In March, I talked about a particular passion of mine—The Many Faces of God in the Hebrew Bible. This time around, I’m going to explore what I am discovering are the many faces of Jesus in the New Testament, and then focus on the fascinating and enigmatic Jesus of John’s Gospel.
John’s Jesus is radically different from the Jesus we meet in Matthew or Mark or Luke. He is not the babe in a manger; he is not Mark’s man of action; he is not Matthew’s Jewish carpenter. He performs no exorcisms, tells no parables, does not exhort us to love our enemies. He engages in what scholars call “messianic self-definition.” In other words, he talks a lot about himself and his identity.
I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite poets and songwriters, Leonard Cohen, who calls us to “bless the continuous stutter of the Word being made into Flesh.”
John’s Jesus is that Word.
Ascension is a remarkable church in many ways, and they have a lovely secret which I have only recently discovered. Behind the thoroughly predictable church basketball court a path of stones begins. It winds around, passing arrangements of more stones and an altar before stopping at a labyrinth.
Does John’s Gospel say that Jesus is God?
On Sunday October 25, the first of the four Sundays I am scheduled to talk about John’s Gospel at Ascension, I was elated to see the room filling up with familiar faces from March, a few that were new, and Ascension’s new priest. We had a nearly full house.
I started as I always do. I started with questions.
What do you know; what do you think you know, what do you believe about The Gospel According to John?
Have you read it?
Do you read it often? Do you read it more or less often than the other Gospels?
Several people admitted to never having read the Gospel; many guessed that they had read it once a very long time ago. A couple said they had read it recently, and one young man had come with Bible in hand and was able to read passages to illustrate his ideas and some of mine. A mixed group–the very best kind.
And the opinions about the Gospel and about the Jesus of the Gospel were equally diverse. Someone said right away she thought of the Jesus of John’s Gospel as very kind and gentle. She thought she remembered there were a lot of children.
Someone else said he felt exactly the opposite, that John’s Jesus was aloof and conceited.
The young man with his Bible read the familiar passage from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
He chose this passage to illustrate the point he had just made that John’s Jesus was “a healer and world-changer.”
The next few verses are more conditional: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Another member of the group noted that when Jesus talks about how you are saved–through belief in him–he is “strong and powerful,” and that he takes a hard line, “He gives you a couple of choices. Pick one!”
We considered the main differences in the character of Jesus in Mark, in Matthew, in Luke and in John. Those first three, while certainly having their individual quirks, are comparable.
John is a thing apart.
As we consider John’s Jesus, we will see that—in addition to what Jesus has to say about himself—the writer of this Gospel describes him, right from the beginning, in a manner completely different from the other Evangelists:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in 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” (1:1-5).
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).
This idea of “the word” or “logos,” long thought to be an exclusively Greek concept, was in fact something in which Hebrew religious tradition was steeped.
In both traditions, this Word is the power or entity that is a kind of mediator between God and the world, possibly a personification of God’s Truth.
It is, in any case, a term with which John’s readers would have been familiar.
John reaches beyond either Hebrew or Greek ideas when he claims that “the Word became flesh.”
On Sunday November 8 we gather again.
A major difference in John’s Gospel, revealed in the opening verses, is that, while the Synoptics all start with a story, John begins with a theological statement.
And so he sets the tone and the priority for the entire Gospel.
Although John tells the intriguing and exclusive story of Jesus traveling often to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals, the point of his storytelling is theological. As he celebrates each feast, Jesus declares himself the replacement for its main symbol: Jesus becomes the manna; Jesus becomes the Temple; Jesus becomes the water; Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb. Jesus is the better way; Jesus is the only way.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).
It is a radical claim.
Someone asks, “If you only read John, would you get the message?”
Someone else responds, “John is the message.”
I wonder if we’ve clarified exactly what “message” we’re talking about. Is the message in the Synoptics the same as John’s message? If so, what is it?
We are back on November 15th for the third and next-to-last session. These go so quickly for me, never enough time.
I bring up an idea unfamiliar to most and unnerving to some: the ancient concept of “sympathetic magic.”
Moses raises the bronze serpent in the desert and the Israelites are healed from the bites of poisonous serpents:
“So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Numbers 21:9).
Sculpture of a serpent at Mt. Nebo, Jordan.
Jesus is raised on the cross at Golgotha and we are healed of our sins:
Does John’s Gospel say that Jesus is God?
Looking for Lydia; Looking for God explores the Gospel According to Luke in some detail and tells the story of how a dozen women in their nineties rediscovered all the Gospels and, through their stories, discovered themselves, each other, and maybe even God.