Good Friday in the Gospel of John (19:16-30)

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,

“They divided my garments among them,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”

So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

Spiritual De-Cluttering

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.

John 15:5

Beware of surface areas in your home. They can turn into hot spots of clutter: piles of books, stationary, and, quite frankly, stuff that seems to have no where else to go.

Sometimes we try and organize the clutter. We straighten up the books into neater piles. We wipe off the dust. We find containers for the stationary. But truthfully, organizing isn’t always enough. It’s not about putting things in the right places but admitting that you have too much stuff for the space available.

Today I cleaned, organized, and de-cluttered our printer stand. I know that sounds unimpressive. But you wouldn’t believe how much stuff I ended up chucking in the garbage or putting in the recycling. I mean, seriously, how often can you organize and re-organize stuff that you haven’t seen fit to use in months? How often do we hang onto things only because we feel bad about wasting them by throwing them away? Someday we will use them, after all! Right? Sure.

The thing about clutter, though, is that it can keep you from actually enjoying your home and space. And the things you do love and value. When too much of your time is spent moving stuff around, back and forth from table to bookshelf to the printer stand, because you can’t bear to get rid of it or less valuable things are in the way, maybe some de-cluttering is in order.

Of course, mine isn’t a blog on home improvement tips or more effective house chore strategies.

But there’s more than one kind of clutter. There are things that we can refuse to get rid of in our lives. Or maybe things have simply piled up over time. Now we just don’t know what to do with them or where to put them. We’ve lived with them for too long. Yet, they keep us from enjoying our lives, from feeling free to be who we were created to be.

What do I mean, you ask?

What about anger and bitterness?

Maybe for you it’s unforgiveness and resentment.

It could be deeply held shame.

You might still have a firm grip on past hurts.

Perhaps grief keeps us from living, of knowing joy despite our sorrow.

Sometimes it’s the pursuit of contentment through money and possessions.

We can persist in ways of thinking and living inherited from our families of origin that stall our spiritual growth and keep us from reaching maturity in Christ.

All of these things amount to clutter in our hearts and souls.

We all need to be rid of something. We all need spiritual de-cluttering.

When I try and reduce the clutter in my house, one thing is almost always true. Clutter returns. Not only am I not very good at reducing clutter, but I am not very good at preventing clutter from acculumating again.

Clearly I need help.

I suggest the same is true of spiritual clutter. It’s not a job I can handle on my own.

Having Christ in my life is the only means of spiritually de-cluttering effectively. Only the work of his Spirit–his powerful presence–can eliminate the junk that has gathered over time in my life and makes it all the more difficult to live as he invites me to live. More, only by his power can I hope to avoid gathering more piles of clutter in the future.

True, this process of spiritual de-cluttering is one that takes place over a lifetime. Growing to maturity in Christ doesn’t happen overnight. It took me more than an hour just to de-clutter my printer stand!

The process of spiritual de-cluttering will also look different for each of us. Don’t measure your growth by where others are in their walk with Christ. Measure it instead by the distance he’s brought you, by the small steps of progress that you have made.

Lastly, we actually have to make the choice to enter the process of spiritual de-cluttering. It doesn’t happen by itself. In my basement are boxes that are still unpacked after living in this house for nearly 7 years. Strangely, they haven’t unpacked and de-cluttered themselves! It won’t happen unless I take the step to address it.

Usually, when I make the decision to de-clutter a spot in my house, it’s because I’m tired of the mess. I finally want to do something about it. I decide to make the time. Almost always I’m grateful I did. It’s actually freeing.

Now, spiritual de-cluttering is much more difficult. It’s what we can also call cultivating an emotionally healthy spirituality. Emotional health and spiritual maturity go hand in hand. Chances are, whatever spiritual clutter you have to deal with has piled up over years, maybe even decades. If you choose to start this process, you will likely feel worse before you feel better. No one enjoys looking into the depths of their hearts. But if you enter this process aware that you do so with Christ himself as your strength and guide, you can be sure that the truth of who he is and what he can do in you will indeed set you free.

Lost in Translation


A while back I was wandering around a store with my daughter and I came across some toys that had some interesting descriptions on the packaging. One in particular caught my eye. It was a cheap Transformers knock-off. But you would never have known this from the glowing description on the box: “Simulating the true styles and making careful.” What?

