Begotten of God provides as a gift.

And John says, “There’s even more to the story. “All the books in all the world could not begin to write down everything that Jesus has done.” All the books, in all the world? Really? That’s the language of extreme excess.

As best we know, the Gospel of John was written about 90 AD in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center of learning in the ancient world. Some 45 years after John wrote this book, the Library of Celsus was finished in downtown Ephesus. It was one of the greatest libraries in the Roman world. The Library of Celsus could hold twelve thousand scrolls – that was more than anybody could ever imagine in the time of the Gospel of John.

Before the Library of Celsus, there was the Great Library of Alexandria. The original plan was to build the largest library in the world, with room for 500,000 scrolls. It was enormous, and John would have had this in mind. At least, we think it was enormous. We don’t know; Julius Caesar was blamed for accidentally setting it on fire.

Today we could visit the Library of Congress and walk the hallways of its three different buildings. According to the reports, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelf space. It holds 32 million books, 61 million manuscripts, one million issues of newspapers, half a million microfilms, six thousand comic books, and a Stradivarius violin. Every business day, about 22,000 new books arrive to be catalogued.

And John says, “Even if you had a Library of Congress in every town, there wouldn’t be enough room to hold all of the books that describe what Jesus has done.”

The language is excessive. It’s extravagant. Sometimes the Bible just talks that way. At the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, the wise sage says, “Of making many books, there is no end” (12:12). As a bibliophile, I know that to be true. There are more books on my shelf than I need, and three more arrived in an Amazon box on Friday. Each week in our office, we receive three more catalogs full of new religious books. I’ve been slowly writing a couple more books of my own. Sometimes late at night, doubt sinks in and I ask myself: does the world really need more religious books?

Raymond Brown says John is giving us a hyperbole. He’s overdoing it. He’s amplifying the reality. He’s overstating the case. After all, John is a preacher. Preachers have been known to speak and talk in enormous terms. As a way of helping us imagine the size and scope of their topic, they speak in an extravagant tongue.

In the late 19th century, a Kentucky preacher criticized a new science that he believed was an enemy of the Gospel. It was the new science of psychology, and the preacher thought it was bad news. So he described it to his congregation by saying, “It’s a blind man in a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that’s not there.”

Fred Craddock says the evangelists in Appalachia talked that way. One time, he says, a visiting preacher came to his church in Tennessee and tried to explain the length of eternity. He said, “How long is eternity? Imagine a granite mountain. Imagine a dove that flies by that granite mountain every thousand years and touches it with the tip of its wing. When that dove has successfully leveled that mountain down to the ground -- in eternity, that’s before breakfast.”

Jesus talked this way. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matt. 5:29) Now, does he really mean that – or is he amplifying to make a point? We must decide. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” (Mark 10:25) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) Or this little pearl for the second Sunday of May: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his mother cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

The power of such speaking is its extravagance. This is super-charged language. It has the power to slap us awake, to stir our hearts, to shock us with the truth, to renew our commitment. We know this – especially when we speak of things that are really important and deeply true.

I think of the great American poet, Stevie Wonder. He sings a song about love, and says, “I’ll be loving you always . . .”

until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky,
until the ocean covers every mountain high,
until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea,
until we dream of life and life becomes a dream,
until the day is night and night becomes the day,
until the trees and seas just up and fly away,
until the day when 8 times 8 times 8 is 4,
until the day that is the day that are no more…” (“As”)

If we don’t have a poetic bone in our body, we might simply say, “I’m going to love you a long time.” But there’s something about this incredible excess, this generosity of description – it expands our little worlds, it enlarges our imaginations, it points beyond the settled limits of what we can see and what we’ve become comfortable in expressing.

So John concludes his book by saying the book isn’t finished. The story of Jesus keeps going on. If we could write down all the things that Jesus has been doing, it would fill all the books, on all the shelves, in all the libraries of the entire universe. (That’s the word: “cosmos” or “universe.”) This is John’s way of announcing the resurrection continues. The Risen Jesus keeps bringing our souls alive. Faith is not settled and nailed down as soon as the Bible is published. If anything, the Bible prepares us for an ongoing conversation. That is its purpose.

The true authority of the Bible is that it points us to a living God. The God we meet in Jesus Christ lives off the page. This is not a God we can figure out, manage, and therefore dismiss. God keeps moving, keeps working, keeps creating and sustaining and growing the faith of those who are open to such power. When it comes to God, there is always more to the story than we think there is. God is at work in ways we cannot yet – or ever – understand. That’s OK – only God is God.

And I guess that’s why I feel kind of sorry for people who have everything figured out. They are stuck with themselves. They are restricted by their own understanding. They believe in a puny little god who doesn’t ever challenge them, doesn’t ever push them, doesn’t ever shake them up. Their god is only as big as their Bible – and that’s not the biblical God.

It strikes me as kind of boring to take a couple of snapshots of ancient civilizations, and say, “That’s how it’s supposed to be for us, thousands of years later.” Sometimes when some politician is looking for votes, he (and it’s always a “he”) will make some noise about a biblical view of marriage. Well, let’s look at the Bible and see what it says. Let’s start with Abram and Sarah – God promised them a baby, but they couldn’t have a baby. So Abram convinced Sarah that maybe he should slip into the next tent and sleep with Hagar. Can’t say if Sarah agreed with him, but he did it anyway. Hagar got pregnant, bore him a son – and it didn’t turn out very well. Then Abram and Sarah had a baby of their own, with Medicare picking up the tab. Now, that’s the work of an interesting God. Abram and Sarah had one significantly dysfunctional household – but God blessed them anyhow.

What scripture prepares us to see is that we have a God who enters our messes, and rescues us right in the middle of those messes. Not only that, we have a God who is capable of creating some enormous messes out of our settled little lives, and we have to hang on and trust that somehow God is going to carry us through.

How about David? God christens him as the king of Israel while there’s another king still on the throne. We know that’s not going to progress in a tidy, straight line.

Or what about any number of those prophets, who were given a Word from God to speak – and as soon as they opened their mouths, they were going to get into trouble? The prophet Jeremiah whined and say, “God, I don’t want to speak your Word; but if I shut my mouth, it burns like a fire in my bones.”

The Bible is full of stories about a God who refuses to stay neat and predictable. When we get to the stories of Jesus, we hear about a Holy One who disrupts one person’s life after another. He goes to a synagogue, and some wild demon starts screaming at him, “I know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Well, yes, he has. Jesus comes to win back this world, one soul at a time, and it’s going to be messy. It’s going to be unpredictable. It’s going to take some time. But this is what he comes to do, and this is what he continues to do. And if we could ever write down all that he does, it would fill all the books, on all the shelves, of all the libraries in the universe. Because Jesus is the Living God, and he is still working.

So here’s my advice to you: stay open. Remain available. Listen for what he is saying to you. He may be calling you to dig more deeply into the commitments you have made. Or he may be calling you to some new adventure that will shake you awake and nearly scare you to life. So stay open to the living power of God in Jesus Christ. It is always greater than we think it is. It is at work in more situations than we can ever possibly imagine.

The Bible is a gift to us. And its primary power is that it prepares us to see a God – it prepares us to love a God - who keeps working off the page.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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