I got to tell you, I found this bold assertion so funny I made an intentional effort to remember it so that I could write it down when I got back in the car or arrived back home. I figured that this mangled but amusing bit of syntax might come in handy someday. I could already envision the sermon title, “Lost in Translation.” Admittedly, we preachers try to be clever. That’s also why we like using alliteration to make our sermon points more memorable (so, really, it’s a mnemonic device, not just an attempt at being clever).

But reading that garbled sentence, it wasn’t hard to discern what it was trying to say. I gather that the product is being advertised as having been carefully and sturdily constructed (of cheap plastic, no less!) and that in “simulating the true styles” the manufacturer was either admitting it was a knock-off (it simulated the better constructed and much cooler Transformers) or was trying to claim that the toy would, once transformed, look like a realistic vehicle (or robot). I think. I don’t know. Who could make heads or tails of that poor grammatical construction?

One thing is sure: the English of the sentence is the English of someone who doesn’t know English. The phrase neatly placed in the corner of the package tells all: “Made in China.” So it’s true. This is not the English of anyone who has been through our public school system or to one of our esteemed institutions of higher learning (If so, the spelling and grammar might actually have been worse and made even less sense).

What’s interesting is that this Chinese to English sentence gets it right but so badly. I mean, we know what they’re trying to get across. More or less, anyway. Yet, enough has been lost in translation that it causes a little confusion, not to mention a good chuckle. The one responsible needs to sign up for an ESL class immediately.

To speak to someone in their language, you need to know their language, to have an intimate association with it. You can’t use one of those tourist foreign language phrase books that teaches you to ask where the bathroom is or how to order a sandwich and hope to have a meaningful conversation. Forget any sub-text, you won’t even get the text right.

And the truth is that you can even be speaking to someone for whom English is also a first language—your neighbour, classmate, or boss—and still find that something is lost in translation. You think you’re clearly communicating but all they hear is “simulating the true styles and making careful.” I’m sure the Chinese guy who wrote that description for the box thought he was communicating clearly too.

We all know that communication involves a lot more than words: there’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. A pause or moment of silence between words can hold just as much meaning as the words themselves. This makes communication—understanding and being understood—a subtle, relational reality. Those of us who are able to regularly finish the sentences of those close to us know this to be true.

If we want to understand someone, to communicate effectively with them, we have to get to know them, enter the world of their thoughts, get to know their world of verbs, nouns, and predicates. The same is true if we want to be understood—we have to let someone get to know us. We have to let someone else become intimately acquainted with our grammar and syntax, our particular colloquialisms. Language is nothing if it’s not personal.

The Gospel of John begins with some alarming words. Verse 1 reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And in verse 14 it tells us: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Only if we’ve become all too familiar with these words do we yawn as we read them. This is mind-blowing, earth-shattering stuff—that is, if it’s true, and the Christian tradition holds that it is.

This “Word” is described as both being intimately acquainted with God and as God. And this same “Word” is described as having become “flesh and lived among us.” Whoever this “Word” is, we’re being told that it took on body, blood, and bone. Somehow—mystery of mysteries—the divine became human, God became man. Or at least this is the claim at the core of the Christian faith.

These verses from the Gospel of John are essentially John’s Christmas story. He’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant Rabbi that walked the dusty roads of Galilee more than two millennia ago. And what he’s saying is that this Jesus is the divine—God—become human. And in calling Jesus the “Word” he’s also saying that in Jesus God is fully communicating himself. It’s as if God is saying, “If you want to know who I am and what I am like, look at Jesus.” Elsewhere in the Bible we read that Jesus is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3).

Like we want to communicate with one another, God wants to communicate with us. He doesn’t remain afar off, distant and cold, like a benevolent but indifferent being. What we have here instead is a picture of a God who is intensely interested in us—in having a relationship with us—to the point of becoming like one of us.

Many images of God fill our culture. Opinions vary because most people have one. But something is always lost in translation. Parts of the sentence are missing. The syntax is awkward at best. When it comes to communication between two human beings, there will always be some degree of miscommunication. Making sure that we do understand one another is always a work in progress to one degree or another.

But if we’re to believe or to at least consider John’s words about the “Word” and other biblical statements about Jesus, it would mean having to consider the possibility that not only does God try to communicate with us, but that he actually gets it right. All the parts of the sentence are there. The syntax is perfect, the grammar impeccable. And all of this is so because God doesn’t want us thinking “simulating the true styles and making careful” when what he wants us to think is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). When it comes to communicating himself, we can be thankful that nothing is lost in translation.